Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crowdsourcing and photography's future: Part 1

I love the photo "Alien Arms" by Todd Klassy, which he has posted on Flickr, and which I've bookmarked so I can go back and look at it every now and then. Technically Klassy is an amateur photographer, but I think it's one of the most beautiful images I've seen by any photographer.

The Capital Times was struck by it, too. It's the lower of the two photos they ran on their front page story about the Madison Flickr group. Klassy, one of several local photographers featured in the story and one who has only been photographing for a few years, has clearly benefited from his Flickr association.
In three years of tooling around Wisconsin with his digital camera in tow, amateur Belleville photographer Todd Klassy has had requests from a book publisher in Chile, a bank in San Francisco and an environmental organization in Great Britain, among others, to use his photographs. He's also inked a "how-to" book deal on taking better digital photos.
Klassy is part of a worldwide trend. Amateurs are shaking up the field of professional photography, especially the stock photo market. Depending on usage, stock photos sell to major media markets for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. This is being challenged by the rise of so-called "microstock" agencies like iStockphoto that acquire photos over the Internet and sell them for as little as a dollar apiece. While Flickr was designed as a photo-sharing service, not an agency, there's nothing preventing photo buyers from finding a photo on Flickr and contacting the photographer directly -- as Klassy's experience illustrates.

The use of the Internet to aggregate and monetize the small, individual contributions of thousands, even millions, of people has been called crowdsourcing.
Welcome to the age of the crowd. Just as distributed computing projects like UC Berkeley’s SETI@home have tapped the unused processing power of millions of individual computers, so distributed labor networks are using the Internet to exploit the spare processing power of millions of human brains. The open source software movement proved that a network of passionate, geeky volunteers could write code just as well as the highly paid developers at Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Wikipedia showed that the model could be used to create a sprawling and surprisingly comprehensive online encyclopedia. And companies like eBay and MySpace have built profitable businesses that couldn’t exist without the contributions of users.


Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.
Is crowdsourcing threatening the future of photography as a profession? Will a crowd of hobbyists from around the world armed with digital cameras and access to the Internet replace the professional photographer? Probably not, but the trend is making photographers nervous and changing the way the photography market operates. Stay tuned.

(Part 1 of 3 parts. Part 2.)

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