I was sitting in a food court, sipping a latte, killing time waiting for my X-Rays to be processed, fitfully reading a book about Kerouac and pondering the great mysteries of life, like WTF is Interestingness, when I recalled an observation made by my Flickr-friend Nabaz.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, Interestingness is a term the people at the Flickr photo-sharing website have coined to rank uploaded images according to a complex algorithm which they keep secret. And the 500 most interesting uploads each day are compiled in a list called Explore on the Flickr website.
It all sounds like something Kafka might have dreamt up. Our lives are controlled by an unseen, unfathomable algorithm that constantly changes so that no one can predict what it is going to do, how it is going to react, how it is going to affect them.
Now, I’ve just checked the Flickr home page which contains a counter of the number of images uploaded in the last minute and at that precise time, the number reported was 4,493. If this can be taken as an average, that would mean that roughly 6.5 million images are uploaded each day (give or take a few); and out of this vast number of images, only 500 are selected to appear on the Explore list (for that day). Obviously, a computer algorithm is necessary to handle that volume of traffic. No human could look at and evaluate 6.5 million images each day. It takes me hours just to check out the few hundred images uploaded by my contacts each week. So, the issue is not that a computer is making the judgement, but rather how the computer arrives at its decisions.
According to Flickr, my most interesting upload (at the moment) is this one; although it has never appeared on Explore. Yet 45 of my other uploads, deemed by Flickr to be less interesting have been Explored; which brings me to another important characteristic of Explore: the success of an image depends on the competition it faces from other images uploaded on the same day. At least, if you talk to the people at Flickr, that’s what they will tell you. So, I decided to test this out. At the time I am writing this, my most interesting image had been viewed 355 times, commented 90 times, favourited 49 times, invited to join 11 groups and had been included in 2 galleries. The image that was ranked 500 on that same day was viewed 477 times, commented 38 times, favourited 13 times, invited to join 6 groups and had not been included in any galleries. So apart from the disparity in the number of views, you’d have thought that my image might have been able to “sneak in” to Explore on that day. But no, the algorithm is more complex than that. It takes into consideration who commented and when they commented and a whole bunch of other factors that are not disclosed.
Towards the end of 2009, almost every image I uploaded found its way onto Explore. Then suddenly, at the end of February 2010, it all stopped. Many of my contacts’ images were still being Explored at that time, some of them with fewer comments and faves than my own on the same day, but I didn’t pay much attention to that until I became aware of a rumour going round that Flickr/Explore was blacklisting some members. So I wrote to them, asking if I was blacklisted and if so, why. The reply I got read like a standard letter they’d send out to appease unhappy customers. They told me that their primary aim was to be fair to everyone and that meant, “tweaking” the algorithm now and then to prevent people from cheating the system. And that got me thinking: Why do I care whether my images appear on Explore or not?
Before I launch into a discussion about Explore, let me acknowledge that Flickr is a very large and flexible website, catering to a wide audience in a wide variety of ways. It’s strength, in my opinion, is that it can be almost anything you want it to be; and since we are all different, we as a community do (and are entitled to) use it in different ways to achieve different objectives. The trick for the individual is first of all figuring out what you want from Flickr and then figuring out how to make Flickr deliver it. I am not sure that I have figured the latter out yet; and therefore, what follows is simply my own personal view based on my experience to-date, and is not intended as a recommendation for others to follow.
If you have ever browsed through the Explore pages, you will find an amazing variety of subjects photographed. Some of them will appeal to you; and some of them may not. I don’t class myself as someone qualified to judge other people’s work objectively so I don’t feel comfortable disputing what appears on Explore; but while I am hugely impressed by the quality of many of the images I find there, there are other cases where I just scratch my head and wonder: why? On one occasion, I saw an image that was simply a sign, white letters on a black background, asking to be Explored…and it was! Okay, so maybe that is also art, a statement, a protest, a rant against the absurdity, the meaninglessness of Explore…whatever. But do I really want to be part of that?
I suppose my definition of “interestingness” is much more subjective, less formulaic than the one implemented by Flickr. I’m aware of photographers who, in my opinion, are enviably talented and yet their images typically receive few comments; whilst there are others whose work leaves me cold who receive comments in the hundreds. And of course, the converse is also true. I recently stumbled across an image that had received over 1,700 comments and quite frankly, I found it stunningly beautiful so I added my own to the list. But notwithstanding the anomalies, in my opinion the term “Interestingness” is a misnomer. I think that Explore is really more about the popularity of the image rather than being an indicator of how interesting it is (although an image can clearly be both popular and interesting). But that’s pure semantics; and a whole different argument. And regardless what name Flickr uses, it doesn’t explain why so many people strive to achieve “Explored” status and get so excited when they succeed.
I grew up in a society in which competition is held in the highest esteem, whether on the sporting field, in the political arena, or in the marketplace…even in the arts, with prizes for everything from painting to piano playing, not to mention the rash of television competitions to find the best singer, dancer, performer etc. We are taught to believe that competition is good, competition fosters progress, competition leads to excellence. I have been programmed, therefore, in such a way that if there is a prize, I will compete for it; if there is an objective, I will strive for it; and if there is a cause, I will fight for it. So, when I first entered the world of Flickr and stumbled on Explore, I threw my hat in the ring and shouted: “Count me in!” I still remember the thrill of the first time one of my images made it onto Explore. I felt reassured that I was making progress. And I felt good about myself as a result of it.
Since then, Explore has lost some its lustre for me. I still haven’t had an image appear on the (Explore) Front Page; but I don’t feel driven to achieve that now. And I think the reason is largely related to what Nabaz was talking about. To refresh your memory, he said: “I think there is a notion that people only upload pictures that their flickr friend would like;” and he went on to elaborate: “We are so anxious about getting the comments and faves, that it makes some of us afraid to upload pictures that we (the photographer) likes, and not what he/ she thinks people online like.”
