Update 30/3/15: Since writing this blog entry I've posted a number of others. The last, 'Barking up the wrong tree? A reinterpretation of the Blipfoto/Polaroid tie-up' should be read alongside this one. Thanks.
As I’ve been roaming around on the web looking at past articles, press releases, accounts and reports concerning Blipfoto every now and then I’ve come across the words ‘addiction’ and ‘addictive’. And when I first joined a number of my first contacts warned me jokingly about the ‘addictive’ nature of Blipfoto.
Yesterday I wrote about what I thought might be attraction of Blipfoto’s assets to the preferred bidders in post-liquidation sell-off. That concerned Blipfoto’s self-curated and edited flow of ‘magic moments’ that are held and welded together into journals stretching back – in some cases – over four or five years and more.
I went back to search out some of those mentions of addiction and I came across this interview with Blipfoto founder, Joe Tree, in the Edinburgh Spotlight shortly after Blipfoto had been awarded the Scottish BAFTA Best Web Award in November 2009. The article said with regard to Blipfoto,
Once the ‘magic number’ of 100 uploads is reached, it seems the addiction takes hold and people are hooked forever. This addiction is something Blipfoto seems to have tapped into uniquely.
I also took a quick look at my Blipfoto stats – something I’ve not really bothered with before – but I know how obsessive they can become with say, my website, when I’m trying to quell my doubts about the effort I’m putting into it for a largely ephemeral audience. I saw that I was on 91 entries and that I’ve got a milestone and award coming up in 9 entries.
I should be so lucky. And if I get to that 100 entries – I’ve actually done many more uploads because I’m an inveterate ‘blip fiddler’ – can I then expect to be ‘hooked forever’ by the unique Pied Piperish – or should that be ‘Tartan Piperish’ – wiles of Blipfoto?
I came across another reference to the addictive powers of Blipfoto in an Edinburgh Evening News interview with Joe Tree on the last day of the year in 2013. Here he says while recounting the ‘founding myth’ of Blipfoto,
‘Pretty soon I realised it was really addictive and so gradually I started telling friends and family about it, then more and more people got interested.’
Further on the article says that Joe knew he was on to “a winner” when a US blipper had the site logo tattooed on her arm. He said,
“That really blew me away. This thing which I had started on my own in Leith was now being tattooed on to people in America. I had no contact with that girl but she chose to do that after posting 500 pictures in a row.”
In some circles you’d think little lights and alarm bells might start flashing at this point. But in the Blipfoto model this was seen as a benign addiction because, says Joe Tree,
‘We have a largely honest and straightforward relationship with our users; we don’t view them as customers.’
Coming at the end of the year when major investors backed Blipfoto, including Ken Morse, the interviewer asked Joe Tree if he went along with the hype about becoming a billion dollar company.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t become a billion dollar company, getting there might require a slight change of mindset but we have a great product and a fantastic team of people who all want it to succeed.
“The site is now a million miles away from that which I first put together in 2004 so I don’t see why we can’t continue to grow and become a billion dollar business one day.”
With the advantage of hindsight these quotes are revealing.
Here we have a social media platform – that people don’t realise is a social media platform as Joe Tree also says in this interview – that has a uniquely addictive attraction that is capable of hooking users for life. But this addictive danger is rendered benign because users are in a ‘largely honest and straightforward’ relationship with a company that does not treat them like customers.
And yet – and this is surely the stinger – the founder and CEO also believes that all this can be maintained - with ‘a slight change in mindset’ – and Blipfoto can become ‘a billion dollar company’.
My concern here is not so much with the financial viability of the company and its revenue streams – which seemed to be based solely on a premium charge of £25 a year whilst allowing free and continued access for non-premium users – but the way in which users are trapped into the self-confessedly and uniquely addictive Blipfoto model (see Note 1)
Even under the benign leadership of Joe Tree this might have had some worrying aspects but as Scottish and US investors piled in and joined the Board of Directors who was to stop it getting out of control – as it did with the spectacular crash of the company in March 2015.
Now, a generous response might say that this was all a bit tongue in cheek – although it appears in interviews four years apart so obviously had considerable importance – and that most social media has some way of attempting to capture its –users’ (not customers) often in the hope of some future pay off/monetization.
But Blipfoto seems to have a particularly powerful ‘capture’ element to ‘hook users for life’.
The first is the storage of the users’ often very personal and ‘treasured-moments- -oriented journals and community interactions (comments, stars, favourites) on its servers. The second is the setting up of milestones and awards to keep the user’s competitive energy engaged. And the third is the particular nature of Blipfoto as a virtual community.
That third element is particularly powerful and a tribute to the founding spirit of the company and its early and subsequent users. But it’s also troubling.
What about other social media?
When I’ve used Twitter I knew very few people using Twitter (it’s about my demographic – aka age – I think) and slowly built up a number of followers. As an ‘ordinary Joe’ it’s a pretty tough road and not a way to get a lot of social interaction, particularly if you are not part of an organisation or institution with common interests, goals and activities. And on this basis I can see the deadly attraction of ‘trolling’ on Twitter – launching provocative and abusive tweets into the mix – as a way of gaining attention – of which there was an interesting Scottish example today (see Note 2).
Facebook is a different kettle of fish because you generally know the people you ‘friend’ and there has to be a mutual ‘friending’. But it seems increasingly polluted by adverts and promoted posts. And additionally, a comment to one ‘friend’ is visible to all whereas Blipfoto is very clever in the way comments are kept on discrete hierarchical posts. Anyone can see them but not as a matter of course.
On Blipfoto you can follow anyone you like as far as I know rather like Twitter and they can follow you back or not. But unlike Twitter and Facebook you can comment on their posts without ‘permission’ actually on their journal entries.
