Thriving in the Attention Economy
A conversation with Clayton Cubitt
Clayton Cubitt (also known as Siege) is a professional photographer, video artist, and writer. He’s been making cultural contributions to the internet for over a decade.
Though he makes his living as a still photographer on high-end fashion and commercial photo shoots, much of Clayton’s personal work is created for the internet. He’s not just a photographer posting photos, he’s a visual artist using the internet as both a means of distribution and an integral part of the art, evolving along with, and responding to, the ever changing nature of the internet.
His most recent video series, Hysterical Literature, has been viewed millions of times around the world, and has launched a new genre.
Much of his work is NSFW, proceed with wild abandon.
This conversation took place via The InterroClayton:
“I often get the question “Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain?” The magic of technology now enables me to say yes to everyone. You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers. This $2 digital download entitles the purchaser to ask any single question of me and receive an honest answer to it in a timely fashion. It is a VIP ticket to my mind.”
Kim Boekbinder: What was the impetus for The InterroClayton? ($2 question)
Clayton Cubitt: It came after I had to declare email bankruptcy.
I think any artist or public figure has a hard time keeping up with the questions and inquiries that come in every day. It’s gotten so bad that goals like “Inbox Zero” have been born. I tried for years to answer all messages I got, but always found myself feeling guilty for not being able to. And then social media exploded, and beside emails now there’s Twitter and Instagram replies and comments to manage, it just became too much.
So I needed to apply a throttle to it. And I’ve always been fascinated with the work of the economist Thorsten Veblen, regarding luxury goods. And I thought, in an Attention Economy, what’s more of a luxury good than someone’s undivided attention? So I just basically made an alternate “VIP” inbox, priced dynamically, based on how much attention someone wants me to pay their question, and how quickly I respond. The more they decide to pay, the more thoughtful are my answers, and the faster I respond.
I still have an open “free” email form. And of course people are welcome to send me notes that way, or via social media, and I try to read all of that, and still respond to especially thoughtful freemails, but every InterroClayton gets answered, guaranteed.
KB: It’s an interesting way to ask you questions. I’m really re-evaluating everything, weighing the questions more. Even with such a low starting price it still forces me to value my time and yours in a different way.
CC: That was one of the hoped-for effects when I launched it, but I had no idea if it would work, or just make people mad. But I think it’s a testament to how pervasive the notion is in society that we can pay for VIP line-cutting access anywhere, for the right price, that no one has criticized it. In fact, the opposite, I’ve only gotten good comments about it. Americans in particular love it. We’re such a nation of grifters and hustlers. There’s no shame to making a buck, as long as you do it with some style.
KB: America does love a good hustle. I like the InterroClayton because it presses the value/money/time tension button. It’s a clever tool to cut down on emails and monetize your notoriety, but it’s also a neat art project in itself. And now that I’m over my initial over-evaluation I am feeling a surge of power, via the InterroClayton and its guaranteed answer I could ask you anything. ANYTHING! Mwahahahahahaha.
But what I really want to ask next is this: What question do you get asked the most? ($2 question)
CC: Before I installed the InterroClayton I got a pretty even mix of fan mail and then questions from photographers about technical things, like what camera I used or what app for a certain shot. The former was nice, although I often felt guilty I couldn’t answer. The latter was seldom answered. After I installed InterroClayton the fan mail stayed steady, the camera/technical questions almost entirely disappeared, and I got a new class of questions that were much more philosophical, like this one from Ken Baumann.
KB: How has the internet changed how your work/career is valued? ($4 question)
CC: I’m completely and totally pro-Internet. I think most of the best things about my career have been because of the Internet, or were turbo-boosted by it. I think it’s common for photographers of my generation or older to lament the Internet as destroying photography, but I feel the opposite.
I began my career in the mid-90s, when the Internet was certainly here, but it was still a very “separate” space from the real world. Photography was almost entirely analog, and non-networked. At each stage of the Internet’s expansion I’ve felt my career expand along with it, and it’s provided me with opportunities I never had when the photo world was analog and offline.
I’ve been able to reach audiences the analog world never let me reach. In 2004 I was hired by Nerve.com as one of the world’s first (to my knowledge) paid photobloggers. This introduced whole new audiences to my most challenging personal work, and they became instrumental in late 2005 when Hurricane Katrina came ashore, destroying most of my family’s homes and possessions, along with the communities they lived in. I then launched a blog called Operation Eden which documented the destruction, and became a rallying place for relief efforts, and aid to both my family and to the larger community. In retrospect it also acted as a sort of primitive Kickstarter.
It was overwhelming. Volunteers rebuilt my mom’s home, and then stuck around and built dozens more for her community. Tractor trailers full of relief supplies arrived from all over the world. People stayed for months, camped out in tents, just to help. Volunteers from all around the world visited my mom’s little bayou community and made a pilgrimage to her house just to see if she was alright. The government wasn’t doing this. The old media wasn’t doing this. This was all the Internet.
And it was that angle that actually led scores of media outlets to finally cover it. I already had a decade-long established career in magazines, but the magazines weren’t interested in covering my personal angle on this story until I did it myself, and the Internet blew it up. This was the first time I noticed the “because of the Internet” phenomenon in my work, and as a story excuse for media coverage.
My active use of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr has allowed me to maintain a steady and diverse audience without relying on publishers for sporadic showcases. For years now clients have routinely approached me for commissions based on projects I’ve only published online.
