Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Web 2.0 Is A Headache All Its Own

Remaining market relevant in this new Web 2.0 world is nigh impossible without autism-like tolerance of mundane repetition and obsessive site checking.

Allow me to elaborate.

I come from a much simpler experience of the Web. A simpler time. Before the flood of content over-saturation mania and DIY cookie-cutter media sharing constructs. The idea of the "social network" didn't exist yet, and all interaction over such forums as news boards and chat rooms and discussion boards were much more personal and relevant because the user was not rewarded for talking to himself and patting his own back, he was rewarded for strong talking points and relevant contributions to the discussion topics of his board(s) of choice. The internet was a thing for intellectual people. Phenomena like the "troll" didn't exist yet. Categories were only beginning to be established to block certain user personalities into for purposes little more than of witty humor.

The most creative and progressive among the early internet crowd took the digital presentation of their art to a level of art as well. It wasn't ever enough for artists to simply pay someone else for a standardized set of web code to generate a site. The artist took pride in his creativity and created his own page from scratch, fine tuning every line of HTML to produce a visual assemblage that elevated his work by proxy. For the young creatives, the domain was never important - hosts like Angelfire and Geocities existed expressly to offer those eager to pioneer digital media sharing easy access to server space and bandwidth. Genuinely a beautiful thing, and the empty husks of these antique web pages still exist today in the surreal muck of dead server space.

Enter the world of Web 2.0 and it's incredibly difficult to specifically trace when the web went from content and creativity rich to ADHD and media binging hyper saturation. It's a world I find very difficult for anyone to ever dream to achieve any measure of market permanence in.

I preface this entry with early WWW musings as a contrast to the complexity of the modern web and what I am currently engaged in to promote a brand and achieve even a glimmering of relevance to the transient interest nature of the web. And the photos serve as my private expressions to that sugar-juiced toddler, the "crowd", the thing we as budding content creators absolutely must grab the attention of and bend into pretzels to keep a firm hold on.

This year was met with a revelation that achieving my goal of breaking into the professional photography industry would require a concerted effort to develop a stand-out brand, organize that brand into a marketable service and then promote the living hell out of it. The brand itself was solid and the service spoke for itself, but the effort involved with promotion was not only daunting up front but an ongoing harbinger of mental fatigue. I made my first mistake of trying to push the brand on the whole "crowd", and the lesson learned was to unhinge from that crippling load and target precise crowds most desired and most appealed to by the service and brand. Resulting was a Facebook page to promote specific points of interest to the Kneejerk Imagery brand, heavy engagement with the Flickr community to distribute content as a sort of sample of my service and this blog to create a much more personal forum by which I could speak frankly about the business and keep it rather humanized (maybe more of a personal need than a business one). This trio has worked well for me, and with an established consumer base sampling my content via Flickr, keeping track of my business interests and direction over Facebook and keeping track of me through Blogger I've managed to book paid photography work at a rate I never thought I would achieve so quickly, which begot other work through good rapport.

I kept up with the trend by keeping up with the process, the system for success I had stumbled upon. February of 2012 saw the initial rapid incline and by June it had peaked with my first commercial shoot. With that rate of success I felt absolutely unstoppable, like I was going to ride the lightning into a complete career shift, abandon my mundane 9-to-5 and actually realize that long standing dream of working exclusively as a professional photographer. Now... not so much.

Web based content, especially memes and similar such pop culture fads, have ridiculously high turnover. The social relevance of media has a half-life of maybe a few days before being replaced by the next adorable cat photo, Youtube idiot or Troll Face meme. This is an accepted facet of web content, that we collectively pile onto a viral piece of media, consume it like ants to bones and discard it. Much as I understood this concept a mental disconnect slipped in somewhere to lead me to believing such voracious consumption of media and content did not also apply to the consumption of brands and one's relevance to even a targeted audience. And now I am paying for it. I skipped a beat on maintaining the change, and now my market relevance seems to be waning just 6 months after it surged so beautifully.

Every statistic tracker tells the same story. Over the course of July 2012 my "popularity" faded just as quickly as it had surged. And this speaks in the income hit I took in July as it was also my driest month in regards to photo shoots. In June I was booked for 3 to 4 jobs every weekend, a healthy supplemental income. I took real estate jobs, corporate head shots, commercial shoots... business was bustling and the customers I had were more than impressed with my provided cost value. But in July it all disappeared. I received no phone calls or e-mails to book shoots. Out of curiosity, I e-stalked a few of my former clients, initially with the intent to then contact them about future servicing needs, but instead left dumbfounded and devastated by what I'd found. Their service needs were still there, they were simply getting content from someone else. As cheap and as good a service I provided, they still managed to find someone willing to go cheaper.

Thus the almighty dollar won out.

