Economies of Interest: Caterina Fake, yes the very famous Caterina Fake from Flickr, is out with a post on interestingness in the blogosphere in response to a post from Anil Dash that kind of questions the fairness of the lack of monetary compensation for artists on Flickr.
From Anil: “But interestingness in Flickr doesn’t pay. At least not yet. Non-pro users are seeing ads around my photos, but Yahoo’s not sharing the wealth with me, even though I’ve created a draw. Flickr’s plenty open, they’re doing the right thing by any measure of the web as we saw it a year ago, or two years ago. Today, though, openness around value exchange is as important as openness around data exchange.”
“So does that mean the right answer for cashing in on my interesting work is to ask for a penny from Yahoo? Or does it mean I should just make an automated script that grabs my interesting photos and posts them to my TypePad blog so that I can put ads on them?”
Caterina comes back with the response that “value” is not always monetary. More significantly, although Flickr doesn’t have a way to compensate their “interesting” artists at present, Caterina suggests that the attention that the most interesting on Flickr receive is in itself some abstract kind of psychic compensation.
“Attention by other people is the most irresistible of drugs. To receive it outshines receiving any other kind of income. This is why glory surpasses power and why wealth is overshadowed by prominence.”
“What is more pleasant than the benevolent notice other people take of us, what is more agreeable than their compassionate empathy? What inspires us more than addressing ears flushed with excitement, what captivates us more than exercising our own power of fascination? What is more thrilling than an entire hall of expectant eyes, what more overwhelming than applause surging up to us?”
An oversimplified analysis of the exchange between Anil and Caterina would suggest that Caterina is essentially addressing the age old question of what is more significant, wealth or fame. Well, of course the cynic would reply, sure, easy for Caterina to say, she earned how much for selling Flickr to Yahoo!? (oh yeah it’s still undisclosed and we won’t even get into the rumor numbers).
But the truth of the matter is that much of the internet is yet to be figured out and there is in fact potentially more than “psychic value” to the “attention” gained by artists and writers. Certainly internet advertising is one way that some make a buck today. Others, like Robert Scoble, have had their “attention” enhance their professional marketability. And then you have those like John Battelle who are building significant online marketing networks as in his most recent efforts with FM Publishing. And there will be potentially many more ways in the future that we haven’t even thought through yet — but being “internet famous” and having a certain following through the power of things like blogging or Flickr will certainly not hurt in the monetization schemes that unfold in the future.
Still, Caterina ultimately hits on the most important point of all, “the culture of generosity is the very backbone of the internet. It is why I have always loved it. When I discovered, in 1994, that there was no web page about Vladimir Nabokov on the internet, I immediately built one, cutting and pasting HTML from another web site, taking up residence on a friend’s server. Thousands of people did the same, about herpetology, or collector lunchboxes. Later, when that server went away, I moved the site to Geocities. But never once did it occur to me that I should get paid.” Indeed.
Although monetization of one’s internet “efforts” may in fact take place (here and now through advertising or in the future through other mechanisms), it is this spirit of doing what you do because of deep felt love and passion that is the most powerful.
I have a photo stream up on Flickr at present. It is reasonably popular at this point. I didn’t even pay for it actually, my Flickr “Pro” account was generously gifted to me by someone unknown to me who admired my work, RoudyBob. But my reasons for posting my photos both on Flickr and on my blog are not for economic gain. My reasons for posting my photos (each day religiously) on Flickr are because I have a love affair with both photography and the community that a place like Flickr is uniquely able to offer at present. I suppose I am an artist of sorts and I did actually sell a photograph once for $500, but this money is not significant to me. What is significant to me is that I receive an email from a student in Turkey who has written his first novel and admires one of my photographs and asks for my permission to use it for the cover of his book, or that another Flickr user says that he admires my work so and asks if it’s alright for him to make a painting of one of my photographs, or to stumble upon the excellent site, the Subway Chronicles (another ad free effort of passion) and be asked if it would be alright for them to use one of my subway photos on their site, or to be approached by someone from the Electronic Frontier Foundation who informs me that as my photos are creative commons licensed he is going to use one of them in one of their campaigns, or to have folks like Om Malik and Steve Rubel whose writing I greatly admire tell me that they use my photographs for their desktop wallpaper. The give and take of this human interaction is so much more valuable to me as an artist and photographer.
I make no money from my blog or Flickrstream today. This does not mean that I won’t somehow make money with these in the future. There are potentially any number of ways to monetize a blog as well as my photographs in the future. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll make the jump from finance (which I work in today and hate) to tech or put ads on my blog or join some entrepreneurial online venture. But right now these things are less important to me. What’s important to me now is that the web is a warm place to interact with others and I place a great deal of personal value on the community that a site like Flickr has made available to me. I’ve met some really cool people through blogging and Flickr and that in and of itself is reward enough for me at the moment.
So I would side with Caterina on this one over Anil. I certainly feel that I’m getting every bit of a fair deal from Flickr. And while the cynic may say that in the end the economics of a situation will always win out, I do think there is something inherently beautiful about doing something simply for the love and passion of doing it.
Update: Alexander Grunder of eHomeUpgrade adds: “If Flickr was smart, they would offer A-list members who create popular photo pools and contribute to them on a regular basis a free “Pro” account. Just my $0.02.” Agreed. There is little to no cost for them to do this. They should take this further though and develop an inexpensively run Rewards type program. I’ve posted on this before. This is just plain smart marketing.
Also one other point to make is that Flickr does in fact provide an indirect form of compensation to their photographers through the cost of bandwidth. Earlier this year I did a photo essay on Disneyland. Boing Boing picked it up and very sho
rtly the traffic (I was only allowed 10gigs a day bandwidth with my former provider) caused my hosting provider to shut my site down for 24 hours. I was able to email Cory over at Boing Boing and have him redirect people to my flickr set of the same photos. That was nice.