As an ageing baby boomer, I have strong and clear memories of thumbing through the family set of the Arthur Mee Encyclopædia – we were far too poor to own the much more prestigious Encyclopædia Britannica! My parents had struggled to provide my brothers and I with access to an amazing resource to answer all the questions of inquiring young minds.
So it is with some dismay that I see naive photographers seeking complex answers to technical or business problems, by randomly tossing their question into that maelstrom more commonly called the World Wide Web.
No, I have no difficulty with seeking answers from the web, nor do I hesitate to use this facility again and again to my absolute advantage. My problem stems from the often sensed, complete and utter lack of veracity or provenance contained in random answers given to equally random questions. A case in point – a question posed in the last hour on an online photographers’ group I’m researching asked whether charging a client for a commercial job would employ the same fee structure as that used when supplying photographs for a portrait assignment.
The naiveté of the question (and the questioner) gives me great heartache – another subject, another issue, another rant – another day.
No, my current concern is that the questioner appears not to understand the complexity of their question and furthermore is unaware that the variety of answers that magically appeared in response came from unknown, unverified and seemingly unqualified sources. The original question contained so many issues that needed clarification; such as the country and city where the studio was located, the quality and skill level of the practitioner, the level of competence demanded by client, the intended usage, the list is endless.
It is a case of not knowing what you do not know – and working from that starting point with no formal photographic training, is a tough position in which to be. What made my early childhood forays into information seeking worthwhile and productive was the underlying assumption that the encyclopædia that I was consulting had an academic and international reputation, which had stood up to some level of scrutiny prior to publication, and for some years before.
Random answers from unknown sources are fraught with problems – whatever the source. It is the unregulated nature of the web that lends itself to errors of interpretation, bias, mistruth, skullduggery and even humorous provocation at the expense of the unwittingly innocent questioner.
The manner in which a question is posed is often of paramount importance. Ask what is essentially the same question in three ways and observe the considerable variation in the resulting answers. Continuing this line of question rephrasing leads to ever decreasing circles into the whirlpool of confusion on offer by the abyss.
My method of interrogating the WWW is to look for the credentials of the source being consulted, (Wikipedia requires at least a second similar opinion) or by going to a source whose opinion I know and trust. It is like having a mentor to consult, or access to peers within the industry, who can be relied upon to give clear honest answers.
Arguably the web has been one of the great information access points in the twenty-first century, but that ease of accessibility is also one of its weak points for the unwary. Being photographically untrained, but computer literate, does not a photographer make.
Instead of Google, a much safer scenario might be to seek the wisdom of one of your own kind, in person, perhaps a seasoned campaigner able to interpret the question ‘how to price a photography job’ before responding, and far less likely to offer 445 million results (or 26 million videos) as potential answers – most of them spurious.