Should you Workshop? Why I took Michael Frye’s Fall Foliage workshop

Two weeks ago Laurie and I headed out to Lee Vining for a week where we participated in one of Michael Frye‘s fall foliage workshops. this one has been on my ToDo list for a couple of years, and we finally had the time to make it happen.

Was it worth it? Oh, baby….

Sunrise at South Tufas, Mono Lake

That’s mono lake’s South Tufas at dawn. As is typical of a landscape shot, what you don’t see here is a pre-dawn alarm, a drive in the dark, a long hike in 40 degree dark along an unpaved path, and a couple of hours of fairly bland light which sandwiched a few moments of stunning dawn color. Another thing you don’t see here are two of my workshop compatriots, who got cloned out of this shot…

So, why a workshop? And if you’ve never taken a workshop and are curious, what are they like?

This was my first organized workshop; from research and talking to others, Michael’s format is fairly typical. The workshop started after lunch on Wednesday and concluded around lunchtime on Saturday, giving you three full days of shooting and instruction over four days.

The first day started with introductions and some basic discussion and instruction, and then everyone headed out for an afternoon shoot. As the light faded we then shifted back to Mono Lake to try for a sunset.

Scarred Aspen Trunk  Mono Lake Sunset

The next morning the alarm went off around 5AM, everyone gathered by 6AM, and off we headed to the South Tufas on Mono Lake. Not mentioned in the bit above was that on the hike down to the Tufas, I caught a rock in the trail and launched myself and my gear headfirst into a creosote bush. I was not hurt beyond a few scratches, and neither was my gear. The bush, well, not so lucky.

Sunrise at South Tufas, Mono Lake

I did get some nice shots down there, fortunately. By about 9AM we were back at the cars and the day was headed into mid-day and everyone broke for breakfast. During the middle of the day, we gathered for discussion and instruction and Michael  and his assistant (Mike Osborne, a long-time ranger at Yosemite and photographer) went over some of the standard photography basics but then shifted more towards composition and content techniques and did so through showing some of their own images.

As we headed into the afternoon, we headed out for a second shooting session, followed by another chase for interesting sunsets. After dinner, there was an optional session where you could bring in your laptop and images that you were shooting. I took advantage of that the first night, and was able to sit down with Michael and talk at some length about some of the images, especially ones I thought had potential but wasn’t sure how I wanted to process them. That session ended about 9PM for me, because we were up at 5AM again the next morning.

Both of the full days were like that — 12-14 hour days that were split between two shooting periods and a more relaxed conversation/instruction. Saturday was a final morning shoot chasing the sunrise with the workshop closing out by noon.

Fall Aspens on the June Lake Loop

The cost for this was $685 a person, plus hotel, travel and meals. There were twelve of us in the workshop. Michael was accompanied by one co-instructor with Michael’s wife Claudia managing logistics. I’d say everyone in the group was fairly advanced and mostly self-sufficient, although the two instructors were careful to make sure they checked in with everyone and made sure things were going okay.

All in all, a very intense few days. Based on my movement tracker a full day was good about about 3 miles of hiking a day (at 8,000 feet). With my knee and weight I did somewhat less — I had let Michael know I was going to have to pace myself and would hang back if I felt a hike was beyond me and entertain myself, which I did in a couple of instances. As it happened, my knee finally made it clear it had had enough so Laurie and I pulled out and skipped the Friday sunset and the Saturday dawn shoots, and instead when we got up Saturday did a scouting visit to Merced NWR on the way home — where we found about 1,100 Sandhill Cranes and a few nice flocks of Greater White-Fronted geese. No Ross’s or Snow geese yet, but I just saw my first report of them being heard flying overhead from the Sacramento area, so they’re on the way…

Should you take a workshop?

So, should you take a workshop? I think it’s critical to know what the Workshop offers and that it’s aligned with what you want to get out of it. To me, most workshops can be defined in one of two ways:

  1. You are joining the workshop because the leaders are going to guide you around and make sure you find the right places to take photos at the right time — especially in an area you don’t know well (or at all). There may be some instruction involved, but really, this is about being guided to the right locations.
  2. You are joining the workshop to be taught some aspect of photography. It may be taught in some beautiful and scenic location, but the focus is more on teaching — and you get some nice photos as well.

This workshop had some instructional aspects, but was really about the locations and the shooting. Laurie’s been to Mono Lake a number of times but despite being a California native who visited Yosemite regularly as a kid (I’m old enough to remember the firewall and to have played golf on the Ahwanee’s golf course. And if you’re thinking to yourself “there’s no golf course at the Ahwahnee!”, well, exactly… kid) I never made it up to Tioga pass or over the hill until a couple of years ago. For me, a workshop like this was going to be a boot camp to learning that area quickly.

