Essay

More handwringing about social media

I quit Twitter several weeks ago. I finally had enough of the anger.

I joined the service in 2008 and since then I never figured out what to use it for. In the last several years I had my blog auto-tweet every new post. Hardly anybody clicked through.

Before you declare me virtuous, that lack of engagement was what made it easy to say goodbye. Facebook has just as much anger, but I’m still on it because it is easy to make it bring people here to read my posts. I wrote about how I do it here. It’s my number two referrer, after search.

Referrers so far in 2020

I have signed up for a whole bunch of Facebook groups now, mostly about old roads, old cars, and old cameras. I did it because I like those things and can share my blog posts with those readers. But it’s had the surprising effect of diluting the anger in my feed. It’s all still there, but the posts from my groups space it out. One angry post is followed by a post about an abandoned road alignment, a ’72 Mercury Montego, a film photograph of someone’s beautiful girlfriend, and a discussion about Ilford HP5 Plus film.

Twitter had far higher anger density. I couldn’t figure out how to dilute it and one day, all of a sudden, I realized I’d had enough. It felt strange to delete my account after twelve years, but I find that I don’t miss Twitter at all. I thought I would, a little.

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Photography

Instagram is like playing the slot machines; Flickr is … not

I post on Instagram only a couple times a month now. Six months ago it was four or five times a week. I am deliberately leaning into Flickr as my primary place to look at and share photographs. As I’ve done that, Instagram has felt less compelling — almost boring.

There’s something about sharing photos on Instagram that feels like playing the slots. The other day I got a pretty good payout. I shared this 2017 photo of a Studebaker Champion nose and it got 90 Likes in just a couple days, which is a lot for me. Normally, my photos get 30 to 40 Likes.

It felt great to see the Likes mount. It made me want to post again, to pull the bandit’s arm, to see if it would hit again.

I resisted.

I recently came upon this photo in my archive of side-by-side bridges in Ohio, one from the 1820s and the other from the 1930s. I made the photo in 2011 as I explored the National Road and US 40 across Ohio. Shortly after returning I uploaded a ton of trip photos to Flickr, but never this one. I decided I wanted to use it in my ongoing series of posts about bridges; you saw it here just the other day. Its colors were dull, so I punched them up in Photoshop. I made the photo a little too red, I think. But Flickr’s algorithms noticed it, and included it in the Explore feature on December 31st.

National Road and US 40 bridges at Blaine, OH *EXPLORED on 12/31/19*

Flickr Explore delivered 4,041 views (so far) to this photograph! You’d think that should have felt better than 90 Likes on my Instagram post. It did feel good. But it was more like passing delight as the notifications started hitting. I felt absolutely no compulsion to post something else interesting to Flickr to try to get that Explore sugar again.

Both a well-liked Instagram image and being chosen for Flickr Explore are like finding a forgotten 20-dollar bill in your coat pocket. It happens when it happens.

But you have the illusion of influence on Instagram. You think that if you just post the right photo, it will pay off again. You know it doesn’t work that way on Flickr, so you don’t try. You just share what you share, and feel delighted when you’re lucky enough to make Explore.

Instagram is manipulating its users. I want my Internet experience to involve less being manipulated.

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Photography

Sustaining Flickr

It’s remarkable that Flickr survived Yahoo! and Verizon. Some news reports suggest that Verizon thought it would be too much cost and trouble to find a buyer for Flickr. Had SmugMug not made an unsolicited offer, Verizon would likely have shuttered Flickr.

That would have devastated this blog. The vast majority of the photographs you see here are hosted there. It would have been a staggering job to fix the blog, a job I don’t have time for. Down the Road would have met its end.

You may have read SmugMug CEO Don McAskill’s alarming plea for help on Flickr’s blog last month. He asked for more people to become Flickr Pros, as this is how Flickr makes money. More Pros means a longer life for Flickr as it is.

Ferdy Christant is a wildlife photographer and software developer who built a photo-sharing site for wildlife photography. He wrote a compelling, although rambling, defense of SmugMug recently; read it here. He makes a strong case that SmugMug bought Flickr to return it to profitability and operate it for the long haul.

Christant paints SmugMug as a longtime business run by competent leaders who took a big risk on money-losing Flickr. He believes that SmugMug’s focus on building a sustainable business through the photography community, rather than on being a high-flying, billion-dollar tech unicorn, offers real hope.

I’m going to step out on faith and believe Christant. But a good reason bolsters my faith: SmugMug moved the entire Flickr service to Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS is Amazon’s cloud computing service. You rent servers from them, and run your software product and store its data there. It is risky, time-consuming, and expensive to move a big software product and all of its data to a new host. I work in the tech industry and have been a part of such projects — I know what I’m talking about. And AWS itself is expensive. I’ve seen the hair-raising monthly bills at some companies I’ve worked for who used a fraction of Flickr’s capacity. You don’t move to AWS casually. You don’t do it at all when you plan to wind down your service.

The free Internet is a myth. Running a software product and storing its data costs real money. The more popular the service, the bigger the money. My little blog costs me about $500 a year in costs related to running it and storing its data. Flickr probably spends that much every fifteen seconds.

