Don't Hate Instagram Because It's Disrupting Another Profession

With Ubiquitous Photo Tools, Amateurs Get a Chance to Compete

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A lot of people are celebrating the 2nd anniversary of Instagram's first posted photo by bashing the service.

As Matthew Ingram points out at GigaOM, this kind of criticism has become a predictable rant: members of a professional community are never pleased when the amateurs get a chance to compete.

"This isn't really that surprising: it's the same kind of criticism that has been made about blogging, citizen journalism and Twitter, among other things — and in each case the critics have been somewhat right, but mostly wrong…. Running through many of these criticisms is a kind of anti-amateur argument: real photography should be left to professional photographers, real journalism should be left to professional journalists, and so on."

Traditional publishers in the 1920s expressed similar disdain for an upstart weekly magazine that summarized news for the on-the-go professional: Henry Luce's Time Magazine.

No doubt it's a bummer when an amateur fill-in-the-blank gains access to professional tools and produces -- for free, just because he or she cares -- good content that competes with stuff that erstwhile could only be created by a paid professional. (I know, these amateurs produce crap too; and so do the pros – turn on your TV and click upward from Channel 2 to 200 and see if it's all ready for prime time.)

In the case of media, there are two kinds of tools that were once too expensive for the average Joe: the tools of production (a printing press, an Arri video camera, an Avid editing suite, etc) and the tools for distribution (delivery trucks, some rented spectrum on a broadcast satellite, an expensive pay-to-play deal with a cable operator, etc). New digital technologies have broken down many of these barriers to entry. You can shoot HD videos on your iPhone, publish your magazine on Wordpress, your photo-journal on Tumblr or Instagram, and the work once done by deliver trucks has been supplanted by search engines and social sharing.

Most of the time greater competition creates higher quality stuff at lower costs. Sure, it stinks for the railroad baron to watch Henry Ford mass-producing cars or for the big record labels to acknowledge the rise of digital music. You end up with two choices. Mock, threaten and sue the new competition; or embrace innovation. History (and Clay Christensen) is pretty clear on which is the wiser choice.

And come on, people, look at the numbers. There are a lot more eyeballs looking at the 300 million "amateur" photos that are uploaded to Facebook everyday than will look at Vanity Fair's photos in a month. The photos and videos that gave us access to the Arab Spring weren't taken by photogs from CNN or NY Times. And if neat iPhone apps make pictures more appealing to your audience, then stop calling them cheap amateur cheats and start using them (like Sports Illustrated is doing). It's time to change the question from "was this picture taken by paid, professional photographer" to "does this picture deserve my attention."

Chas Edwards is chief revenue officer and head of publisher development at Luminate.
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