Contributing to Online Ecosystems You Value
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I value different technological tools I have at my disposal, particularly those large scale online services I use. And a natural follow up thought is about contributing to those online ecosystems I actually value. For a long time, I’ve held to the stubborn notion that I only wanted to use social media if it was in promotion of my own website. That essentially boiled down to the fact that I can (hypothetically) make money from my site, whereas with social media behemoths, I am only providing free content to them that they can make ad revenue from. Not that my stuff generates much attention, but it was the principle of the thing.
I held pretty firmly to this notion for years. But, lately my thinking has evolved a bit on this topic. I do still wish that the Internet wasn’t completely dominated by a small handful of companies, and that blogging and niche websites returned to prominence somehow. But that is incredibly unlikely – not to mention kind of pointless to dwell on. When I started painting six months ago, I also began recording the complete process for every portrait. Eventually it became part of my routine, and I found myself with dozens of time-lapse videos. My website isn’t well-suited to video sharing, and I was finding myself gravitating towards short form video hosted on Instagram and YouTube. Conveniently for me, leaning into these platforms also made video easier to share on this site.
I’ve realized over the last few months, I’ve actually gotten quite a lot of value from a Instagram and YouTube. So much, in fact, that it’s made me want to commit more fully to developing my artwork presence on these sites, sometimes even at the expense of my own website. Which is something I would have found completely objectionable last year. There’s also an element of making things “right” or leveling the “give and take” of the universe (or something to that effect). As I mentioned at the top, these sites benefit because they can serve advertisements around content that I provide. And I benefit in specific ways I’ll describe in a bit – the balance between those things feel fine to me. It makes me feel like I can put some moderate amount of time into these things and it would be worth it for both parties.
So, getting to some specifics. There are three main sites that rise to this level for me – Instagram, YouTube, and Unsplash. I’ll go through each and talk about what specifically I value, then I’ll wrap it up with some online ecosystems that I haven’t invested in.
One of the things I’ve grown to like the most about Instagram is simply the massive presence of artists on there. Since it’s centered around images and short video, and text is somewhat of an afterthought, it seems all types of portrait artists and painters gravitate towards sharing their work there. Aside from cat memes and friends/family, art is what I want to see, so it’s great from that perspective. It’s a popular platform, so it’s great to see such active art-centered sharing.
Another positive to me is that performance and traffic seem to mostly make sense. Of course, the algorithms are still mysterious gods that sometimes I apparently displease…but generally, I can get a sense for what attracts eyeballs on Instagram (even if that’s not necessarily what I have to offer). If I share content regularly, I can actually see that growth happen, even if it is relatively small. Expanding your reach as an artist is possible there, so that’s also useful.
I also like that Instagram has surprisingly friendly website integration. Initially, I didn’t like that it didn’t allow links, so I couldn’t backlink my website posts for SEO purposes. But now, I actually appreciate that aspect, because it prevents my feed from being flooded with nonsense like on Facebook. It keeps things clean and focused on images/video, which is nice. But despite not being link-friendly, Instagram does integrate well with my WordPress site. I’ve incorporated a great widget on my home/welcome page that showcases the latest paintings (since I’m so far behind on blog posts). And, the individual embedded Instagram posts look quite nice.
There are a couple of huge positives to YouTube from my perspective. I think the biggest is related to how useful a resource it is. I have no formal art training, so I’ve had to find non-traditional ways to learn how to paint. A very significant part of that instruction on portraiture and oil painting has come from videos on YouTube, especially from folks like Chris Fornataro, Alpay Efe, Mark Carder, and many others. It’s hard to put an exact number on the value I’ve gained from all of these resources, but I know I want to “pay it forward” if I can. The best way I know to do that is to share my own experiences as an amateur, which I hope could help another person on a similar path.
Another important one is a more tangible, concrete benefit; it’s simply the massive amount of free video storage YouTube provides. Google hosting these large 4K resolution videos for me, which are in turn quite easy to embed on my website, is a fantastic cost savings. These huge videos would eat up the available storage space WordPress gives me, but I can host these at no cost to me on YouTube. As with all of this, Google benefits by gaining more content to serve ads through. But for a low traffic page like mine, I’m really not sure they’re coming out ahead on the deal.
