Social photography and constructive critique

Note: this article is a republishing of an article I wrote nearly a year ago on Coding the Image. I leave it here for posterity’s sake.

James Campbell tweeted the other day about how social photography (as shared on Instagram, EyeEm and other such mobile photo networks) seems to be defined by the presence (or absence) of positive engagement. Social photography, he argued, disallowed negative critique almost by design, limiting most users’ interactions with works down to a simple ‘like’. I’ve never written about the topic at length, but constructive critique in social photography is a topic I’ve taken great interest in and discussed before in informal sessions (with Olly Lang and others), so I thought it would be worth exploring why the popular social photography platforms today don’t seem to lend themselves well to more nuanced and constructive critique, and what it might take to support a deeper discussion of work within social photography.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that providing constructive feedback on a photo on Instagram and the like isn’t possible (after all, the ability to comment on photos has been there since the beginning); rather, it seems that the design of these social photography apps and networks tends to discourage longer-form, nuanced critique, instead favouring rapid consumption and quick, emotional engagement.

When the minimal interaction with a photo in these apps is a sub-second double-tap to ‘like’ on an iPhone screen, versus the minute or more it may take to draft a considered comment, the temptation to simply register that ‘like’ and move onto the next photo in the timeline is strong. Even when the viewer does open the comment box, it’s that much harder again to write a longer comment on a mobile device discussing the technical merits of an image — only for that critique to then be lost amongst the dozens of short comments like “Great shot!” and “Love it!” that make the photographer feel good, but provide little in the way of substance as to why that work triggered that reaction. Specific critique tends not to be a part of the minimum viable product (MVP) of a social photography network — after all, the vast majority of people do not join Instagram or even Flickr to primarily get their photos criticised by others! — hence, design decisions for social photography apps tend towards growing the size of the user base rather than catering to the needs of a smaller enthusiast bloc.

Thus, social photographers who are looking for more detailed constructive feedback on their work struggle to find it — often sporadic, limited, unstructured and informal, easily lost in the sea of likes and cookie-cutter comments.

With this difficulty in obtaining constructive critique on their photos, it becomes harder for photographers to develop their photographic sense and to identify weaknesses in their work. Also, from my observations, discussion about social photography also tends to focus more on the “social” aspects and less on the “photography” as such (though, to be fair, photography festivals and meetups like FORMAT Festival and EyeEm Festival have tried to tackle both sides of the social photography equation). Combined, these two points mean there’s a missed opportunity for social photography to both raise individual photographers’ skills and vocabulary of photographic discussion, and to help photographers’ audiences to better understand the context of the world’s images.

The wealth of photo sharing apps on mobile devices speaks to the popularity of social photography, but none of the major players in the space right now really delivers an experience that encourages constructive critique. Whether such an experience is possible while retaining the connected, immediate spirit of social photography is an open question, but I’d argue the following criteria are important requirements (if not outright necessary ones) for a social photography experience that supports constructive critique of work.

  1. Dialogue. Critique is, first and foremost, a conversation about a particular work, not merely a single person’s pronouncements about how a work should be interpreted. Meaningful critique occurs between the artist and the critic, between critics, and between artists. Thus, it’s crucial that any social photography platform whose intention is to foster constructive critique allows such conversations (two-way and group discussions) to take place. Such a platform could allow critique to take place both publicly and privately, catering to different people’s preferred critique styles, but the two need not be satisfied by the same app or service. We can see forms of this dialogue in places like Flickr and the various photography-centric forums that dot the internet, but none that are particuarly friendly for mobile consumption and participation.
  2. Structure. By structured critique of a photographic work, whether a single photograph or a set, I refer to critical discussion within a common set of themes (technical, artistic, cultural or otherwise) by which the work is discussed. Structure provides both an expectation of critique of one’s work (as opposed to simply generic commentary on a photo), as well as a framework for providing and understanding the critique being offered, both working towards helping the potential user to understand the value of the app in providing feedback on their work. It’s a tricky balance; without some structure in the critique, discussion would most likely tend towards the short, effusively enthuisastic comments that we currently see on Instagram and the like; too rigid and demanding a critique structure, and one risks not having any critique delivered at all. It’s perfectly possible to provide constructive feedback through unstructured mechanisms (as has always been the case with most existing social photography apps), and I’d say that it’s just as important as structured critique (since much critique will resist being placed in boxes), but overall, I’d argue that a certain level of critique structure is necessary to create a social photography environment where users can confidently see their work being discussed and critiqued.
  3. Consent. Opening up a creative work to criticism, and providing critique on that work, are ultimately actions of trust between the artist and the critic(s). The artist trusts that the critic will discuss the work fairly and consistently; likewise, the critic trusts that the artist will respect and seek to understand the critique that is given. The critic that fails to critique a work fairly betrays both their audience and the artist; likewise with the artist that treats an honest critique given with disrespect. All that said, it’s strange to think about consent as a precondition for social photography critique; after all, I don’t exactly go and ask Henri Cartier-Bresson (or his estate) for permission to discuss his contribution to street photography. However, in the context of social photography, and in online social networks in general, where the potential for outright abuse and harassment is but a few taps of a keyboard away, measures do need to be in place to ensure users feel safe opening their work up to honest feedback without copping abuse. Hence, consent to have photographic work critiqued is, I feel, a key part of a viable social photography critique experience.
  4. Culture. It’s a little harder to describe this quality, but this one’s just as crucial as the other three factors listed above, if not more so (since the other listed requirements all contribute to this one). Here, by culture I mean nurturing an environment where people are motivated to share their own and discuss each other’s photographic work. The concept of social photography does not nurture this culture by itself — design decisions need to be made that encourage users to actively browse photographs, to upload them, to talk about them, and to support and encourage other users to develop as photographers. Without a culture that encourages users to actively engage with each other’s work, a photography app becomes merely a passive, consumptive experience, or at best an experience where users talk at each other with photographs instead of talking with each other about photographs.

