Sharing Photos on the Web: Flickr style

Javier Velasco-Martin

Citación recomendada: Javier Velasco-Martin. Sharing Photos on the Web: Flickr style [en linea]. "Hipertext.net", num. 7, 2009. <http://www.hipertext.net>

  1. Introduction
  2. History
  3. General characteristics
  4. Edit in place
  5. Social classification: folksonomies
  6. Groups
    6.1. Regional
    6.2. Thematic
    6.3. Games
    6.4. Awards
    6.5. Critique
    6.6. Day 365: Portraits
  7. Social Browsing
  8. Hierarchical contacts and permissions
  9. Copyright
  10. Clusters
  11. Most interesting photos (Interestingness Factor)
  12. Conclusions
  13. Resources Referenced
  14. References

Javier Velasco-Martin
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
School of Information and Library Sciences
http://mantruc.com

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Javier is a doctoral student at the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, USA. who works as RA at the Interaction Design Lab of the same school. His interests include online social networks and the new possibilities they offer for human communication. He has more than ten years of professional experience in designing web projects for large companies in various markets. He is an active participant in the international community of information architecture and is renowned as one of the pioneers in this field in Latin America. He has published a series of articles in this field, along with speaking at conferences and giving classes in Chile, Argentina, United States, Canada, Mexico and Spain. He has worked as an editor for journals and as a reviewer for conferences in this field. In his free time he enjoys photography, and may often be seen on Flickr, Twitter and other social networks.

 

1. Introduction

In recent years the web has been characterised by the new role users have taken on: from consumers of information and services, to creators of the web. Currently millions of people exchange their ideas and emotions with contacts online via text, photos and videos across different web platforms. This powerful activity is creating trends on various fronts, influencing the traditional media and empowering people's political action, both at a local level and also in traditional political elections. This user participation in the United States led Time magazine in 2006 to grant its traditional Person of the Year award to the Internet user (Time, 2006).

Usability has had a key role in promoting these levels of participation, since usable tools facilitate more usage, and lower the barrier of entry for newcomers. Usability has finally earned an important space in managers' mindsets, becoming a strategic tool for large web projects. This article will review some of the features of Flickr: a photo publishing platform that quickly became popular, delivering a design that provides value to its users, and ecourages participation. This review will also discuss the uses people are making of the system, expanding on its original design for new aims, which has been a recurrent phenomenon in the history of technology.

 

2. History

Flickr launched its public services in February, 2004 under the control of Ludicorp, a small Canadian company. A key part of Flickr's source code emerged out of a massively multiplayer game the company was previously developing (The Game Neverending). Its creators, led by the couple conformed by Caterina Fake and Steward Butterfield, took some of this game's tools and reformulated them so as to share photos with their friends-the result, Flickr, was so successful that the game was abandoned. This anecdote about the system's origins will be key for its future success. One of Flickr's main strengths, beyond being highly usable, is that it is fun, since they were somehow capable of conserving its playfulness, which is key for its user participation.

Only 13 months after its launch, Flickr was purchased, along with its staff, by Yahoo! for 34 million US dollars. In February, 2008, Flickr internationalised languages on its interface, which included Spanish as one of its options. In April, 2008, it included the option of publishing videos. On Monday, March 16, 2009, Flickr shows that more than seven thousand new photos were added in the last minute (4pm GMT-4), adding more than 3.3 billion documents in its repository.

 

3. General characteristics

In general terms, the Flickr interface is characterized for being clean and simple: A white background, black text and blue links, often underlined; this is a design that follows the Web standards and does not initially surprise any users. A good design that makes itself invisible so that people can take advantage of it. One of the keys to this platform's success is that its design team has continually leveraged its users as the best strategic allies when suggesting improvements and critiquing the design.

The basic structure is the following: each user creates a profile, which includes a description, and then can begin uploading photos to their galleries, which can also be added to albums and collections. Each picture's page has a title, a description, a list of descriptive words -which we will discuss later- and a space for visitors to comment. The photos can also be marked by visitors as favourites, you can leave notes on parts of the photo -unless the author blocks this option- and more descriptive words can be added, under the aforementioned condition.

Once an account has been created, the user can begin to add contacts and friends to his profile, and this is where the fun begins: the contact list created generates a page for "your contacts": by visiting this page you can view these contacts' most recently published images. This list of contacts is slowly expanded on with people who are "met" through the site's different communication methods. It is also possible to create groups of any kind and define arbitrary rules for a unique dynamic of participation. We will later discuss groups more at length.

 

4. Edit in place

One of the innovations in interaction design Flickr incorporated by means of Ajax technology, is the option of editing texts without navigating through pages known as "Edit in Place." With this mechanism, the photographer may edit her photo's title and description from the picture's same page, without having to go to a different page with a form. This change in interaction design represents a paradigm shift from the traditional web format in which each page was an indivisible element of interaction and each action required the browser to load the complete new page, forcing the user to wait for such load. With systems like Ajax, the page can be broken down into different interface elements and work on the web is done in a form more similar to desktop applications. While this new interaction model may not be understood intuitively by new users, once a person has tried it, they get used to it very quickly showing that it is a highly usable system. Flickr also uses Ajax type systems for other tools, one of the most remarkable is the image Organizer which is highly interactive.