I don’t even maintain printed analog portfolios anymore. And those projects I create for editorial and advertising clients receive new longevity when archived and shared across social networks. Fashion stories I shot ten years ago continue to pop-up online as scans on fashion fan sites, and kids that would have never seen the original story after the magazine left the newsstands now see them in parts of the world the original magazine never dreamed of reaching.
It’s not unalloyed good, there are definitely problems with piracy, lack of attribution, social media corporations building their massive profits on the back of safe harbor provisions in the DMCA, but in general, the Internet has mainly increased the value of my work.
Clayton does have a problem with people on Tumblr removing his photography credit. People remove credit from digital works the way they would remove a tag from clothing — tearing off an irritating extra bit. But as a viewer I always want to see the original credit so I can follow the artist.
KB: I cast my vote for you to have another regular photo blog. I nominate Medium as a good home for it.
Besides the InterroClayton, do people pay you for your online work? Tips for your videos or donations? Do you use any of the micro-payment sites like Flattr.com? ($6 question)
CC: Actually, this is an area I’ve really neglected. Short of occasional fund-raising for disaster relief I’ve not really made it too easy for my audience to give me money directly. Then again, only recently in my career have platforms started to emerge that start to make this doable. I toyed a bit with Vimeo’s tip jar when it first launched, and I enabled advertising on my YouTube videos, but I’ve never used Kickstarter to fund anything (I’ve contributed to others though) and I haven’t toyed with micro-payment sites.
The biggest online income stream is currently from the YouTube ads, but they were a giant hassle to get setup for payment on, and I eventually had to resort to a third party network partner to get them working, and between Google’s cut and the network partner’s cut, they take about 70% of the revenue. I don’t think this is a sustainable state of affairs.
I think we’re still at the dawn of more equitable and universal payment systems for artists. It’s going to have to happen though. Honestly, older Internet companies have largely derived their profits from free-riding off the infrastructure and cultural capital of Old Media. Artists are only able to post work online for free because there are still magazines and ad agencies and venues that pay them real money elsewhere. These Internet companies still have market caps based on the attention derived from this free content. And we’ve all kind of looked the other way, partly from novelty, partly from the greed of wanting something for free.
But people are starting to realize that “likes” don’t pay for content, and they really do want to contribute to artists that make amazing things. And the old Internet companies that don’t get smarter about enabling this human desire risk being sidelined by the new breed that gets it. So I’m confident it’ll become more embedded into new platforms.
KB: Being the author of viral works, do you have any idea of what you think a fair $ per view amount would be? Are you happy to make that money via youtube ads and sponsors, or would you prefer to be advertising free and get money directly from viewers? ($8 question)
CC: I think YouTube’s embedded ads strike a good balance between generating income for creators but being tolerable to viewers. There are some things I would improve about it, but right now I find it preferable to the tip jar feature that Vimeo has, which hardly anyone uses. And Pay-Per-View only really works for feature films and comedy specials by celebrities.
YouTube is very opaque about what kind of income is being generated from the ads they sell against my work, but after they take their cut, and my network partner takes their cut, it breaks down to about $1000 per million views. This is nothing to sneeze at, but it barely dents my rent in NYC. And 99.99% of the videos on YouTube can never hope for a million views.
The thing about “viral” content is that the vast majority of its eventual audience has no prior relationship with the creator of the work. It’s very different than a sustained Kickstarter campaign or “long tail” sales to an artist’s most dedicated fans. Viral content gets plucked out of context and repackaged a million times in alien settings, so the most durable income generating tool for it is one that can travel with it without reducing its velocity. Right now that’s advertising. It might always be advertising.
Artists shouldn’t kid themselves that most people give a fuck about them directly. At least not at first. People want what you’ve made, they don’t want you. You have to seduce them into also wanting you. And you can only do that by making more stuff that they want, and hopefully attaching yourself to it in the minds of some small percentage of its fans. This is branding.
The dedicated project Hysterical Literature website has essays on the work by amazing writers, commentary by the participants in the project, and digital downloads there for people who’d like to support the project financially, but it’s totally invisible to 99% of the people who see the works, because they’re not seeing it there, they’re seeing it on blogs and on social media, as individual videos. So having an income-generating tool that’s unobtrusively built-in to the desired content is vital.
It’s also brittle. It exists accidentally, really, this culture of embedded videos. As computers get smarter and networks get faster I could easily see this changing so that videos are re-ripped and re-blogged without recourse to a canonical (and monetized) original embed, thus divorcing the original creator from even that revenue stream. This is already the case with music and photos, which get re-encoded when someone decides to upload them to their Tumblr. Video has been spared this only because it’s generally been harder to work with, computationally. But it’s already happened to me. Perez Hilton, Huffington Post, and a few other sites have illegally ripped my originals and re-encoded them for presentation on their own sites, rather than just embedding my original videos.
KB: I want to keep asking questions forever. It is a joy to wander through your brain. But I think I’ll end this interview here with a final question: what can we citizens of the internet do to support you in further creations? ($10 question)
CC: I’ll be releasing art editions this year, and some interesting subscriber-only projects, so follow me for announcements.
And I’d love to partner with or consult for app developers and other tech companies who’d like to be in the next wave, and are interested in building platforms that enable growth through profit-sharing with content creators.
And anyone else, in general, I’d just like to reiterate how valuable and important it is for you to provide credit to the original artists when you share their work. This is really basic minimum etiquette in the “attention economy” we now find ourselves living in. If you love it enough to share it, love it enough to credit it!
Find Clayton Cubitt on the web: