Categories
media economy photography

The new media landscape (2): the importance of community

 

The disruptive power of the internet has made ‘community’ an essential concept in the new media landscape. A community is a group of people who share the similar interests, concerns or pursuits. They form around common purposes or practices.

As argued in the first post of this series, the internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

These distributed networks and new social groups are the basis of any new community. This post will argue that for creative producers community is a precondition of successfully operating in the new ecology of information.

There is, however, one common assumption about community that need to be dispelled before I consider what is involved in the development of a community that can support an individual’s creative practice.

Does size matter?

The ease with which web content can reach a wide audience can lead us to think that success is defined by mass interest. YouTube videos with millions of views seem to be the benchmark we must aim for. However, some data from new organisations shows how scale is not necessarily synonymous with success.

Newspaper web sites hailing the tens of millions of unique users they attract monthly is a regular feature (see this example). However, Navigating News Online, a recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, although flawed in many ways, offers a different take on these numbers.

NNO identified an important distinction between ‘casual’ and ‘power’ consumers of information. More than three-quarters of the traffic to the top 25 American news sites came from users who visited just once or twice a month. In most cases they will have arrived via a link or search, read once piece, and then moved on.

While there is an obvious social benefit in getting a media organisation’s content to as many as possible, these infrequent flyers will not offer much economic benefit even in terms of an audience for advertisers.

In contrast, the NNO report found that ‘power users’ – people who came to the same news site more than ten times each month, and spent more than hour each month on those visits – comprised on average only 7% of the total web readership.

This trend was known before the NNO report, and applies also to UK examples. Although the numbers are now larger, these 2009 metrics from the Daily Mail show the number of casual versus power consumers:

  • 28.7 million unique users/month globally
  • 8.9 million unique users/month from the UK
  • Of the UK users 611,588 came to the web site every day
  • Half of those UK daily users (c. 300,000) stayed for 20 minutes/month

So while the headline-grabbing tens of millions of unique users suggests a vast audience around the Daily Mail, their loyal British users numbered no more than 300,000 in 2009.

These dynamics are the reason pay walls attract a small number of subscribers in relation to the overall readership of a news site. Subscribers come from power users: pay walls exclude or limit casual users so depend on subscriptions from the most loyal.

Working with fans

The idea that it is the power users, the most loyal consumers, that are the basis of an economic strategy to fund creative content is common to the music industry, where such people are known as fans.

What the internet has done, however, is made to possible to directly access prospective fans and provide them with content. The consequence of that is that artists don’t have to pursue a ‘blockbuster’ strategy to succeed. Instead of waiting for the one thing that might offer stardom with all its rewards, artists can build a community of those who appreciate their work and might be willing to support it.

Kevin Kelly famously outlined this concept with his post on 1000 True Fans. Like so many things influenced by the web, Kelly identified how a power law curve, which is the basis of the long tail phenomenon, suggested new possibilities. While the number of 1000 was indicative only and varied according to the artist’s media, Kelly maintained that if you could move people from an encounter with your work to being ‘lesser fans’ and on to  ‘true fans’ regular support would be forthcoming.

Kelly later conducted interviews with artists to see if his argument played out in practice. The results supported the thrust of his original argument but tempered its enthusiasm. He concluded that:

there are very few artists making their entire living selling directly to True Fans. The few that are, are selling high-priced goods, like paintings, rather than low-priced goods like CDs. But there are many that partially fund their livelihood with direct True Fans. (my emphasis)

Mike Masnick’s review of musicians supports this conclusion, and importantly demonstrates that the logic applies to more than just the famous who already have a fan base.

How does an individual create a community?

So, if you wanted to pursue this strategy what would it involve? The first thing to note is the hard graft. Kevin Kelly’s interviews made clear “it takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself. And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.”