 

5. Social classification: folksonomies

Taking the idea from the Delicious bookmarking site, Flickr was one of the pioneers in popularising the use of social tagging. The basic concept is that, unlike the traditional document categorisation, where a group of experts add descriptors to documents using a controlled vocabulary, both the author of the document and its users or visitors can incorporate descriptors as they wish, without a strict control of the language used. This system may seem chaotic, and leads to imperfect results: imprecise, not exhaustive descriptors which are full of noise. However, within the context of a system that adds millions of documents daily, this is remarkably practical, highly flexible, and scalable at no cost to the system administrators.

It is worth noting how useful this system is for assisting information retrieval from flickr's large repository; it is impressive to see how millions of users are taking the time to tag their photos, and often in a very practical manner. However, we must emphasize that this cataloguing system is far from being a quality system, and is very basic in comparison to photo archives that are professionally catalogued: The value of this mechanism is its simplicity and low cost, and is a solution in accord with the chaotic spirit of the Social Web in its present form, sacrificing quality for efficiency.

There is also a page in Flickr (Figure 1) that allows you to see the system's most popular terms, viewed via a "tagcloud," which allows you to comb through trends and reach photos from a different approach.

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Figure 1. The most popular Flickr tags.

Studies have shown that the main reasons driving people to take the time to create these descriptors in social systems are (Marlow et al., 2006):

  1. Future retrieval: The first reason is individualistic and an essentially practical one: to be able to find the resources filed on the system.

  2. Contribute and share: The second reason seems more altruistic: to share documents and make them accessible to others, with full awareness of the social use of these technologies.

  3. Attract attention: It is normal to think of popular and attractive descriptors that will increase the number of visits to our documents.

  4. Games and competition: This will be described later when we discuss groups; some games and competitions have been developed in these social applications that use descriptors as part of the process.

  5. Personal presentation: People often insert their name in the photos in which they appear, or in all photos they have authored.

  6. Expressing opinion: Descriptive tags are also used to give an opinion concerning the quality of the resources filed.

6. Groups

As we have previously noted, this platform allows for the creation of groups for thematically associating photos. Flickr's architecture is highly flexible in this sense, allowing for plenty of freedom to the person creating the group to define the rules for participation. The basic structure of a group is a presentation page describing the group's topic, defining the rules for participation. There is a wall on which the group members upload their contributions and a discussion forum where all sorts of situations are discussed relative to the group's theme.

Only the photo's author can send an image to the group's wall, and only after having become member of it. There are open groups, where anybody can visit and read, semi-closed groups, requiring membership and a commitment to follow the behavioural code, and closed groups where the administrator is the only one who can invite new members.

6.1. Regional

One of the photos most obvious criterion for organising groups is geography: This is how Flickr currently has an endless number of regional groups with different degrees of granularity; there are groups for countries, cities (Figure 2) and towns. Each photo may be associated to multiple albums and groups.

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Figure 2. An example of a Regional Group

6.2. Thematic

Another natural way to organise the photos in this system is by topic, and this is when the human imagination takes off; we can find groups on flowers, wild fauna, dogs, cats, cars, planes, car-bombs, astronomy, portraits, etc. I have even seen groups on photos of plane trails, both from the turbulence in the air and from its trailing lights, on slow-exposure night shots.

6.3. Games

Since Flickr's architecture is so flexible and any person can invent any group they want and define their rules of participation, there are various types of group games. The first game I discovered is called "squared circle." Its requisite is to send photos that have a circular object in the middle, having been cropped and centred in a square. It is truly impressive to see that this group has remained active for more than four years and you can always be surprised with nuances -an invitation for photographer creativity.

Another group of this type is "name that film." Here, film enthusiasts publish a still frame of their favourite movies; while the viewers guess which film it is via the comments until it is identified. In this group tags are used to mark photos that have not yet been resolved and those that have. A similar group tries to identify specific places in large cities, the first of which was based in New York ("Guess where NYC") and works in a similar dynamic as the former group: members publish photos in a random part of the city and the other participants must discover the exact address where the picture was taken, with the discussion taking place in the comments. This game has already extended to various other cities in the world.

6.4. Awards

Another of the widely used and very popular Flickr user's inventions is its awards. Whoever has been invited to form part of one of these groups gains the privilege of becoming a judge and can, from that moment on, grant awards to other photos. The awards are represented via an icon that remains inserted in the comments of the awarded photo, in this way, the new award winner can become part of the group, sending their photo to the group wall and granting awards to other photos. This way not only is social participation increased, but one learns to view photos critically, perfecting the photographer's "eye."

6.5. Critique

Besides awards, there are other groups where the authors submit their own works to the scrutiny of its participants. Some of these groups look to evaluate photos on a quantitative scale, while others, more extreme, allow for the group's criteria to remove photos: when a photo is sent to this group, the participants start to vote whether it should stay or be eliminated: if the photo receives five removal votes, it must be deleted from Flickr. These systems also help train people in the art of photography.

