Feed the Future: How Tumblr Changes Everything

Posted in Photography by Nathan Lee Bush on May 20, 2011

What I see when I arrive at Tumblr. Reload the page moments later for a full refresh of the images. The feed at work.

Image Ubiquity and Image Quality

I went to see Magnum photographer Alec Soth talk at the famous Strand Bookstore a few of months ago. Towards the end of his presentation he brought up a slide with startling statistics. The five billionth photo was recently uploaded to Flickr. Five hundred fifty thousand are uploaded every second on Facebook.

The fact is, that although a vast majority of these images (and in this article I’m referring to both photos and videos when I use that term) are of babies, puppies and unfortunate party snaps you’d probably have preferred not to have on record, there are more great pictures and image-makers than ever. It’s simply a numbers game. The inexorable improvement of price performance for technology, combined with the free availability of education online, means the former barriers to entry – prohibitively high equipment and processing expenses and relatively complex manual technology – have been swept aside, and more talented people are getting in the game.

He wondered what this ubiquity does to the individual image. I’ve considered this often: when an average person sees more images checking their Facebook feed every morning than the average person saw in a month fifty years ago, or a lifetime 200 years ago, does this cheapen it? Images compel us, but is there a saturation point, where our appetite is assuaged? The answer would seem to be self-evidently, yes. But our viewing habits suggest just the opposite.

Image Distribution

Digital distribution, where hundreds of images can be reproduced with the touch of a button for the world to see, has effectively replaced the costly and cumbersome distribution channels of the pre-networked era.

I asked Soth about what he thinks of Tumblr, a feed-based social network. He responded that he finds feeds unsatisfying, and his solution to this ubiquity is storytelling. “The narrative is where it’s at now,” he said, implying that project-based work is the solution to the random barrage of images we encounter seemingly every moment. His recent work can be seen as looking for the thread that unites the images into a cohesive theme.

The late Tim Hetherington expressed similarly low regard for Flickr as a tool for mass communication in our recent interview, “Flickr is a trash bin of billions of images that are circulating. But it’s not about communicating anything.”

While no one can doubt the pioneering spirit of either photographer, Soth and Hetherington may represent an outdated preference. And preferences change.

Enter the Feed

The feed concept is fundamentally changing the relationship and value of images for the next generation. It seems to me it portends the future of image publishing. To predict the future, all you have to do is look at where the kids are. And they’re on Tumblr.

Founded in 2007, Tumblr now has more than five billion posts and over 17.5 million total blogs. I’ve been spending a lot of time on this ‘microblogging’ service lately, mostly because it’s addictive, but also trying to put my finger on the shift that it represents.

For the uninitiated, Tumblr is a service that marries a variety of social networking features from Twitter and Facebook, with media sharing services like Flickr and Youtube. It’s not a traditional blog – you won’t find fully-formed and tightly edited 2000-word blog entries (like this one), or a handful of retouched images a couple times a week – concepts from the photoblogs of yore. What you will find is a ceaseless stream of images which can be reproduced with a click of the mouse.

The interface mostly encourages bite-size multimedia sharing, and ‘reblogging’ (similar to ‘retweeting’ on Twitter), which allows you to publish other people’s posts on your feed, essentially as your own. Most Tumblelogs fall into this category, with little original content and most images reblogged from other Tumblelogs. The concept of ownership is rendered almost quaint, as very little of the content on a given Tumblelog is from the ‘author’ of the blog, and credit is rarely explicitly given (though a link will sometimes take you to the original image on Flickr or wherever). Needless to say, the APA/ASMP is probably not too pleased.

After you’ve found a couple dozen blogs to follow in your area of interest (which range from film, to every niche of photography, to illustration, to pretty much anything you can think of which leans toward the creative), you’ll start to see the frenetic pace at which some many users share and reblog.

The younger users treat it as another part of their compulsive communication-driven life. With the average American teens reportedly sending and recieving over 3300 texts a month, you start to get the idea of the relationship to their Tumblelogs. Their feeds are constantly streaming curated personas, a self-expressive tool to communicate one’s taste, as much as a public notebook for visual inspiration. When the network effect takes over, a new image can be seen by thousands in a matter of minutes.

My feed (an example is pictured) – comprised of the posts, in chronological order, of the 300 tumblelogs I follow – has no narrative thread. It’s not representative of any one body of work. And yet it’s addictively checkable, since every new refresh will generate a torrent of amazing new images to be consumed, curated from my hand-picked list of tastemakers. Think about how that contrasts with the old mentality, even one carried over into the internet age.

The New Reality: Everyone’s a Curator

I recently revisited ffffound, an invitation-only blog of images chosen by a collective of elite with ‘good taste’ and an appetite for oversharing. When it first began, this was an landmark project: a feed of curated images by a self-selecting arbiters of taste. At it’s root, the mindset is not so much different than the gallery/magazine publishing system the internet age was supposed to up-end.

But now the drop dead simple interface of Tumblr has allowed the concept to be democratized, and curatorial mindset is being unreservedly embraced by everyone. There’s nothing that distinguishes this once cutting-edge proto-feed from any of the Tumblelogs I follow. This egalitarian model could be seen as the fatal blow to the system of top-down curation. A true meritocracy emerges, where tastemakers are born, not through commercial connections and working up through the old distribution system, but through sheer quality of the product, one’s individual tumblelog.

Adjusting to the New Reality

The Tumblr feed exemplifies in the most fully-formed manifestation yet of the irresistible impetus converging key trends since the dawn of the internet. Slowly, but surely, we’re stripping language to a minimum (Twitter and Facebook both impose strict character limits). The ubiquity and immediacy of images is becoming a primary method of communication. Like music ownership before it, image ownership is a concept sliding inexorably into irrelevance. From the standpoint of self-expression, I’m convinced we are in a new democratic golden age. From the standpoint of commerce, it remains to be seen what new business model for image makers the future holds.


Nathan Lee Bush is a photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his site and blog.

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  1. […] only, Tumblr-esque infinite scrolling (I previously declared my love of the feed-based service here) is the perfect way to take in images en masse. The UX is equally simple. Using an undistracting […]

  2. […] way of thinking, one that doesn’t comprehend the tension around the concept of ownership. I argued last year that Tumblr represented a turning point in the way we experience […]

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