Assuming you are committed, here are six steps to create a community around your practice:

  1. Get yourself a web platform (site, blog etc) to make some work and your thinking available for viewing and linking, and keep updating this platform;
  2. Think of yourself as a publisher or broadcaster, find your angle or voice, and offer information beyond self-promotion on a regular basis;
  3. Participate in social networks and other on-line forums, offering comments, links, information;
  4. Understand that a community is more than the sum of your social media followers and friends. Social networks are a necessary but insufficient condition of community;
  5. A community’s members have varying degrees of commitment, from observers to occasional supporters to committed fans. Followers and friends are, until they demonstrate otherwise, not ‘true fans’. But they might become committed supporters if they are engaged with your work;
  6. Engagement means offering your community a sense of belonging and commitment to your practice and the thinking that informs it. This comes through conversation and dialogue around ideas and information rather than just appeals or material inducements;

In the debate about crowd funding photojournalism I have emphasized how having a community is a precondition of successful support. Those who have raised funds have either been already well-known (which means they have had a community of support) or they have in effect followed most of the steps above. As Bryan Formals wrote in his good post on crowd funding, “it all starts to tie together: transparency, authenticity, community building, collaboration, funding.”

Point 6 is probably the most difficult and most important in the process. It is the step where supporters feel they participate in the project, something Joerg Colberg identified as important, and which Tomas van Houtryve has put into practice creatively and effectively. But like all engagement, this participation is not a one-way street – as van Houtryve has found, creative practitioners can learn a lot from their supporters and their work can be better as a result. The benefits are not just financial.

Conclusion

As I shall argue in the third post of this series, the idea of community is important for big media players as much as individual artists, and it is behind some of the new economic strategies to support journalism. There are lessons to be learnt from those strategies for individuals too.

The principles that make community possible are the same in both cases even if the scale is different. The internet’s logics of disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation affect everyone. It’s harder for individuals to perform all the necessary tasks that make a successful community, but the rewards are potentially great.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (1)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: victoriapeckham/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Crowd funding photojournalism: how is it going?

Crowd funding is growing as a means to support creative projects. Back in January I discussed the theory and practice of crowd funding through a critique of Larry Towell’s ‘Crisis in Afghanistan’ project, followed by an update on my experience as a contributor. Here I want to provide a review of how crowd funding is currently working for photography and photojournalism, with an analysis of Kickstarter and a look at emphas.is.

There are a number of new crowd funding sites, such as WeFund in the UK, and Norwegian-based New Jelly, though they have few if any photography projects. In contrast, IndieGoGo, which was established in 2008, and says it has raised millions of dollars for over 20,000 campaigns, across 173 countries,” has more than 100 photography pitches. However, only four have been successful (see here, here, here and here), raising a total of US$15,000 between them.

Kickstarter by numbers

In photography circles it is Kickstarter that is best known. Founded in April 2009, contributors have stumped up more than $35 million in the last two years, and the money is coming in at the rate of $1 million/week. In a review this February, GigaOm detailed the figures:

  • more than 600,000 supporters come to the site
  • 5,000 projects have been funded and 2,500 are currently pitching
  • 250-300 proposals are submitted daily, though Kickstarter rejects 45% of these because they do not meet the requirements

I’ve done my own analysis of successful photography projects on Kickstarter between 17 June 2009 and 17 April 2011. These include much more than photojournalism. Here are the numbers:

  • 284 projects
  • $1,295,803 raised in total
  • Average of $4,563/project

The amounts funded range from $25 to $50,000, with the latter for a non-photographic part of Zana Briski’s “Reverence” project. Briski’s large total is very much an outlier, as the average/project above suggests. Of the 284 projects, there were only 19 that bid for and raised between $10–20,000, only three in the $20–30,000 bracket, another three in the $30–40,000 range, with Briski’s the single one beyond that.

Significantly, many of the best known photojournalism projects – by Ashley Gilbertson, Bruce Gilden, Krisanne Johnson, Gerd Ludwig (who raised twice what he asked for), and Larry Towell – are in the $10,000+ category of success.

This has encouraged the Magnum Emergency Fund to set up its own Kickstarter page. The MEF states that “funds raised will be used to cover actual costs and a per diem.” The latter is a controversial point. Are these platforms a way to make a living, or do they provide project expenses only? I’m firmly of the view that it should be expenses only. If by per diem the MEF means a personal fee from crowd funding, that would be unacceptable in my view. If by per diem they mean travel and subsistence costs, that would be legitimate. The doubt around this arises from the fact that most if not all of these pitches remain opaque as to their detailed budget. More transparent accounting is still needed to clarify issues like this.

