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Why social networks want your photos

Why are social media sites so eager to get into the photo-sharing space, and why do we love posting -- and looking at -- photos online?

By MSN Money Partner May 18, 2012 12:00PM

This post comes from Quentin Fottrell at partner site SmartMoney.


The Internet is saying cheese. First Facebook forked over $1 billion for the photo-sharing app Instagram. And now Pinterest, another social photo site, is being valued at $1.5 billion.


Image: Couple Taking Self Portrait in City, New York City, New York, USA (© Radius Images/Getty Images)In the online arms race between Apple, Facebook, Google and others, control of the world's snapshots is seen as vital -- and lucrative, experts say.


Pinterest, an online scrapbook that lets users share and comment on their favorite images, had more than 20 million users in April, up from 1 million in July 2011. The startup just raised $100 million, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Facebook, meanwhile, added to its image arsenal Monday, snapping up the London-based photo-sharing service Lightbox for an undisclosed fee. Apple too is upgrading its iCloud online service to include new photo-sharing features, according to reports.


"Photos are the real currency for social networks," says social psychologist Matt Wallaert. "We want to know, 'What does she look like now? Who did she marry? How great is her life?' They are much more revealing than reading a status update." People share more than 200 million photos on Facebook every day, or 6 billion per month. (Post continues below.)

Larry Rosen, author of "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us," says it makes people feel like trendsetters, photo-journalists and celebrities. "We're presenting ourselves as stars," he says. "That's why fan magazines and reality shows are so compelling. This is the online equivalent."


But why are photos so important to social networks?


Like bank accounts, experts say photos are "sticky." Whether they're Facebook pictures of your Aunt Ida eating ice cream in Yellowstone Park or a random picture on Pinterest of patriotic cookies, it's difficult to move months or years of digital memories to a rival site.


"The time and effort required to move those photos to some other type of digital storage is significant," says Michelle Barnhart, assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University College of Business. Aside from the images themselves, the location data and other personal information embedded in the files may also be lucrative to advertisers.

Endless photo posting by friends also keeps people trawling through albums and clicking, enabling sites to charge more to advertisers and generate revenue, analysts say. Photo-sharing is key to creating the illusion that "weak ties" with virtual friends are actually strong bonds, says Seth Elliott, senior vice-president and chief strategy officer of Engagement Media Technologies.


On Facebook, seeing yourself in another person's photo album -- even if you only met that person once in a bar -- makes people feel connected, he says. "Poring over other people's pictures helps form a bond with friends-of-friends that we may never even meet in real life," he says.


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