I certainly admit to doing that in the early stages of my involvement with Flickr. But gradually, as I got to know the people I was meeting and understand how the medium worked, I became less interested in popularity and more interested in using Flickr as a testing ground for my own photography; to see what worked and what didn’t. Of course, I still selectively upload images, simply because I see no point in uploading something that I already know is not good. It would serve me no purpose and just waste everyone else’s time. But that is not the same as basing one’s decision to upload on a prediction of popularity. What is more valuable to me is to upload something I think does or might have some merit and read what others have to say about it. Sometimes, I’m pleasantly surprised by the result. Sometimes, when an image I like receives muted response, I’m disappointed. But even that is a learning opportunity and on a couple of occasions I have used my blog to help me understand the disparity between my expectation and the actual response (e.g. Frame of Reference and The Curse of the Eclectic). So either way, I feel that good comes of it.
For me, the greatest value of Flickr is the opportunity it provides for me to see the work of some extremely talented photographers (in my opinion). I’m sure that there are many more out there that I haven’t discovered yet but there are enough already among my contacts to keep me inspired for a long time. I feel that I have learned more from looking at the work of those I admire than I ever would have done by making photgraphs in isolation. And to have the opportunity to receive feedback from people whose work you admire is a bonus. More importantly, I value receiving input from the same group of people time after time because I have grown to know them, their likes and dislikes, how to read between the lines of their comments; and it gives me a means of assessing the relative merit of my own uploads in their eyes. And this is important to me because, after the benefit of inspiration, what I value next in Flickr is the feedback I receive from people whose opinions I respect. If I didn’t value that, I’d simply browse Flickr for the inspiration and not bother to upload anything. But how can I know if I am making progress, unless I submit my work to scrutiny?
As in life, however, people on Flickr come and go. No one is obliged to look at anyone’s uploads, or comment or favourite them. And there is no single reason why people visit one’s stream; anymore than there is a particular reason why some keep coming back while others visit once and never return. Everyone has their own reasons for what they do. And in the end, Explore seems to be a simpler mechanism to use as a Key Performance Indicator. If I were an Explore jockey, I probably wouldn’t care who commented as much as I’d care about how many comments etc I got. But I can’t say that for sure because that’s not what I do and I have no experience to support that theory. And it’s not my intention here to denigrate Explore. If it works for other people, that’s fine by me. A chacun son métier. It’s just that I’m looking for something different.
So, getting back to the point Nabaz was making. I don’t think my decisions about what to photograph and what to upload are entirely influenced by a desire to please or impress my friends; and maybe they should be! On one hand, I can argue that my images are a sincere reflection of what interests me, what I care about and what I feel; but when I read that sentence back, it sounds arrogant, as if the world should care what interests me, what I care about, or what I feel. In the end, it seems to boil down to the simple business paradigm of matching supply to demand. If you give people something they value, the will come back. But if they find your product unappealing they will look elsewhere. And this too can provide a measure of one’s success, if success is defined by the number of customers you have. But equally valid is the approach of some photographers who seem to say: “Love me or hate me, this is who I am.” Rather than seeking to create a “market” for their work, they seem to be searching for “kindred spirits”; people who understand them and empathise with them through their pure, sincere and uncompromising images. Perhaps these are antitheses of the people Nabaz was thinking of when he made his statement. I’m not sure. But I do admire their courage and integrity.
So where do I fit in this firmament? What are my own, personal objectives; and how does Flickr serve them? Right at the moment, I seem to be caught between my aspirations as a photographer and my passion for writing. Contrary to what I said above about selecting only images for upload that I felt were worthy, I admit that I have occasionally uploaded an image principally because its subject matter suited a story on my blog that I wanted people to read, even if I knew the aesthetics of the image were sub par. A perfect example of this occurred on September 11 this year when I published a piece called “Once upon a train”. I needed a picture of a train to introduce the story on Flickr and found only two potential shots in my archive: one of the Trans-Siberian Railway taken in 1976 and the other of a train in China, taken in 1988.
The Chinese train was steam-driven and since the title of the piece had a nostalgic ring to it, I chose that one. But I felt that the vanilla version of the image (above) was pretty ordinary so I decided to convert it to Black and White and add a texture to “age” it. Even though the image was only a means of attracting readers to the story – and it was really the story I wanted to solicit feedback on – Flickr remains primarily a photo-sharing website and I felt obliged to upload an image that was at least moderately interesting to viewers who are only interested in photographs. But to my complete surprise, this makeshift image achieved my highest position so far on Explore (#15). So go figure. Maybe if I had converted it to sepia, it might have made the Front Page!
Just the other day, I heard someone say that, between expectation and performance, there is a gulf into which a great shadow falls. I believe that the actual quote was from TS Eliot but I have not yet been able to track it down. With Flickr, these days, I often find myself in that shadow. Whether the fault lies in my performance, or in my expectation, isn’t absolutely clear. I still have a goal: I want to be the best photographer I can possibly be. But that goal is not so easily measured and I find it difficult to tell if I am making any progress towards it. Getting my first image on Explore was a much more empirical target; and perhaps that’s why Explore is so popular.
Recently, Nabaz presented a series of shots showing the plight of a group of Kurdish refugees engaged on a hunger strike. And another friend I made through Flickr is currently writing a very sobering blog of her visit to Lesotho that I highly recommend.
For me, these testimonies put the whole issue of Flickr and Explore and the quest for Interestingness into perspective.