Okay, so the title is a metaphor, but this is an issue which needs a lot more attention than a conventional title would likely bring. I’m using a motor vehicle analogy, but this is really a piece about the Internet, and the people who are slowly strangling it. It’s a piece about legitimised theft, and the impact that legitimised theft has on our long-term experience of the Web.
Above, I’ve uploaded a site-branded, lowish-res photo of a Rolls-Royce. I could have taken 50 Rolls-Royce pics and created a ‘gallery’ on a photo site, with each image unbranded, and available at high resolution. You could have clicked a link, browsed that gallery, and, if you’re interested in the cars, had a great Web experience downloading a feast of images to peruse at your convenience. Afterall, a picture is worth a thousand words. So why didn’t I do that? Well, because for me, as the producer of the content, it would mean a lot of work, and within a short time, ‘content aggregators’ would have plundered my mine of hi-res images and made them available elsewhere.
They’d be all over the UGC sites, and very possibly also in use for commercial or nefarious purposes. And with every re-post, there’d be less reason for people to visit this original page, and click my gallery link. I, the original uploader, would be losing increasing amounts of Web traffic to the re-posters. Why would I do all that work, for the benefit of other people’s online status or success?
But more importantly, why should you care about this? Well, precisely because I didn't create a gallery, and I never create galleries, and the Internet is discouraging me from creating galleries, and it's the same for most other producers of Web content. You may think there are masses of photos on the Internet, but for every one that does get posted, there are many more that don’t. That's an enormous problem, which dampens the educational value of the Internet, and it's going to get worse.
As someone who administrates blogs, I get to see the search terms some visitors have used to reach my posts via Google and other search engines. With one site in particular, “gallery” is a common keyword within those incoming search terms. The site in question does have individual, lo-res images, but it doesn’t have galleries, and it doesn’t even mention the word “gallery”. Given that Google is pretty good at finding what people ask for, the fact that Web-surfers are landing on my site, and not another which actually does have a gallery, suggests the galleries of images they want are just not out there to be found. That’s no surprise.
In fact, it’s actually better for original content creators like me to minimise all image content. Not only to skimp on the number of images, but also to make the images smaller. Why’s that? Well, because as long as I make my images searchable, Google will by default give them away for free to people who don’t visit my sites. People go on Google Images, find my work, and download it. I get nothing – not even a page visit. And some downloaders will then go on Twitter or similarly 'copyright-blind' sights, and use my work to inflate their profile and status. So what’s the point? But if I make my images small (like 500px across), some surfers will think they’ve found the lo-res version, and that they might be able to get a larger version by visiting my site. If people want those pictures in larger sizes, I then get page visits, but third parties tend to consider the pics too small for re-posting, so I additionally cut down on unwanted re-distribution.
I haven’t implemented that idea on this blog, because the articles are information-based, and that gives people an impetus to click through to my pages from Google Images. But on another site, whose average visitor is much more likely to only want the pictures, I’ve rigidly maintained a maximum image size of 500px, and it works. People click through from Google Images, trying to find a larger image size. They don’t actually get a larger size, because if I uploaded a larger size, Google would just index that instead of the smaller size, and give it directly to the surfer, so I’d get less traffic. On that site, I HAVE to make my images 'too small', and make sure there’s no larger option, in order to get any search traffic from Google at all. I know I’m pissing people off, but that’s preferable to the alternative, which is to let a cyber power cut me out of my own content delivery interface. Next time you find a picture that’s too small (and they always tend to be the ones you want most), and there’s no larger option, remember whose fault that is.
So, the way Google Images works actually makes it more beneficial for content providers NOT to give Web surfers what they really want. It’s lunacy, but it’s true. And more and more photographers are realising this. The result, over time, is not only fewer new images (because content providers only need one pic to make an article show up in Google Images, and any more is just a platter for aggregators), but also smaller images, for the reasons I gave above.
THE ‘AGGREGATORS’ ARE WINNING
‘Content aggregators’, in case you're still wondering, are people who re-post existing material on the Internet, in a conveniently cherry-picked manner. In real terms, they’re content thieves, committing copyright infringement on a grand scale. They don’t ask before taking, and they certainly don’t have permission. They just take, and because they’re so often posting anonymously, on platforms purpose-built to loophole copyright law, they don’t have to worry about being sued. There are unthinkable numbers of them. They’re everywhere.
But aggregators are not just everywhere – they’re winning. If you produce your own material for online consumption, you’re at a massive disadvantage when competing against aggregators, because simply, you have to work to create everything you post. The only work aggregators have to do is to copy and paste, or download/re-upload. Some even have automation to do that for them. Thus, they can work much, much faster than someone who’s producing their own content, and that means they can achieve 40 or 50 times the output. They can stay in the audience’s face with an intensity most original creatives could never come close to matching, and in the bite-sized, micro-attention-span world of Web 2.0, staying in people’s faces equals success. And because aggregators cherry-pick from literally the best of the best, using childishly simple resources like Google Images, the quality of their feeds is staggeringly high.
As an original producer of Internet content, you’re like a legitimate car dealer trying to compete with a dealer who not only steals all their cars, but is GIVEN THE KEYS to steal all their cars by the powers that be. While you struggle to negotiate distributors’ discounts on your Fiats and Toyotas, your rivals are knocking out nicked Rolls-Royces and Ferraris for next to nothing. What hope do you have of getting a look-in? Remember, there isn’t just one ‘car-thief’ out there. There are millions. And the total is set to rise, because in many areas of Internet 2015, it's the now only way to compete.
I hate aggregators and I won't support them. When many people see a Twitter account called "World's Best Art Images" or whatever, they think: "Great! I'm going to see lots of spectacular pictures!", and they follow the account. But I just think: "What gives this parasite the right to steal other people's work and use it, without even an attribution, to build a huge fanbase on social media?". I'm not actually against regular people sharing odds and ends of third party matter on Twitter for reasons of personal interest, especially when they acknowledge the source. But I am against parasitic status-building - calculatingly and deliberately setting out to build huge followings entirely off the back of stolen premium content.
However, as I documented in my Don't Blame The Content Thief post over on Twirpz, the crux of the problem is not the ‘aggregator’ per se, but the cyber powers who make it easy to ‘aggregate’. These big powers could make it exceptionally difficult for Web users to re-post images without permission, but they choose not to. So the guys who sell other people's Rolls-Royces for for next to nothing are not really the individuals who pick up a photo from one place, and re-post it somewhere else. They’re just the sales assistants. The bosses of the next-to-nothing Rolls-Royce dealership are the Googles, the Twitters – the sites that, hand in hand, encourage users to take what’s not theirs, and proliferate it to the detriment of the original content provider. And ultimately, to the detriment of online education.