By now you've probably heard the story of Essena O'Neill, who made headlines after very publicly 'outing' herself as having been paid for numerous posts to Instagram, Youtube and other sites. After building up a base of over half a million followers on Instagram – a dream for many Instagrammers young and old – she has now left it all behind.
Essena's story touched a nerve for many. Even for those of us who are much older, much less attractive and much less likely to attract the attention of potential sponsors, there is something alluring about being 'liked' on social media. I count my own Instagram following in the tens rather than thousands, but I still enjoy it when a picture I post gets noticed. I also can't help but feel a little miffed when another photographer posts what I think is a mediocre image and it is 'liked' by hundreds or even thousands.
The problem with all this is that we (by which I mean those of us who have a blog or post to social media sites) have started to equate the level of attention we manage to garner as an end in itself. When – as Essena obviously worked out – it simply isn't.
The thing is that a 'like' on Facebook or a 'retweet' on Twitter or any other signal of online acknowledgment is really worth about as much as the effort required to create it, which is to say, pretty much nothing. This is a problem that extends to social issues, in which our culture now seems to be that if there is a terrorist attack in Paris, overlaying our profile image with the French flag is somehow going to have a real-life impact.
Real life. Now there's a thought.
What if all the creative energy that is used by writers, artists, photographers, models, musicians and anyone else – both amateur and professional – was used to create real, physical books and paintings and prints and performances ... right here in the real world? What if success were measured by admirers having to make the effort to turn up, or to hand over their cash?
Of course, I know it's not as simple as that. All of that stuff happened long before the internet came along, and it still happens today. And none of it guarantees that quality will always be noticed or that mediocrity will succeed where it shouldn't.
But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't remind ourselves that the 'real' is the only real thing. It was the motivation behind the photographic calendar I've created this year (sorry, blatant product placement) – a decision reinforced by the feedback I've been getting as a result. Believe me, a 'like' in the real world feels a whole lot more warm and fuzzy than its online equivalent.
If you've got a creative side, don't waste it seeking the ephemeral acknowledgement of the virtual community. Make it real, get it out there and appreciate some real-world recognition.