There’s something to be said for competition; the fierce, bracing exercise of it all. Some say it does a soul good, others believe it builds character and drives ambition, while a certain few see it as corrupting; pitting worthy opponents against each other in a gladiator struggle to the death. Or to the record deal, the lead role, the starter’s position, or a spot in the juried round for a TV commercial.
I fall somewhere in the middle of all that thinking. I’m convinced competition can be a motivator, snapping you out of routine to step up to a new challenge. It surely offers opportunity to not only get out and network, but also to expose one’s wares to a greater audience. In the hyper-saturated marketplace of the Internet where everyone on earth is selling everything on earth, a contest can sometimes provide a way to break out of the pack. All fine stuff. On the other hand, it can drive people crazy. I’ve seen it. Perfectly good people can lose their cool when it comes to winning something. Picture the doors opening at Best Buy on Black Friday morning. Athletes doping before a race. Girl Scouts tussling over hot spots to sell cookies. Contest frenzy can make people greedy and ruthless, force attention onto the wrong goal, and cause the precipitous loss of integrity. That kind of edge may seem all Masters of the Universe, but typically it comes with selling of the soul and that gets sticky when you’re lying in bed at night wondering why you can’t sleep.
I’ve been involved in an interesting contest this past month, one that’s brought the weird, swirling chemistry of competition front and center. FINE ART AMERICA, one of the premier online marketplaces that hosts, prints, frames and sells the work of photographers and artists, is getting ready to do another national TV commercial and will be using photographs chosen from five of its thousands of photographers, selected via a contest called “National TV Photo Contest.” The rules allow every FAA photographer to submit up to three photos and whichever accrues 250 votes by the end of May will advance to the juried round for potential selection. Each submitting artist was given 100 votes to play/barter/trade with and off we went.
250 votes. You wouldn’t think that’d be too hard, right? I’ve got over 500 Facebook friends, 700 some Twitter followers, hundreds of people on my mailing lists, and a load of fans at my Huffington Post column. How hard could it be?
My go-to people – friends, family, certain fabulous colleagues, other artists – got right on it, votes came flying in. There was my first chunk, whoo hoo, look at me, I’m headed to the juried round! But, as it turns out, once that go-to group got to it, I wasn’t even halfway home and clearly it was time to get busy.
Next thing you discover is that, despite the number of Facebook friends anyone has, you can only scrap the top layer off and expect that group to respond to any given post. The rest are there for some reason, I’m not sure what. They rarely post, they never jump into a thread, and it seems the whole “salon/community board” aspect of the site eludes them. I guess they just quietly read what everyone else posts and that’s fine and I’m still happy to have them. They are not, however, going to take the time to vote for my damn picture.
That big email list? Did okay there but, again, only a slice. Twitter, surprisingly, yielded more than expected (which means, still, only a handful), and the rest of the gang? Some are weary of vote/donate/read my article requests. Which I get. Sometimes I am too, but I’m big on supporting friends, family, and artists so I crank up the “click” buttons regardless. A few didn’t want to sign-in and get on the FAA mailing list. I get that too, but, for God’s sake, I signed your petition, voted for your cause, and donated to Kickstarter; the least you can do is sign in and unsubscribe later! There were those who “don’t like voting for contests, you know?” (no, I don’t). Some didn’t want their private information sent to “another online company” (please, you shop online, don’t you?). Many, predictably, didn’t even respond to my various public or private pleas. But that’s okay, I know how it goes, I’ll just move on down the road to another source. Sincere and big old thanks to the many who stepped up to the voting booth. Seriously. I really appreciated it!
But there’s still that 250 votes. Gulp.
It was looking a little bleak when one of my fellow Fine Art photographers got inventive and created a Facebook group called “Get 250,” where all competing photographers were invited to join, swap votes, offer support, and do what they could to get their own votes while helping others get theirs. Eureka, a gold mine of competitive collaboration! In the couple of weeks I’ve been involved in the group, I’ve not only seen some amazing photography, but I’ve met some of the most generous, encouraging, helpful people I could hope to meet in a big-ass competition. We’re like that group of American Idol kids early on when there’s still lots of them left in the house and they all love each other!
