Pros and cons to Facebook's fast-growing role in digital photography

By Caitlin McDevitt
Sunday, March 14, 2010

The glossy print, it seems, is losing its sheen. According to estimates from IDC, 42 billion photos will be printed worldwide, both commercially and personally, in 2013. That's a third fewer than the 63 billion printed in 2008. Meanwhile about 124 billion photos are on pace to be shared through social networks that year. If it maintains its momentum, Facebook will probably host the biggest share of these images.

The advent of the affordable digital camera circa 2001 was hard enough on the photo industry. People no longer had to buy film because photos could be stored on memory cards or on a computer hard drive. Now Facebook is slowly but surely turning the nozzle of the industry's only other real revenue stream: photo printing.

Facebook is making the glossy print look as old-fashioned as a black-and-white Polaroid. Uploading photos onto Facebook is a cinch. And you can organize them into albums that are easier to sort through than boxes stuffed into the attic.

Most important, Facebook provides a photo-sharing process that's fun and ongoing. When you "tag" friends who appear in your photos, those people get e-mails letting them know. If you create an album, your friends can find it easily when they log in, and they can comment on photos that they care about. And people on Facebook love looking at pictures. As a result, photo browsing accounts for a huge chunk of all activity on the site.

The proliferation of pictures on Facebook -- from frat-party snapshots to baby albums -- is accelerating the decline of the printed photo. According to the Photo Marketing Association, nearly 40 percent of households with digital cameras no longer print out their pictures. Needless to say, this is bad news for the companies that have long relied on photo development to make profits. A recent article in Picture Business magazine says, "Over the past couple of years, the photo imaging industry has watched the explosion of social networking with anguish: Nobody prints, and printing is the profit driver of our businesses."

Many people now upload pictures and share them with family and friends online instead. And with 400 million users uploading 3 billion photos a month, Facebook has become the largest photo-sharing site on the Web by far. A whopping 65 percent of people sharing pictures online are doing so using Facebook, according to comScore.

In the past year, Facebook's photo-sharing feature has more than doubled its audience, and competitors such as Flickr and Photobucket are struggling to keep up. This is a dramatic takeover of first place; up until mid-2007, Photobucket was more popular than Facebook for sharing photos. Photobucket's market penetration has since shrunk to 20 percent, and uploads to the site dropped 7 percent this year.

People want to put their pictures in a place where family and friends can see them, so Facebook is a natural choice. But although the site is great for sharing photos, it's also becoming a default place for storing them. And that's not necessarily a good thing. Facebook doesn't have the capacity to store all the world's photos without shrinking them first. Facebook just announced that it will increase its maximum photo size by 20 percent. But even with the upgrade, the photo quality on Facebook isn't useful for more than basic onscreen viewing.

Chris Chute, a digital imaging research analyst at IDC, said that "720 pixels will provide for a richer photo experience online, but to create a 4x6 print would still require additional data." And competition could be coming around the corner. Google made sure to mention the superior photo quality of Picasa uploads when introducing its social network Buzz last month. A post on the company's Gmail blog said: "No more fuzzy little pictures: Buzz makes it easy to quickly flip through photos and experience them the way they were meant to be seen: big and full-resolution."

It's also troubling that most users aren't aware that uploading a picture to Facebook -- and then deleting it from your camera -- means you've lost the original image for good. According to a recent survey from market research firm InfoTrends, fewer than a third of people surveyed knew that photos on social-networking sites are stored at a decreased resolution. This is probably because Facebook photos look just fine on a computer screen. But when they are printed, the images cannot be cropped or enlarged without looking blurry.

Want to frame a 5x7 of the great group shot from the family vacation? Better not store it on Facebook. Looking forward to viewing your Facebook pictures on your high-definition television? Don't get too excited. Facebook spokeswoman Meredith Chin says the company has no plans to make the maximum image-size bigger anytime soon.

One Facebook engineer recently argued that it's not photo quality but context -- a pinpointing of place, time and participants -- that people care about these days. If that's true, then a few fuzzy pictures shouldn't be problematic for Facebook. But if not, and dissatisfaction with its photo quality increases over time, the site's biggest draw could quickly become its greatest vulnerability.

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