I recently became aware of photo-contest websites to which users upload their best photos in the hopes of winning either a prize or for the sheer glory of online fame, badges and points. They differ from straightforward photo-sharing sites like Instagram and Flickr in that users are encouraged in various ways to vote for their favourite works posted by other users.
Then I heard about Gurushots, which describes itself as an “online gaming platform for photographers”. At least they’re honest about the emphasis they place on the competition side of their offering.
I joined up to Gurushots with an open mind and no particular agenda except discovering whether it was something I would find useful to advance my photography and connect with other users. All of this was really a new thing for me, because beyond the basics of Instagram and the very outmoded Flickr which I’ve used for 10 years, I’ve no prior experience with anything like this. As an aspiring professional, I had nothing to lose.
I set up a profile and saw that the way it works. You upload pictures in order to enter them into challenges set by the ‘Gurus’ (advanced users). Very quickly the notifications of votes, likes and other types of engagement came flooding in. There are around 8 challenges that I could see in which to participate. For each challenge a maximum of 4 pictures can be entered. The challenges might for example be called Golden Light or Cat Portraits or Looking Up, so fairly broad topics and a springboard for ideas.
Straightaway I found that the gamification of the voting system was very apparent. For each challenge on your dashboard you have something resembling a speedometer. It’s set to the lowest ‘exposure’ level until you do something crucial to get it up to the high level: you have to vote on the other challenge participants’ photos.
How many you vote on determines the exposure level of your own photos. The exposure meter drops as hours pass, meaning you need to keep voting to rev it up to the highest level of exposure on your pictures. From what I can gather, the more pictures you vote on the more ‘voting power’ your individual vote carries. So a particularly avid voter might have “7 X Voting Power”. Gurus’ votes count for 20% more than any other users.
Your dashboard shows various levels of advancement all the way from Newbie to Guru. In order to progress, you must attain a certain level of popularity in so many challenges, attain so many points, and complete a successful ‘swap’, which I still don’t really understand but I think it is when you successfully remove one of your 4 photo-challenge pictures for a different one which then achieves more votes from the community.
This system surely keeps you chained to the site if you give in to the addictive power of it.
This system surely keeps you chained to the site if you give in to the addictive power of it. You’ll feel that you always need to vote or swap out photos or submit to new challenges.
You can even buy ‘swaps’ for $.99 each or less per swap if you buy 20; and ‘autofills’ which are just a big, crazy nothing. An autofill “fills up your exposure meter in all active challenges” and is essentially a day off using Gurushots. That you buy. What a time to be alive.
I’m not entirely sure how Gurushots monetizes, as buying the refills etc surely can’t be that much of a revenue-generator. They do offer a critique service in which amateurs pay pros $8.95 per photo for their critique with Gurushots taking 30%. No doubt as happens with almost all online platforms, after a few years of operation, they change their terms and conditions. They inevitably make users pay for features that were previously free. (As an aside, the inescapable changes to T&Cs of just about every online platform over time make me very cautious. That’s one reason I choose to publish my primary content on my own platform, where the rug is less likely to be pulled from under my feet.)
Gurushots has many fans whose reviews you can read online, and has gotten kudos from this blog for removing the rights grab last year. It means photographers’ rights are supported as Gurushots can’t use their work for general advertising purposes, only for promoting the contest to which the images have been submitted.
In an increasingly vapid and meaningless world this just preys on our need for validation and engagement with others.
However I’m not down with Gurushots. (Excuse me while I round up that high horse, I need to get on it.) In an increasingly vapid and meaningless world this just preys on our need for validation and engagement with others. Fanboys will have you believing that this is just a harmless way for photographers of whatever level to share their work, hone their skills, learn new ways of seeing the world and be part of a creative community.
There are many ways of engaging with good photography without having to spend hours on a website everyday voting in order that your pictures are seen by others. It’s just empty, people! Outside of this one particular website, who cares about the badges you are awarded and the 150,000 points you will have to achieve in order to attain ‘guru status’? Are you going to get more clients? Is your photography going to be worth more? Are you going to feel great about yourself for all the hours and weeks and months you spent completing the game? Maybe. But more likely you’ll feel empty because this is supposed peer interaction that bypasses anything that human beings would actually regard as socially fulfilling.
It is an illusion that means absolutely nothing outside of this little URL
Human beings will always crave validation, whether you are a photographer, a postman or a brain surgeon. Gurushots and others like it feed that need to be accepted and liked by our peers. The numbers can be quite dizzying straightaway and that kind of instant gratification is extremely addictive and gives us a real buzz. But the buzz is short-lived when we realise that it’s fake. It is an illusion that means absolutely nothing outside of this little URL that we type in when we need an ego boost. Sure we can kid ourselves that it’s just a fun little game and it actually improves our photography but seriously? It’s just a way of getting your ego stroked – and paying for the pleasure whether with money or with time.
While you’re here…
I have a small favor to ask and it doesn’t involve money!
This article was written yonks ago in 2016 and I honestly have no interest in the subject anymore! I stayed up one night, spent too many hours on these kind of sites, wrote this article the next day, then never returned to the sites in question ever again. All ancient history now.
If you’d like to keep up to date with what what I’m doing now and what’s changed from the days of ‘seriously outraged photography novitiate mounts high horse again shocker’, and for something altogether more entertaining, please give me a follow on Instagram. I photograph intimate weddings in the SF Bay Area of California. Come join the fun!