Note: This was first posted in August of 2007 at my old, self-hosted site. It had a long and interesting comment thread on it that I mistakenly left behind when I moved it here. My rant about Explore was a harbinger of things to come with Facebook and other social sites that include tools that favor popularity over quality.
The vast photo-sharing site Flickr has a feature called Explore that has been around for quite some time. It is essentially a popularity contest driven by many factors, some listed below in this blurb from Flickr:
Flickr labs have been hard at work creating a way to show you some of the most awesome photos on Flickr. We like to call it interestingness. Besides being a five syllable word suitable for tongue twisters, it is also an amazing new Flickr Feature.
There are lots of things that make a photo ‘interesting’ (or not) in the Flickr. Where the clickthroughs are coming from; who comments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are constantly changing. Interestingness changes over time, as more and more fantastic photos and stories are added to Flickr.
Granted that there are enough photographers (many millions) with enough photographs on Flickr that finding the “interesting” images among the less interesting images can be tough so this is one of Flickr’s many social tools to help those of us who use it. I’ve found some excellent photography through exploring Explore and some of those photographers have become friends over time. Explore can be useful.
If one is new to Flickr and wants his or her photography to be seen, using Flickr’s social tools: tags, groups, comments, discussions and more to bring people to one’s photography is a good thing. It’s the mixture of these web-based social tools with competition that makes me uneasy about Explore.
Flickr is a social site where the content is contributed by users: photographs, threaded discussions, groups and whole sub-cultures. With no users, Flickr would just be a bunch of tools with nothing to show for them. So, it’s in Flickr’s best interest to build tools that collect more users and encourage them to post more photographs. Tools like Explore, while questionable in terms of a photographer’s creative development are very useful for Flickr as they drive more use.
Gaming the system
Explore can be looked at not just as a tool for exploration but also as a popularity contest driven by: views, favs, comments, tags, and other ingredients Flickr labs cooks up.
Once looked at this way Explore can be “gamed;” a Flickr user can find ways to have a photograph listed on Explore by taking direct action rather than passively hoping that it will become popular. A few techniques for this are garnering comments or quid pro quo commenting (I comment on you if you comment on me), comment groups where the rules are that if you want a comment on your image you have to comment on 5 others, and so on; putting the right tags on the image, and more. I know there are many more ways to game Explore and the more technically sophisticated Flickr users have come up with ways that are both ingenious and fascinating and maybe sick at the same time (how far will people go to become popular?).
Flickr Scout and trophy walls
And, lest you think this is some small detail that a half dozen Flickr addicts are concerned with, the web site Flickr Toys uses people’s fascination and concern with Explore to drive advertising revenue. With Flickr Scout any flickr user can enter their user name and come up with a beautiful array of thumbnails of each of their images on Flickr that has made Explore. Many Flickr users concerned with Explore build these arrays and then post them in their Flickr streams like a wall of trophies.
People newer to Flickr get excited when they get their first “trophy” and sometimes post one of these arrays with a single photograph in it. Others post these arrays at intervals with more and more images in them and it’s implicit in this that large arrays are better than small arrays.
Competition and creativity
Even without Explore there are many instances of popularity driving the kinds of images photographers take and share. One of my favorite Flickr photographers who happens to have world-class skills and a great eye for composition, found one particular image that his fans went wild over and he repeated that theme through dozens of photographs seemingly to drive his popularity. Variation on a theme is one thing but this was obviously pandering to fans to drive popularity, his creative process was shut down and he seemed to be focussed on popularity, not photography.
My biggest concern with Explore is that many Flickr users change the way they take and then process pictures on their computers in order to become more popular.
If you follow the most popular images on Flickr you’ll notice that most of them have increased color saturation, contrast, and sharpening, to the point where some almost look unnatural. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with this stuff but when experimentation is driven by concern with popularity that bothers me and it leads to a pervasive look on Flickr of over saturated images.
Also, and this is extremely important, if I’m trying to drive my own popularity I’m less likely to take chances with my photography and in fact, I might take fewer pictures or post fewer pictures, only saving and posting the ones that seem like they might become popular.
This idea of trying to find someone else’s formula (short cut) for success and then trying to mimic it is everywhere today and by having a social tool like Explore the folks at Flickr are enabling a part of human nature: competitiveness, that in creative arts like photography, doesn’t lead to more or better work, just work that is aimed at being popular.
If you’re Flickr, Explore is a great way to drive more use. if you’re a Flickr user it’s important to be clear about any affects your interest in Explore is having on your photography.
In case you think this post is driven by sour grapes because my photography hasn’t made Explore I should tell you that I’ve been listed there more than most. And, I’ve noticed that there is no coincidence between what many would agree is my best work and my work that has become popular. Maybe because I’m older and a bit more secure than the mean Flickr user who my guess is in their mid twenties, this stuff has never had any influence on the types of pictures I take or the ones I choose to share on the web. I’m happy when others like my work and comment on it but I would never want that attention to drive my creative process.