I link, therefore I am William Mitchell


As an online repository for photo management and photo sharing, Flickr is a recent phenomenon, a contemporary reality and a possible future for photography. Since July 2005 selected artifacts from this research project have been uploaded and presented on Flickr as a form of archiving; a way of sharing and connecting with a global audience; and as a mode for engaging in feedback. This thesis is part of Flickr and Flickr is part of this thesis.

In the Beginning...

Flickr didn't begin as a photography website. It wasn't planned, rather it emerged during development of a web-based multiplayer online game, The Game Neverending. Even when it was launched in February 2004, it didn't resemble the present day Flickr - it was originally a space designed to chat about photos and post them in real-time. A space where neither the conversations, nor the activity were archived on webpages. It is now one of the most popular sites on the Web, hosting more than 100 million images.

Flickr was really envisioned initially as an organizational tool for an individual who has a huge collection of photos. The social network was built in just so you could restrict access to your photos. But what has really taken off with Flickr is that it's turned out to be a great platform for sharing with the masses, and not just with your small collection of friends.... we found that it took off when we got some excellent photographers who were interested in using Flickr as a new kind of photo blog, so that the world could see their pictures. And that, I think, is the primary usage of Flickr now. Eric Costello

Flickr has evolved into a community and culture where people are linked through their engagement with photography. Individuals upload their images, select tags to describe their shots, join groups, and are even affiliated through their personal interests. Flickr can be viewed as a microcosm for photography today. Personal snapshots exist in the same space as camera-derived photographs, computer-generated images, portraits, experimental photographic practices, abstract photography, promotional photography, art photography all the way through to soft porn.

The result is a dynamic environment, prone to all sorts of instant fads, created by members inspiring each other to go in new directions with their cameras. It makes digital photography not only instantly shareable, but immediately participatory, creating collaborative communities around everything from the secret life of toys to what grocery day looks like.Mieszkowski

What makes Flickr Different?

A recognition of the social nature of photography is what distinguishes Flickr from other sites. The social network has emerged node by node, link by link. Encouraged by users and developers alike, it has become a dominant dimension of the website. Conventional critiques of photography are often applied to the photos within Flickr, but in themselves cannot articulate the interconnectedness, community or culture that has emerged as part of this phenomenon. This is because the individual images of users do not account for the total system, or how it has developed - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A more appropriate way to comprehend the innovation, continual growth and evolution of Flickr is in terms of self-organization and emergence.

Complex systems have the ability to self-organize and the more complex the system the more "interesting" the results Gershenson and Heylighen . Self-organizing systems are also known as bottom-up systems since the actions or behaviours of individuals generate new behaviours or properties of a higher order or sophistication. It is this newly generated behaviour that is known as emergence - "Micromotives combine to form macrobehaviours"Johnson 2001 p90. Flickr is a real-time embodiment of Complexity. It is an articulation of how self-organization and emergence function within a real-world complex network. In fact, Flickr's existence, evolution and growth are only possible because it has been developed with an explicit use of the core principles of complex systems and network science.

Flickr is composed of many individuals, uploading their photographs. Individuals can choose to make their photos private, however most images on Flicker, approximately 82% in fact, are public. Each uploaded photograph is assigned tags, or labels, which function both as descriptors for images, and for public images, as links to other images bearing the same tag. What sets Flickr apart is the ability for users to classify their photos using their own tags.

What is Tagging?

Tagging on Flickr is the process of open-ended labelling, also known as collaborative tagging. There are no indexers assigned to control categories or labels, rather individuals apply their own labels. The process of tag generation will over time, and with many users, produce a vast array of tags. Larger patterns can emerge out of such uncoordinated activity. The more individuals applying the same tags, the more chance that those tags will become popular, and in turn they have more chance of appearing in a tag cloud. The first tag cloud appeared on Flickr. It is a visual depiction of the more popular tags used on the website. The most popular tags are identified by typically larger and bolder text. Once a tag appears in the tag cloud, there is more chance other people will see images with that tag and there is also more chance that others will keep the tag popular by using it themselves. As Campbell and Fast point out "collaborative tagging relies implicitly on theories of complexity and emergence". They state "if you get enough people doing what they like - linking, tagging, sharing or subscribing - interesting and useful patterns emerge...these patterns get more useful and more interesting as more people join in to do what they like".