The promise of emphas.is

Emphas.is is the crowd funding platform focused on visual journalism, and after launching in early March with a few understandable teething problems, it has just seen more than $40,000 raised to fully fund four of its nine opening projects. Of the remaining five, one should succeed, one has failed, and three are precariously placed. That’s not a bad start – though the platform will need to react faster once projects are funded. As I write, Matt Eich’s project has been fully funded for a few days yet remains in pole position as the site’s ‘featured project’.

Aside from its focus, Emphas.is differs from Kickstarter in two important respects. First, it has a board of reviewers that determine which pitches are accepted for the site. With a likely 55:45 funding success rate on the first batch, the review process is no guarantee of success (not that it was intended to be).

The second difference is that as a platform emphas.is both enables and encourages community engagement through its “Making of Zone” where backers get project updates. While this rewards contributors, it also helps the projects. As Tomas Van Houtryve, whose project was fully funded, notes:

Backers have started to pose relevant questions. As my project proposal has made its way through social networks and attracted support from strangers, I’ve made some really fruitful new connections. In addition to generous funding contributions, several individuals have stepped forward with key contacts and very precise and helpful advice. I have already managed to make stronger photos due to their input. This is a pleasant shift over the lone-wolf existence.

What can we conclude so far?

I think the performance of Kickstarter and the promise of emphas.is give us some pointers to crowd funding photojournalism:

  • Successful bids require careful preparation, and the likes of Frank Chimero have good advice on how to make an effective pitch.
  • While the macro-level figures are impressive, the most likely level of project funding is in the US$5,000 – $15,000 range
  • Achieving above $10,000 requires a previously established professional reputation and an active community of support to call on
  • Even with that community of potential support, generating support requires considerable planning and effort, pursuing connections, publicity and pledges. As Rene Clement told PDN recently, “Don’t think money will pour in. You have to work really hard for it.”

Above all else, turning crowd funding into a sustainable source of project revenue for photojournalism requires those how have recently been funded to deliver on their promises. If backers are engaged and see their support enable projects that would otherwise not have happened, then continuing assistance could be forthcoming.

Update 23 April/5 May

The British Journal of Photography (4 May 2011) has a good report on crowd funding with some UK examples.

They discuss three UK-based crowd funding sites I had not previously heard of: CrowdfunderSponsume and WeDidThis. Sponsume is interesting because it has a ’50 per cent’ rule – if pitches get backing for half the total they ask for they can keep the money pledged. Most other sites require the target to be reached in full before funding is made available.

The report also discusses two ‘DIY’ crowd funded projects – the well-known Sochi Project, and the less known appeal by Andy Sewell, in which he has raised over £6,000 for a book by pre-selling a limited edition version.

The most important observation in this BJP report comes towards the end:

With crowdfunding there is a notable correlation between the size of the project leader’s online social network and the amount of money raised – the bigger the network, the greater the chance of reaching the target.

Photo credit: Genista/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography politics

Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better

Larry Towell is one of the most accomplished contemporary photojournalists. Two weeks ago I became a backer of his “Crisis in Afghanistan” project, pledging $25 through Kickstarter. Today was the deadline for Larry to attract backers, and with 143 supporters contributing $14,007, the project exceeded its target and is up and running.

I became a backer because I want to see alternative visions of Afghanistan produced and Larry should be able to use his talents to produce something different. But I also pledged a small amount because I want to see how crowd funding via Kickstarter works from the perspective of a contributor. I’m going to follow Larry’s project through the various stages from now until completion and will periodically report on what, as a minor backer, I can see happening.

The proposal for “Crisis in Afghanistan” has been the subject of some controversy in the last month, with a series of posts on duckrabbit beginning here and here, some heated debate spilling over into the Kickstarter comments, some observations from A Photo Editor here and a critique of the concept of crowd funding from Daniel Cuthbert that involved an interesting exchange with Tomas van Houtryve, who offered his own take here. I’ll touch one some of the points raised in between the heat of these exchanges, but I want to stick to the big picture – what can we learn about crowd funding photojournalism from Larry’s pitch?

Understanding crowd funding in theory

Crowd funding is one manifestation of the new possibilities opened up by the disruptive power of the Internet. Because the barriers between producers and consumers have been breached, and because our capacity to create communities has been greatly enhanced, creators can now look in new places for supporters.

