Series Introduction: Photographer, photo book author, and once and future photography blogger Kirk Tuck will be writing a regular column on TOP that will appear on the last Saturday of every month. That's the plan, at any rate. Welcome, Kirk. —Mike
What I learned when I stopped writing a photo blog
By Kirk Tuck
I’m a slow learner. I started writing a blog about photography back in the early part of 2009 and I didn’t do the business school routine of "establishing metrics" or "laying out a concise framework of goals and concepts of monetization." I really started writing the blog because I was bored, felt isolated and got tired of reading so much really bad information about photography on the web. I thought it would be fun to write honest and sometimes self-deprecating but true articles about the fun and the folly of actually being a professional photographer.
After writing a few posts about the business or about inspiration I learned that it takes time to build an audience. Lots of time. But I also learned that you can accelerate the process by doing exactly what most readers say they do not want you to do. In the case of a photo blog the mantra of the typical reader is that they prefer articles of substance that feed their souls and help them to understand why photography seems so vital to their own lives. In reality, when I wrote articles about why I shoot in the streets or, why I like to do portraits without an audience in tow, the silence in the virtual reading room was startling; depressing. You could hear pins drop and I got the distinct impression that I could drop dumpsters full of cymbals and no one would hear.
But I mentioned above that you could accelerate the number of readers your blog garners with a secret technique. Give your readers what they say they don’t want to read. I started writing equipment reviews of the cameras, lenses and lights that I was interested in. Then the camera brand tribes would come out from their villages and go to war. Everyone had an opinion about the performance of the Olympus EPL2 and its relevance in the hierarchy of current gear. Volumes of vitriol were tossed like gasoline onto the "red dots" cover-up. The review of that seemingly benign camera is still the single most popular blog I have written to date. And every time a wave of brand "true believers" came washing up on to the Visual Science Lab shores a percentage of the wave liked what they read around the edges of the article that had originally drawn them and they stayed on and became loyal readers. And that’s how VLS finally found its momentum and its place on the web.
But as Mike and the one or two other good bloggers on the web will tell you, writing once a week won’t keep them coming back. Just like the coffee and newspaper I consumed this morning, readers want a routine. They want a morning ritual. And that ups the ante for the writer. You start looking around to try and find more relevant content to feed the machine. In my case I wrote every word and took every photograph. I was truly invested in the site and it came to consume as much of my time as my regular photo work. Why? Probably because I grew up with the idea that "If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well." The idea of cranking out something half-assed grated against generations of puritanical upbringing. Doing things halfway was antithetical to the way I learned to make images.
But there's a dark side to being a blogger. Especially in a field where everyone is an "expert" and most of your readers are in technical fields that require quantifiable measures. To many of the blog readers I seemed to be an anonymous corporation putting out content in exchange for eyeballs. And people seem to have no filters when they communicate with corporate entities. I got some comments that had enough venom in them to take down a mastodon. A large number of ad hominem attacks came barreling into the comments box over "issues" that I would carefully classify as "opinions."
But the worse part of all was the idea that the angry reader had permission to track down my e-mail address and send me their hate mail "off-line." So I did a little experiment and I wrote about a new camera announcement. I wrote it as a "gauntlet toss" and stood back to watch. It got tons of page views. Then I wrote something that I really cared about, in the genre that my commenters claimed they wanted, and the page views dropped like bank stocks. While the gear article garnered dozens of comments in twenty four hours the essay on the reason we photograph managed to cobble together only three or four comments over the space of a week.
My takeaway lesson was that I'd spent two years building a blog for nothing. If readers just wanted information about the gear they could go to the "big daddy" of gear sites and grammatically nightmarish, full-contact forums: DPReview. There they could dissect every camera down to its measurable essence and then argue about the composition of the screws that hold the camera together. I was done. I didn't want to be a camera reviewer; I wanted to write about something different. So I made the announcement that I would stop.
Thousands of bright, serious people
And a funny thing happened on my way to consigning the blog to the scrap heap. I discovered my "silent majority." You’ve all heard the old saw that, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." Well, the naysayers and vicious commenters had gotten the grease. They'd shut me down because I didn't hear from the other side. To be fair, I had a handful of genuinely wonderful readers who would drop regular comments of support but they seemed, at the time, to be a tiny minority. But the day I announced my (premature) retirement my comment box was filled with hundreds and hundreds of posts. Most started with, "I am sorry I never commented before but...."
And what I found is that there were literally thousands of bright, serious people who started everyday with the same routine, almost to a person. And that routine consisted of fixing a cup of coffee, sitting in front of their computer at home or in their offices, and reading whatever I had written on the Visual Science Lab blog. Almost to a person they had just come from, or would next go to, The Online Photographer blog. That was (and is) still their ritual. They didn’t feel the need to comment, they just enjoyed the reading and the implied inclusion into a circle of people, international in composition, who enjoyed photography and knowing more about why and what other people enjoyed about the art. In the process I learned a very valuable lesson. I had never really invited them to comment and to give me feedback. I’d never come right out and asked for it.
One person was instrumental in the clicking a switch in my brain. Here is what he wrote:
Kirk; You may feel that you have been wasting time better spent on earning a living; not so. Most folks have a sphere of influence that is only as wide as their family and a few friends. Reading these many comments must let you know that your influence is global. Appreciate that as we have appreciated you. I am in my eighties and have just accepted your admonition to walk up to people on the street and ask if I may photograph them. It is still a nerve twister but I've found out it works. Thanks Kirk. I'll drop by now and then to see what else you can talk me into.
Roy kicked my ego-butt and made me realize that I got a value from writing the site that at least equalled my efforts. Even if it was ephemeral and karmic rather than material and measurable. When I read his response, and 250+ others in the comments and another several hundred sent directly to my e-mail, I realized that I'd hit exactly the audience I'd really hoped for when I began.
I decided to re-start the blog. And it's interesting because I feel like I've gotten permission from my readers to be more personal. To write what I want to write rather than what I think will attract bulk readers. I'm reaching down a little deeper to write things that seem, at times, bittersweet or frightening to me. I'm writing about what happens to us as we become "older" photographers. I'm writing about the "double-edged sword" of our isolation. And I hope I'll continue writing about what amazes and amuses me in my everyday life as an artist. And while this material won't garner me instant numbers growth I hope it will resonate with more and more people who are more curious about the "why" of visual art than just learning how to turn the switches and which menu items to select on their new Turboflex D1000D.
So I’m back. I intend to write a column at least once a month, here, for Mike (who has been a wonderful sounding board in my process of coming to grips with my process...) and to continue my "Chaos Theory" schedule of writing at the Visual Science Lab. While I intend to concentrate on the "whys," I still have a sweet tooth for gear so I can’t totally give up publicly pondering new equipment.
Finally, a warning. If you value what you read each day at Mike’s TOP, remember to say so, often and publicly, and not just here. While writers will write because they must, they also write for an audience. What Mike has done here is to elevate the discussions about art, literature, music and their interwoven effects on our passion for photography, high above the diatribes and mis-information that slops across the web. He reminds us that there's more to it all than just an argument about some arcane slice of techno-crud and he does so in a way that's both enjoyable and challenging. Don't assume that, because he has a few small ads tucked away on the sides of his site, he derives all he needs from the material revenue. Every writer needs the feedback of his or her readers. Let the writers you like know that they're part of your daily rituals and routine and their vision adds fuel and fun to yours. I've seen both sides and I know how important the reader is to the process. Make sure you are committed to doing your part. Let them know they influence people around the globe.
Good morning TOP. It's a beautiful day for photography!
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.