Transcluded from http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/

Tags are also grouped into clusters. For example a popular tag like blue is clustered with related popular tags such as water, sea, ocean or sky, green, red. Tags, clusters and tag clouds not only link images together, but assist users in effective searching of the content of Flickr. The usefulness and overwhelming success of tagging is evident on Flickr, as Eric Costello says:

Tags were not in the initial version of Flickr. Stewart Butterfield wanted to add them. He liked the way they worked on del.icio.us, the social bookmarking application. We added very simple tagging functionality, so you could tag your photos, and then look at all your photos with a particular tag, or any one person's photos with a particular tag. Soon thereafter, users started telling us that what was really interesting about tagging was not just how you've tagged your photos, but how the whole Flickr community has been tagging photos. So we started seeing a lot of requests from users to be able to see a global view of the tagscape. Eric Costello

Flickr Communities

Flickr has evolved a complex web of critical, collaborative, and creative communities. Cobcroft

Once individuals have uploaded their images on Flickr, they search for audiences and communities. Individuals are automatically linked by the interests they nominate in their profile (interests are themselves tags). They can also join and/or create groups, and add their photos to group pools which links them to other members and photos. As with individual images, groups can be public, by invitation only, or private. As with tagging, groups are self-organized, emerging as a result of the actions of individuals. There are currently over 15,000 groups on Flickr with the largest being FlickrCentral - 28,629 members | 3,484 discussions | 439,580 photos (June 13 2006).

From network science, we know that people "who participate simultaneously in many different groups can tell more kinds of people their ideas and likewise can access a broader range of information" Watts 2003 p230. The more groups an individual joins the more chance their images will receive activity and the more chance those images will make it to the coveted realm of interestingness.

Interestingness is an algorithmically generated search for photographs that feature on Flickr's Home and Explore pages. There are even exclusive groups open only to those users that have interesting images.

Interestingness is in itself and interesting concept. The algorithm that searches for patterns and activity, has parameters that include: the number of views that an image receives; the number of comments; the number of users that mark it as a favourite; and the time frame within which this activity occurs. It is a dynamic representation that evolves as new parameters are added; as new images are uploaded; new users join; and as different patterns emerge in the Flickr Universe. Through interestingness, the Flickr community at large, as a result of their activity determines the significance of a photo, rather than a select few curators, judges or panel members. The algorithm, offers a new approach to photography classification that departs from art-historical categories altogether. Interestingness along with collaborative tagging, may emerge as prototypes for the processes that determine the significance of photographic images in the future.

Retrievr, a software application developed to work with Flickr images, contributes further tools for visual classification, identification and retrieval by algorithm. Retrievr is "an experimental service which lets you search and explore a selection of Flickr Images by drawing a rough sketch" or uploading an image. Retriever doesn't work by object/face/text recognition, rather it matches formal qualities such as shapes and colour with Flickr's index of most interesting images. With more programs like Retrievr, the principles of formalism may (re)emerge as useful tools for pattern recognition.

Transcluded from http://labs.systemone.at/retrievr/

Flickr groups, like neighbourhoods, offer a way of "measuring and expressing the repeated behaviour of larger collectives - capturing information about group behaviour, and sharing that information with the group" Johnson 2001 p40. Users often reflect on the function of Flickr itself particularly in relation to the social networks and group activity. An active Flickrite GustavoG, who has established a number of groups including Emergence, analysed aspects of the social network of Flickr during January and April 2005. His January analysis, for example, mapped Flickr users with at least 50 mutual contacts. His visualization of the network is below:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/gustavog/sets/113313/ Example of GustavoG's social network mapping - click image to see more visualisations

GustavoG's analysis identifies the hubs, clusters, links and nodes that form the basis of the Flickr network. His mapping shows that Flickr exhibits the traits of a complex networks including growth and preferential attachment. Those members who were first to join Flickr are the best connected and in some cases are the hubs of the Flickr Universe. This type of visualization offers clues to another future for photography - the visualisation of photographic data and metadata. A photographic future full of conversations about photography and its links to information visualization.

