The Friendster of photo sites

On the photo-sharing site Flickr, instant and unlikely communities spring up around a wild universe of images, from cats and grocery day to giving birth.

Published December 20, 2004 11:04PM (EST)

Meet Josie Robson of Berkeley, Calif., who was born on Flickr, a photo-sharing site that's still in beta. Josie's two moms bought a camera phone before the birth of their first child so that they could get pictures to the new grandparents as quickly as possible. "We sent out an e-mail the night I went into labor that said, 'Here goes!'" says Conchita Robson. "Go to my link:"

In the delivery room, Conchita's wife, Ann, snapped photos on a camera phone and zipped them via e-mail to Conchita's Flickr page. Friends and family then spent hours hitting reload on their browsers, while virtually cheering on the laboring mom in the comments section below the emerging photos: "Yay! Baby is coming ... Hope she makes a quick entrance for you ... Hang in there Mom," reads one. Just after Josie was born on Sept. 28 at 3:45 p.m., in the space of an e-mail from that camera phone, her image hit the Web to a chorus of "!!!" and "Yay!" from her waiting admirers.

What will Josie and her peers be doing with their own camera phones -- or whatever image machines they'll be toting around -- by the time they're old enough to take digital pictures? After all, some of Josie's cohorts are already making appearances online before they're even out of the womb, judging from all the ultrasound images on Flickr.

If webcams were a voyeuristic novelty exploited by a smattering of exhibitionists to the delight of the ogling online masses, camera phones and digital cameras have reversed the equation. Now, everyone is starring in their own personal "Truman Show," sharing digital images both profound and ordinary. With every new haircut or pair of shoes that pops up on Flickr, the lines between "real" life and the mimetic are becoming ever further blurred.

Flickr is one of many photo-sharing sites, including, but not limited to, Fotolog, Fotothing, Zoto, Fotki, Smugmug and Pbase. Smugmug enjoyed a moment of fame in early December when the Navy launched an investigation into photos that surfaced on the site that apparently depicted Navy SEALs torturing Iraqi prisoners.

On most sites, you create your own album or page of photos, and invite your friends to look at them. But on Flickr, you can mingle all your photos with similar images, creating an endlessly beguiling cross-pollination of photos that spark a host of unique communities.

Flickr allows its more than 176,000 members to meet each other through both images and words in an ever-evolving visual playground. The onslaught of images that appear on the site range from the truly artistic to the bluntly documentary, a pool of more than 2.2 million photos that's growing at the rate of about 30,000 a day. What's unique is that 82 percent of the pictures on the site are publicly available to anyone who cares to look at them and riff off them. Members can keep their photos private, shared only with a specified group of intimates, but most choose not to, allowing the pictures of their cat or car to freely commingle with others.

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. The result is 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.

Since all it takes is snapping a photo and e-mailing it to the site from your camera phone, or uploading it from your digital camera, it's become easier to take and share a photo than to write an e-mail or a blog entry. Some people snap photos in the airport and upload them to the site to let friends and family know they've arrived safely in a foreign land -- the digital image replacing a phone call, e-mail or text message home.

There's a different kind of intimacy in looking at the photos a friend took today, than even in reading a missive detailing her daily routine. "It's a perfect use of the Internet. It takes less effort to look at photos than to read somebody's blog," says photographer Eliot Shepard, whose photo blog is at "It really is visual conversation. That's the cornerstone of the appeal of the community photo site, as opposed to the individual photo blog. It's very much like speaking to each other -- making wry jokes with images but also learning about techniques, getting ideas and cross-pollination in the echo chamber."

Posting photos on Flickr "is like personal reporting," says Chad Dickerson who, like Conchita Robson, used to work at Salon. He's the roommate of new baby Josie Robson, who encouraged her moms to post their pics of the infant on Flickr. "It's a two-way conversation, because you're not just posting for someone to see them. You're posting them so they can participate in them with comments and notes." (One of the founders of Flickr, who maintains its blog, also used to work at Salon.) While comments are much like comments on a blog, notes annotate the images themselves with boxes that show text when a cursor scrolls over them, like this.

Rion Nakaya, a prolific photo blogger in New York, posts images from her Sidekick camera phone on Flickr: "It's very of the moment. I don't send anything to Flickr that I haven't taken in the last 10 or l5 minutes. I try to make it as instant as possible to feel." And she sees it becoming more mainstream: "It's now not only people in Web technology or teenagers doing their diaries online, but it's actually something that a lot of people are doing."

As members of Flickr post their photos, they attach "tags" to them. Any word or series of words smooshed together, in any language, can be a tag, like "sleeping" or "red" or "nighttime." Your tag then connects your images to any other members' photos that happen to share the same tag.

It's a phenomenon that the Internet chattering classes have dubbed a "folksonomy." Thomas Vander Wal, a self-described "information fiend," coined the term to describe the informal social categories that emerge on sites like Flickr. "In information architecture, you're always trying to marry the bottom up and the top down. The bottom up is how people normally talk about things, sort of the vernacular," he says. "If a person is trying to describe it for a group of their friends, or if they want to remember something themselves, what would they call it?" There are tags for collections and clouds, but also for satire and creepychristmas.

