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October 23, 2007

Flickr Huh?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Do you "get" the wonderfulness of Flickr? Me, I've discovered that I lack the Flickr gene entirely.

I didn't think this would prove to be the case. A few years back, I was as excited as everyone else was about Flickr. The world had never seen such a cool web-thing. Overnight it seemed that everyone embraced Flickr. Flickr was showing us a whole new way to interact with photos, even with the web itself.

The mind boggled, the heart raced. I paid for a Pro account, I uploaded a lot of pix ... And I've barely used the service since.

Wondering why, I come up with one thing only: I haven't discovered a single reason why I would use Flickr. I find its "Photostream" method of organizing photos confusing. I don't understand the difference between "Sets" and "Collections" -- and, hell, I don't want to understand it. Photos as Flickr displays them are rather small, and the service has been pokey-ish on all the computers I've tried it on. I tired very quickly of watching little pink and blue balls circle around each other above the word "Loading" ...

What first appealed to me about Flickr was the idea of storing photos online. No more chance of losing them due to a home-hard-drive crash; easy to access them from no matter where. In practice, I've found that a combo of iPhoto on the home Mac and a weekly backup to an external hard drive suits me far better. I've also found that, when I'm away from home, one of the last things I feel a desire to do is to play with my photo collection. So much for my initial hopes and plans for the service.

As far as using Flickr as a way to show off occasional handfuls of photos to friends and family goes, I've found Flickr to be a bust there too. My first preference is to email photos to family and buds. My second is to use Google's free Picassa Web Albums, which seems to me easier and faster to use than Flickr does; it also displays photos to better advantage than Flickr does. IMHO, of course.

My own disappointment notwithstanding, Flickr and the impact of Flickr roar on, of course. Yahoo! bought Flickr for a rumored $15-$17 mill -- and Flickr at Yahoo! has been such a popular attraction that Yahoo! has junked their own old-timey photo service. Meanwhile, Flickr seems to be generally deferred-to as a pioneer of Web 2.0, if not Web 3.0.

What is it that enchants so many about Flickr? Many people are evidently getting something out of Flickr that it doesn't even occur to me to look to Flickr for. What could that be?

I have two hunches. One has to do with the idea of a website not as "a brochure with links" or as "a book with links" but as "a place to visit and play with." People don't just use Flickr as a clothesline to hang photos on. They hang out at Flickr, they cruise Flickr. They comment on other people's photos; they check comments on their own pix. They join groups; they swap messages. I can't imagine spending time in this way, but that's my loss, I guess.

My other hunch has to do with "social networking." Here I'm on really shakey ground. Though I'm proud of how well I've adapted to a web-ified world -- y'know, for someone my age -- I don't get social networking at all.

If I understand recent trends correctly, the dealing-with-the-web tool-set that we've grown used to in recent years (namely, email-plus-websites) is becoming obsolete. As the MySpace generation grows up, we're witnessing a whole new way of interacting with the web. A combo of this and that -- whatever suits. Facebook plus Twitter, maybe, plus who knows what else. And then on to something newer and different. Flickr seems to be part of this bundle of possible social-networking tools.

Faced with this set of facts, I wonder: Where the web goes, why would anyone want or need anything other than a website, email, and a blog? The world has paradigm-shifted itself right out of my ken, it seems.

As for Flickr, I'm not entirely surprised that a fair number of people would want to show off their photos. More puzzling to me is the fact that there are evidently tons of people who see fit to invite strangers to comment on their photos. (I don't want any strangers looking at my photos at all. That's why I prefer to email my digi-pix around.) With some strain, I can imagine that there might be a few people in the world who'd enjoy using photos as a sociability-enabler, rather like poker or bridge. But I'm flabbergasted to learn that there would be so many such people that their numbers are driving our new-media concepts.

And here's something that puzzles me more generally: What are the advantages that the social-networking approach to weblife offers over the old website-plus-email model?

Much of my bewilderment no doubt has to do with age. Age does seem to be one of those big digital divides, after all. For one thing, older people can’t see any reason to scatter pieces of themselves all over the web. Show them a MySpace page and they'll wince and look away. Explain to them about microblogging and they'll ask, "Why on earth would anyone want to do that?"

Younger people on the other hand seem to feel that scattering pieces of themselves all over the Web is a downright kick. A YouTube vidblog, a MySpace page, a Flickr set, multiple "Friends" lists ... What could be more fun? Where older people prefer calm and privacy, younger people are more impulse-addled, er, decentered and frisky. They want to parrrrrrr-tay.

Hey, if there's anything to what I'm saying, can we conclude that recent web developments are having the effect of making the web even more tailored than it already is to the tastes, habits, and preferences of young people? My current general-trends theory: Everything is moving in the direction of Spring Break. Sigh: As if the world isn't already 'way too youth-oriented ...