Of course, the need to look for new ways to fund projects has been necessitated by the same disruptive power of the Internet. While it is not the sole cause of the revolutions in the media economy, the Internet has hastened the decline of traditional modes of distribution. Instead of bemoaning the loss of long-past certainties, the challenge is how to leverage these new forces to finance new work. In an earlier post on making documentary possible, I outlined the various ways this was happening, and Kickstarter and Emphas.is were two of the examples discussed (see also Phil Coomes’ post on BBC Viewfinder).

Looking at the overall context, what drives the potential of these new approaches to funding is the way the web opens up possibilities to create communities around practices and projects, such that those communities then become sources of support including money. At the heart of this logic is the recognition that ‘free’ is now an essential part of getting paid (as I explain here, ‘free’ remains one of the most wilfully misunderstood concepts of the web 2.0 world, especially in photography circles).

Creating communities is an essential part of the concept of crowd funding. Communities come from engaging potential members, making them participants in the production and circulation of one’s project, rather than just viewing them as donors to call on from time to time. It can be understood as the search for “a thousand true fans” out of the many people who might like your work, and examples of how it works can be studied by reference to the music industry, as I’ve noted in my previous posts.

In this sense, I disagree with the way Daniel Cuthbert cast crowd funding per se as “a virtual begging bowl,” a fancy name for “handing out a cap to the world and begging for them to help you.” And I disagree with the anonymous ‘iamnotasuperstarphotographer’ – author of the duckrabbit posts that took aim at Larry Towell’s project – who repeats the related claim that crowd funding is in essence just “charity.”

Part of the debate around crowd funding comes from judging it as though crowd funding was a singular business model that could offer a sustainable means for financing the global practice of photojournalism. If anyone is claiming that they need to think again. The days of “a business model” that is universally applicable are long gone. Photographers wanting to work in the difficult area of story telling are going to have to – as so often in the past – put together a number of often in-direct revenue streams.

Crowd funding, even in its early Kickstarter forms, can be one of those revenue streams. It will never be the financial answer to a photographer’s every needs. But it is undeniably a source of money to enable new work. For it to be the most effective source, for both the creator and their backers, it needs to be founded on communities created through engagement with the project in question.

What about recent examples of crowd funding photojournalism?

Do the early examples of crowd funding follow the concept in theory? Not really. So although it is wrong to see crowd funding per se as nothing more than begging like a charity, Tomas van Houtryve is correct to say, after reviewing some recent proposals, that “photographers need to drop the ‘donate’ or ‘help save me’ vocabulary that sounds like it was lifted from the Red Cross home page, and adopt terms like patronage, participation and guarantee.” Refocusing on the issue of creating communities is the way to do that.

So what about Larry Towell’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project? Was it more about charity than creating a community?

Much of the projects success came from Larry’s status as a Magnum photographer making a bid backed by Magnum. Previous visits to Afghanistan have been funded by the Magnum Emergency Fund, money pledged from Kickstarter goes through the Magnum Foundation, and Magnum in Motion produced the supporting video appeal. Among the contributors are many famous photographic and media names, so ‘the community’ that rallied behind this project was one already in place and prepared to give. This was, then, more a case of donation than engagement.

Had the pitch for the “Crisis in Afghanistan” come from an unknown photographer I very much doubt if it would have succeeded. I know I certainly wouldn’t have contributed. Here’s why:

  • Support is requested for a fifth trip to Afghanistan since 2008, but there is little detail about the work done on the four previous trips. When were the trips undertaken? With whom and how? What topics were covered? How many images were produced? What is the size of the best edit from this work?
  • There is little detail about what remains to be done. According to the project statement “your support will enable me to finish shooting, and to interview landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.” Isn’t that a lot to do in “four to five weeks”? Are contacts in place or yet to be made? What is the narrative that these characters are part of?
  • There is no budget. All the statement says is “Afghanistan is a very expensive country in which to work, due to the need to hire professional fixers, interpreters, and drivers, and your support will help to cover these costs.” Why $12,000 then? How does that break down? What is the contingency if costs exceed this budget? What happens to the money raised over and above the original target?
  • There is little detail on the outcomes. Funding “will result in a book of photographs and text,” and the video flicks through a book dummy that looks pretty substantial. What is the text going to say? Who is the publisher? When will it be out? How will it be promoted so it’s part of the political debate?

