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grcumb's Journal: Flickr: Flunkr

Journal by grcumb

About once a month or so, I'm tempted to dump 25 bucks on Flickr to upgrade to a 'Pro' account, just so I can plop more than 200 photos into that particular bucket. I admit I've been on the cusp a couple of times.

But I never do. The plain fact is that Flickr is a terrible photo viewing interface.

White, what?

A bright white background is possibly the worst neutral background they could have chosen. White washes out colours and destroys one of the things that I personally love best: subtle shading on very dark and earth-toned pictures. It's got the point where a lot of self-respecting photographers actually have a 'View on Black' link, pointing to one of several services that do nothing other than render the very same photo with a dark background. The difference is stunning.

But Flickr, in its infinite marketing wisdom, would rather emulate Google's 'any colour as long as it's white' mantra. In Google's case, there's wisdom in the approach; they are a utility, like power or water, not a creative service. Flickr does not benefit in the least from an engineer's design sense, and it's high time someone told them that.

One Hundred's Spartan

When viewing photos in groups - or any aggregation, for that matter - one is usually presented with a hodge-podge of 100 pixel thumbnails. Viewing photo sets is even worse. the screen is filled with a patchwork quilt of arbitrarily cropped 75×75 pixel postage stamps. No, wait, I take that back. Postage stamps are larger.

I can't imagine a worse fate for any decent photo. To be reduced to a smudge of light among dozens or hundreds of others on a glaring white page. I'm not sure even Ansel Adams could survive that.

Of course, there are some photos that do just fine in such an environment. Too often, they're from the 'Ooh Shiny!' school of art. To everyone's credit, some genuinely lovely photos can be found, if you know where to look. But they're lovely in spite of Flickr, not because of it.

There are any number of technical arguments for crowding dozens of blots of colour together and call them a collection, but none of them wash when it comes to aesthetics, or even usability, for that matter.

Cliqr

Flickr's groups are subject to the same AOL-ish devaluation that most large scale communities suffer from. The absolute preciousness of users who troll through other galleries, bestowing silly trophy and ribbon icons on pretty photos in a desperate attempt to burnish their collective karma by associating with only the best types... it's off-putting in a way that I'd rather not characterise in a public medium.

Let's just leave it at this: Any group of more than a few dozen people who are mostly unknown to one another can never merit the descriptor 'exclusive'.

Worst of all, Flickr is a vortex. It's a gravity well whose debris can be found throughout the Web, but which is entirely self-referential. Once you're in there, you don't come out. I've had over 14,000 visitors to my main photo stream, yet a mere 18 referrals from Flickr show up in my imagicity.com server logs. People who use Flickr don't go elsewhere.

Flickr, in other words, is good for Flickr. Any benefit that derives to individual photographers seems to be purely coincidental.

Flunkr

All of of this isn't Flickr's fault, per se. The fault lies in our technical inability to render - and more importantly, to manage - images efficiently through a standard GUI, and to share them effectively.

It seems almost paradoxical. Digital technology has allowed revolutionary advances in photography. It has made possible one thing that I love more than any: the ability to draw with light rather than pigment. Sometimes when I'm engrossed in my work I find myself getting almost drunk on colour. There is nothing more rewarding than watching a well-built slide show wash the room with light and shape, to see human vision captured, distilled and transformed in the process.

It astounds me, therefore, how poorly most websites handle photos.

But this is the environment that Flickr has chosen. With few tools to effectively deal with social economies of scale, people are left to their own devices, so they crowd together (as people always do), creating cacophony where contemplation might once have been. Flickr has embraced (in the embarrassing cloying-college-drinking-buddy sense of the word) conventional wisdom with regards to UI, and have spent all their effort on the engineering challenge of handling photos in volume. They've tacked on a few trendy bloggy/webbish bits, like tagging with keywords and location data, but done nothing whatsoever to innovate how photos are viewed.

And that, it seems to me, should be the very essence of innovation where photography is concerned.

I won't demur for a moment if you counter that thumbnails are a necessary evil, that larding a page up with binaries slows down load times, that we're unfortunately bound by the lowest common denominator where display and download capacity are concerned. Nor will I argue if you express admiration for their ability to handle the data volumes that they do. Just storing and serving up 2 billion photos is a decidedly non-trivial task.

But let's be clear here: I expect more from Flickr. I judge them by a higher standard.

They want to set themselves apart? Then let them deal intelligently - dare I say it? creatively - with their popularity. The engineering challenge is interesting; I'll be the first to admit it. But dammitall, this is a photography site. It's for creative people. Is it too much to ask that they should actually take a little of their revenue and use it for basic research and innovation? Where's the research into lossless compression, peer-to-peer content distribution, point-and-click monitor calibration, optimal display environments, click-and-drag online image resizing? Where's the community for UI geeks?

How many of Flickr's 10-30 million monthly visitors have paid accounts there? My guess would be: Several. Surely some of that revenue could go into renewal, exploration and invention.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Flickr founders Catarina Fake and Stewart Butterfield left Yahoo! just as soon as they reasonably could. I don't doubt for a moment that they've thought a great deal more about these issues than I have. Perhaps they'll be the ones who manage to pull a rabbit or two out of their digital cap.

If they do, they'll get my money, too.

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Flickr: Flunkr

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