Are you a Flickr addict? If so, how do you make use of it? And is anyone else as baffled by recent web-developments as I am?

Incidentally, no disrespect intended towards Flickr, let alone towards people who enjoy Flickr. Flickr works for many people. That's a very interesting and respect-worthy fact.



posted by Michael at October 23, 2007


I'm a fan though I'd hardly call it an addiction.

It's a good way of peeking into other people's lives and yes, learning a lot about art and city life. Also, I've been able to look up a few people through it. Last week I stumbled upon the flickr account of a former student, and I browsed through all 2000 of her photos. I saw her family, the places she's visited, her baby, etc. (She's also an artist, so her taste in visual arts is keen).

I think the problem has to do with levels of privacy. Younger people in general (irrespective of generations) are more free about sharing personal details. Older people can anticipate the complications. (see this case for example ).

Yes, I agree it's wierd receiving random comments by strangers on photos. You can turn that off though.

What excites me is photo-driven narratives. You can devise various stories that proceed on the basis of photos. This is not exactly what I mean, but on my photos of my Peace Corps adventures , I can convey a lot of details about that time in my life merely by annotating the photos.

Finally, I can't remember if I already mentioned this photo of mine, but here's an annotated photo of my bookshelf .

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 23, 2007 6:10 AM

there is another issue: eternal youth! most flickr photos are of one another, and the younger you are, the more favorably inclined you are to pictures of self and friends. you and i are probably as exhibitionist as you can get, and yet we don't hold a candle to the number of photos people in teens and twenties are doing. It's a youth-driven form of entertainment, and i am not young.

this was hammered home to me at a geek festival i attended. i was one of the oldest people there (an ancient 41!), and yet everyone was taking gobs of photos of everybody. The fact that I took only 5 photos of the event rather than 300 only reminded me of how little importance photos meant to me.

Another great part of flickr though is that as long as you hang out with other flickr members, they can post photos of you and other people, so it is almost unnnecessary for you to bring a camera to events anymore.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 23, 2007 6:30 AM

These are the boringest type of comments, I know, but I'm completely in your camp on this one Michael. I just dinna get it about flickr.

I use it primarily as a place to put pictures that my geocities/yahoo account blocks due to bandwidth issues. I use secondarily it as a means of unblocking my thoughts, as hitting the "Reload!" button on the random image page ( and letting the pics wash over me somehow helps unstop writer's block.

It seems to be one of those places where folks build an on-line community of strangers, sorta like blogs, but the content is pics not words.

There are unwritten rules, too. I once asked someone to post a larger version of a pretty photo so I could use it as wallpaper. ( Well, since I do use flickr juste for pics for my blog, and at the time the only one up there was of another flickr photo I used for a CD cover, she called me a weirdo and therefore unworthy of her pictures.

So, I've since tread a bit more lightly since I don't grok the community of flickr.

Posted by: yahmdallah on October 23, 2007 6:45 AM

I use it to share projects. Sure, you can send photos by e-mail but, only to specific people.

The first photo I posted to Flickr was a trestle table workbench I designed and built. That was added to the group for MAKE magazine and a workshop group. That was the reason for joining Flickr.

I see the groups as common interest bulletin boards.

I also use Flickr as part of my experimenting with digital photography. I am still a film guy at heart. Many of the photos I have posted are scanned from my old 35mm stuff. More experimenting.

Posted by: Fred on October 23, 2007 6:52 AM

I haven't been able to get interested in the new "social networking" phenomenon at all. Now, I say "new" because the Web has always been about social networking. We used to have mailing lists and message boards and chat rooms, then blogs; now there's MySpace and Flickr and a whole bunch of other stuff that I'm only peripherally aware of but it's just a new way to do the same old thing kids have always been doing.

I don't think the old Web is going away. Not only do we still have blogs, there are still message boards, chat rooms and just plain old pre-blog websites. I love when I run across a really amateurish mid-90s style Website.

Posted by: Lynn on October 23, 2007 7:29 AM

I joined flickr at my son's recommendation, after I'd had my first digital camera (one that was very complicated to me) a short while. I love it, and while I'm not there 20 times/day as I was at the beginning, I do visit often and check in with my groups.

I learned so much about photography from joining groups that had weekly assignments or challenges -- completing the challenges for one group on macro photography seemed each week to teach me something new about the camera -- white balance, various kinds of lighting, etc. The Photoshop Elements group has been an incredible resource, teaching me just about everything I know about PSE by again, giving weekly assignments, then everyone posts their attempts (e.g. at an "out-of-bounds" pic), and lively discussion ensues as people share their particular techniques. There are groups that do scavenger hunts, which get me out walking around, looking for various items to photograph -- fun and often very creative, when you see what people do with the items.