If Larry didn’t have a great track record already would a proposal with these unanswered questions have garnered the funding? If a student came to me with a project proposal like Larry’s I would have sent them away to do much more work on both context and logistics. If you aren’t a famous photographer seeking support you need to prepare a much more professional pitch, and must, as David White argued, be more open and transparent about all the elements of their project. Daniel Cuthbert has outlined some of the elements of a professional pitch here.

The problem of narrative and politics in “Crisis in Afghanistan”

Above all else, the biggest problem with Larry’s project as presented is we don’t know what the story is, and what details there are about the political context are as unspecified or problematic as the logistics. I think that narrative is one of the key features of good photography, and its something lacking in Larry’s project proposal.

In the video Larry says he wants to offer an “alternative view of Afghanistan,” something “a little different.” Great. Different to what though? The specified list of Afghan victims has been much photographed so what is he going to offer that others haven’t? Being concerned with victims is a starting point, but is the project going to do more than put them on display? How is it going to avoid the romantic clichés that Stephen Mayes spoke about in his 2009 World Press Photo lecture (where he wryly observed that “I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House”). What is the narrative that takes us from the Soviets, to landmines, to heroin, to Obama’s dilemma – all points highlighted in the project video?

And then we come to the political framing of the project. The Kickstarter statement begins with the claim that “for 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.” As Asim Rafiqui pointed out, that is nonsense. “Civil war” presumes no outside intervention, which is obviously not true. In the project video Larry says “Afghan culture is about 5,000 years old and they have been fighting foreign interventions for most of that time.” While that recognises the interventions, the generalisation about thousands of years is equally nonsense, the sort of claim ‘we’ often make about foreign societies, flattening their history onto one miserable dimension. An alternative account of Afghanistan must go beyond that.

It is no longer acceptable for photojournalists to peddle unsupported observations about world issues they want to picture. If you want to produce a book that is part of the contemporary debate over Afghanistan, you have to have some political nouse. That depends on the hard graft of research and analysis, yet, as Ciara Leeming recently observed, too many photographers have forgotten the ‘journalism’ part of their story telling brief. I don’t know what research Larry has done or plans to do, and I can’t tell what his sources are, because the pitch didn’t specify these vital elements. Any professional bid for a reportage project must be based on good research and name the sources of its evidence.

The need to engage

Transparency, openness and engagement are among the essential ways of operating in the web 2.0 world. One controversy over Larry’s Afghanistan project kicked off when Larry’s brusque handling of a potential contributor’s important questions – similar to the ones I have asked above about narrative and politics – were highlighted for “for transparency lovers everywhere.” (I have to note the irony of someone who posts under an anonymous tag, and refuses to make any details about themselves public, calling out a publicly known figure for being opaque. I also have to disclose that I have disagreed regularly with this anonymous poster when he/she has submitted comments to my site).

Although the debate then went off the rails, Larry’s response was poor. David Allen Harvey defended Larry’s “awkwardness” with questions by claiming he “is totally averse to interviews, blogs, all of these things.” If that is the case, then he was a poor candidate for crowd funding, because using social media tools to communicate with supporters so they can participate in the project is essential to making this approach work. Sadly, as Tomas van Houtryve’s assessment of recent projects shows other photographers also fail to make engagement on on-going priority.

Crowd funding offers great potential as one amongst many sources of revenue for photojournalists, but it is not designed to be the solution for a sustainable income. It will be interesting to watch Emphas.is – which has a different structure – when it joins Kickstarter as a platform, along with others like the UK-based WeFund.

To succeed crowd funding needs to be meaningfully connected to communities around a photographer’s practice, and that means a new way of working for many. I will be putting a link to this post on Larry’s Facebook page in the hope of engaging him on some of these issues. I genuinely hope he can produce an effective new project with an alternative vision. In the meantime, I am looking forward to my post card from Larry thanking me for my financial contribution.

 

Want to know more? Webinar on Emphas.is and crowd funding:

UPDATE 13 APRIL 2010: Tomas van Hotryve participated in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa (the CEO of Emphas.is) and Paul Lowe (Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication), on Tuesday February 1, 2011. A recording of this OPEN-i session can be found on Vimeo.