It has almost become a truism: social media creates mediocrity. In an effort to gain a share of the social media pie, artists are rewarded for blending in, not standing out.
Mick Rock helped to create the underground music scene just as much as any of the musicians he photographed. Vanessa Thorpe’s recent article in the Guardian promoting Rock’s archival release also touches on some depressing ideas about the evolution of art in the era of social media.
As part of the underground music scene of the 70s, Rock spent time photographing Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury, and David Bowie. In particular, Rock came of age along with Reed, Pop, and Bowie. Rock was given a chance to see the three, who he calls the Terrible Trio, revolutionize music while becoming stars. Rock explained to Thorpe that the three stars had a chance to influence each other as their musical personalities evolved, basically, to help make each other become better musicians and performers. Without their shared influences, it’s logical to assume that they may never have reached the heights that they have.
Thinking about the effect of social media, Rock bemoans that “(a)nything can go viral now and become successful immediately.” We should consider this as more than a complaint from a veteran out of touch with new media. He has a strong point. If any single song can help an artist go viral, find success out of the gates without honing a craft and vision, can there really be any long-term success? If flavor of the month has morphed into flavor of the minute, success will require mimicry. Immediate success won’t push artists to think and grow. Maintaining this type of success will only allow for tiny steps out from the norm.
I think that we’re also seeing this more and more in photography. Any quick scan of Instagram will show that popularity requires conformity today. The old method of learning the craft, carrying bags, and making good images isn’t the pathway to success anymore. Clients are often more concerned with the size of a photographer’s social media following, of leveraging a photographer’s popularity to help their brand, than with the photographer’s skill. Very few of the photographers that became ultra-successful through IG create something unique.
Is that it then? Are we doomed to see the death of the underground as a result of the rise in social media? Will we see established artists become more cautious, fearful of losing their following? Will emerging photographers be required to gather a social media following by conforming to norms in order to secure work?
After all, as Bette Davis was wont to say, “if everybody likes you, you’re pretty dull.”
Lead image of Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip from let us go photo.