How might these requirements translate into actual features or design decisions for social photography apps and services? Here are a couple of pathways to potential solutions:

  • Photography collectives. As Instagram’s user count has ballooned out into the hundreds of millions, countless photo initiatives and communities such as Grryo, AMPt and MPN have formed to provide focus points for smaller groups of photographers with similar interests and goals. These groups, besides conducting photo contests, curating and presenting work both as individuals and as the group, and organising meetups locally and worldwide, also provide forums for like-minded people to share and discuss their work. Honest, open critique can more easily take place within smaller active communities like these, as opposed to the whole social graph of an Instagram-scale service, because of a) the higher signal-to-noise ratio these smaller communities will naturally have if one has chosen to be a part of such a group, b) the element of trust that identifying with and being part of a group engenders, and c) the common interests that a group has that make it easier to share and critique a work, with confidence that the work and the critique will be understood and respected. Supporting both photographers and collectives as first-class members of a social photography service could potentially allow a “community of communities” model of photographers to flourish, where a photo or photo set can be critiqued within a smaller group, but shared and shown with the broader community. Flickr immediately come to mind here as a potential model (specifically with the genre-based groups such as HCSP), though it still remains to be seen whether they can transition their existing communities to be as active on mobile as users are on Instagram and the other mobile-native social photography networks.
  • Fast, categorised feedback. One of the bigger barriers to providing constructive feedback on photos within social photography is the time it takes to write a comment outlining one’s thoughts on the work. Most feedback can actually be grouped into categories; for example, “lighting”, “composition”, and “storytelling” could be several possible categories, though the possibilities are endless (and thus would need to be experimented with). Hence, a potential way to shorten the feedback process with these groupings might be a one-tap or two-tap feedback system. Similar to how Buzzfeed lets readers register their thoughts on an article from a pre-defined set of reactions, users can quickly critique a photo from a pre-defined set of common feedback points: “I like this photo” — “good lighting” — “tells a good story”; “I don’t like this photo” — “unclear subject”. With the proper design considerations, this can potentially remove one of the big barriers to providing critique for many people, namely, the cognitive load required to draft a critique that addresses the work while also taking into account cultural sensibilities. This kind of quick feedback isn’t sufficient for all cases (it’s not feasible to pre-define every single possible critique in app), and space to provide comments would need to be an option, but minimising the amount of work needed to come up with then submit feedback makes it that much more likely a user would want to provide critique of a photo or a set of photos.
  • A critique reputation system. All the efforts in making it easy to provide critique on photographic work isn’t much help if people aren’t interested in providing critique in the first place. One way to harbour such motivation could be to build in a reputation system that indicates how helpful the person’s previous advice was to other people. Stack Overflow serves as my model here, where programmers with specific domain experience who provide quality responses to questions build a solid reputation that has value outside the community (e.g. when applying for jobs). This reputation system needs to be kept distinct from things like follower count and like count, which measure how popular a photographer is; rather, reputation is intended to be a measure of how valuable the user’s contributions to discussions are. Care needs to be taken in the design of such a reputation system within a social photography service to minimise the likelihood that the system will be gamed, but overall, building in a reputation system for photographers and critics has the potential to create a social photography experience that users are invested in contributing to long-term.

I’m hopeful that the explosive growth and evolution of social photography will provide viable niches for photographers seeking to improve their skills. Constructive critique is one of the natural evolutionary steps in social photography, as more photographers on Instagram and the like start to expand their goals beyond mere follower and like count. Services tailored towards photographers presenting sets of work (e.g. VSCO Journal, Steller, and Exposure) are an example of how social photography is evolving and expanding to cater to the broadening interests of social photographers; likewise, with critique and deep photographic discussion, projects like Ink and So Bad / It’s Good are starting to explore how the needs of photographers interested in improving their work can become a viable model.

Finally, I’m optimistic about the prospect of social photography evolving to support constructive critique as a sign of the strengthening connection between the tech and the art worlds. Photography festivals like the currently-running Head On are starting to explore the contributions of mobile photography to the art world through interactive exhibits, and the expansion of the social photography ecosystem to include critique and showcasing of sets opens the way to other crossovers in art and tech.

Perhaps asking for Instagram to make it easier for users to critique each other’s work is too much to ask, just as much as it seems pointless to ask them to go back to better supporting non-square images. Nevertheless, as social photography continues to mature, we’ll hopefully begin to see newer players break through and provide spaces where social photographers can easily connect with each other while guiding each other towards producing their best work.


Originally published at codingtheimage.com on May 10, 2015.

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