Shutterstock launched in 2003 and has grown steadily since then, bolstered by the explosion of web publishing. On the Internet, there is always text in need of decoration -- and the site now offers a library of 19 million images to do that decorating. (Per Alexa's somewhat reliable demographic stats, Shutterstock's site visitors are disproportionately women -- women who live in the U.S., who browse the site from work, who don't have children, and who do have Master's degrees. Which is to say, probably, they're members of the media.) As its own kind of inside-out media organization, Shutterstock leverages the same kind of market-prediction strategy that Demand does ... but it does that without Demand's infamous algorithms. Instead, says Scott Braut, Shutterstock's VP of content, it provides its contributors with tools like keyword trends and popular searches so they "can find out what people are looking for and when."
The site also hosts multiple forums intended to guide people through the photo submission process -- and that process, its contributors have told me, is exceptionally user-friendly compared to other microstock photo sites.
It's also, however, fairly exclusive: Shutterstock has a team of reviewers charged with ensuring editorial consistency and quality -- and in 2011, Braut says, only 20 percent of applicants who applied to become Shutterstock contributors were approved. And less than 60 percent of all the images uploaded by those approved contributors were ultimately put up on the site. For each download their photos receive, photographers will get about $0.25 U.S. -- and more if they're oft-downloaded contributors and/or the purchaser has a high-level subscription.
In some cases, Braut says, Shutterstock's content team will do direct outreach to the site's top videographers, photographers, and illustrators "to help fill specific content needs." For the most part, though, Shutterstock contributors figure out for themselves what subscribers are looking for. There's very little "Hey, Orda, can you dress up a cat and pose it with some Benjamins and Beluga? Because that would be awesome." If there's a need for an image of that particular scene -- or of, say, a cheeseburger, or a German shepherd laying in the grass with a laptop, or a shadowed man gazing contemplatively at the sea during a colorful sunset -- it's pretty much up to the photographers to identify that need. And, then, to fill it.
And fill it they do. To browse Shutterstock -- as I often do, since we sometimes use their images here at The Atlantic -- is to go on a weird and often wacky and occasionally totally wondrous journey through the visual zeitgeist. The site's contributors have covered almost everything, topic-wise -- to the extent that, even with my occasionally zany image searches, it's extremely rare to have a query come up blank. (I did a search for "zeitgeist," just to see, and was rewarded with three packed pages' worth of images: clocks, scantily clad ladies carrying clocks, cartooned gentlemen carrying clocks, youths flashing peace signs, stylized clinking glasses, more cartoons, more clocks.)