This type of voluntary analysis is encouraged on Flickr by users and staff. Flickr has an open Application Programming Interface which means "anyone can write their own program to present public Flickr data"Flickr API . The number of spin-off programs and games is a rapidly evolving arena which adds further dimensions to the Flickr Universe. Some Flickrites have set up websites which offer their own versions of playing against the apparatus/program/algorithm. Tomas Hawk offers his ten tips to get noticed on Flickr in which he includes tricks for getting your photos into interestingness. The website Worship the Glitch goes further identifying the open and hackable nature of Flickr and how users can benefit from it. Hackers (as opposed to crackers) are considered good guys "denoting individuals with excellent computer skills who test the limits of our online universe without harming other computers or interfering with other users" Barabasi 2003 p116. Worship the Glitch provides tips; offers insight into features that are not commonly known; and includes links to a discussion group for fellow Flickr Hackers. There are also books emerging including Flickr Hacks: Tips & Tools for Sharing Photos Online by Bausch & Bumgardner and How to Use Flickr: The Digital Photography Revolution by Australian author Richard Giles. The Flickr community extends well beyond the website.

There is an awareness of the operations and attributes of Flickr's complex networks in the general Flickr community (not just the technically savvy). The acknowledgment of small world phenomena of networks is evident and even exploited in groups such as Flick-O-System: ? degrees of separation in which Kevin Bacon is the group's mascot and various "linking" games are played based on themes. There is also a spin-off game called Flickrball which asks the player, starting with photos with the tag Kevin, to reach a photo with the tag Bacon in as few clicks as possible. Rest assured, there is little chance Kevin Bacon will become the centre of the Flickr Universe!

Flickr Development

Flickr groups are useful feedback mechanisms for fellow users as well as staff. Flickr staff are actively engaged in Flickr forums and groups. Flickr has followed users lead, watched for patterns and listened to suggestions. In fact Flickr relies on feedback from users to improve the functionality of the site, debunk bugs, and assist in rectifying problems. User feedback has been integral to its initial and subsequent development as Eric Costello points out, "User feedback also drove a lot of the decisions about the features. We had user forums very early on and they told us what they wanted"Eric Costello . The adaptive nature of Flickr's development and its successful use of feedback has contributed to its success:

..because we're quick to develop and deploy new things, and because we have a talkative bunch of users and a lot of places for them to talk to us, we can quickly assimilate suggestions from the community. We can build a feature and deploy it sometimes within a week of hearing a feature request.Eric Costello

Complex systems that exploit emergent patterns "can scale to larger sizes in ways that traditional information systems, such as library catalogues cannot"Campbell and Fast. This explains why Flickr has been able to cope so well with the increase of traffic to the site of 448% from December 2004-2005, and the increase of membership from 250,000 to over 2 million in the last year Graham . Systems like Flickr are built "with a conscious understanding of what emergence is", furthermore they are "systems designed to exploit those laws" Johnson 2001 p. The significance of understanding photography in terms of complexity now, is that the future of photography may well be built on principles of complex systems.

Flickr has emerged as a model for other websites that focus on visual information sharing. YouTube which is a online video sharing repository, functions in a similar way to Flickr and shares features including tagging, groups, favourites, and comments. Additional feedback is provided by a rating a system for videos and also allows fellow users can subscribe to your channel.

Stewart Butterfield, Flickr co-creator, believes photography is "meant to be shared, talked about, pointed to, saved, archived and available by as many means as possible"Graham . Katharine Mieszkowski points out Flickr offers "an only-on-the-Web conversation where text and image are intermingled in a polyglot that has all the makings of a new kind of conversation". More than that it is the beginning of a new kind of photography. This is photography in real-time and understanding it in terms of emergence is lessening the delay.


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