John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Online Photo-sharing Communities

photosharing communities

No doubt there are many advantages to in-person photography groups, but let’s face it: the Internet has opened a whole new world for sharing and discussing photography. In many respects cyberspace is the perfect media for images. In fact, it was the evolution of the Internet from text-only communication to text-plus-images that catapulted it from a place inhabited mostly by academics and techy geeks to a world that encompasses almost everyone. Sharing images by email, blogs, and social networks has become an everyday experience in cyberspace. And for a good reason: You can express yourself via images in ways you cannot with words.

In particular, the current success of online photo-sharing communities has proven that photographers from many countries, with all sorts of  backgrounds and skill levels, love communicating via images.

The technical design of the community

Although there’s always a technical learning curve when entering these online groups, the software infrastructure, when well designed, makes it easy to upload, label, organize, comment on, search for, and rate the quality of images.  Good technical design also includes many of the features that make any online community successful: the ability for group discussion as well as private communication, profile pages for presenting your background information and establishing your online identity, interesting places for people to gather, social networking tools, and, most importantly, your own personal “space” within the community that you can shape to reflect your personality and interests. Here are the most basic features you'll want for sharing photos:

The image stream: When people come to visit your work, they often land on the page where they can see the sequence of photos you have posted over time. In Flickr it's called the “photostream,” which is a term I've always liked. Those images in your stream often are the first ones visitors will see. That first view is important. After all, it is the first impression many people will have of your work, and we know how important first impressions are. If a photo doesn’t look good to people right off the bat, they might not click-through to see the larger views. The photostream images should be a fairly good size, sharp, and accurate in color. Unfortunately, the image you upload might be automatically processed by programs hidden within the design of the community, so what you see on your computer isn't necessarily what you'll get in the photostream. Image sharpness often turns out to be a problem.

The photo home page: In a well designed community, when you click on an image in the stream of photos, you go to the home page for that image. This image should look very similar to to one on your computer. This photo page should also provide features for titling the photo, providing a description for it, accessing camera data, and discussing the photo with your visitors. A well-designed interface will also enable you to see any set to which that image belongs, determine where that image is in the photostream, see and create tags for the photo, locate the groups the photo has been submitted to, view a wider variety of sizes of the image, and note how many people have viewed and "liked" the image (although not all communities use that term).

"Likes": Whatever term the community uses ("likes, favs, pluses"), these devices reflect the popularity of the photo based on how many people clicked a button to indicate their appreciation of it. The total count of how many people simply looked at the photo also indicates its popularity, although the like, fav, or plus is icing on the cake. Some communities like Google+ also allow you to "plus" someone's comment. Personally, I think this is good feature. There are lots of great photos online fully deserving of favs and pluses, but great comments are much harder to find. In fact, good discussions about photographs are the exception rather than the rule, in part because many photosharing groups have a “stop, drop a brief remark, and go” mentality. Many photographers, even the very good ones, also don’t know how to talk about photography. Perhaps rewarding a good comment with a plus can reverse those dilemmas.

Sets and slide shows: You should be able to organize your photos into sets, collections, or albums, as well as enable visitors to play slide shows of them. It’s a good idea to organize your online photos, if only so you can find them more easily. Organizing photos also helps you better understand the type of photography you do. However, I’m not sure that many visitors actually use these features very much. In my experience, a vast majority of activity in online photosharing is that stop, drop (a short comment or fav/plus), and go.

The learning curve

When we enter any new online community, we must tackle the learning curve of how to use it effectively. Over time, we get better at it. We understand more about how it works. The bottom line is that the learning curve for some online groups is going to be much more steep than others, sometimes unnecessarily so. Some communities, like Flickr, were specifically designed for photographers. Other social networks do incorporate tools for photosharing, but their primary agenda is to become a "one size fits all" environment for many kinds of social interaction. Those communities tend to become overly packed with a wide variety of tools and features, sometimes resulting in an overly complex interface that interferes with effective photosharing. Here's the acid test: if you're fairly experienced with social media but you're having a hard time figuring out simple photosharing activities - like how to upload, rename, categorize, and replace photos - then you might want to find another community. Other signs of an environment that might be overly complex or confusing are when you're not sure who can see something you post, or even WHERE you are in the community. It's nice to have versatility in whom you can connect with and where, but the designers of some social media overdo it. Sometimes less is definitely more.

