Flickr, Caterina Fake, Anil Dash, Wealth and Fame

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.

Update 2: Om Malik chimes in here. Matthew Gertner adds his two cents here. Scoble adds his thoughts as well.

9 Replies to “Flickr, Caterina Fake, Anil Dash, Wealth and Fame”

  1. “Attention by other people is the most irresistible of drugs.”

    That depends on the definition of attention.

    I’ve been giving this whole topic a lot of thought lately. It started with me not finding anything compelling behind the effort required for “social bookmarking”. I have a lot of ideas about all of it that I just cannot find the time to piece together into an article. I have a job which doesn’t involve pontificating in my blog or in comments like this.

    Attention in the form of article hits is irrelevant to me. What IS relevant to me, is what you’ve hit on Thomas. Interaction with people, even if it’s critical interaction. Nobody wants to talk to a wall. Nobody wants to expend energy and time to offer something to the internet community, time and time again, only to be met with silence. Well, unless the person is just grossly self-important and likes hearing him/herself talk.

    Caterina’s words are a bit much for me to swallow as written. Maybe I’m reading too much into her dramatic style of writing in this case. I’m not big on foof.

    I have been a part of the internet every single day since 1992.

    I configured and ran NCSA httpd 0.x in 1993. I wrote my first internet-visible HTML 2 days after that.

    I contributed a crappy terminal based user interface to the ‘archie’ command sometime in 1994.

    I wrote an internal memo to the non-profit I was working for, in 1994, about this company being formed “Netscape Communications” – specifically how their idea for encrypted web transactions was going to cause commerce over the internet to explode and that it was something we could make use of for quite a few of our services. It was ignored. Oh well.

    I have taken *my* time to submit a large amount of bug reports to open-source projects from 1992 to today. I was downloading (and submitting bug reports for) Linux 0.97 onto 30 floppy disks in 1992.

    I’m the first person to take *my* time out to let people know of dead links or typos on their websites. By the way, your link to Caterina’s website on the right sidebar has a spurious ‘h’ at the front.

    I have written and released no less than 4 fairly unique complete applications to the open source world. One of these, in 1996, was 99% IDENTICAL to what we now know as Textile/Markdown. Oh well.

    I’ve spent truly countless hours offering my different perspective to conversations between people with open minds (with no ego-driven motive).

    I’ve contributed articles recently to several productivity-related sites.

    I could just keep going on and on. Really.

    The only thing short of money that makes any of it worthwhile is the RARE acknowledgment I receive in the form of correspondence from people.

    “Hey, I’m still using your XYZ from 1996 and it hasn’t flinched. Thanks.”

    “I read your article and [insert thoughtful critical or agreeable reply here]”

    The problem is, the majority of the internet’s travelers these days a) take it all for granted and b) are too strapped for time due to what they’ve made their life to stop for a second and acknowledge something or share their thoughts. That sounds negative, but I don’t feel negatively about it. It is what it is. It’s an atmosphere. It’s what I happen to see as the reality for the most part.

    Now, I realize I’m sort of all over the road here in this long comment.

    I guess my point is this: Ignoring the online business aspect of it, the internet *IS* people. Every amount of success found in sites like Flickr *IS PEOPLE*. It will be absolutely fascinating to watch over the next year as more and more “Web 2.0″*GAG* companies try to form business models based on the idea that people have gross amounts of time and motivation to contribute content to sites where their contributions aren’t acknowledged in any SIGNIFICANT way. I think this notion that people are just chomping at the bit to piddle away several hours a week for the reward of “I did that and it’s on the net!” … along with N million other people in the crowd, is doomed to failure. It gets OLD and people wake up.

    Let me ask you this. When’s the last time you truly paid any attention to the name of a book reviewer on, even if they were a top reviewer? I sure as hell don’t. I’m sure that’ll be a strong point on their resume toward a writing job in a few years and it’ll all work out…

  2. Hey Jeff, (Jeff Blaine is the anonymous poster of the message above). Thanks for your insightful response. I think all of us need to work harder to acknowledge the hard work and selfless efforts when we see them on the internet. There just may be something to the karma of it all in the end.

    Personally in the case of Flickr I think that even more than other online communities people are very good about leaving feedback and comments, faving photos, etc. It is one of the stronger more interactive online efforts I’ve seen.

  3. 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.
    But how would the define who gets on the A-list?
    They could do it with the # of images views, # of friends, and maybe # of comments. But those could all be easily faked.
    They could have it subjective by having a panel that votes for the a-list. But once again thats not easy.

  4. A semi-related question:

    I’ve been following blogging for a while and have just recently begun my own.

    What are your thoughts about blogging someone else’s public photos from Flickr? Is it necessary to ask permission everytime?

    Up until now, my answer was no with the rationale that if people didn’t want their pictures shared, they wouldn’t make them public. What do you think?

    And what about in the case of blogging personally but contributing to a commerical media outlet?

    Thanks for the very thought provoking post. The first time I encountered these issues was reading the writings of Eric Raymond where he explains how a gift culture makes open source software development work so effectively.

  5. There are a range of motivations at work – and human motivation is a complex topic.

    For me the payoff @ flickr (or my blog and website for that matter) is simply a way to share my work faster and more broadly that ever possible before.

    Competing for attention not for direct monetary reward – but to learn from others and to teach others. The learning can be converted $$ as my skills improve and to the extent I help others, as in any network, they help me by offering not only encouragement, but a stream of tasty problems to solve which in turn directs my learing (ultimately) in economically useful ways.

    Of course there is the spam, those only out to maximized their “interestingness”, and crazies – but that aside the web and _purposeful_ social networking in particular are the basis for the next human renaissance.

    Thomas – I have seen your work on Flickr and admire it. Keep shooting!


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