2008-09 Gathering of Voices

A Flicker of Insight:
An Exploration of Flickr.com Through a Panoptic Lens

Sofia Smith

Flickr.com is a popular image hosting website and online community platform for photography enthusiasts. As of November 2008, Flickr is host to over three billion digital photographs (Wikipedia). Perhaps what is more interesting than the fact that Flickr is a storage space for digital images (which can be viewed by virtually anyone with internet access around the world) is the community aspect of the website and how it has the potential to affect the behavior of its participants.

The Flickr community is created through giving each member the ability to create their own Flickr persona and to network with other photographers from around the globe. This is done with the aid of several key features: a contacts list; the comment option; the ability to mark photographs from other users as favorites; the profile page; the ability to create groups of photos centered around a specific theme and the tag feature which allows members to add labels to their pictures. Lastly, there exists an intriguing feature known as Explore which combines data gathered from the other features.

Explore uses an algorithm that automagically selects the 500 most “interesting” photographs uploaded to Flickr each day. These images are then displayed on a feature page and ranked in order from 1 to 500 according to how “interesting” they are. So, what exactly is this elusive quality and what makes one photograph more “interesting” than another? Flickr.com explains “interestingness” in the following way:

There are lots of elements that make something ‘interesting’ (or not) on Flickr: Where the clickthroughs are coming from; who comments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many other things which are constantly changing. Interestingness changes over time, as more and more fantastic content and stories are added to Flickr. (Flickr)

In other words, “interestingness” is not simply determined by a photo’s popularity or professional quality. What is more important is who is viewing, commenting on, and marking the image as a favorite. It matters whose eye the images catches. The image must somehow stand out (whether it be due to the use of bold color, unexpected angles, artistic expression etc.) from the crowd. The exact algorithmic formula and who the “important people” are remains a mystery. Even if someone were to crack the code, it is constantly changing. As a result, images do not simply stay put in their original place in Explore. They can move up or down in ranking and even be dropped from the Explore page, making room for other pictures to be added. Explore is a feature of constant change.

Although Flickr.com and its Explore tool can easily be dismissed as another hobby and networking website, it is perhaps interesting to take a closer look at why it is so popular and attempt to analyze how the Explore feature and the way it is constructed have the potential to influence the behavior of Flickr account holders. The structure of power that Flickr has created with its Explore algorithm can be examined by making comparisons to a structure of power known as the Panopticon. The Panopticon, the invention of English philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, was a power structure originally intended to be used as a prison. It features a circular building with a central surveillance tower. The periphery is compiled of a series of individual cells to house the prisoners. Each cell is separated from the other in a way that blocks the prisoner from communicating with or even seeing his fellow inmates. All the prisoner is able to see is the central “tower of power”, but not the observer inside the tower (Foucault 213-214). The main goal of the Panopticon was to control the prisoner by creating visibility trap; by making the inmate believe that he was constantly being observed. (Foucault 213-214). French philosopher Michel Foucault used Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon to develop his social theory of Panopticism in his book entitled Discipline and Punish. In his theory, Foucault examines the effects and applications of the panoptic power mechanism and explores the way power structures evolved between the 17th and 20th Centuries in Western civilization.

Fourcault argued that “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used” (220). In other words, the panoptic power model doesn’t simply apply to prisons, hospitals, schools or mental asylums, but it can be used in any situation where the goal is to make a group of people behave in a desirable way. Although Flickr.com is far from being a prison like the Panopticon, there are some panoptic elements to the Explore algorithm. One of the major goals of Flickr seems to be to get its subscribers (the multiplicities) to upload a multitude of “interesting” photographs to their website. In addition, the goal may be to have said members be active users of the key features in order to keep the community thriving and to promote the web service. One way this desirable behavior is achieved is through the Explore feature, which has the power to engage the competitive nature of the Flickr user in order to keep them coming back for more. To further explore this strategy, it is important to look at a key feature of the panoptic mechanism.