The result is a commingling of images that no team of Web designers or usability experts could dream up on their own, which produces intriguing juxtapositions -- sometimes clearly intentional, other times entirely fortuitous. On the sleeping tag, drunks sleep it off next to slumbering babies and cats. The RNC tag sports both photos of protests of the Republican National Convention last September in New York, and photos from the conference floor. The Hummer tag links up shots of the vehicle performing extraordinary feats of vehicular machismo as well as shots of Hummer-haters giving the finger to the gas-guzzling vehicle. And then there's an entire tag, fuh2, devoted to dissing the Hummer with the one-fingered salute.

If a message board or chat room is one version of online community, here the tags themselves create all kinds of cross-referencing and interlinking that brings people -- and their work -- together in conversation, riffing on each other's visual ideas with their own images, making comments and notes.

Yet, the most popular tags on the site are so inclusive that they can feel almost meaningless, like 2004, camera phone and photo. Though there's a check on that, as other people can come in and add another layer of detail -- dog, cat, cloud, creepychristmas. So, the crowd can organize the system in ways that even the photographer might not expect or anticipate. In other words, "People in your friends group can add their own tags to it, so it makes it a bit richer," explains Vander Wal.

The end result is: "It's capturing more of what is actually human rather than a machine structure where everything is formalized," he says. And that means members using the system come together and share their visual ideas in endlessly unexpected ways. Some even hold whole conversations strictly in pictures, or turn a mere recipe for spiced banana cake or apple cake into something that looks truly new.

All this cross-pollination of ideas and images has emergent off-line social implications as well -- two neighbors who meet when they see each other's images on the Calgary tag, even people who find images of themselves floating on the site, and set out to meet the person who took them. "I've taken pictures of people at conferences and put their name in the tag, and then they find the picture, and I meet them online, even though I didn't actually meet them there," says blogger Tim Bishop, who has done his own musing on the potential political implications of Flickr.

And, of course, the visual playground provides lots of material for social groups that already existed off-line. "It's a virtual way to be together," says Pam Wong, 30-year-old administrator for an insurance company in San Francisco, who recently posted a photo of her desk at work so her friends who live in New York who haven't been to her office could see where she spends her day. Clearly, she's not the only one who has thought to do the same.

"It's such mundane stuff, stupid little details that nobody else would care about. But it's kind of fun to share with your friends: 'What did you have for lunch today?' And you can just show them. It's definitely way more appealing than e-mailing or calling. I don't know why. Maybe it's like you're bringing them there with you." The result is nothing less dramatic than subtle changes in the way friends, family members and even strangers participate in each other's lives. "You always have your phone with you," says Wong. "That's completely different from even how you related to your friends six months or a year ago."

"A lot of my friends put little notes on each other's photos -- say, looking at someone in the background. It's totally a way to goof off and make each other laugh," says Rion Nakaya, a friend of Wong's.

This is the first year that 23-year-old Bryan Partington, who lives in Toronto, won't be flying home for the holidays. But he's not missing out on the family traditions of decorating the tree. "My mom got onto Flickr to keep tabs on me," explains Partington, who is better known as "striatic" on the photo service, where he's personally posted some 692 photos and counting. Now, his mom has posted images of his Christmas ornaments. She's even done some of them, like this Deep Space Nine ornament, as squared circles, the visual craze that her son started on site.

Partington, an alpha user of the system, has 250 contacts on it, which is sort of like having a lot of friends on Friendster. He keeps up with so many different members' work that he has an RSS feed download them all, so he can stay on top of it all. "I let my computer check the RSS feed for me, and just collect the messages. So, each night, I can take my hour or two to go through what my computer has logged over the day," he says. Otherwise, there's no way he could keep up with the amount of interesting stuff he's tracking: "You have bloggers and professional photographers and people who use their cellphones all squished into one space. It's a really good incubator for all kinds of creativity. The more I see other people's work -- their style -- it has a ripple effect. It's almost like you're playing together, it's so social."

Others are amazed by what the system brings out in their own friends and family. When San Francisco Web designer Heather Champ got married in July, she and her fiancé created a group on Flickr for their 75 wedding guests. And just three days after the wedding, more than 300 photos had been uploaded. They included pictures taken with camera phones that had been posted immediately, as well as digital camera photos that people had gone home and uploaded. "The people posting back to our wedding group weren't just our tech-savvy friends with camera phones," she says. "Derek's mother, Derek's father, my sister, Derek's aunt and uncle. The barriers are coming down."

But more remarkable was the kind of running commentary from their wedding guests about their honeymoon in Amsterdam and Paris that took place on Flickr while it was still happening. "When we were wandering around we would take pictures with the camera phone, and we would post them immediately," Champ explains. "It was funny to get back and find people were having this real-time conversation about where we were. 'They're at Cafe Hugo near Place Des Vosges!' It was kind of unexpected to see all this dialogue."

And even more unexpected is the kind of strange social dynamics that can fall out from having this immediate window into your friends' lives: what they ate last night, and who they ate it with, Champ says. "There is a downside, too. Looking at your friends' photos and thinking: 'Why wasn't I invited to that party.' So many of my friends use it you can cross-reference," she explains almost apologetically: "You almost feel somewhat stalker-ish when you put two and two together, and come up with the very high-school: 'Why wasn't I invited?'"

By the time Josie Robson, the little girl born on Flickr just a few months ago, is old enough to actually be in high school, will that even seem weird to her? Maybe it will just be the new normal with everyone keeping visual tabs on their friends and family -- as well as countless "contacts" they've met online -- all the time.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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