Before you go, set goals — and make sure they’re aligned with the workshop

Fall Aspens on the June Lake Loop

I had a number of reasons to pick this workshop from this instructor.

  1. I hadn’t spent any significant time in the Eastern Sierra or around Mono Lake and I wanted to have someone show me around and help me get a feel for the place in a compressed period of time, because I simply haven’t had the time to go off and explore on my own in that areas — and because the fall foliage season is short, hiring someone to guide me was a good value both for learning the area and maximizing the chances of getting good images out of the trip.
  2. One of my biggest weaknesses in my skill set has been shooting landscapes in the medium telephoto — roughly the 70-200mm range where you get away from broad epic wide angle images and more into the intimate landscapes of trying to isolate and show off features of the landscape rather than the broad swaths of an area. Frankly, I suck at it, but Michael’s preferred shooting is in that range and he would be a great teacher for me to bootstrap off of.
  3. I almost never shoot in a group. I tend to shoot solo, or with Laurie. So the workshop puts me into a context where I’m around other photographers and having to work with (and sometimes around) them.
  4. Did I mention I don’t shoot well in locations I don’t know well? If I am new to a location, I tend to struggle getting good shots; I either have to explore and discover, or when I can, visit a place to scout and then go back later to shoot when I’ve had time to think over that area. But with these workshops, we’re dropped into a location and given an hour or maybe two to shoot, which means I had to show up, scope it out, and get the shots — forcing me into a shooting system far outside my normal preferences.
  5. The workshop/group setup is cheaper. Based on the people I’ve talked to about possibly hiring them for a day or two of one-on-one instruction/guiding, the going rate among photographers I’d what to hire seems to be around $600 a day (and yes, my next step is likely to do this, hopefully next spring). By going with the workshop I got a longer time and a more varied set of locations, but less hands-on with the instructors; for me, well worth it for this one.
  6. A final aspect of this workshop: pushing my physical limits, because if I  had to describe the single biggest weakness in my photography today, it’s my weight and my health — it limits what I can do and how I can do it in many significant ways — so going out on workshops like this is a way to reinforce that and see where my limits are as a way to push me to keep motivated to fixing that. This became a much bigger priority after my recent visit to the emergency room, too.

So this workshop was ultimately about pushing myself so far out of my comfort zone that it hurt, and then making myself come to grips with everything and still figure out how to make image that didn’t embarrass myself, since I knew I was going to blog about this and didn’t want to talk about a photo workshop without showing off any photos. No pressure…

Fall Sunrise at Convict Lake

I did a lot of research, talking to people and thinking before choosing this workshop with this leader at this time and location. I think everyone considering a workshop needs to understand why they’re spending the money and what they want to get out of it before taking the leap. I knew that the setup for this workshop aligned with my goals because I did the research and I’d talked to Michael on and off over the last couple of years – but if you’re thinking about taking a workshop from someone you don’t know well you need to ask questions about the format and intent. If they’re unwilling to spend the time answering those questions, don’t sign up for their workshop. Chances are that kind of bad attitude will appear during the workshop as well.

There are other aspects you should consider before paying for a workshop: are the instructors insured and trained and do they really know the material and area they’re leading you into? Do they have the proper permits (this is especially important if they’re teaching inside a National Park, because there are a lot of unapproved rogue workshops where the instructors don’t follow the permit process — and the rangers are increasingly cracking down on this and you might find yourself kicked out of the park or fined or arrested for violating park rules. ASK FOR PERMITS AND PROOF OF INSURANCE, and if the workshop leads don’t email you a copy right away, run like hell.

Another thing to keep in mind is how much (or if) the instructors are going to shoot during the workshop. Gary Crabbe has a great summary of this and how it can create problems for the workshop attendees if it’s handled wrong. I don’t think there’s any one right answer here, but I do think the workshop leads need to keep the needs and goals of the attendees as the top priority over their own shooting. When I was down in Morro Bay last January for the Bird Festival I spent some time with some of the folks who organize different events down there, and we had a long talk about one specific person that was invited down there to run some workshops and spent so much time on his own images he left a very sour taste in the mouths of both the people who paid to go out and shoot with him and the organizers — who needless to say will never invite that person back for any event anywhere in the region again. Unfortunately, that fit in 100% with what I’d heard about that instructor from other sources, which is why they’re on my list of people I’ll never take a workshop from (and no, I won’t name the name, since I don’t have direct experience with them here. but over a coffee, you’re welcome to ask).

Don’t be afraid to ask the workshop leaders what their philosophy is about this. Don’t be afraid to ask for references for students from previous workshops, and when you talk to those references, ask them about it. If you go into a workshop expecting the leader to work with you on your images and the leader instead spends the workshop bent over his own camera, you’re not going to be happy — and you’re the one who put out all that money to fund his trip to take his images on your dime. Know what you’re getting into before you put down the money, and if you think the leader is spending too much of your paid-for time on their own work, make sure they know it.

With this workshop, both Michael and his associate did some shooting, but both were very careful to interact with everyone and made sure everyone was settled in and shooting and had no questions before they did so. One the first shoot on Wednesday, it turned out Laurie had an equipment problem (because I assumed this plate would work with that tripod because Arca-Swiss is compatible, right?) and Michael spent a chunk of time with her trying to fix it before calling me over to see what I could figure out — and with the help of my handy multi-tool, we got it resolved. (but kids, always test EVERYTHING before a major shoot, because it’s that small assumed detail that will make you look like a doofus).

Then when I went back to my own shooting, there I was in a location I didn’t know using a brand new lens I’ve never really shot with, looking at compositions in a range I almost never shoot and rarely like my results, in a group of people who were already down and shooting and getting results — at 8000 feet and walking around trying to catch my breath. And trying to actually get images I didn’t actively hate. To say I felt at that moment like an absolute idiot is an understatement.

But I kept at it, and I started getting myself dialed in with the lens. Oz, Mike’s associate, wandered by and we had a fairly extended conversation about composition in medium telephoto and he looked at some of the things I was trying and made suggestions on what was working and what didn’t, and the compositions started happening, or at least not sucking. And I started out that session feeling like I shouldn’t be allowed to ever touch a camera again, and came out of it with this:

Which may not be the best image in the world, but it’s one I’m really proud of, if only because it doesn’t look like very other Aspen-fall-foliage image in the universe. And throughout the rest of the workshop, I shot about 75% with that 55-200 lens in the focal range I didn’t get, and only let myself shoot really wide about 25% of the time, and by the end of the workshop I clearly wasn’t a master of that type of image, but I no longer felt defeated by it, and in all of the ways I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I’d found ways to to grow my comfort zone around most of these challenges.

I ended up with 22 shots I thought were pretty good, and you can see those over on my flickr account. Of those, eight of the images I liked enough to place in my “real” portfolio, and you can see those in the slideshow below.

Even though I missed a couple of shooting sessions because of the knee, I’m really happy with the shooting I did and my ability to push into some of the technical areas I had been struggling with. I was able to spend some very useful time with both Michael and his associate and the suggestions and feedback they gave really helped me focus on the things I was trying to accomplish. The group as a whole rocked — lots of fun people who were really sharp photographers, and from what I could tell, everyone was having a lot of fun (and everyone hated 5AM alarms as much as I did, but it’s the only way to get it done…)

If there was one change to the workshop format I might suggest, it’s that it would have been nice to be able to spend some time looking at and talking about each other’s photos, if people wanted to share. There is a flickr group for the workshop where we can share images with each other, but that lacks the easy conversation that being in the same room can create. That said, this isn’t as simple as it may sound, because not everyone processes images in the field (Laurie doesn’t), and not everyone’s going to be comfortable sharing works in progress, so I understand why it’s set up this way — and not everyone is as comfortable with critiques as I am, and I understand that hesitation.

So for me, the workshop met all my goals and beat all my expectations. I knew going in there was a chance I’d have to pull back or pull out because of my health and knees, and in reality, I covered a lot more distance at 8,000 feet than I thought I could do, and felt pretty good until the knee gave out. That gives me a sense that I can push my exercise harder than I have, at least once I get the next round of cortisone this week. Mike and his team were awesome, and I can recommend his workshops without limitation. Mono Lake and the Lee Vining area are a fascinating area and the fall foliage is stunning; next trip will have to include Bodie and Manzanar, too, and maybe Devil’s Postpile.

Thinking of taking a workshop? Go for it — but do some research and make sure you hire the right leaders and that the schedule and goals of the workshop align with yours. The leader will make or break your enjoyment and success at creating interesting images, so it’s crucial you are comfortable that they can make the workshop a success for you.