Foucault goes on to say that:

…Benham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable.Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes that tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment, but he must be sure that he may always be so. (215)

In other words, the power of the Panopticon lies in the concept that the inmate is constantly aware of the tower and the possibility that he is being observed. It is this idea of constant surveillance that disciplines him to behave in a desirable manner. In the case of Flickr, the Explore algorithm plays the role of the central “tower of power” of constant observation. A new collection of photographs that represent the “best” of Flickr is posted each day and remains in the archives always to serve as an example of “interesting” photography. The algorithm is unverifiable because it is not made explicitly clear how it chooses the most “interesting” images. It is also unverifiable in the sense that it is constantly evolving. Unlike in the Panopticon, the surveillance of the algorithm really is constant. Each photograph uploaded to Flickr is constantly being evaluated and analyzed down to the most minute detail. The Explore algorithm tracks everything from the number of views an image receives, who is viewing it, the date and time the photo was taken (and in some cases where it was taken), the camera model used to take the picture, how many favorites it receives, who the views and favorites are coming from etc. In short, the surveillance never ceases.

What are the effects of this panoptic system that is the Explore algorithm on the Flickr member? How is Flickr’s goal of “interesting” photographs and community activity achieved? The key here seems to be discipline. The desirable behavior is produced when the competitive nature of the Flickr user is activated. She wants her photographs to be featured in Explore and is disciplined to capture the types of pictures that might be chosen by the algorithm. She studies the elements of the featured photographs. She makes new contacts in the hopes of having the “right people” view her pictures and advertises her images by posting them in certain groups. The next time she goes out with his camera, she tries to imitate certain styles which have been displayed in Explore. She improves her photography skills and learns about photo editing. She might even search the internet for tips on solving Explore puzzle. And in doing so, she will find numerous blog entries on the topic where others have posted their theories on the Explore algorithm and how to increase their chances of getting in. She develops he own strategy. She carefully clicks through all 50 pages of Explore each day in search of her image. She uses a third party application known as Scout to search for her precious photographs in Explore. When she finds it, she feels, for a moment, a sense of accomplishment and honor. If she doesn’t find it; a moment of disappointment. The key is that the cycle begins again and this is, in theory, why Flickr members keep coming back for more. Eplore becomes a drug and the member, the addict. I know because I am that Flickr user. And I also know that my experience is not unique. The Explore feature creates a frenzy among certain members that leads them to display their Explore accomplishments in their photostream or profile page; come up with theories on the Explore mystery and changes the types of photographs they capture. All of the above-mentioned effects are the result of this panoptic system; the multiplicities are disciplined to please the power.

Flickr relies on the competitive nature of modern American culture and in many ways that is the reason behind its success. This competitiveness is so ingrained in the lives of the majority of Americans today. It starts at an early age when children play games and participate in sports. The idea of a clear winner and loser is established. This follows them through their school years on various levels from competing for grades to competing for popularity. In adulthood it nags at them to perform well in the workplace. It creates the need to strive to keep up with the Joneses. My point is that competition is so highly valued that it even comes to play in supposedly fun activities such as taking photographs to share on Flickr. There doesn’t really seem to be a relief from the pressures of trying to be the best. Even fun is competitive. But is something lost in this constant competition? How does it affect the Flickr enthusiast?

As the Flickr user schemes and strategizes how to get her photographs displayed in the coveted Explore pages and changes her style of photography to fit the standard, is she really losing something important? Do her pictures become less creative and original as she tries to make them fit the mold? Perhaps. And perhaps some of the enjoyment of the hobby is also lost. Maybe she feels a constant pressure while snapping shots and editing them on her computer. Maybe she fears that her images won’t be good enough. What started out as a fun, creative hobby might feel more like an obligation. The enjoyment of taking snapshots is gone due to the burden of producing masterpieces. Of course, this might be the extreme case, but I do believe that there is some truth in it. On the other hand, it pushes her to improve her photography skills and teaches her new techniques. Flickr also allows her to interact with photographers from all over the world and to be inspired by their vision. It might even push her own creativity and to see the world through the lens of her camera in a way she has never seen it before. It has the potential to even encourage her to break the mold with a unique style. Ironically, if it makes it to the pages of Explore, the unique style might become the new mold. Maybe the competition makes her a better photographer in the end. Even if her photograph isn’t chosen by the algorithm, it does not mean that it is not a good photograph. It doesn’t even mean that it isn’t interesting. Perhaps it makes it even better.

Works Cited

“Explore/About Interestingness”. Flickr. Yahoo Inc. 1 Nov. 2008.
http://www.flickr.com/explore/interesting/

“Flickr.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Nov. 2008. 4 Nov. 2008.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flickr

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Eds. Anthony Petrosky and David Bartholmae. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s., 2008. 209-237

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