Episode 17


Copying and The Bandwagon Effect in Creativity

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Why do creatives copy each other? Is creative imitation a bad thing? And what is the bandwagon effect and how does it affect us as creatives?

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Copying and The Bandwagon Effect in Creativity

Ah copying. That old chestnut. It’s quite a hot topic and a divisive issue amongst creatives, but why does it exist. Why do people imitate, emulate and copy, and what – if anything – can we do about it? And what the heck is the Bandwagon Effect?! I’m pulling apart all of this on this week’s episode of The Positive Creatives.


Hello there, and welcome to The Positive Creatives. My name’s Adam, I’m the host and founder of this podcast and I’m mainly a photographer although I do a few other creative bits and pieces too.

I made this podcast because creative life can be a bumpy ride and I’m here to help you over the bumps in the most positive way possible, because I think a positive creative is a happy creative.

Unless you specialise in angst, in which case this podcast might be the opposite of what you’re looking for.

Actually no, you’ll probably find my positivity so annoying it’ll still work for you, so stick around!

Of course, if you’ve become a regular listener in the 17 weeks I’ve been hanging around your airwaves, welcome back and thanks for coming back!

Honestly I couldn’t think what I wanted to talk about this week. I’ve not had all that much on my mind lately so I went to a long list I made when I first came up with the idea for this podcast and I kind of landed on the subject of copying in creativity.

I let that sit with me for most of today because I’m never going to come on here and rant or fuel negativity. And copying is quite a heated and inherently negative subject.

I always want to come on here with positive tips, tricks and techniques as you know, so I wanted to make sure I could do that with a subject as divisive as copying.

I’m gonna start off by telling you I don’t care if someone copies my work.

I don’t.

Copying is different to stealing – I wouldn’t be best pleased to see my actual work being passed off as someone else’s, but if someone really wants to attempt to recreate a photo I’ve taken or an episode of my podcast or whatever it might be, I’m at peace with that.

The main reason for that is I think there’s only so much stuff you can spend your energy on. And if you’re spending it on being pissed off about anything – being copied or anything else – then you’ve not got much left for positive stuff that moves your life forward.

Another reason is that I teach people how to do what I do in my photography. Well not at the moment, but in the past I’ve taught and mentored people. Always with a view to helping them be their own artist but realistically that’s going to lead to some emulation of my work.

So if you’re going to teach and share – even if it’s on youtube – I think you need to be ok with a certain level of emulation or copying.

I’ll do another episode sometime on why I think everyone should teach and share their knowledge, but just for this episode know that I’m absolutely not saying that if you don’t want to be copied don’t teach or share. Keep teaching, keep sharing, just stop being cross when you get copied or people who look up to you try and recreate your work.

And the last reason, and the one I think I really focus on the most but it also links in with the first two reasons, is that by the time I’ve been copied I’ve moved on to something new.

So if you think of it that way it’s only ever your old work that’s being copied.

By the time someone has made the effort to copy or emulate something you’ve made, you’re creating something new.

You’re always a step ahead, as long as you’re forging ahead and as I said earlier, not spending all your time and energy getting cross about the copying or trying to prevent it.

Or worse, keeping your work hidden from the world in fear of being copied. That’s bad. Remember one of my biggest beliefs is the world needs to see and hear your work, and the power of sharing your work and knowledge can never be underestimated.

I used to teach with another photographer whose big philosophy was something like you need to imitate before you can innovate.

I never agreed with this philosophy on a personal level, but this was what he believed and the approach he followed.

He went on to become incredible first at photography and later at videography. So it’s an approach that can work for people if that’s what they choose to do.

And now he’s the one people are imitating. So it goes full circle. I don’t know this for sure as I’ve not spoken to him for some time, but I’m pretty sure knowing the man he is, he won’t be offended by people imitating him. He just sees it as the natural order.

But the question really I guess is WHY do people copy. Why do people feel the need to imitate or emulate or copy or whatever you want to call it.

And remember we’re not talking about directly stealing work and passing it off as your own. That’s different and bad and those people suck.

So why do people choose to copy.

Turns out, again, as usual, there’s a psychological reason for it. And it’s called The Bandwagon Effect.

The Bandwagon Effect isn’t something exclusive to creativity. It’s a life thing. We see someone or a group of people doing something, we consciously or subconsciously assume it’s the thing to do.

If we see something getting a lot of likes or attention on social media, psychologically we’re programmed to see that as something maybe we should be doing.

If we follow awards for instance, we see what wins and we’re programmed to see that as the kind of work the world wants and therefore we should be making, and also our ego wants the same attention. We want to be getting that attention, not giving it.

The explosion of creative communities in the last few years will only magnify the bandwagon effect in creativity… it stands to the reason that the more aware you are of what other people are doing, the bandwagon effect will kick in and you’ll begin to follow the trends you see. Maybe by choice, maybe due to cognitive bias because what you’re feeding your creative mind with constantly is what other people are doing.