What’s next for me? I’m headed into the winter refuge season, and my focus is going to be shooting in the central valley until spring. I’ve been looking at headed up into the Klamath to explore that region, although right now, I’m thinking that’s after the first of the year if it happens this year — with the drought, and the avian botulism problems at Tule Lake, it’s hard to judge how successful a trip that would be right now. I want to go down to Piedras Blancas in January for the elephant seals (but no Bird Festival this year), and then maybe in dogwood season I’ll see if I can find a couple of days for some private instruction, and I have a couple of photographers I’d like to hire for that if I can.

So I plan on keeping busy. And I know at some point I’ll be going back into the mix with another workshop, but first, I need to get some more weight off and get in better shape for my to really be able take advantage of that format and not be the old slow guy of the group….


Posted in Photography, Road Trips

Back from a bit of a trip…




Just back from a few days on the road taking photos. Wonder if you can guess where I’ve been?


Sunrise at South Tufas, Mono Lake


More soon once I unpack. And sleep. And ice my knees.


Posted in Road Trips

The Social Media Celebrity Diet

How much time do you spend on social media? How often a day (or an hour) do you stop and sneak a peek at Twitter or Facebook to see what new stuff might be there? How often do you let your social media interrupt you for a quick look?

No, I don’t need to hear the answer to that question. I’m uncomfortable enough trying to be honest with myself about the question. I don’t care what your answer is, anyway. But you should.

One of the changes I decided I wanted to make was to rethink what I did on social media and how much time I spent interacting with it. That decision was based on a few factors, but the biggest ones were that work continues to be really busy and I need to focus on it, and I’ve been frankly struggling with finding the right balance between work focus and social media. The way I had my social media usage structured involved a shallow dipping in and out along the day, and I’m finding that doesn’t work well now. It’s too interruptive, so I have to change some things up.

I’ve also been going through a research and explore phase, looking for new voices, studying new photographers, digging into some new topics, especially some of the drought and environmental issues I find myself wanting to understand better because of the way it impacts the refuges I’ve gotten so involved in photographing. When I’m in that mode, I tend to be adding a lot of people to my social media roles to find the voices I can learn from and enjoy interacting with, or new photographers to study and watch, that sort of thing.

Now I’m shifting back to efficiency mode. My goal was to cut 30-45 minutes a day out of my social media interactions, but more importantly, set it up so that those times can be fewer and longer rather than this stone-skipping-the-firehose style I’d been using. The reality is, it was impossible to track everyone I’d followed in the new model. I was spending all of my time jumping around looking to see what I’d missed.

That’s a bad thing.

So, time for the social media celebrity diet. But first, a question needs to be answered: Why am I on (name social media service)?

For twitter, the answer is that I use it to track some things that happen in real time (news, replacing my newspaper or TV news — especially local); it allows me to interact with interesting people I’ve gotten to know; it lets me follow people I view as thought leaders on specific topics of key interest to me right now; and finally, it lets me more casually follow some people/sites that are very good at first level filtering of the rest of the firehose and surfacing stuff I don’t have time to go searching for myself but I generally find interesting.

I’ve become very disheartened by the “like/follow/plus” faux-interaction models prevalent on these social sites. Somehow we’ve been convinced that lots of followers assigns validity and importance to what we say, or something. But people chase followers like there’s some prize for the biggest, heaviest charm bracelet. Did you know you can buy fake followers for $5 for 10,000? Seriously, it’s easy to find sites that’ll sell them to you. That gives you a basic value for a follower — effectively zero. So why this fascination with big follower numbers?

I’ve also really gotten tired of the like/plus1 thing. it’s like organizing a big party and watching everyone who shows up spending the entire evening  running from person to person to say hello, and never actually stop and talk to anyone. It lets you think you’re accomplishing something, maybe, but what exactly is it you’re accomplishing? Some trivialized feeding to data to the Twitter or Facebook or Google algorithm about some superficial definition of “good”. Even at that, whatever signal you’re contributing to that data feed is probably overrun by the noise of the various bots out there who are attempting to game the algorithms for their masters.

What none of this really is is that it’s not really social. It’s not interacting. It’s not conversation. It’s people wandering around and saluting anyone they see that’s passing by going in the other direction. “Evening, Guv’ner!” “Be Seeing you…”

That sort of casual, shallow kind of interaction may suit the algorithms of the owners of these sites, but I believe it’s destructive to the goal of actually talking to the people around me, in part because without really realizing it, it can end up wasting a lot of time. I also think it encourages that shallow, constant,  interruptive style of using social media that makes it hard to focus on other things well.

If I needed to take time out of my social media “time budget”, it was a logical place to do so. I decided to strip my following feed down to the essentials — key information resources, key thought leader types in topics I’m tracking closely (like the drought here in California) and a few news feeds. And the people I’ve built some relationship with and talk to on twitter.