The people and relationships within the community

In addition to having access to millions of photographs, people also love these communities because of the PEOPLE. Research in the new field known as “cyberpsychology” clearly shows that online relationships and groups can be very meaningful additions to a person’s life. I first discovered this years ago when I was a member of the Palace avatar community, and in more recent years as a member of Flickr and Google+. This research taught me that an online lifestyle, in some ways, is very similar to your in-person lifestyle - and in some ways it is very different, especially in communities that emphasize images. Cyberpsychology has uncovered some fascinating questions that inhabitants of online photo-sharing communities encounter every day:

- What do people’s photos and images say about them?

- Do they express their “real” identity in their images?

- What should I reveal and not reveal about myself in the images and comments I post?

- What are the ambiguities and miscommunications that tend to happen when people express themselves with images, and with typed comments?

- How do I react when people reply to me and my photos with positive or negative comments? What does it mean if I get no response at all?

- Why am I drawn to some people, photos, and groups, and not others?

- What does it take to feel like I BELONG to this community?

- Is it possible to get addicted?


Better understanding your own photography, and yourself

Participating in a photo-sharing communities can help you evaluate yourself as a photographer. As you observe a wide range of photographic styles, techniques, and skill levels, you’ll get a better sense of your own strengths and weaknesses. You’ll get a better idea of where you want to go with your work. When online photography groups provide features that enable people to comment on and rate images, you can gather tangible information about how “good” your photography might be – although it’s often wise to take view counts and rating systems with a big grain of salt, because they don't necessarily reflect how "good" an image is.


Many photos, little discussion

If you're looking for some good discussions in an online photography group, try not to be too disappointed if you don't succeed in finding many. Although some groups contain excellent conversations, many don't... Why? There are a variety of reasons. In the buzzing confusion of online communities in general, and in photosharing groups specifically, people tend to stop, look, drop a short comment, click the fav, plus, or like button... then go. A whole lot of conversation isn't the norm. Keep in mind that some people might not speak your language or have good writing skills. Or they might worry that they will come across as "stupid" if they say something, or that their ideas will be criticized and rejected. Photographers also do tend to be visual rather than verbal people. Words just aren't their thing. Some even believe that discussing photos is either irrelevant or detracts from the image. They think that photos should simply be seen, felt, and experienced rather than analyzed with words.

Burn out

Unfortunately, some people do burn out. Due such things as the online disinhibition effect, community members might act out their negativity and insecurities on others. They become overly critical, argumentative, and insensitive. People feel hurt and defensive. Flame wars erupt. The community just isn't supportive and fun anymore.

Some people get exhausted. Participating in an online community requires time and effort - sometimes a great deal of time and effort in order to maintain your sense of belonging as well as your status - especially in a large, busy community filled with people, images and, comments. Other people, over time, grow very disappointed and frustrated. They don't feel like the community is paying much attention to them, or that their photography is appreciated.

As the photo at the top of this page illustrates, online communities can be complex, confusing places, with many different subgroups and subcultures, and no simple way to predict how and why people react to each other the way they do. To benefit the most from photo sharing groups, take what makes sense, seems useful, and feels good - and leave the rest.

It's also a good idea to carefully examine your motives for joining a group. Do you want recognition for your photography? Do you want to meet people? Do you just want to learn about photography? Understanding your intentions for joining will help you evaluate why you do or don't enjoy the community.

The ratings game

Every group, online or offline, develops its own unique customs and culture. Some communities gradually become more like a ratings game than a social network per se. People pay more attention to view counts, the number of comments, the number of likes that you get for your photography, and the number of followers you have. That’s part of human nature: we like to count the countables, rather than focus on more intangible things such as the quality of photosharing. It's a process of social media becoming a victim of their own success. In a massive ocean of millions of members and billions of photos, people get overwhelmed and lost. There are too many people, too much to look at, too much to comment on. And so people resort to the numbers game as an indication of something that seems important, which ultimately leads to frustration and disappointment. This is a problem with the Internet in general. Back in the day, I had a good group of Flickr friends to share and discuss photos with. Gradually becoming more and more disillusioned with Flickr, almost all of those people left. New communities that appear on the scene often do possess more enthusiasm. People are excited about it as the up-and-coming photosharing media. That enthusiasm shows in the day-to-day experience of being there.

While stats on your popularity as a photography can surely be tempting, the ratings game will very likely fail to satisfy your needs as a photographer in the long run. Photography is about sharing your work, discussing images with others, improving your skills, and better understanding yourself and others as fellow photographers. Ratings do little to further those goals.


Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this article in flickr?

Below are related articles in Photographic Psychology that I would recommend. If you're also interested in learning more about cyberpsychology, here is my online online book on that topic.

Commenting on photos
The talent/popularity square dance
Finding an online niche

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche