A Photo Agency Managed by the Crowd


I remember reading a few years back about the largest-known living organism in the world. Located under the Oregon forest, it is a 2,200-year-old fungus whose fruits, otherwise known as mushrooms, peek out here and there. Probably because of their unappealing nature, fungi are poorly known, and it is estimated that millions of yet-unclassified species exist. What has been recently discovered is that they seem to operate as a network inside the forest, communicating information from tree to tree via the moist soil, somewhat informing and organizing the environment they feed upon.

No, we are not turning into botanists here, although it is also a fascinating subject. Rather, it is the first thought that sprung when I discovered Symbiostock, an underground, little-known network of related organisms thriving thanks to symbiosis.

Deadly Simple and Efficient

Symbiostock is an open-source WordPress theme allowing any photographer to create a local stock agency with his or her images. Up to now, nothing really new there. However, it is in its hidden feature that Symbiostock is extremely powerful: Each database is networked to all others so that when an image buyer performs a search on one site, he also gets results from databases he didn’t even know existed. Every time a photographer downloads and installs Symbiostock, his database is automatically added to the network.

For the image buyer, the experience is seamless. He performs a search on a familiar photographer’s website. The result will show him first the result from that database, along with results from every other attached database. If his choice falls on an image from another database, by clicking on the image, he is brought to the website for purchase. He negotiates the fee with the corresponding photographer and is done.

There are no referral fees. Rather, Symbiostock works on the “pay it forward” premise. If you help another photographer make a sale, you will also benefit from another photographer sending you traffic. Thus, no need for complicated financial tracking and agreements. If you turn your database off, unhook it from the network so that only your images are displayed on your site, then your images do not appear on other site searches; Deadly simple and efficient.

Symbiostock is free to download and use. It is open source so that others can contribute to its feature set and expand it furthermore. Users are also evangelists, helping newcomers install, troubleshoot and expand. For the moment, Symbiostock is a small growing network. But here is what makes it so revolutionary.

Why It Works as a Disruptor

  • Symbiostock has the potential to disturb the whole photo agency industry by creating a massive, searchable database of images as big – if not bigger – than any existing stock agency.
  • Because it is not limited by a single point of entry, or a brand, it can quickly reach millions of potential image buyers worldwide with little or no marketing by using the aggregation of every photographer’s clients.
  • Being open source, it can quickly grow in functionality based on user input. (Think Linux.)
  • Since there is no sharing of price information, competitive bottom-pricing between users is useless.
  • It is simple and supported by highly motivated users.
  • It works by cooperation rather than competition.
  • It is hugely scalable for minimal cost.
  • It is owned, operated and managed by users, who 100 percent control over their images.

Obviously, there are a few obstacles. The most important is noise. Photographers will be tempted to upload any and all images into their database, making the quality of the overall content questionable. If there are too many bad images, buyers will not come. An efficient search algorithm can fix that. Poorly captioned photographs could also make the experience painful. Again, a properly designed search algorithm – one that ignores bad captioning – can fix that, too. The last obstacle is adoption rate: Networks fail if they’re not large and eclectic.

In all, Symbiostock is the most exciting development idea in stock photography in years, offering photographers a cheap and easy way to take control of their sales channel. Without any central command, it allows them to grow as a symbiotic community. And according to what nature has taught us, those can be very successful.


One Response to “A Photo Agency Managed by the Crowd”

  1. The size and scope of image inventory—or a presumed lack thereof by Symbiostock—is not the solution. It is the problem. Symbiostock will fail.Here's why.

    No other B2B marketplace but Commercial Photo is populated by as few as 125,000 buyers worldwide, who spend billions of dollars annually to publish content produced by just as few creators, all within a steeply vertical ecosystem. And, yet, it is dysfunctional, fragmented, and underserved.

    Businesses spend $8B every year to license and publish pictures. But money is left on the table because the pictures they want, to communicate effectively with their customers, are lost in a sea of crowdsourced content. Symbiostock would contribute to that problem. And this idea has been tried before, anyway.

    The problem isn’t crowdsourcing itself, though. It's dilution; dilution of quality and dilution of revenue. An exponentially larger number of crowdsourced pictures dilutes professionally-produced content because the whole works is scrambled together.

    For more than a decade, pro photographers have been unable to avoid sharing shelf space with amateurs. Consequently, they’ve lost control over pricing their own work because it’s lost in the crowd. Pricing, then, is based on the volume of contributors instead of value to buyers. Buyers see a direct correlation between the declining quality of pictures for publication and declining incomes for creative professionals caused by the conflation of crowdsourced and professional content.

    The incumbent distributors (e.g., Corbis, Shutterstock, and Getty Images, et al.) imposed a high-volume, low-price model across the board to capture a burgeoning consumer segment. They deliberately commoditized the consumer-buyer segment (i.e., Desktop publishers & Website designers). They didn’t count on how this would, also, artificially conflate the disparate creative standards of consumers with those of commercial buyers. Now, consumers and commercial buyers alike have to rummage through the same bargain-basement bins, whether they’re shopping for caviar or canned tunafish, so to speak. The inefficiency of searching through an inventory that is diluted by a disproportionately larger pool of haphazard pictures costs buyers hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted man-hours and missed publication deadlines every year. Furthermore, distributors can’t increase revenue because buyers are already apoplectic about an unfathomable inventory. And less-picky consumers won’t be weened away from low prices. The market can't grow in this state of affairs.

    The solution is a technology that filters out the kinds of pictures buyers want, maximizing Image Search so they save money, and maximizing productivity for photographers, so they make money. The first company to move photographers' integrated workflow (admin + creative) from the Desktop to the Cloud, will be the first company to directly connect pro photographers with commercial buyers in a proprietary online ecosystem with both a pricing-engine and behavioral search algorithm that can access their market intelligence, looking at their transactional histories, to balance the cost of creating a photo with its real commercial value to a publisher in real time. That company gets to manage their content in return. It will take market share away from the incumbents by leveling the economic playing field for sellers and buyers, then tilting both sides toward itself in the middle of the revenue stream. Look for that company to be called PhotoByte.

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