Many sites have been free to use since the dawn of the Web. At first, many big, valuable sites hid their very real costs from you by burning investment capital. After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, new Internet companies focused hard on how to monetize their sites. Most of them chose an advertising model. Some of them went with a membership model. The software product I help build today had a membership model until just a couple years ago. We got by. We changed over to a targeted advertising model and the money started gushing in. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the advertising model has won on the Internet.

Flickr seems determined to keep a membership model (though they do show some ads to non-members). To use a broadcast TV metaphor, that makes them much more like PBS than NBC. PBS relies on people like you giving them money to keep going. So does Flickr. But really, what you’re doing is paying for the value you get.

If you use and like Flickr, I echo Don McAskill: become a Pro. It costs $60 a year. Click here to upgrade. If $60 is big money to you, I understand. I’ve been there. But if you can readily afford $60, do it. You’ll unlock unlimited photo storage and a bunch of other goodies. And you’ll help keep Flickr’s lights on.

Flickr’s not perfect. Its community is a shadow of what it once was. Its past owners have made some baffling and sometimes stupid decisions. Some of SmugMug’s decisions about Flickr have proved controversial. But set it all aside. Flickr remains valuable and, in some ways, a gem. It’s a place to explore photographs, a place to share your photography, a place to host your photography for use all over the Internet. It deserves to continue.

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Blogosphere

Promoting your creative blog in social media: for now, the key is Facebook

Promoting your blog and its posts is work, and it takes time. If you want to put your blog in front of more people, however, you have little choice but to invest the ongoing effort.

Facebook has proved the most valuable way for me to promote this blog, which is a creative and personal blog. I don’t know what’s best for other kinds of blogs. I’ll explain how I do it, and why I think it’s the best option for creative/personal blogs like mine, in this post.

In case you have negative feelings about Facebook

Welcome to the club. I may quit Facebook someday as I think it has become a net negative for society. But until then, I’ll milk it.

Be realistic about your prospects

Despite my promotional efforts, Facebook drives but a fraction of total page views. In 2018, Down the Road gathered 212,035 page views. Only 14,815 of them came from Facebook. In contrast, search engines delivered 57,965 page views with no effort on my part.

None of my other deliberate promotional efforts have been as effective as Facebook.

Creative blogs have legitimate, but limited, appeal. Facebook may be the best way to reach people who will enjoy your work, but it won’t unlock Internet fame.

However, sometimes one of your posts will really resonate. My post about Traders Point, Indiana, (here) got a lot of traffic after I shared it on Facebook in a couple Indianapolis and Indiana history groups. It turned out lots of people were curious about that former town’s history. Every now and again someone will reshare it and it’ll get another couple hundred views. Most of its 7,300 all-time page views have come from Facebook. But that’s about as good as it gets.

Why other social media is less helpful

I also promote my blog on Twitter, but to little effect. I think it’s best for echoing outrage, and I don’t post anything outrageous. I admit I haven’t worked very hard to build a giant Twitter following, which would help. But I’ve talked about it with fellow photo bloggers and we all have the same experience. Twitter just doesn’t generate engagement with creative content.

I used to use Instagram to promote my blog, but because you can’t put links in posts it did little good. That limitation is by design — Instagram wants you to keep scrolling to see the ads. I built a decent following by seeking out other film photographers and following them. A good number of them followed me back. I put a link to my blog in my bio. I’d post a photo there from every new blog post, tell about what was on my blog today, and added “link in bio.” Almost nobody bit.

A few times, Reddit has brought a lot of visitors to my blog. Reddit has subreddits about anything you could ever blog about, and offers a vast audience. But Reddit aggressively frowns upon all but the most occasional self-promotion, and bans users who flout the rule. I’ve gotten traffic from Reddit only when someone else shared one of my posts there.

I know some people find Pinterest to be a good way to promote their blog. From what little I’ve seen, blogs about crafts, interior design, fashion, and the like do best there. I know little about Pinterest otherwise.

The key to Facebook is Groups

Your best bet today is to promote your creative blog in Facebook Groups, given the sheer number of people on Facebook.

Join Groups related to things you blog about. I’m in a bunch of film-photography and film-camera groups as well as groups about old roads, roadside architecture, and roadside attractions. I’m in groups for the Indiana cities and towns I’ve lived in or visit a lot. I’m even in a couple groups about heartfelt personal writing. That covers my blog’s subjects! To find groups, type keywords related to your blog’s topics into the Facebook search box and see what turns up.

Read and heed each group’s rules. A few forbid posting links, especially to your own blog. Some groups don’t mind if you share links to your blog if you participate in the group otherwise. Some groups are happy for you to only share links don’t as long as they’re directly related to the group purpose and are interesting to members. In all cases, it’s good etiquette to Like and comment on other posts in the group. And don’t carpet-bomb any group with your links. You’ll be seen as a gadfly.