I ended up stripping out about 60% of the accounts I was following. About 10% of that was accounts that hadn’t posted a tweet in > 90 days and were abandoned. About 10% were bots of various sorts (sorry, Karl). The rest were real people — and the hardest to let go were the ones I know, but which I long ago stopped actually conversing with; my life is littered with “we should do lunch” a lot more than it’s littered with lunches and coffee, and while I’ve tried to change that, the reality is there’s still only 24 hours in a  day, no matter how hard I squeeze the calendar. Sometimes refusing to admit that makes it worse, too.

So yeah, I’ve dropped a lot of people I know in some way or another and like, but sometimes life requires sad choices. On the flip side, I now have a twitter feed that I can pull up a couple of times a day instead of a couple of times an hour, and actually see what’s going on instead of madly skimming past it hoping not to miss something important. And that’s what I need at this point. One problem I think we have on twitter is this feeling we’re missing things, so we try to grab too much of the firehose and process it through — and the end result is that we miss stuff because we’re trying too hard. I’m trying here to narrow my focus and use that slimmer feed well, instead of trying to skim a huge feed and hope I actually saw what was being said and understand the context. I got tired of constantly feeling like I was struggling to keep up — and the only solution to that is to follow less.

I’ve done something similar over on Google+, only over there, I did some major bariatric surgery and cut about 80% of the accounts I was following. A sample of those accounts showed a fairly large percentage of them (20% ish, I’d say) and been abandoned. A lot of that was me following others to watch and study their photography because I was trying to understand some things to improve my own work; now, it’s time to stop and and put the time and energy into my own work directly.

I had one person email me to ask me about being unfollowed. What I told them was simple and pretty much what’s above: it’s nothing they did , but with this much time, I can only manage so much traffic on twitter, and I cut until I hit that point. I’m sure they weren’t thrilled with that answer, but it’s that trade off we all have to make at times (how often do you still interact with those people you swore you’d keep having lunch with from the company two jobs ago?)

I will make one unsolicited suggestion: if you’re using a service that tracks who follows or unfollows you on twitter, and if having someone unfollow you on twitter bothers you, you’re doing it wrong and you’re watching the wrong things. You should be putting energy into interacting with people and putting yourself and your content out there, not how lists of random names are changing over time. It’s another form of charm bracelet collecting and I think it’s a destructive one. So stop it and talk to folks instead.

I’m not saying don’t follow your numbers — a growing follower list is an indication you’re doing things that interest people and a shrinking one indicates you’re pissing them off — but I think it’s a bad idea to follow the metrics too closely or try to dig too deeply into the details. People follow you for a lot of reasons, and people unfollow you for just as many. I’d say half the people following me any given week are spammers or marketers in some form who aren’t really following me, just trying to convince me to pay attention to them — so once you dig into those kind of details, it’s pretty easy to just back off and not think about it too hard.

Another thing I recommend you stop doing is using a list to read twitter. Lists are fine to track specific subsets you want to watch at times, but if you’re following too many people to follow them on the main feed, you’re doing it wrong. Worse, you’re not fooling anyone. Believe it or not, we can tell how many people you’re following, and if that number is more than a few hundred, either you’re Robert Scoble or you’re acting spammy. Cut your following list down to those you’re really following and stop pretending. To be blunt, the larger the number of people you’re pretending to follow, the more likely I’ll drop you from my lists as someone who either is clueless about what social media is supposed to be about, or someone who’s following people because they’re trying to get people to pay attention to them. The larger the following number, the less likely you’re going to be interesting to me, because the more fake the account looks.

And if you do think about it, realize this: if someone you know does unfollow you and you notice or have a report that tells you, chances are if you did something to cause it, you’ll probably know why. and if you don’t know why — the reason probably had nothing to do with you. So why stress out about it? My suggestion: don’t.

Ultimately, I’m finding that the changes I made to my social media activity have cut about 40 minutes a day from the social sites. More importantly, I’m comfortable only viewing a few times a day, so if I’m trying to focus on something,  don’t get that nagging thought that I’m missing something. The speed of the feed is something I can manage, so I don’t have that background stress of feeling a need to keep an eye on it.

Which, among other things, means I’m getting more writing done in the evenings, because I’m not trying to catch up on stuff I didn’t have time for during the day…

Want to figure out how to avoid Social Media bankruptcy? Want to find more time for other things? Try my Celebrity Social Media Diet. it’s really simple:

  1. Figure out how much time you can budget to social media per day.
  2. Start stripping out the less interesting pieces of your social media until the time you spend is within that budget.
  3. Realize how much time you were really spending on social media that you didn’t really realize you were: and how much of that time had little or no real value to you.
  4. Then go do something more interesting with the time you pulled back into your life.