I really could care less whether people look at my pics, though I have achieved a print publication and a web publication because people have done searches on flickr and come up with pics of mine that they liked. I don't know whether other sites would be more user-friendly, but once you get used to their organizing system, it works fine. (You have to have a lot of pics there to make sense of the difference between sets and collections).

Here's my account, if you're interested:

This is one of my fave sets -- a lighthouse I pass as I commute to work, and photograph nearly every day:

Posted by: missgrundy on October 23, 2007 7:33 AM

I love Flickr, but use it entirely as a consumner - I don't ever post photos to it. So, I'm a parastic blight on the Flickr community.

For example, I was reading about the tomb art of greek era Egypt, and was able to float over to my computer and call up 100s of images of this art with Flickr. It's much better at getting relevant images than Google images.

As far as social networking, I don't get it either - and I work for a typical Web 2.0 (gack) community web site. It seems like almost entirely useless chatter, but then I guess you can say that for the internet as whole. I guess people just love to run their mouths.

I remember when cellphones first became common, I was blown away to see almost every person walking down the street mouthing off into their phone. Can anyone possibly have so much to say that they have to be plugged in 24/7?

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on October 23, 2007 7:40 AM

When photo space on my blog was more limited, I used flickr. It served my needs quite well until I hit the free version's photo limit, but then blogger and google teamed up, so space isn't really an issue anymore for me.

Flickr is a searchable resource for images with creative commons licenses which seems handy for bloggers who don't shoot much themselves.

Posted by: claire on October 23, 2007 8:30 AM

What with some of you sharing your Flickr account addresses, I feel like I'm starting to get the point of Flickr finally. Fun to explore your photos, tks. For one thing it can be a different way of getting to know people, I'm learning.

Still ... But then I feel like I already know you, so the Flickr thing enhances something pre-existing ...

Do those of you who really use Flickr feel like you get to know people thru their pics, and thru their ongoing presences on the site? Just from being a member and bopping around the place a bit, I've thought "Hmm, there's a crazy one" a few times. But I've never felt like I was, I dunno, having even a teeny-weeny bit of a relationship with anyone. I kind of like the idea in principle, but while I've "met" tons of super people via blogs and such, never once via Flickr.

But maybe at Flickr I hang out in the wrong Groups ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 23, 2007 8:54 AM

I happen to know what the so-called useless chatter is for.

1: It confuses people into thinking they have relationships.

2: It distracts them from whatever serious problem they'd be dwelling on otherwise.

The party, the banter, all of it serves these purposes.

It'd be nice if the youth-orientation would sometimes be for youth as people instead of youth as consumers.

Posted by: Alan on October 23, 2007 9:16 AM

What's that old story about five blind men describing an elephant?

Posted by: Fred on October 23, 2007 9:47 AM

I've actually made a number of flickr friends (as opposed to "contacts" -- most of the time, I can't figure out why people will choose me as a contact). I enjoy chatting with the people in my groups, and again, I learn a lot from people who are just that much better than I am at photography that they can teach me something.

There are also "meet-ups" of various kinds, people getting together to go shoot on a weekend or whatever. Unfortunately, I live in Santa Cruz, and the dialogue generally goes, "we ought to meet up one day." "Right. Someone should organize it." And then the discussion falls silent for another three months.

Why is meeting and getting to know people on flickr different from meeting people at 2blowhards? I've "met" some really nice people from Scotland, Australia, etc. etc. and we enjoy great conversation about photography. Flickr is an intensely social thing, in (IMHO) a really good way.

Here's a link to my pic that was published in "Bay Nature" -- (the one of Lake Merced) -- the *only* reason I took this pic was because of a challenge in one of my groups to take a pic that represented a film in some way -- this was, of course, "On Golden Pond" . . .

Posted by: missgrundy on October 23, 2007 12:28 PM

Oh, and I have to disagree with Alan -- the people I've met haven't been young at all -- all kinds of ages, and many people middle- to later-aged.

Posted by: missgrundy on October 23, 2007 12:29 PM

There are a lot of these "store and create" websites out there and they all seem underwhelming. Plus they are loaded with advertising. Take, for example. What a hassle. I've never wanted to knuckle down and explore Flickr because I've been so happy with the Mac's photo display program, iPhoto.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 23, 2007 12:43 PM

Exactly what Todd Fletcher said. Flickr is an amazing repository of images. I use it all the time for that -- and have never uploaded anything of my own. If I want to see a photo of a particular building in San Francisco, or a centipede, or a wine label, I can usually find it there. The search function is excellent.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 23, 2007 1:45 PM

I use flickr mostly for image storage where I want to link to particular photo. They make that easy, by telling you the URL, at various sizes. (Michael, have you never clicked on "all sizes"? It's variable depending on the poster, but still...)


