My 15 Minutes
Image by StarrGazr
Me for Nashua Telegraph Article on Flickr Tagging
Photo by Kevin Jacobus – firstname.lastname@example.org – of the Nashua Telegraph. Taken March 28th.
EDIT: 12-26-05 The article has now gone behind the password gates, so here is the text.
Tagging pictures is proving useful
If a picture is worth 1,000 words – a saying this camera-phobic typist has always found insulting – then what’s a Web-tagged picture worth?
This is probably not a question that has puzzled you much, but it comes up when contemplating Flickr.com, a photo-sharing Web site just bought by search-engine Yahoo for untold gazillions of dollars.
Yahoo bought Flickr partly because it’s the most popular of the social-networking Web sites built around people posting their own pictures. But Flickr also attracted Yahoo because it has shown that the teeming masses can do a surprisingly good job of helping find pictures online, which isn’t easy.
The secret is “tagging,” or adorning photos with words that alert search engines about what’s there.
This is hardly new: You do the same thing when you change a digital picture in your computer from “356XP07.jpeg” to “Mom sneezing” so you can find it later. Flickr’s innovation is that it lets anybody tag your photos – as if a stranger could add “big ears” to your title because he thinks your mother looks like Prince Charles.
This sounds like a recipe for chaos, full of Beavis-and-Butthead vandalism, but it has proven a surprisingly effective tool.
“(Flickr) once added an enhancement that disabled tags for a time. It wasn’t until they did that, that I realized how often I used it,” said Tracy Lee Carroll of Hudson, who is “StarrGazr” on Flickr because somebody else had her name.
Carroll has used tags to create a New Hampshire group, where lots of Granite State-related pictures automatically gather, and compares Flickr to America Online in the early 1990s, when it was still fresh and exciting.
“The Yahoo buyout got a lot of people really nervous . . . concerned that Flickr would lose something in the process,” she said. “We’ll have to see.”
As for tagging, I found it useful on my first visit. Right after my no-cost signup, I searched for photos that had been tagged “Nashua” by the photographers or other Flickr-ites, then contacted some of the people involved – and quickly found Carroll.
My search, by the way, produced pictures ranging from a Destination Imagination team and an industrial complex, to the Nashua Flute Choir and Howard Dean in a local, pre-scream appearance. Not all the shots were exactly scintillating, but all were closely tied to life in our city.
Search Google Images for “Nashua,” by contrast, and you’ll find not only images related to the city but also the racehorse, the company, the Safer Road to Tomorrow initiative and some that are just plain mystifying. They were unearthed by Google’s search algorithm and through non-editable tags from the Web sites themselves, rather than tags applied by hordes of amateurs.
Neither approach is better, per se – Googling serendipity has its advantages – but Flickr’s everybody-in-the-pool method isn’t the mess that it sounds like it should be.
“It’s as infallible or as accurate as each individual person,” said Carroll. “There are pluses and minuses.”
Flickr tagging can be seen as part of a broader phenomenon that was summed up in the book “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki. He argues that a properly organized group can be “wiser” than its component parts, just as Wall Street is “wiser” than any individual investor.
Forget experts: Let the masses decide!
The pluses and minuses of mass participation can be seen in another Web phenomenon I’ve mentioned before: Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anybody can edit at any time. It recently passed the 500,000-article mark just for the English-language version alone, and while many of the entries are wrong and even more are stupid, it contains a surprising amount of valuable, fascinating information.
Similarly, I’m sure Flickr has tons of mis-tagged photos, inelegant organization and other amateurish crud, but it also creates an interesting way to keep an eye on life.
To go further, another local Flickr-ite, Mark Nozell of Merrimack, pointed me to a blog discussion about the “folksonomy” of tagging, a visual way to calibrate the phenomenon and possibly find hidden patterns.
It’s interesting stuff, although so new I can’t tell if it has any value. But uncertainty is a good thing when the alternative is stagnation.
Or, to quote somebody named David Weinberg from the folksonomy discussion: “It’s only been five minutes since tags have caught on, and already they’re too confusing! To which I say: Excellent!”
© 2003, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire
Science From the Sidelines appears Wednesdays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 603-594-5831 or email@example.com.