The social sites are things where your commitment and time involvement grows slowly as you go along. Every so often you need to take a step back, take a close look at where you’re putting your time and how much value you’re getting out of it, and do a re-evaluation and strip out that stuff that’s taking up time but not returning anything really useful. Even if you only pull back 15 minutes a day, that’s still 15 minutes you were wasting without really noticing. In many ways, the social sites are like the fast food of the online universe: you can eat fairly healthy at a fast food joint, but you have to think about it and do some planning.

if you don’t, you may end up like so many others doing the bulimic binge and purge cycle of loading up your feeds and fixing it by declaring bankruptcy. going from one extreme to another isn’t the right strategy and will pretty much guarantee you never really enjoy what you can get out of these sites. Stopping and taking some time to realign your usage of them to your needs and priorities and free time, however, can let you course correct without ever hitting that point where you feel no choice but amputation…




Posted in About Chuq

My take on Google+ today

As part of my research into both whether to retire as lead in the Bird Photography group and as I’ve been auditing my social media commitments in general,  I’ve been trying to get a feel of what’s happening on Google+.

I had a number of projects I was considering to build around G+. When Google decided to restructure and change direction and Vic decided to move on, I put everything on hold waiting to see what G+ had planned. Since then, I haven’t seen a sniff of a roadmap or any indication Google planned anything; the service seems to be standing still, mostly. I’m not seeing anything I’d call significant functional upgrades. there have been changes, most of them leave me with a “with all the crap that needs doing here, you’re doing that?” reaction.

In the last few months I’ve seen an increase in server errors, indicating they aren’t scaling the hardware to support the service enough to support usage. The bug where content in a community disappears for some users for some period of time (indicating sync errors between server instances and servers that don’t get updates at all buried in the round robin) isn’t fixed.

When Google released communities on G+ I thought it was a great start (and it is); unfortunately, they haven’t followed it up with any significant enhancements and the design has some serious flaws — ones

As I’ve been researching and writing this piece, Google has released a new feature, Polls, for communities. It’s great to see they’re working on this and adding new features, because that’s a great indication that Google hasn’t shipped off G+ to “Google Reader Siberia”, but my initial reaction to Polls is minor disappointment. Polls are like Facebook Likes or G+ plusses: trivially easy interactions with very little real engagement of very limited scope and even less value.

It’s the kind of community design that frustrates me, because it’s community design to emphasize the trivial and fleeting. There’s a lot to like about G+ communities, but it has one huge flaw, it’s almost impossible to foster serious conversation or ongoing dialog about anything because new material hides the older ones with no way to float it back into view. This makes building communities that are more than “hey, look at my picture and like it!” very difficult, and it encourages that “click and forget” mentality.

This design benefits Google and serves it’s goal well: it wants to push a constant stream of “stuff” in front of people who will help it understand (by plusses and comments that feed Google’s algorithms) what “good” is. but it doesn’t serve communities well, because good communities are built around the interaction between members and members getting to know each other.

Google+ communities today are something like a conference where everyone gets together and spend all of their time saying “good morning” to everyone else at the conference, but never actually give talks or have panel discussions. there’s more to life (and communities) than saying “hello” and thinking that accomplished something.

The bird photography group continues to show a healthy growth of members (we’re almost at 15,000) but when you dig behind the obvious number, I don’t think the result is particularly healthy. A number of our former top members are no longer contributing and many have stopped interacting with G+ completely. I have been tracking the members who have won contests for five quarters now. The numbers are clear:

2013Q3 149
2013Q4 338
2014Q1 113
2014Q2 136
2014Q3 83

There is a lot less diversity in the group. I went back to the 2013Q3 group and did some checking of names I remember as being active contributors to the group; overall, about 50% of them haven’t posted to Google at all in 60-90 days, so they seem to have abandoned the platform completely.

Of the ones that still post to Google but are no longer active in Bird Photography, most of them haven’t shifted to different groups — but are posting only to their public stream. What this tells me is that it’s not that there’s a problem with the way we were running the Bird Photography group, but that they didn’t find value in groups at all and have stopped using most or all of them.

Other aspects of G+ — like #hashtags — seem to be the preferred discovery tools for them now. Given communities were designed to take on the functionalities users self-created around hashtags early in the life of G+, it seems a large number of members have decided they prefer hashtags.

