The Use of Photography in Social Media

Would Marshall McLuhan Say the MEDIA is the Message?

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Animated illustration © 2018 The Estate of Corinne & Marshall McLuhan. / Text ©2018 Tom Zimberoff

ne can only surmise what Marshall McLuhan might have had to say about social media. I wish he could tell us if he’d make the same distinction I do between the words media and medium, with regard for how they’re used today contextually. I’m not trying to split hairs. I’m not the philosopher. But I detect a difference.

McLuhan is, of course, the man who famously said, “The medium is the message.” He also said, “[the medium] is not neutral,” and, “if you don’t understand the medium, you don’t understand the message.” He implied that the means of delivering information changes our collective experience of the information itself. It’s my own opinion that because media is the dictionary plural of medium, and because language usage changes over time, we’ve gotten stuck in a morass of misuse and misunderstanding, failing to recognize a modern distinction in the way we use media and medium.

I think I understood what McLuhan meant back in the day. I think many more people did, including Woody Allen in his 1977 movie “Annie Hall.” 😉

If you watch the clip (linked above), you’ll find it hard to stop laughing whether you’ve seen it before or not. But imagine that the people queued up to get into a movie theater are a metaphor for social media (the line itself), and Woody Allen is your surrogate.

seems to me that, in modern parlance, medium represents any given means of commercial distribution, from the Internet to a UPS truck. On the other hand, media, the way we use that word, represents the institution of journalism.

First, it was “the press.” It became “the news media” because, I suppose, the printing press has taken a back seat to online distribution. Next it was “the media” because, well, it’s not just news anymore. Is it? I believe much of what is passed off for news, online, really isn’t. Ultimately, one might even say a semantic journey of abbreviation dropped the article to become just “media.” I’m no more linguist than philosopher, except as a dabbler; so I’m sure I’m leaving something out. Nevertheless, all kinds of “content creators,” journalists included, collectively and individually use myriad mediums (an equally legitimate plural for medium) to distribute their work. This has led to confusion in social debate about the nature of what we call social media.

Mediums (not to exclude the crystal ball variety) are commercial distribution platforms, including websites, radio and television, printed newspapers, etc. But the concept of “the media” is specifically associated with the producers of editorial content. Botched up debate stems at least in part from confusing journalism with the many different ways there are to consume it.

You Thought I’d Never Get to the Photography Part

onflation of the words imagery and photography leads to similar confusion when discussing their respective uses on social media. So, if it’s not too presumptuous, I’ve coined a word to clarify: pixting.

Pixting is to photography as texting is to literature. It means engaging in perfunctory conversation by utilizing pictures instead of words across a digital medium. It’s visual smalltalk; the appropriation of a one hundred and seventy-year-old technology called photography for visual chitchat.

I don’t mean to imply there’re no photographs on social media. 🙄 Duh! Of course there are. But there’s another dynamic at play.

On Instagram, for example, the vast preponderance of “content creators” who enjoy illustrating what they ate for breakfast to a close circle of friends, are not photographers per se; although, of course, photography is the technology they use to produce their pixts. Some of them have become what we call “influencers.”

I haven’t seen influencer pop up as a job description on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website — not yet anyway — but, for some, being an influencer is not only a way of life but a way to earn a living. So let me try to clear up another misconception.

Influencers on social media play no role whatsoever in the Commercial Photo marketplace. They’re not paid to provide photographic services but for how many “followers” they attract, given their respective talents and fifteen minutes of fame. They play, at best, a tangential role in the advertising industry. Some real celebrities generate revenue as influencers too: athletes, musicians, movies stars. Many get paid to tacitly display or deliberately pose with name-brand products, thus making commercial endorsements.

This kind of “product placement,” somethimes in conjunction with “native advertising,” is a successful way to generate revenue. But it gets more interesting.

Influencers with large followings are often supported by advertising agencies that employ ringers to shoot pictures that only look like user-generated content. But it is not UGC. Many such photos are created by professionals, hired for their ability to reliably produce an amateur-looking aesthetic. Attribution of the resulting pictures is, shall we say, disingenuous. My point is that social media is just another medium for advertisers who pay pro photographers to create content the traditional way.

I’m not trying to disparage any porridge paparazzi, but millions of social media snapshots and images cannot accomplish what one commercial photographer can do, pretending to be an influencer, to get you to buy a brand of breakfast cereal.

Do commercial photographers (i.e., professionals) use social media for their own purposes? Certainly, but it’s usually as a — ahem!— medium for self-promotional material, to get the attention of clients who will pay them real money to shoot commissioned photo assignments — i.e., jobs, including for publication on social media mediums. But heaven help the photographer who posts pictures on social media without reading the kleptomanical terms & conditions imposed by the social media companies themselves! You could inadvertently relinquish your copyrights. Whoops!

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ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Fate follows the path of least resistance. Success follows the path of maximum persistence.

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