There’s not much crossover between the parallel universes of print and the social media, but Benjamin Lotan is out to change that—once Facebook poster at a time.
He’s the creator and the proprietor of The Social Printshop, an online service that lets habitués of Facebook and other social networking sites celebrate their relationships in hard-copy form. Lotan’s venture—which is attracting considerably more media attention than most graphics-oriented start-ups—is a nice reminder that there’s still a hankering for print even in the Web 2.0 meeting-places where at first glance, it would seem to have been left behind.
At The Social Printshop, you can capture pictures of your Facebook friends, your Twitter followers, or your Tumblr images in posters and other products printed on demand in various sizes up to 30" x 60". Lotan, whom we spoke with in Belgium on Saturday via Skype, says he hit upon the idea last fall while writing code for image processing with the Facebook API.
His program let him download images of all of his Facebook friends, arranging them in a neat matrix on the screen. That was the eureka moment. “It was really interesting to see my friends like this,” he says. It occurred to him, “Wow. Others will want this. I can sell it.” Lotan then partnered with an online print provider, and today, he says, he’s selling his thumbnail-gallery posters from Facebook and other sources at a rate of three per day.
Given access to the customer’s Facebook account, Lotan’s code downloads the images and arranges them for whatever format has been chosen. The program scales images up or down so that one poster size fits all, no matter how many friends have to share space on the sheet.
Lotan proofs the layouts before uploading them for printing and shipping. Digital copies also can be ordered. There’s one rule: friends can’t be cherry-picked for printing; everybody the customer is connected with has to be included. It’s about documenting the totality of the social networking experience, Lotan explains.
For durability, the posters are printed on high-quality photo paper using a photochemical process. Also available are Twitter “Egoist” and “Fanboy” prints: the former depicting everyone who follows you, and the latter posterizing everyone you follow. Photo books and stickers round out the offerings.
It’s a virtual enterprise in the truest sense, and at the moment, the business has no fixed abode. Lotan says he can process orders from “wherever I happen to be”: San Diego initially, Belgium for the time being, and, eventually, San Francisco, where he intends to relocate.
At the moment, Lotan is The Social Printshop’s only full-time employee. But, he has a sales and marketing partner, and he’s working with other application developers to create new products for social networkers who want more ways to manage and enjoy their images. In the works is a “top secret” application for a particular kind of mobile picture-taking. Lotan says he also is about to launch a web site for printing from InstaGram, a picture-sharing app for the iPhone.
Thanks to their social-networking hook, Lotan’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed in the technosphere. Fast Company has covered his launch, and Mashable, the digital media news source, has partnered with The Social Printshop to produce what it calls “the world’s largest real-life Facebook wall”—a giant poster of Mashable’s Facebook followers as a decoration for the site’s New York City headquarters.
Word about ultra-timely, trend-illuminating ventures like Lotan’s tends to spread fast, and sometimes, it can reverberate in some incongruous places.
The “Schumpeter” column in The Economist, for example, usually deals with macro matters of business and management. But there, in the installment of December 2, 2010, was a nod to The Social Printshop as an example of the self-promotional tools now available to status-conscious consumers. From another, very different part of the magazine publishing spectrum, the Seventeen web site plugged Lotan’s posters as “the most original new décor for your bedroom or dorm room.”
The broadly-based interest doesn’t surprise Lotan, who is pursuing an M.F.A. in visual arts at UC San Diego. Aggregation isn’t something that most people think about as they network online because “you never see all of the pictures together,” he says. But he thinks that collecting them in a poster can trigger the realization that there’s a different way of experiencing those images: as a “yearbook” that freeze-frames and catalogs the always-shifting population of one’s virtual circle of friends.
Lotan’s next project is to raise capital for the business that he has gotten off to a well-publicized start. He says that he would like to network “with as many real-life printers as possible” to explore ways of routing orders for social-media content to production sites. E-mail him here, visit his Facebook page, or follow his blog.