Another experiment I’ve been working on is the Bird Photography Today page, where I tried to compensate for the inability to show off the best work within Bird Photography group by pulling it over to the page along with other content I thought might help drive interest of both the page and the group. I thought the page did pretty well for a while, with good growth and a lot of interaction on the material posted, but over time, it seems that’s stagnated and stalled. Overall interest in the material, as seen in interactions like plusses, has fallen way off.

Google’s analytics for G+, beyond total members of your group, are nonexistent. It’s impossible to see what folks like or dislike beyond trivial plus numbers. It’s impossible to see how many people are visiting a group or what they’re doing. It’s all guess work.

One thing I wanted to know was whether this stagnation I’ve seen was a problem in this group, or more widespread. So I’ve spent a couple of weeks of evenings digging into communities across G+ looking for ones I thought were interesting and doing more than “post pictures and plus them” type interactions.

Frankly, while those kind of groups exist, they’re really rare, and the admins put a lot of work into building the interactions within the group because it’s clear for them G+ doesn’t make it easy for them, either. So it’s not how we’re running the group, it’s how G+ is designed. Mostly, what I found was a lot of empty groups without anyone managing them, full of spam, wallpaper reshares and low value crap.

It’s incredibly hard to find groups where there’s real conversation and discussion. For the record, discovery on G+ is ludicrously bad. I can’t even tell it I only want to see groups in English, so there are many nights the list of “Communities you might like” were in Russian, or Korean, or Japanese, or in random languages I couldn’t identify. One night G+ insisted I really wanted to see middle-aged singles dating groups, another night it was race cars, and another night my recommendation list was full of groups of nothing but groups of animated gifs of cats and dogs and other cute stuff. Kawaii! Seriously, the crap I do in the name of research…

My takeaway from all of this; Google doesn’t really give a damn about communities. They put them out here, and then basically ignored them. Discovery is terrible — I think those recommended lists are effectively random pulls from the database. it’s amateur stuff.

From digging in manually and not based on any numbers Google lets you see or releases to the public, my sense is that more people are abandoning the service than joining it. Where there is membership growth it seems to be away from North America — india and asia especially. The primary use of G+ seems to be casual resharing, similar to Pinterest, but I don’t think G+ works nearly as well as Pinterest for that kind action.

I think the Bird Photography group is doing well in its current form. There’s nothing wrong with it, nothing broken. The moderator team has done a great job in keeping it moving in the right directions — but I don’t think we’re seeing as many high quality images as we used to, and we’re definitely not seeing them from as many members. This doesn’t seem to be anything we’ve done wrong with managing the group; it seems endemic to G+ as a service. There’s still value here, and a good number of people getting good value from the group, but it’s stagnant, not growing. While I’ve decided it’s time to retire and Steve is coming on to lead it in the next phase, I have nothing but good things to say about the group and what we’ve accomplished, and I think it has a great future.

I’ve explored a bunch of things I wanted to do on G+, either to enhance Bird Photography or as new things — and in all cases as I started planning them out, I realized that it would be difficult to make them thrive the way G+ was designed. ultimately, I tabled everything again. Nothing has come along to make me want to wake them up and implement them.

My challenge has been anything I wanted to do to enhance what we had was hindered by the designs of G+ and I never found a way to make those community enhancements thrive given what I could do on the site.

Google+ communities were an interesting start with some problematic design flaws because of Google’s intentions — it wants us to flow judging info into their algorithms more than it wants real communities. For some stuff this works well, but for the kind of communities I want to build, it doesn’t. Given I need to slim down the time I spend

I’ve decided to step to the sidelines but that’s more about what I need than any problems on G+ or the community. I”m still not convinced G+ can ever thrive as a user community site, because the design is heavily biased by Google’s needs — feed the quality algorithm — and not by a wish to build a thriving community site. Use it in ways that work with Google’s designs and you can do some great things; fight it and you’ll struggle. I’m not interested in the struggle right now.

My bottom line: It may be the data I’m seeing above isn’t representative of the service as a whole, but early on, the only group that really took to G+ strongly was the photographers, and what I’m seeing is that group has at best stagnated, and is perhaps starting to pull off the platform. Communities had energy early on after release, but hasn’t seen a lot of innovation and it seems to me many G+ members have given up on them.

To be a bit blunt about it — I think groups on Flickr have a design that reeks of the 1990s and are desperately in need of a redesign, but I also think in many ways they’re a better place to build an active and interacting community than G+ Communities. that said, Flickr falls to many of the same flaws and problems G+ communities do, which you can see by the mass proliferation of “post one like three” type groups aimed primarily to attempt to manipulate the Flickr ‘quality’ algorithms.

