Viewbug describes itself as “a unique photography community that fosters collaboration and rewards creativity… a place to be creative, be inspired, and receive recognition”. They say they “host the world’s best photo contests” – and there certainly are a lot of them, at 3,500 and counting.
A few days ago I decided to upload a few photos after hearing about Viewbug for the first time on Fstoppers. Not knowing anything about photo contest sites, and being an aspiring professional photographer, I figured I’d give it a try. I wrote about my experience using Gurushots, another popular photography gaming website in this post.
It seemed like my photos were getting a very good response straightaway. A few days later I have 43 followers and 28 awards from the 34 photos I’ve uploaded. Users have to be somewhat strategic about which photos they upload, as the ‘Challenges’ (set by other Viewbuggers without prizes) and ‘Contests’ (set by outside sponsors, and include cash or gear prizes) dictate what to share and submit. You work to a theme, for example Mellow Yellow, Posed Moments, Water Reflections, A Small Fishing Lake, or whatever. There may be dozens of challenges going on at any given time, not to mention Contests.
Straight off the bat the likes, awards and follows began to pour in. I was thrilled that my work was being seen by an audience, and not just anyone with a phone but a bona fide “photographic community”. This seemed important because I was no longer in the world of the attention-seeking Instagrammer. I then entered a couple of contests, where there are apparently real prizes such as photographic equipment. So far, so addictive.
About this time I got to wondering how the site makes its money. (And that turned into a whole bunch of research online because that’s how I roll. I’ll share that with you soon.) Anyway, it turns out the way they monetize their platform is by having different levels of membership namely you can be a Premium or a Pro member, currently $4.92 or $11.58 per month when billed annually.
When you look deeper into it, being a ‘Lite’ (free) member really is pointless, yet the costs of becoming a paid member are quite steep, with Pro membership involving parting with a sum of $89 though apparently normally it’s $139. Why is it essentially pointless? There are many caps on a free or even Premium membership such as a limit to how many photos you can upload (just 10 per week) and they also crucially restrict your level of exposure so you’ll no doubt be out of the game when it comes to winning those big prizes without the site’s algorithms boosting your exposure. You also aren’t even able to enter anything but the free photo contests, where the prizes would have to be deliberately less desirable.
Something smells a little fishy. This reeks of ego-stroking. You pay handsomely for the real prize of maximum exposure whether your work’s any good or not. People will vote for your work because it’s in front of more eyeballs. You’ve paid for that privilege. Do people not see that this detracts from the real satisfaction of seeing your work organically rise to the top because of genuine viewer engagement? To me, this is akin to Facebook’s ‘promote your post’ practice. But even worse because you’re asking those who see it to vote for you in a competition.
An online complaints board (which yes, must be taken with a pinch of salt) details one disgruntled user’s point of view concerning how Viewbug has changed since he/she began using it some time beforehand. The post is from 2013. He/she details how one used to be able to create hundreds of groups, and now it is capped to three. The value of prizes in contests has fallen. There are hundreds of thousands of entries per contest.
Others go as far as to call Viewbug a “Ponzi scheme preying on photographers”.
Others report seeing that the same photographer won 2 competitions with the same photo at the same time. Some people have taken to the thread to complain that they won a prize, but it never materialised. Others go as far as to call Viewbug a “Ponzi scheme preying on photographers”.
Who knows whether it is to be believed, but alarmingly one respondent on the above thread reported being approached by Viewbug to become a ‘Curator’. A Curator’s job it seems is to ‘fluff’ new members with compliments and other engagement, which encourages them to pay for a full membership in order to keep receiving attention. The comment dates from May 2016 and it might well be that these ‘Curators’ are fluffing me with likes and awards so that I decide to part with cash should I want to be flattered further.
On this thread from May 2016 a user states that he won a contest, only to be told by a customer service representative that he would have to “pay some money to get the prize”.
There even exists a Facebook page called “Viewbug.com SCAM” which exposes this website as a supposed scam site, and contains more stories such as winners never receiving their prizes, photos submitted to contests appearing elsewhere on the web without the owner’s consent, and being bombarded with spam email from which you can’t unsubscribe. The page calls Viewbug, “A complete scam. All they are interested in is your membership fee”.
It’s hard to know what to make of all this information. For every horror story, there are users who seem very happy to participate in what they regard as a genuine and supportive photo-sharing community with, as they see it, upfront information about the paid levels of membership, which one can choose whether to go in for or not.
There is blatant manipulation happening to favour those more valued customers who have paid for exposure.
I wouldn’t rule out entering photography competitions, but they will be recognised ones (perhaps with a small entry fee) with respected judges where there is accountability and transparency. Photography competitions which have a real world component to them trumps anonymous ones in which you are battling an algorithm and therefore have no chance of figuring out what the heck’s going on. There is blatant manipulation happening to favour those more valued customers who have paid for exposure. I’m not going to waste my time on it.
For myself, I think I will take a step back from online photo contest sites such as Viewbug and Gurushots. I know how addictive they are. I think that unless you know who the judges of a contest actually are – and you respect those individuals and value their praise – what is the point of entering a contest? And what kind of a contest is this anyway? A photography contest… or a popularity contest?