There is a downside to YouTube though. I find their algorithms absolutely bizarre and impossible to decipher. It feels like a total guessing game as to how or when something will actually get some views. Like with their short form vertical videos (Shorts), I get a batch of views within the first 30 minutes, then a slow trickle. Because views are so front loaded, it’s heavily dependent on when you post it, despite youtube explicitly saying that’s not true. But then, the traditional videos don’t work like this at all. It’s very unpredictable compared to Instagram.
I’ve talked about Unsplash before in a dedicated post and again recently when I discussed hiring portrait models. One of the biggest challenges when you’re hungry for portrait drawing or painting practice is actually just finding subjects. I am constantly building a repository of ideas, as I learned long ago the benefits of being proactive about planning. That becomes especially difficult when you start to consider references images you can use for commercial purposes. What constitutes a “transformative work,” is murky, and may change completely pending a Supreme Court decision this spring (Warhol v Goldsmith, regarding a Prince photo). In my opinion, it’s safest to have clear authorization on this topic – either licensing the image, which costs money, or using a royalty free image resource.
There are a few royalty free image resources out there, like Pexels, Pixabay, and my most frequently used Unsplash. Essentially, as they spell out in their licensing FAQ pages, you are free to use images for commercial use – Unsplash even specifically mentions selling artwork based on photos. Because Unsplash has been so useful to me in that sense, I decided to contribute to its ecosystem in the same way I have for Instagram and YouTube. And that is by creating content for other users. In the case of Unsplash, that was a bit more difficult than just sharing paintings. Since it’s a photography site, I had to find some good photos that I took that others might want to use.
Sites that I Don’t Value
I do want to say a few things about the other side of this coin – the platforms, apps, and sites that I don’t value. Or at least, I don’t value them enough to meaningfully contribute to their ecosystems in the same way I do with the above platforms. Essentially, the value they provide me is not enough to warrant becoming more invested. So, instead with these, I either don’t participate at all, or only do so in furtherance of other efforts (like linking to my website, instagram, youtube, etc).
When I think of Facebook, a great article from Wired describing the “enshitification” of social media platforms comes to mind. The original article is worth a read, but Facebook is the end stage of what a social media platform looks like when its value to the user becomes minimal and everything about it has become monetized to maximize profit. In my opinion, Facebook is a bloated, spammy mess. But since it’s so ever-present, I do still share links to get more eyeballs directed to other sites. Otherwise, I’m ready for it to go the way of MySpace.
Twitter and Reddit are strange beasts from my perspective, because they are very interesting from a content consumption standpoint. But I’ve never really been able to crack either in terms of gaining traction on my own content. I might value them a bit more if I could ever figure out how to participate in them the “right” way. But there is only so much time in the day, and to this point I haven’t found the “juice to be worth the squeeze” to quote a colleague of mine. Although I don’t have a big enough audience on either platform, theoretically I could eventually monetize on YouTube or Instagram, which is a nice long term incentive. Twitter and Reddit don’t offer the same incentives – with Twitter now even pushing money to flow the other direction.
I do still share links on both platforms though. And I’m sure I’ll continue to mindlessly scroll both from time to time as well, at least until Twitter collapses after all of its recent nonsensical changes. Maybe one of these decentralized Twitter clones will eventually replace Twitter in terms of consumption, but I feel like I’d probably end up in the same place in terms of not really making it a focus of creating content.
This is an interesting one because I might actually find value if I tried it. Tik Tok is well-suited to the short form painting time lapses I’m already sharing on similar platforms (Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts). And they seem to reward content creators fairly well…although I don’t really know to what extent. But there’s too much uncertainty regarding this platform, both in terms of its connection to China’s government and whether it will become blocked in the US. I would hate to invest time into building something just for it to become inaccessible.
Smaller Things, New and Old
There are other, much smaller platforms that I also haven’t invested any time or effort into. This includes old platforms that are still hanging on, like Tumblr or Blogger, and newer things like Mastadon or BlueSky. As I’ve said above, there’s only so much time in a day, so I have to triage what’s worth exploring. Perhaps if any grow significantly, I’ll check them out. But for now, I haven’t seen anything else that inspires me to invest more heavily into it.