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Are likes, shares and retweets the "credit lines" of social media corporations?
As I reflect on years of doing the work and spending the money to produce content for this site and for my social media accounts, I've started to question the current conventions of online content distribution/consumption on social media. Right now and for the past few years, Youtube has been my most successful and personally rewarding presence (despite my constant copyright battles with reuploaders). This is almost entirely because I am paid a share of the advertising revenue that my videos generate for Youtube, which has put some real money into my pocket each year to help cover storm observing trips and equipment maintenance/upgrades. And that matters - a lot. Without that revenue, I would be unable to finance the production of even half of what I've been able to since 2012.
Simply put, revenue-generating content distribution gives me the incentive and the funding to produce more than I normally would as just a hobbyist. It's the motivator I need as a responsible adult to continue putting the degrees of time and money I do into not only storm observing, but better cameras/lenses and the work necessary to put the content out there to the masses.
And so that brings me to the social media question. Unlike Youtube's system, Facebook and Twitter do not pay the creator a share of the healthy advertising revenue that his or her content helps generate for them. When a photographer's work goes viral on social media, the platform keeps 100% of the profits of all the ads shown alongside the image(s). Don't get me wrong, atta-boys in the form of retweets, shares and likes are nice - but historically, they haven't done anything in a real-world way to help me put gas in my car or take unpaid time off of work to observe storms. In a way, the ego-stroking phenomenon of accumulating likes, shares and retweets is uncannily similar to the universally hated-among-pro-photographers "credit line" for airing content on television for free. Just like a credit line viewed by a million people on national television provides no real benefit (other than maybe bragging rights), I have learned that a viral post that gets shares in the five or six figures doesn't result in any tangible benefit either: no (or very few) print sales, no future business, no sponsorship offers nor anything that helps me in a "real world" way.
Back when I had a Facebook page, I tracked how many shares of an image that I'd need before I could expect to make a print sale from the viral publicity. That number came in at one sale roughly every 10,000 shares. One image that went viral to the tune of 60,000 shares brought in only $100 profit in print sales. Currently, print sales are the only way a viral image can generate revenue for a photographer - and that's only as long as the original is shared with the link to the print ordering page. Viral images are frequently stolen and copied to other accounts with the print link stripped right out! Most confoundingly though, social media platforms are increasingly designed to keep users on the platform's app, limiting visibility and convenience to following links that take the user to another app (browser) or web page. User behavior generally already follows this convention, with most people not willing to click a link that takes them away from their feeds that they have their noses buried in all day.
And so, I'm questioning the currently-accepted wholesale donations of content to entertain the masses and line the coffers of social media corporations. More and more, that seems to me to be just like donating video and photos for publication or broadcast in exchange for the "exposure". Any pro photog knows the latter is a crock, but what hasn't really caught on yet is the realization that social media companies are exploiting us in the very same way.
So what is the solution? The best possible one would be for social media platforms to share the advertising revenue generated by viral content with the creator, just like Youtube does. Until that happens though (if ever), I've toyed with a couple of ideas that I may try. One is only posting tightly-cropped, low-resolution versions of images to social media, requiring the user to come over to my site to view the full size version. Another is just adding a paywall for all full-size photos, charging something like two bucks a year to subscribe and including perks such as wallpaper/home screen background downloads with the subscription. I don't know if either of those would work, but paywalls seem to be gaining some ground in other media realms. One thing is for sure, something has to give - producing/giving content away for free isn't sustainable for anyone but hobbyists and the wealthy.
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