I’ve decided to step back from the “casual like” ecosystems and try to focus more on good content and conversation and real interactions. I’m not suggesting everyone else should, too, but think about it. Just what does that “like” mean in the grand scheme of things? Does it really accomplish something useful, or just make you feel better and let you think you did?

Posted in Community Management, Computers and Technology

State of the Chuq, revising the five year plan edition

Even before recent events, I’d been evaluating my online presence and my time commitments and trying to decide if my time and money expenditures were in line with my priorities (how to figure this out might make an interesting blog post or two if there’s interest). Then I had my recent little oopsie, and it became clear some things needed to be re-arranged.

Life at Cisco (six months in, they haven’t discovered me as a fraud and fired my butt) continues to be awesome, but keeping me extremely busy. That’s not going to change. I am having a ball and they keep throwing crazy stuff at me to do, but I’m finding it a challenge to make sure I stay focussed on that work and try to get everything else I’m doing done well. That alone says “time to simplify things”

And then, the one message given to me repeatedly in talking to the doctors recently is that it’s time to stop talking about finding time for exercise and start exercising. And so I am, slowly, but it’s started. And so I have to carve out time and energy for that, and I can’t give myself excuses to let it slack (again).

Last I looked, there were only 24 hours in a day. I’ve learned the hard way that cutting sleep time is a bad idea. While I’m not a morning person (repeat after me: I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON. HAND OVER THAT COFFEE NOW AND NOBODY GETS HURT) much of my team is east of me, including members I work with a lot in England and Spain — so I’m shifting my work schedule earlier to better accommodate them without forcing them into working into their evenings quite as often. (and hey — had my first day since Apple with meetings with both Europe and Australia in the same day, old times, baby…). One nice thing about cisco is work hours are pretty flexible, so I’m probably heading back to what I did at Apple, which was schedule heavily into the morning, try to use some of the afternoon to get out and get things done or get some birding/photography/walking done, and then put in some time later in the evening to finish off the work day, and perhaps schedule in some meetings with the folks in far away timezones late in my evening. Unlike Apple, I won’t do this by pushing my workweek out to 65 hours a week, but instead keep things saner.

I’ve spent the last few months doing very little new photography and a lot of work on other things like fixing up the web site, getting the stock photography going, pushing out the first portfolios, printing images, and now I’m really feeling the need to start making new work again. Summer is always me least productive season, so this isn’t too unusual, but it’s time to start shooting again, and the winter refuges are starting to fill up with the birds that will be visiting us until spring. I’m working out plans for where I’m going to visit and when now.

To make sure those things get done and done well, some things I’ve been doing have to be cut back or eliminated. After thinking through priorities and where my interests lie (more photography, more reading, catching up on home/yard projects, and getting my regular walking routine more routine) I’ve decided to make a number of changes in where I’ve been spending my time. I just cancelled my subscription to Elder Scrolls, which I’ve enjoyed a lot more than I expected and which has been a fun distraction when I’ve been too tired and stressed to work, but I’m ready for a break.

I’ve also just announced my retirement as lead of the Bird Photography community on Google+ as part of a significant social media diet. I decided I wanted to reduce the amount of time I spend on the social networks significantly and to focus more on creating a more interactive and personal interaction with the time I do spend there, rather than a passive, constant scramble to try to keep up with all the traffic flowing by. This deserves a separate blog post so I’ll talk about it in more detail soon.

This should — if I follow through as planned — actually make writing for the blog more consistent, and it doesn’t mean using Twitter or G+ less, it means using the time more constructively with a focus on people I’m interacting with and less on trying to keep up with the firehose. I think that’s a healthier use of social media for me, and we’ll see how that goes.

As to photography, I have a trip to the Eastern Sierra coming up soon that I’m really looking forward to. Laurie and I will be starting up our visits to the refuges around the first week of November — I expect to make the day trip to the Lodi area and Staten Island, Isengard Crane Refuge and Cosumnes three times this winter, and I hope to get to Merced NWR and/or San Luis in the Los Banos area at least three or four times. I’m also planning a trip to Northern Klamath NWR and Tule Lake in December, to Morro Bay and Piedras Blancas in January for the Elephant Seals and hopefully, find some time to get out to Pixley and Kern NWR sometime this winter. I’m also trying to ramp up my birding activity again in the area, since I haven’t done much since Spring Migration ended.

And then, after lunch…

So I don’t exactly plan on lots more leisure time with these changes, but more productive time for what I’m trying to accomplish. Now, all I have to do is do it…

Posted in About Chuq