This will be a long post. I apologise to those who have subscribed via email and thus can’t dodge it.
I studied a degree in photography at Sheffield Hallam University during what I feel was the real watershed moment for online social networking within the photographic community. Facebook was finally an established force, and sites like Bebo and Myspace were beginning to wane as more full-contact sites like WordPress and, in second year, Twitter, came more to the forefront as a way for artists to connect with both their prospective audience and other practitioners. I had been using WordPress for a while by then, as had many much more prominent people, but it was during this period (2007-2010) that I think it finally began to be viewed more as part of the photographer’s toolkit, and shrugged off the image of something only used for fun. Twitter was almost unknown when I started my studies, but quickly rose to be a dominant force.
During my degree, I focused my academic (as opposed to practical) study on two main threads:
1. The inherent voyeurism of photography, which has always been an issue central to how I view photography as a ‘job’ and which, as I find myself heading more into humanitarian work, I find surfacing more and more. More on this another time, it’s a thorny subject.
2. The rise of social media and its impact not just on networking but also on the news cycle, on the blurring of the line between work and socialising, and on how we photographers regard ourselves. It’s this point I want to bang on about tonight.
I am not a natural technophile. I can use and often understand most gadgets and programs fairly quickly, but I’m not wholly at ease with them unless they perform a simple task and perform it well. I learned photography through bulk-loaded 35mm film and a darkroom set up in an old toilet block, and the ‘job’ of photography is no longer about that. I was prepared for a world which was already a receding memory, but because I had been prepared I fought against the changes and chose my evidence to fit my argument.
One of the most important and compelling arguments I could find against social media (and in particular Twitter) was that it was simply too shallow. This remains a diminished hang-up for me because I often find myself thinking “does anybody actually read this?”. But there was a healthy crop of articles in late 2009 and early 2010, asking that very question. One which sticks in my mind had the title “Twittering or Twattering?”. The basic premise was that an avalanche of information is as good as no information at all, and that most people will use any social networking tool as a way of simply unloading.
This argument chimed with me because I had written a blog (the thankfully now-defunct Eloquencias) for several years and used it for just that. It was childish, daft, and only read regularly, I suspect (and hope), by my mother. My reasoning for supporting the shallowness argument was “well, that’s my experience of blogging”. It’s a website where you talk about you, about your life, and about how this morning’s coffee was. Narcissism masquerading as work.
I was particularly opposed to Twitter too, and felt it had really honed the avalanche of information to a fine point. You log on (or, if you’re subscribed by mobile, never log off) and are confronted by wave after wave of ‘stuff’- links, thoughts, pictures, ramblings, plugs, appeals and a million other things. My father is a print journalist and I grew up reading a newspaper at breakfast, and consequentially I was of the view that reasoned analysis would always outweigh spur-of-the-moment soundbites.
My views (which I now recognise as hopelessly outdated) were much derided, and rightly so, by my friend Tim Logan. (I must quickly plug Tim’s work- a great fine art photographer, and a man who never begrudges me his spare room and a terrible whiskey bender: http://timothylogan.co.uk/) He had jumped on the Twitter bandwagon back when it was more of a small pickup truck, and had begun very quickly to use it to great effect. He kept telling me join Twitter and I kept refusing, retreating behind arguments I had heard spouted by people whose views were either as idealistic and stick-in-the-mud as mine, or based on negative experiences.
But finally, after nearly six months of pressure, I relented. I made an account and followed four or five people, and decided it was a waste of time because they never said anything interesting. I then ignored it again for several months, telling myself “See? You were right! Lets blog about it!”. But there came a big shift for me over the new year, when I went to Poland to visit my girlfriend. I had work lined up but it fell through at the last minute and I was left with three weeks during which Anna was working hard and I was left to my own devices.
Determined not to waste what was the first focused free time I had had in years, I set about teaching myself some new skills. I played with toning in Photoshop, re-learned my Lightroom workflow and decided I would learn to understand (or at least use) Twitter. So I logged back into my account on Twitter, updated my profile and started to follow people. I clicked ‘Follow’ first on names I recognized, then on people they retweeted, then on people Twitter recommended for me. I began to get updates which varied from the humorous to the fascinating, and checking it a couple of times a day began to be enjoyable. People were not just telling me how their lamb curry was, they were also pointing me to new projects, good websites and interesting competitions.
I now follow nearly 500 people on Twitter. Some are there for pure amusement, some for news, but most are people who I respect, look up to and want to listen to. These are people I would readily pay to hear speak, and instead here they are doing it in bitesize chunks for my enjoyment. It is a cascade of information and I can’t read most of what is said, but if something is eyecatching I can follow it up and thus see something I would otherwise have missed. I have also had the opportunity to ask these people questions and, in the case of some, such as Ben Lowy, even been lucky enough to get their feedback.
As for breaking news, Twitter is normally reliable, if brief. The strength it has is in its guerilla style- anybody anywhere can post an update. This has led to better coverage of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, though the terrible tales coming from Cote D’Ivoire seem too often to fall through the cracks. It remains in this sense an effective barometer of public opinion, but has also helped to crack open stories like the Trafigura scandal. What’s more, many of the updates are from seasoned journalists on the ground, which makes them all the more fascinating.
And this is truly the value of Twitter for a young freelancer. There is no substitute for good, reasoned debate. There is still no substitute for making actual friends with people you admire. But Twitter offers a chance to listen to the crumbs they drop, and often these crumbs are links to pages where you can find good, reasoned debate. It’s like sitting at a table in a pub with a notepad whilst a group of your heroes sits at the next table and swaps stories and argues loudly. I learn things from it, and though I don’t do much tweeting I enjoy just listening. In the past month I have met two extremely interesting and inspiring media pros, and both times I came away wishing I had just shut up and listened. Incidentally neither is on Twitter.
So in summary, Tim was right.
(While writing this I learned from Twitter that Anthony Shadid, Tyler Hicks, Stephen Farrell and Lynsey Addario (all working for the New York Times) are missing in Libya. It is people like these who make journalism such an inspiring career, and I hope they return swiftly and safely.)