I’ve been using the Internet every day since 1985, back when there was only a command-line interface and no graphics. I’ve been using conferencing systems to communicate with colleagues every day since 1990 – Byte magazine was the first customer for Waterloo University’s CoSy system (later used as the basis for Cix). I’ve been using search engines since the early days of Excite, Lycos, AltaVista and Inktomi. And yet it’s taken until now for anything on the web to really hook me, and that thing is Flickr.


I have RWC columnist Tom Arah to thank for my addiction. His description of Flickr last month interested me enough to register and try it out, and it almost immediately sank its claws into me. Tom, as a designer and user of pictures, quite rightly stressed its importance as a huge reservoir of public domain and CC images, but what grabbed me as a casual photographer was the huge potential audience (or should that be vidience?), the community structure and the fact that it employs a metric – namely, “views” – to rate how much your pictures appeal to others.

I’ve been into photography for years, even occasionally had pictures published, but once I’d satisfied my lust for an Olympus OM-1 in the early 1970s I grew out of hardware fetishism, and the accumulation of unseen negatives eventually became a bore. Digital briefly revived my interest, and now Flickr lets me dig up those pictures I think are worthwhile and run them up a virtual flagpole to see if anyone salutes.

As you visit Flickr for the first time, you’ll almost certainly decide that it’s just a big mess of people’s holiday snaps. It takes a while to grasp how vast the database is, and how good the navigation is thanks to groups and tagging. Eventually, you may find your way around and stumble upon some great images.

The cleverness of Flickr’s design lies in grafting a simple rating system (via view counts, comments and favourites) on top of a date-based streaming system. As you upload more pictures, they’re always displayed with the most recent first. That means your pictures get gradually pushed down each group’s list, so you have a limited period – perhaps just a day – to get people to notice them before they’re swept away in the stream. You do that by informative tagging and finding those groups to post to who might be interested in that particular subject. It all becomes a marvellous game, a bit like one of those stock market simulations, but where you’re trying to maximise your number of views.

If you are a hardware fetishist, there are plenty of groups who like to talk the big lens talk. If you prefer arty waffle, or mysticism, or gritty realist reportage, there are hundreds of groups for those too. Just like Ebay, MySpace or the blogosphere, it’s a sizeable world with diverse factions and philosophies. The blogosphere never hooked me, because I’ve never enjoyed arguing for the sake of it (and nasty opinions are far more distasteful than crap photographs). There’s a more philosophical reason too: photographs, however personal, silly or badly framed, always show a little bit of the real world at some other place where you’re not. Bad opinions just reveal a little bit of the inside of someone else’s head, where you would never want to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who believe that the camera never lies, or that you mustn’t ever crop a photograph because that would be messing with the truth. The truth (as I believe I’ve said here before) is everything that happens in the world of matter, of which we see, feel, taste, smell and imagine only those tiny local samples of surface appearance that our narrowband senses can take in.

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