You can also create your own groups, although it takes some work to promote them to build a following. Whatever you blog about, others are interested in it too. A couple other film-photo bloggers I follow created a group where members share photos of the old cameras they buy (here). The group creators use it specifically to share posts from their own blogs, and encourage shares from other bloggers (like me). I’ve used that group to share every last one of my film-camera reviews. It’s helped bring people to the blog, and some have subscribed.

Even if groups already exist for your favorite topics, you could create another one anyway. There appears to be room for many similar and overlapping groups. I’m in a bunch of old-car groups, for example. Some are general and some are specific, such as the one that’s for photos of entry-level models only, with no chrome and dog-dish hubcaps.

How to share a post in a Facebook Group

First, create a Facebook Page for your blog (instructions here). My blog’s page is here. Link your blog to your Page using WordPress Publicize (instructions here), so that each blog post automatically posts to your Page. This makes it easier to share your posts to groups.

You can also build a following on your Page, which can lead to new blog subscribers.

From there, here’s how you share a post in a Group.

  1. On your Page, find the post you want to share.
  2. Click the Share button. A menu appears. Click Share in a Group.
  3. A popup opens. In the Group box, type letters from the group name. A list of groups appears. Click the Group you want.
  4. Click the Include Original Post box until a checkmark appears. This shares your post with a link to your Page, which helps build your Page following.
  5. In the “Say something about this” area, type a custom introduction to the post.
  6. Click the Post button.

As group members interact with your share, it’s a good idea to respond, at least by clicking Like on comments. That encourages them to keep interacting with your shares.

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Photography

Doubling down on Flickr

I’ve made public declarations on Facebook and Instagram that I will not publish on those platforms frequently anymore. I’d like to say that Facebook’s drunken-pirate behavior with our data finally pushed me over the edge, but I can’t. On Facebook I finally had enough of the political tribalism. On Instagram, about every fourth post is an ad. I’m not anti-advertising but that’s too much.

I’m not deactivating my accounts. I’ll still check in from time to time, if for no other reason that I still promote this blog through a Facebook page (here if you’re curious) and share from that page to various Facebook groups. Like I’ve said before (here), Facebook remains the most effective way I’ve found to promote my blog. I still promote the Historic Michigan Road through Instagram (here).

But I want to look at photographs, especially film photographs. When I make time to really study a good photograph, not only does it deepen my enjoyment, but it can teach me something about photography that I can try on my next roll of film.

If I follow you on Flickr, you might have noticed that I’ve starred more of your photographs lately. I’m shifting to Flickr as the primary place I go to view photos and (outside of this blog’s comments) interact with photographers.

Flickr isn’t as fun as it was when I joined in 2006. But I want to believe that new owner SmugMug means what it says and will revitalize the community. I see no ads there, and I’m not aware they use my data beyond what is necessary to operate the service.

I’ve always been able to look at photographs there as easily on my desktop as I can my phone. And now that SmugMug has increased the maximum upload resolution, I can study photographs there in ways not available on any other platform I’ve used. Facebook and Instagram can’t touch Flickr here.

If you’re active on Flickr I’d like it very much if you’d leave your Flickr URL in the comments, unless you’re sure that I already follow you there. Here’s my Flickr stream if you’d like to follow me. Thank you!

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Blogosphere, Photography

Chasing fake Internet points

The primary reward I receive for what I publish online is interaction with you.

Some of that interaction is of high quality: namely, when you leave an interesting comment, especially one that teaches me something I didn’t know or helps me see something from a different perspective.

But most of what I get is in the form of likes. Or hearts or upvotes or favorites or claps or whatever it’s called on whichever platform I’m on. It’s a form of acknowledgement that whatever I posted resonated somehow.

One of those platforms is Imgur (here’s my user page), where Imgurians call them “fake Internet points.” Being Imgur, there are memes.

wonderfulFakeInternetPoints

It is fashionable now to pooh-pooh chasing after fake Internet points. Chasing them is, at the end of the day, a waste of time and accomplishes little.

hateFakeInternetPoints

Yet each fake Internet point delivers a small dopamine hit. In moderation, what’s wrong with that?

dayBrightenedByFakeInternetPoints

The primary place I go for fake Internet points is Instagram. I have tried to use it as a way of promoting this blog’s film-photography posts, but it’s not really working. I might get one or two clickthroughs from each Instagram post.

But my followers keep clicking the little heart on my posts, and it feels good to get them.

When you chase fake Internet points you need to consider return on investment and opportunity cost. Do the good feelings you get from likes, favorites, et. al., seem like a reasonable reward for the time you spent posting? And would that time you spent posting have been better spent doing something else?

make time to write in this blog: I get up early and write in it each morning. It’s because the reward I’ve received for doing it seems to be worth it. Your comments have taught me so much. They’ve also affirmed me as a photographer. Also, it’s just smashing fun when one of my posts gets shared around the Internet and gets a lot of visits. But most importantly, I’ve found community through this blog and many other photography blogs.

I post to Instagram opportunistically, that is, when I have some downtime that I couldn’t profitably use in some other way. When you find a new Instagram post from me, you can assume I had five minutes between appointments with little to do but wait. It’s a nice use of my wait time for the return I get in those sweet, sweet fake Internet points.

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