This isn't a problem I've not run into before. In my earliest days pursuing the professional photography dream I spent a good amount of time in the small-time wedding photography business. It was the same story there - as cheap and as good as my results, there were always competitors who may not have provided particularly good quality images but they were cheap enough to trump my influence. In this instance, however, the issue isn't simply a matter of being undercut. All of my working relationships were developed online, through my branding, through my self-promotion and marketing tenacity. But none of that was working anymore. I'd become stale to the crowd. My relevance to my target audience had gone the way of Double Rainbow Guy and Tay Zonday. The only option left... find a new crowd. Target the next audience.

With my established formula now a bittersweet mushy strawberry that sat in the fridge too long, I'm branching out to other media sharing sites and networks I could use as promotional carriers. And you know what? It's a pain in the ass.

Of course we are all resistant to change, it is a common trait among nearly all human beings. When something works we are reticent to change no matter how much evidence is shown stating it doesn't work anymore. That's not my issue right now. I understand a change needs to happen and much as I will miss being able to ride the wave of the process I'd established I'm sure I'll settle into a new one with my new market approach. My complaint is that the next logical step in the infinite war of maintaining market permanence is to indulge the web in its fickle, consumerist habits and hyper saturate my exposure. And it will be the biggest sink of wasted time, all for sake of keeping the jobs coming and keeping some semblance of a dream I'm starting to dread alive.

Let's go through the laundry list:

First, I'll spend upwards of 30 minutes to an hour editing an image. I will then upload this image to Flickr, as complete as possible with numerous tags, a witty description, add it to dozens of groups to push its web presence through the roof, okay, good. Now, upload the same image to 500px, tag it some more, fill out the gear-snob portion, lay on a thicker, more detailed description, done.

Oh wait, that's not right, I need to troll through legions of amazing images by other artists and comment and favorite on them too, else I don't get noticed at all on 500px and I lose my photo presence in groups on Flickr. Rinse and repeat this process at least a dozen more times because the relevance of a single photo on the web is nearly non-existent if not followed up by a series of somehow related images. Now share some of the images on Tumblr, adding witty captions as necessary to sound moody, brooding or otherwise quirky and aloof. May as well post links to those images on Flickr, 500px and Tumblr on Facebook too, since everyone and their mothers use Facebook. Tell you what, though, better make some blog entries about the whole process being such a pain, too, and make sure to link in some of those photos uploaded earlier. Now go to DPReview and 43Rumors and UER and all the discussion groups on every photo site imaginable and post-whore (with relevant, but redundant information since no matter how many times you tell someone what ISO, aperture and shutter speed do there's always a long line behind that guy waiting to ask the same question). Might as well milk DeviantArt's waning market relevance for what it's worth and cross-post there, too. Maybe on FA, too, just to culture shock the site's target genre. Whoops, forgot to update that Model Mayhem profile with the new portraits I just uploaded, better do that too. Oh man, gotta reply to all the flooding e-mails about comments on those forums and Flickr images. Uh oh, I've had the second portrait open in Photoshop 3 hours now and haven't had the time to finish it and it's already midnight.

It's obnoxious. Absolutely obnoxious. Web 2.0 is a reward system for lab monkeys. In a perfect world, I would be able to process my images, upload them with a single client to "the cloud" and have them shared across all the image sharing sites I took interest in making accounts for. That and maybe a page to promote the business for the business' sake and a blog to rattle off fragments of my mental haze. Instead, I'm forced into this ridiculous rinse-and-repeat process, going through the motions as insincerely as warranted just to merit the attention necessary to reach the key players I'm targeting to book work and sustain my business. It slows me down. I cannot produce content nearly as quickly as I did under the inherent pressure involved with hyper saturation. Ultimately, this depresses me. I would rather process and share photographs for the sake of processing and sharing photographs, but to make it a sustainable business it is requiring the kind of mindless effort that is draining my motivation to continue the pursuit. Depressing.

The Web 2.0 marketing treadmill is putting a major point into perspective. I cannot do this all on my own. There is not nearly enough time for one person to engage in and complete all of the tasks necessary to self-promote in this fashion while simultaneously working a traditional day job. Clearly, quitting work just to promote a business model that barely brings in my current "traditional" income is out of the question. Best as I can perceive, the only reliable solution would be to hire outside help. An "agent", so to speak. Someone whose full-time job is my marketing and brand recognition. Someone with the network to capitalize upon.

But I don't quite think I'm at the point of hiring an agent yet either, so... temporarily SOL.

While the job pool has dried up significantly, at least some are still coming in. I don't foresee any measure of reinvention making a lasting difference at my current stage of professional development, it's down to a simple matter of business model adjustment, perhaps even a change in target audience. Before, my efforts in over saturating the web with my brand was a brute force endeavor to strong arm into the industry. It was successful, for sure, but now that I am in the industry, perhaps continuing to saturate is the wrong approach. Instead of carpet bombing the web, I would see much greater benefit from precision striking the fields where I've already gotten work. Adjusting the brand to be less strikingly fringe and instead more refined, clear cut and professional. Less image site spamming and more corporate client business card trades.

Hmm... perhaps not so SOL after all.