All this works because Blipfoto has instilled and presumably policed the ethos of ‘Being Excellent’ and users have taken this ethos on board. This may be helped by the demographic of Blipfoto – which is older and appears to have far more women users than say Twitter – and its particular focus on photography – which damps down the invective, hatred and abuse that spills out over sport, politics and so much else on the interweb.
Blippers constantly comment on the friendly, supportive, open, generous and personal character of Blipfoto interactions and I have felt welcomed and nurtured by the community/network of links I have made with other Blippers.
That’s really powerful and good. It’s made me a better and more considered photographer. And maybe a better person although it’s probably too early to say. But it can take a lot of time and it only exists because Blipfoto is there.
Again, I’ve heard people saying over the last few days words to the effect that, ‘They can take away Blipfoto but we’ll still have the community’.
I really beg to differ on this. If the infrastructure and enabling technology platform of Blipfoto disappears or undergoes radical change the community/communities that are Blipfoto will be left high and dry and die.
I know people make friends and shift this away from its reliance on Blipfoto and do Blip meets but I think it is the combination of the daily imperative, the friendly and supportive community that is a shifting and not fixed entity, and the almost parental protection and support of Blip Central that combine to make Blipfoto a compelling and, yes addictive, model of technologically-mediated social interaction. (You can tell who used to be a sociologist now).
Now there could be ways of lessening that increasing sense of reliance and ‘entrapment’ in the Blipfoto model. But that’s not really in the interests of commercially oriented social media platforms.
They want you, and they want you to stay. They may not even know what they want you and your data and your monetising potential for but they want to keep you until they find out – whether it be tailored adverts, data profiling and sale, a constant stream of fee generating add-ons or what. That is the model of commercial social media and as bigger and bigger amounts of bucks are invested into these companies the investors and shareholders get more concerned about revenue generation and less about capital growth.
How might ‘user dependence ‘ be lessened?
Off the top of my head users could get to download copies of their journals and comments to their own computers on a periodic basis for a fee or as part of an enhanced membership.
Maybe someone also really needs to look at the terms and conditions and see where copyright and ownership of data reside (and I mean that for all social media not just Blipfoto).
There should also be a clause that prohibits the unannounced withdrawal of the service with a 30 day notice period of continued access.
How you guard against the destruction of the community through a fatal infrastructure withdrawal I don’t know.
Again I’ve heard people say the community is stronger than Blipfoto and we can migrate elsewhere, as many people have been doing (or at least setting up an escape route). But I wonder how resilient that community will be because the community’s identify – at the broadest level – is tied to and invested in the identify of Blipfoto.
Again, I read someone saying what an excellent word ‘blip’ was, how it captured the essence of something. And I was rather disdainful of all that ‘blip’ stuff and ‘blipping’ when I first joined but 91 entries in and I’m almost inclined to agree.
I know many people will disagree strongly with the tie I'm making between Blipfoto and its community. But I don’t think it happened by chance. There is a mutli-layered quality to the Blipfoto experience – from simply liking a photo from some far off place in a different time zone and that freewheeling quality of the network to closer and more personal relationships of support, care and love even.
There’s that saying, probably Irish because you’d need that sense of optimism, that, ‘A stranger is just a friend you haven’t yet met’. That seems particularly applicable to Blipfoto and whatever has happened since and into the future that is a pretty remarkable achievement. (Breaks down sobbing over keyboard). Joking apart, I’m sure you know what I mean.
Yes, it might be replicated elsewhere but somehow I doubt it. Blipfoto was of its time and place in a particular age when social media seemed to promise an almost cost free array of social goods
of incredible social and community utility. Blipfoto was born with that sense of optimism but as it grew it also grew up (as was the world of social media generally) and the tensions between user
and customer and social utility and investor return grew.
If some or all of the foregoing stuff rings a bell you have to wonder what will happen if and when the preferred bidders get their hands on Blipfoto.
Will they treat users as users or customers?
Will they be ‘largely honest and straightforward’?
And will they be at all interested in reducing or safeguarding against the addictive, ‘hooked for life’ qualities of Blipfoto that seem to have been there and recognised almost from the start?
To end on an optimistic note I’ve been really impressed by engagement of Blipfotos users in the debate about what is going on and what is going to happen. At a time of great stress it has maintained the friendly and supportive tone that characterises ‘the community’.
It would be nice to think that the new owners will recognise that strength and passion and want, in some way, to negotiate with it. And to recognise some of the troubling aspects of social media’s grip on its users and work to ameliorate them.
But frankly I expect to see pigs flying over Leith before that happens.
(That was being optimistic?)
Now, if you'd like to buy one of my books, pay some up front fees to follow my exclusive webcasts, or hand over all your personal data just form a line :-)
At today’s exchange rate £25 is about $37. To get to a revenue, rather than value, of a $1bn you would need 27 million users – see also here this interesting Bloomberg article on the ‘crazy math’ used in valuations of tech start ups reaching the billion dollar mark.
There was a great incident of this today where some Tweeter launched a load of homophobic bile against Ruth Davidson MSP and leader of the Scottish Conservative party. Someone else outed the bloke hiding behind some fictive name and the good Tweeters of Scotland turned on him until Ruth Davidson issued an amusing ‘stand-down-your-weapons tweet saying,
‘Your responses to this mindless idiot shows social medi[a] can be a good place. Now, put your twitter pitchforks down and get back to work!’
Unfortunately for me, I was still looking for mine in my digital shed.
Update: See this interesting and perceptive blog from Scottish start-up
industry insider Ian Stevenson at Salient Point
on the fragility of tech start-ups and the tight timeframe to achieve a positive cash flow.
Below is a presentation from Joe Tree, founder of Blipfoto, on the creation of a 'collective human history' through Blipfotos tens of thousands of users at the TedxGlasgow in April 2012.