Is Pinterest the “Napster” of Photography? Let’s Hope So
A Photo Editor has a provocatively titled post today, How Long Until Pinterest Is Sued Into Oblivion Like Napster?, compiling quotes on both sides of the recent copyright controversy swirling around the hot new image sharing social network. What I want to explore is why these issues are getting such sudden exposure, when a similar and much larger service has been operating for five years, seemingly without provoking any of these uncomfortable questions. I also want to explore how photographers could embrace the digital age and discover new creative new ways to monetize their craft.
Curation Comes of Age
Pinterest is essentially a modified version of an existing insta-share model pioneered by Tumblr, an image-centric social sharing service that has been doing much the same thing since 2007. The main differences between the two is that Pinterest has a standardized interface – you can’t customize the look and feel of your page – while on Tumblr, third party developers have allowed endless themes for bloggers to express themselves in the presentation of the images and other media. The differences essentially end there.
The basic action, blogging and reblogging (pinning and repinning on Pinterest), is so simple and addictive, that sharing an image is a matter of two clicks. Most people’s Tumblelogs and Pinterest pages are a curated collection of other people’s images, often unattributed.
Tumblr, despite its larger user base (46 million blogs, while Pinterest had 11.7 million users as of January) and longevity, has managed to stay under the radar in this whole copyright fracas.
So why is Pinterest getting so much attention, and invoking such lively debate, as though these were new questions suddenly being raised about copyright and internet sharing? Its meteoric growth-rate and female skew (a coveted demo for marketers) have certainly contributed. But more, I would argue, its relatively affluent and older-skewing demographic (28% of users have a $100,000+ annual household income and over 67% are over 25) – older and more affluent, that is, in comparison to Tumblr (Fully half of users are under 25, while this age group represent only 23% of internet users). Why should this effect coverage?
The younger generation, raised in the digital era, has a fundamentally different way of viewing images than the generation that grew up in the world of film. I argued last year that Tumblr represented a turning point in the way we experience images. Its young users have already adjusted to the new way of thinking, one that doesn’t comprehend the tension around the concept of ownership. Suddenly, when a practically identical service arises, but one whose demographic has a different relationship to intellectual copyright, we have a news-worthy story.
The New Ownership Paradigm
We (and I’m referring to anyone over 25 here) need to adjust to the new reality of an internet-centric world, one which current copyright laws seem so far incapable of taking it into account. Images can now be created, distributed to millions, and shared by said millions, with a few button clicks or finger taps, and in a matter of seconds.
What this is creating is a market in which, like it or not, photography is becoming a labor of love and a democratic means of self-expression, not a cloistered world separated into the two classic paradigms of the film age: the Kodak supermother (excellent account of how Kodak created this new consumer role at the Wall Street Journal), who dutifully catalogues family events, and the seasoned moneymaking pros who are untouchable because of the formerly high overhead, myriad technical hurdles to surmount, and limited and entrenched distribution channels. Suddenly, a cool Tumblr or Pinterest page can share images just as easily and widely as Condé Nast.
And not only can we share, but individuals can create at a high quality on an unprecedented scale.
I walked down the street in my predominantly young, hip neighborhood last weekend and half the people I saw had a DSLR dangling at their side, many of the higher-end variety. Soon, if not already, the images from these cameras will be online. Beyond those, tens of millions upload photos directly from their phones.
There used to be two way of experiencing still images: print media or gallery walls, both of which implied a financial transaction. Now we see a swirling sea of images every morning when we open our laptops or pick up our iPads. Some would call it a cesspool of images, but I call it a golden age of expression, where former definitions are breaking down, and the walls between “pro” and “amateur” become subtler by the day, until they eventually collapse into irrelevancy. Meanwhile, the historical concept of artistic ownership are slipping away. We are transitioning to a curatorial and mashup mindset.
Forget Napster, Where is Spotify? Monetization in the Digital Age
Remember, Napster dying was a symbolic victory for the music industrial complex, just as a hypothetical (though not really likely) Pinterest defeat would be. What the recording companies misunderstood was the fundamental technological shift that digital distribution represented. As soon as they’d managed to kill Napster, dozens of similar services sprung up to fill the void, like a hydra-headed monster. The industry won the battle, but were losing the war… until they came to terms with the new digital world.
I’m sure it sounds crazy to many, but very few people I know would ever think to pay for music, outside of the context of a live show. For a long time this meant sharing literally hundreds of gigabytes of music over the college network. But now, they once again support music companies and artists by listening to ads. What has allowed for this shift? Only slowly, as companies and lobbying groups abandoned the sue and legislate approach, were they able to embrace new monetization platforms, revolving around licensing and advertising. Two obvious success stories are Pandora and Spotify. In the film industry this has manifest in subscription services from Netflix and ad-supported services like Hulu.
Photography, probably owing to the diffuse ownership stakes, has not yet found its new business model. Services like PhotoShelter are allowing photographers to sell prints directly. AdoramaPix, Blurb and Magcloud allow high quality book book and magazine self-publishing. Stock photography (I’m praying this is not the panacea) allows photographers to make money by a volume-based approach.
A runaway hit among the new ways of rewarding work and vision outside of the historical model are as yet elusive, but will surely arrive. To single out a particular service when in the midst of this foundational paradigm shift is to miss the bigger picture of what is happening.