Beware of Social Proof with Your Photography
You’re never as good or as bad as they say you are
As a photographer, how can you understand the true level of your talent?
You probably have an idea of where you think you are. Of how good you think your images are, of who you think you’re better than (as vulgar as that sounds), and who you think you’re not yet as good as.
They’re all fair opinions to have. However, depending on your goals, your judgement on your own work might be as worthless as it is skewed.
And it is undeniably skewed.
If you’re shooting photographs and publishing them somewhere, you probably want other people to appreciate them.
But how are you to know, really, whether people do or not? Or at least get an idea of whether anyone does?
Today, probably by social proof. Specifically, social proof on social media.
Social proof tells us that lots of people feel the same way about something. One like on your photograph means nothing. One hundred likes on your photograph must mean it’s exceptional.
It simply must.
Not to mention all the acutely meaningful comments like ‘great shot’ from people who certainly know a great shot when they see one.
Why social proof says little about your photography
In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli talks about the dangers of social proof and the pitfalls of following or chasing it blindly.
Also known as the herd mentality, social proof makes us more likely to do something if other people are already doing it.
Imagine you’re walking down a street and everybody in front of you turns to look into an open doorway as they go past. The odds that you’ll also look are overwhelming.
There’s almost no chance you won’t.
You find a photographer you’ve never heard of and see they have 50 followers. You find another one and see they have 5000 followers.
How likely are you to check out the work or follow the former, and how likely the latter?
More existing followers means more new followers, and more followers overall means more likes on a person’s content.
It grows exponentially, but it’s probably not solely due to the quality of the work. It’s the herd mentality producing a version of social proof as skewed as your own opinion of what you do.
Your photographs that get 20 likes aren’t 10x as bad (hopefully) as those from your contemporaries that get 200. You just need to get some more momentum in your numbers.
It’s a whole other topic but if you want Insta-fame, playing the game and making the herd mentality work for you is far more important than making technically perfect images.
How social proof can ruin your photography
Chasing the approval of the herd via social proof is a dangerous thing for a creative who wants a legacy they can be proud of.
I want you to think back the dawn of Instagram and how we all loved those filters. Before they lost their novelty value, they made every image look special to us regardless of things like composition or talent.
Ferris wheel + Valencia = ‘great shot!’
Average beach + Earlybird = ‘great shot!’
People used them because everybody liked them enough to say ‘great shot!’ on everything. The herd mentality told us we should slap a vintage filter on every photograph we took.
And now they look shit. They were a fad. Flavour of the month. But at the time the Instagram herd loved them more than they did traditionally good work.
So ask yourself, honestly, are you producing photographs for your own artistic vision now or are they for pleasing the herd? Are you chasing greatness or chasing social proof? Applying for the hall of fame or just playing to the gallery?
If you’re adding a new kind of Instagram filter — a mental one — by just shooting what people are already liking, perhaps you already know the answer.
Monochrome street photography is the soup de jour right now and a fantastic source of ‘great shot! — especially ones that follow a certain formula. If someone calls your photography formulaic though, they’re probably not saying it’s good.
If you look at the timeless work of the greats, you’ll see often the only formulae they followed were their own. They made them their own, and that’s what made them great photographers.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s wonderful so many people are into street photography right now. I just think a lot of people can do better. I certainly can, and it’s something I’m working on every time I shoot.
So what are you doing? Are your street shots following the currently popular formulae — the ones that in a few years may be as outdated as the Instagram filters themselves — or are you creating something timeless?
Chasing the likes, the social proof of your talent, will lead you to the former.
People don’t tend to dwell on Instagram images. Their feeds are full and they scroll at pace.
Like, scroll, forget. Like, scroll, forget. Like, scroll, forget.
If you’re going for greatness, find your own style. Tell your own stories and create your own great projects. Develop your own formulae.
In 20 years you won’t care how many people followed you on Instagram if your legacy is a bunch of photographs that fade into the forgettable mass of your average contemporaries.
Social proof will then be telling you nobody cares anymore.
The good new is neither will you care how many likes you got or didn’t get for the personal masterpieces you’ve produced for the last 20 years. The projects you took on for yourself that led to a body of work you can truly be proud of.
The projects and photographs that stand the test of time just by being, you know, good.