Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

I’ve been playing with old media, then new media, then social media for most of my adult life. I think I understand a thing or two about it. As a photographer, I built one of the first web portfolios and galleries back in the mid-90s and ever since, I’ve used the Internet to communicate with people interested in photography.

Now that we have Twitter, Google+, Facebook, etc., I’ve been thinking about how best to use these tools from a photographer’s point of view.

Each of them offers some value, depending on your goals and you may use one or more of the prominent social media sites as a way to accomplish those goals.

But here’s the thing…

There are a few things I’ve noticed. There are now so many social media outlets that you could literally spend all day on social media and no time at all behind the camera. I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes and I don’t think it’s a good thing.

This year I cut way back on my own social media use. I spent more time behind the camera the first six months of this year than I did all of last year and I think that’s a better place for me to spend my time.

This post is full of my own personal opinions and observations. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. I’m merely sharing my own experiences and you can discount them if you like or take them to heart. It’s up to you. My goal is to hopefully help someone who’s trying to figure out this stuff to find the best path. Also, this post isn’t all inclusive – for that you should buy my book Going Pro with Skip Cohen. I cover social media *mostly Twitter* in depth there – and yes I’m pimping my book for which I make a whopping $1.00 per copy sold. The point is there’s more info there if you want it. This is just a blog post and it is much longer than my usual, but it’s something I feel is important.

Now on to my observations…

Photographers approach social media with many different motives. Some want to find staff or assistants. Some photographers want help selling their work. Some come looking for an agent. Some photographers are looking for a mentor or for people TO mentor. Some want to just shoot the breeze with other photographers. Some want education. Some want to educate, etc.

Which platform, how often, how deep, etc. is usually dictated by where you fit on that scale. But it’s not as simple as all that.

I’ve concluded, at least for me, that there are many platforms but only one significant herd. While millions upon millions of people “use” social media, their use is very limited. In the photography community I personally believe there are only a few hundred thousand of what I call “active, engaged” users. These are the people I interact with daily and who contribute the most to the social media landscape.

I do believe there is a ceiling and depending on where you are – i.e., Twitter, Google+, Facebook – there is a finite number of people who you can actually count on being truly interested in what you are doing. Social media is supposed to be (and to some extent I believe is) an extension of real life. Sociologists tell us that we can only really know (as in I know Jim or Jane) about 100 people. Most of us have fewer than 10 actual friends. Most of us have two or three close friends. I believe these limits scale in social media and that it’s impossible to actually engage EVERYONE in your stream. That is one of the reasons that I only follow about 100 people on Twitter despite the large number following me. I actually rely on Twitter to communicate with these people and my stream would get way to noisy if I let everyone in.

But let’s take that a step further. I’ve been serious about “social media” for about five years. Before that we had “new media” and before that, well you get the point.

When it comes to audience size, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Internet hasn’t actually changed much. There’s still a finite number of people we can engage. And I think the best analogy is that of a herd. The herd needs water. So it moves from watering hole to watering hole. It started with MySpace and then migrated to things like Facebook, Friendster, FriendFeed, Twitter and now Google+ (Yes I am being general here and leaving lots of stuff out but I am trying to make a point so please be patient with me.)

I am convinced that as for me, a photographer with reasonably-defined and narrowly-focused goals – that trying to use all the social media available to me would be a waste of time. The herd moves from one place to the next and that gives the illusion that the population is growing. But based on my experience, the same people are popping up at all these places. I am not growing a new audience simply because I am on a new platform. I am merely serving some subset of my existing audience that’s moved from the old platform to the new.

I am not saying the audience doesn’t grow. It does, but it’s not by leaps and bounds. It’s slow and steady and as new people drop in, some of the old drop out. So once you get to the ceiling, there’s not much real growth.

In my own experience (and I keep sharing it that way because I want to remind you my findings are the basis of my own opinions and not a call to action for anyone reading this) it’s a waste of time to try to cover each platform. You only have so many bullets in your gun. So aim it at one target and dominate – that’s my approach. And for that reason, and the fact that I have so much traction there, I’ve decided to live or die with Twitter. I happen to think that for me, it offers the best mix of reach, influence and engagement.

I’m a busy guy. I don’t have time to even respond to every email, Tweet, fax, phone call, etc. I receive in a day. If I did, that is ALL I WOULD DO. Period. Sorry but I want to have some balance in my life and I want to spend time actually making photographs, not just daydreaming about it online. So I’ve decided for me, Twitter will remain my primary place to engage in social media. I have a small presence on many other sites, but I don’t do much to cultivate it. I’m mostly in those places just to monitor what’s going on.

I know all the cool kids are raving about Google+. They must be getting something out of it that I am not, so for now, I’ll stay where I am. Again – just speaking for myself – I tend to interact with people on Twitter that are more involved with my posts. That’s where I’ll continue to focus my efforts until they stop working. And if I am wrong, it won’t matter. The herd will be moving on as soon as the next big thing comes along.

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