6.6. Day 365: Portraits

There are many photographers that feel uncomfortable in front of the camera. This is an exercise that invites people to create a self-portrait each day for a complete year. While seemingly simple at first glance, this exercise requires discipline, persistence and creativity to not repeat oneself. If we consider our changes in mood, unexpected events in our lives, and trips throughout a year, we will see that the interesting part of this game is that in many cases it drives people to better know themselves while having a liberating effect on their personality and self-esteem.

 

7. Social Browsing

The contacts photo page that I briefly mentioned at the beginning of this article is one of the most innovative characteristics Flickr incorporated into its original design. This mechanism, while conceptually simple, has important consequences in accessing information: it allows one to filter contents via his social network. Studies on Flickr's activity have shown that the majority of photo visits come from this mechanism (Lerman & Jones, 2006).

 

8. Hierarchical contacts and permissions

Flickr's contact relationships are not simply binary; users have the option of classifying people as contacts, friends or family. With this structure, users can control access to each photo published according to this criteria, even leaving some photos marked as "for my eyes only."

 

9. Copyright

Flickr does not claim to have the copyright of the images users contribute to the system, but only a license to publish and use them to promote the platform. The latter means that Flickr can choose users' photos to publish on the homepage, which also promotes the individual author's popularity. Each user keeps the rights to their work and may decide, for each picture, the type of license they wish to publish the image with. As default, they are published under copyright, but the users may choose to contribute images under a Creative Commons license by selecting the options in the interface. Some people share works under a relatively free license, and the internal Flickr search allows you to filter searches though this criteria.

However, the internal Flickr search by default includes copyright protected photos, and so do external web searches, especially Yahoo!'s image search which currently gives high priority to Flickr images. This design increases the exposure of the authors' images, while also allowing others to easily copy and republish these images illegally. This is a problem that goes back to the origin of images on the web, and we would have hoped that the tools in this generation of technology would have better mechanisms to protect its contributors' copyright. This is why many professional photographers keep their photos off the open web, sending them only to closed repositories.

 

10. Clusters

With data-mining mechanisms, Flickr has created another way of navigating the photos with user created tags via their concurrence by organizing them in clusters. For example, in clusters of "happiness" (Figure 3) we see four groups of photos with different secondary tags associated. The first group gathers words like portrait, smile, woman, girl, happy. The second: love, couple, life, friends, family, kiss. The third: beach, sea and sand. While the fourth is associated to black and white. To some degree this reflects the users' collective thought; so it appears that in Flickr women are happier than men.

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Figure 3. Clusters for the felicidad [happiness] tag

 

11. Most interesting photos (Interestingness Factor)

Flickr has another data mining tool that analyses the activity around a photo, considering variables like visits, favourites and comments, while weighing in the people that comment on photos in a different fashion. The formula is a secret, but the result is that in this section you can continually find the photos that appear most interesting to the "Flickrite" collective in the past few days (Figure 4). A visit to this section reveals the impressive quality of amateur photographers participating in Flickr.

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Figure 4. The most interesting photos in the last seven days.

 

12. Conclusions

Flickr is one of the most successful photography publication platforms of the Social Web. Its highly flexible architecture merges the top-down approach of online communities with bottom-up nature of social networks for maximized user participation, satisfying many users' needs and motivations. The level of participation is boosted by the interface's high level of usability, a clean design that adheres to the basic Web standards and its intrinsic playful character inherited from the game it emerged from. Flickr's design takes advantage of and promotes its users' creativity by providing value and generating a community around the photos. This tool's value is not in its precision as an image repository in terms of future retrieval, but as a platform to share images amongst photography enthusiasts and to generate a conversation around the photos, enabling a true sense of community to be generated around photography.

 

13. Resources Referenced

  1. Plane Trails Group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/plane_trails/pool/
  2. Squared Circle Group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/circle/pool/
  3. Name That Film Group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/name-that-film/pool/
  4. Guess Where NYC Group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/guesswhere/pool/
  5. Flickr Diamond Award http://www.flickr.com/groups/flickrdiamondgroup/pool/
  6. RankMe! Group http://www.flickr.com/groups/[email protected]/pool/
  7. 365 Days Group http://www.flickr.com/groups/365days/pool/
  8. The Most Interesting http://www.flickr.com/explore/interesting/7days/

14. References

Garrett, J.J. (2005) "An Interview with Flickr's Eric Costello". Adaptive Path. <http://www.adaptivepath.com/ideas/essays/archives/000519.php> [ 16/03/2009].

Lerman K.yJones L. A. (2007). "Social Browsing on Flickr". In Proceedings of the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM'07), Boulder, CO, Mar 2007.

Marlow, C. et al. (2006). "Position Paper, Tagging, Taxonomy, Flickr, Article, ToRead". WWW2006, May 22-26, 2006, Edinburgh, UK.

TIME Magazine, (2006) "Time's person of the Year: You". Time Online [on-line] <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1569514,00.html> [26 January, 2009]



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