But, I have to admit, it has been a bit of a slog. The whole “I’ve voted for you, please please vote for me” paradigm has been exhausting. Keeping track of hundreds of photographers –remembering who you voted for, who voted for you, who hasn’t yet voted for you and who should’ve voted for you but apparently isn’t — takes an Excel spreadsheet and loads of disposable hours. There are the ever-cheerful folks who don’t mind how many times you ask for a vote, gently reminding you, “I voted for you last week.” There’s the grumpier sort who gets a little testy with, “Once again, I already voted for you!” There are those who just leave petulant posts about how stupid it is that “we have to solicit votes instead of just having our work judged on merit” (odds are they won’t be getting their 250!). Others who pat backs, keep people from quitting, and put in an extra vote when able to access their spouse’s pack of 100 (anyone who signs up get 100 votes too, so plenty of spouses’ account got put to good use!). Several in the group took time to gather and post links to people’s Facebook and Fine Art America pages so they could be “liked” and looked at, with lots of authentic compliments to follow. Frankly, as sloggy as it’s been, there’s been a bona fide air of camaraderie along the way and when someone gets to that vaunted 250 mark, genuine celebration happens like virtual confetti. Very nice.
But, still, in the midst of all this group-love the darker side of competition emerges, the one that seems to seep into even the highest toned contests and spoil the fun. In the case of this particular contest, it’s all about the honor system with votes at this point and each vote is gold. For the artists swapping out with each other, it’s “I vote for you, you vote for me,” and if that gets done all is happy in the kingdom. So when someone makes the effort to, say, vote for 30 other artists and only a few reciprocate, clearly Good Contest Decorum is lacking. But even worse, as some get closer to the magic number – click, click, click – their vote counts suddenly go down instead of up, meaning someone who already voted for them, and likely won a swapped vote in return, has now snuck into the barn, so to speak, and stole back the horse they just traded for good money, anonymously canceling their vote because the contest software allows them to get away with that. Impressive killer instinct, right? The kind of shark bite stuff that wins contests, yes? Maybe. But in my book, they suck.
But this is when the good people in the bunch stand out, people with names like Shane, Torfinn, Stav, Christal, Michael, Ivana, Maureen, Greg, Terry, Lingfai, Janie, Bob, Holly, Jorge, Tiana, Heather, Mimi, Nicole, Ashley, Fredrik, Maria, Lynette and so many more. People who spread good will, stepped up to help, wrangled more votes for people who’d lost some, posted for others on their own pages, did whatever they could to pull the stragglers up or get the late-comers up-to-speed. Good, solid, really menschy people who’ve redeemed humanity right here in the middle of this little contest that seems sorta big to all of us.
Which makes the point that contests really are a microcosm of life. A tiny version of what we go through each day, the prizes being the achievement of success, wealth, relationships, kids, love, joy, happiness, good health, etc. Like a contest, we’re each given obstacles and puzzles to solve and overcome to our benefit. How we do that, how we traverse our particular journeys, is the mark of who we are as people. What level of honor and integrity we expect of ourselves, what demand for civility and compassion, how we help, sacrifice, and show empathy even while trying to get to the finish line. Every bit of it speaks loudly to our character and creates our story, our brand, our humanity.
So thank you to all the great people in my life who took the time to do whatever signing-in was necessary to get some votes to me. Some of you set up extra Facebook pages, posted notices on your own pages, and got the word out to your group of contacts in any way you could. Amazing. I hope you know how much I appreciate it!
And another big thanks to all the fellow artists I’ve met in this contest. I hope we all Get 250 and advance to the next round. Despite the chaos, the greater experience was the camaraderie. I look forward to continuing the connections, however and wherever we all do. GOOD LUCK!
[To access the links to many of contest submissions, go to www.rockpapermusic.com for the original printing of this article.]