Schmap’s involuntary crowd sourcing: could you do the Pepsi challenge?

The other morning I found an email from online tourist guide site Schmap telling me that one of my photos I posted on Flickr had been shortlisted for use in their tour guide website.

My immediate reaction to the request was that it must be a scam: clicking the link to confirm my willingness to get my photo published in a real-life website would, I suspected, lead to my becoming embroiled in some Russian phishing nastiness.

A quick search, including a brief visit to the Schmap site, told me that it probably wasn’t a scam: but if it was, it was a very good one. Having delved further, including asking those on Twitter (which also means on Facebook), I don’t think it is but if you don’t hear from me for a little while, expect the worse.


Parque del retiro, Madrid - the 'lungs' of Madrid

Anyway, during my research I found out much more about Schmap’s business model and what this kind of thing means for the business of photography. Schmap search Flickr and (I assume) other photo sharing sites for images suitable for their guides. They are only useful if they’ve been marked with the Creative Commons (CC) license but that’s easy because on Flickr you can search for those in the advanced search. If you’ve put together a presentation or written a blog in the last six months you’ll know this. You don’t even need to ask permission, although it’s a convention: just an acknowledgement is necessary.

The CC license means that they can use your photo but they can’t make money out of it directly. This is fine, because Schmap doesn’t charge for access to their site: revenue is generated by advertising. Clever, huh?

It’s involuntary crowd sourcing at its best. Schmap are happy because they’ve saved a great deal on using free images formerly out sourced by professional photographers. The punter, like me, who took the photo consider such recognition a happy accident. It was probably taken for fun or as a hobby and just wanted to share with friends, family and maybe the odd contact on Flickr. We didn’t take them deliberately to be considered for a commercial website, hence the ‘involuntary’ crowd sourcing: but perhaps now we might, when our finger hovers of the button?

As so often with progress, someone suffers. It’s the professional photographers who are feeling the pinch, as this Flickr forum makes clear. The proliferation of semi-professional grade digital cameras and the concomitant support online alongside free training and inexpensive equipment means that the many have access to technology and methods until recently only available to the few.

For pro photographers squeezed out of the market, the democratization that technology can bring is clearly a Very Bad Thing.  Clearly not all business models can take advantage of the images amateurs create. For Schmap, the photos are ideal because they are snaps, nothing more than illustrations, culled from a geographically disparate group (Flickr users) who together have captured each crevice of our world. It seems that a professional photographer is unnecessary in such precise circumstances: although they add value, I wonder if it is worth the much higher cost?

What’s more, could you do the Pepsi challenge with a professional photograph and an amateur one? I wonder. I know there are novices who have taken seemingly professional photographs and vice versa. There needs to be a clear difference between pro and amateur shots and service before someone is willing to take the plunge and hire one – instead of buying a camera for themselves. It’s a tricky business right now.

Is the rise of the amateur, supported by cheaper technology alongside the ‘user generated content’ spirit of the web leading to a decline in the field? Pro photographers seem to be at a crossroads: go the way of newspapers and embrace the challenge; or take the path of the record industry – and hide from the inevitable. What are you going to do?

Update: Yesterday, Schmap duly followed up – my photo has indeed been published. You can find it in context here.

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