Why would someone want "total strangers" looking at one's photos? Why would one want total strangers reading one's words? Why would one want total strangers watching one's movies? Why would one want total strangers looking at one's art? It's called "publishing." It's been around a while. Flickr may be vanity publishing, sure, but the urge is much the same. (Although true photo geeks who want to improve their craft go to It must be said, I'm the kind of guy who's posted photos to Wikipedia (Michael Dukakis, Alfred Nobel, Bryan Harvey).


"Social networking" sites are just a way to avoid "real" relationships?

Look. The net is text. Text is text is text.

If people using social networking sites don't have "real" realtionships, then Abelard and Heloise never had a relationship. Sir Thomas More and Erasmus never had a relationship. Barrett and Browning never had a relationship. Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Campbell never had a relationship. Larry Durrell and Henry Miller never had a relationship. "The Family" of New York intellectuals never had a relationship. (Why is it I feel like Red Buttons here?)

It is to laugh.

Oh, and this article might be interesting in terms of such informal networks:


My own flickr account:


Oh, and as to idea that "privacy" exists, and that anything on magnetic media *isn't* de facto public record... How... quaint.

And, as the Red Buttons line might indicate: I'm 44. This is not "age related." This is solely a question of whether one has been curious about the world. That cuts across all ages, classes, nationalities, etc.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on October 23, 2007 4:08 PM

The purpose of Flickr is to draw you in to this community of users that will keep you coming back to the site.

I suspect that Flickr is much like MySpace -- Many people make it the center of the internet universe, and for them that is fine. For the rest of us, getting too involved in these sites is too much of a time sink.

Posted by: Cineris on October 24, 2007 12:13 AM

Most definitely a time sink -- whether a waste of time depends on how you use it and what you get out of it.

I have a pro account, so I have no advertising, all sizes of pics, and so on. It's very inexpensive.

One of the groups I belong to is moderated by someone who teaches photography in real life, and one week we had an assignment to make a postcard photo of the town we live in (mine is here:
A bunch of people in the group decided to print out and exchange our postcards, so I have a collection from Berlin, London, North Carolina, Wisconsin, etc. It was great fun.

There's a wonderful group called Utata -- very smart and creative people. They have a website, and each summer they do a big project. You can see it here:
There are some really wonderful contributions.

I think that flickr takes a while to get into -- when you start out it can be confusing and overwhelming. But once you find your way, it's a wonderful place to spend time.

Posted by: missgrundy on October 24, 2007 2:03 AM

Here's a perfect example of what makes Flickr cool, a collection of Japanese Manhole Covers:

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on October 24, 2007 3:05 AM

missgrundy: I love your lighthouses. And I'm impressed that you've put flickr to such good use.

I use it to store photos for my blog or to look for photos to put on my blog. (with the proper credit, of course) Otherwise not too much.

I don't know that Web 2.0 is that much different from Web 1.0. As others have pointed out, you can "meet" people just as well through blog writing and reading as you can by having a MySpace page. I actually have one of those and after I put it together I found that I wasn't really interested in exerting myself any further.

Posted by: Rachel on October 24, 2007 4:37 AM

Thanks for looking at my pics, Rachel -- I am a *much* better photographer than I was a year ago when I got my first "real" camera, and honestly, I've learned more from flickr than I did in the two classes I've taken so far --

Todd, I love the manhole cover group! I'm always astonished at the groups people start -- I have a pic in a group dedicated to photos that look like Maxfield Parrish paintings, a group on urban nature, a group on fruits and vegetables, a group for Orton addicts -- they really are endless. And the groups dedicated to your particular camera can be great resources as well.

Posted by: missgrundy on October 24, 2007 7:20 AM

If you're interested in photography, there's a good article on how you might use flickr here:

Posted by: Nigel on October 25, 2007 8:03 AM

Nigel: Thanks for the interesting link. What beautiful photos.

I feel like I don't have time for flickr, but actually I've been using it a lot lately to find photos for an editing job I'm doing. Mostly, I just need stuff like a pic of the Tower of London or a Halloween photo. (I've had to find about a gazillion Halloween photos in the past month. Criminey, I'm sick of looking at pumpkins.)

Anyway, the other day I was looking for photos featuring Santa Monica's farmer's market, and I stumbled on one guy's pics of the produce. There were about a million of them and, perhaps it was the subject matter, but I spent about an hour or more looking thru them, finding other photos of fruit and just reveling in the colors and the textures.

Posted by: Rachel on October 27, 2007 7:35 PM

I use flickr as a tool. I am in the process of an ongoing "Unconsumption Project" and use it to upload photos of the items I am unconsuming. I am then able to include a link in an email when posting to lists that don't allow attachments.

It's not fancy (and neither are my photos!), but it works for me (

Posted by: sestina verde on November 3, 2007 7:58 AM

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