For six years I co-ran a big photography community. I think at the point I left, we had something like 700 people in a facebook group. All wedding photographers.

Obviously community can be an amazing thing. Most creative pursuits are quite isolating, so being able to talk to people who know what you’re going through is amazing, or having a large group of people to ask for help when you need it can be invaluable.

But of course it means you’re acutely aware of what other people are doing, what they’re creating and how well they say they’re doing.

Cos remember… people tell lies on social media. Smoke and mirrors and all that.

So when you’re that aware of that many people, layered on top of everything you’re also seeing in the wider world of social media and the internet, of course the bandwagon effect will kick in for a lot of us and we’ll start creating what we’re seeing. Not because we particularly set out to copy, but because of everything we’re feeding our creative minds with.

So yet again we can blame psychology for something – and this time it’s the bandwagon effect to blame for copying.

Even if you don’t know you’ve fallen victim to the bandwagon effect you probably have… we probably all have. I know for instance there have been times when I’ve become so obsessed with awards and attention I’ve been solely focused on trying to make work that gets me the attention and awards my ego desires… and it never ends well and it doesn’t lead to happiness or fulfilment.

I know when I was leading the big community, and part of the reason I left, was that I just felt overwhelmed by my awareness of my industry and what a huge chunk of it was doing on a daily basis. Running that community meant I wanted to take a keen interest in the people who were in it and their work. Not a bad thing inherently, but ultimately it meant I was feeding my creativity constantly with the creativity of others in my immediate industry, and then it all just becomes a little bit creatively incestuous and it’s hard to make stuff that is different.

Now we know that’s partly to do with the bandwagon effect.

So how do you combat that?

Well first of all maybe you don’t want to… or need to… in the example of the other photographer who I once taught workshops with that I mentioned earlier – he actively sought to imitate, because he believed that’s where he’d learn his craft – he wanted to imitate to innovate. So he didn’t run away from the bandwagon effect, or online communities or social media. He embraced it and used it to his advantage and became totally unique and with his own style and voice.

So that’s an option.

The other option, and one I’ve always favoured is to attempt to swim against the stream. And that does mean actively managing your exposure to the work of your peers.

I’m not a fan of the blanket unfollowing of other people in your industry, but it’s an option.

The less you consume of what your peers and competitors are doing – whether it’s through online communities or social media, the less the bandwagon effect has to work with and the less likely you are to make work which emulates the work getting attention in your industry.

I have a lot of friends who are wedding photographers – I don’t want to unfollow them, because that’s mean. I want to see their work and tell them when I like it.

I also like looking at wedding photography. I like being aware of things like the standard of the industry.

But I think because I’m aware of the bandwagon effect, and I know that my kind of modus operandi is to try and do things differently, I think I have become capable of using some kind of twisted reverse psychology and I see what is being put out and it spurs me on to create something different.

So hopefully for you now we’ve had this little chat about the bandwagon effect and copying and the mindset around it, you can do the same and don’t feel the need to completely turn your back on your communities and unfollow all your friends on social media.

As an aside, I did do that once. I muted everyone and everything for a bit and boy did it get lonely fast! So I don’t recommend being quite that dramatic.

Try and find a balance.

Maybe have a filter of who you’re following and why. Are they there because they’re either an inspiration or a friend or probably both? They can stay. If they’re there just because they do the same thing you do, or in the hope they’ll follow you back to boost your pointless numbers, maybe they can go.

The bandwagon effect won’t go away. That’s here to stay. That’s psychology. What you feed it with is under your control.

Let me know what you think about the bandwagon effect and whether I’ve helped shape your mindset around copying and imitation – as ever I’ll be on instagram, so come and follow me there.

Finishing off then with this week’s listen read and watch recommendations.

LISTEN – My favourite band for the last couple of years has been AJR. They’ve just released a new album called OK Orchestra and in my opinion it’s musical poetry. I’m obsessed with it and have been listening on repeat all week. My favourite track is called Three O’Clock Things. It’s so so good. In my opinion of course! I hope you like it!

READ – I actually can’t think of anything this week so take a break or go and read one of my previous recommendations, flick back through the show notes on the website – they’re all there for you.

WATCH – I’m cheating a bit this week as it’s a podcast but it’s on youtube so it’s a loop hole! My favourite musician of all time is Ben Folds and he’s just started a podcast called Lightning Bugs. The first episode is with an anthropologist called Agustin Fuentes about the role of creativity in our evolution and survival. It’s definitely one for when you can properly listen and pay attention and of course you can listen on your favourite podcast player instead, but I wanted to recommend this and the AJR album this week so I had to bend the rules.

Plus it’s my podcast so I can do what I want!

Ok that’s it for another week my creative friend, thanks for joining me and as ever I hope it’s been entertaining or useful or both. Let me know, and I’ll see you next time on The Positive Creatives.

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