Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Commons on Flickr – a report, some concepts and a FAQ – the first 3 months from the Powerhouse Museum

July 21st, 2008 by Seb Chan

The first three months of having images from the Tyrrell Photographic Collection in the Commons on Flickr have been very interesting. We launched on April 8 with 200 images and have been adding more each week since.

At the 12 week mark we had 600 photos uploaded, mostly location photography with just under 50% geocoded. Whilst we promised at the outset to upload 50 a week we had to break that promise around week 5. As we began to see which images were being viewed more than others or attracted more comments than others we started to look for similar images in the Tyrrell Collection – many of which had not yet been digitised and catalogued. This extra digitisation and cataloguing reduced the uploads of some weeks to just 25 new images. On the upside, though, this also means we have a large number of already digitised images held back for weeks when key staff are going to be on leave.

Splash! Playable collections

In the first 4 weeks of the Commons we had more views of the photos than the same photos in the entirety of last year on our own website. It wasn’t as if we made the images on our own website all that hard to find – they were well indexed on our own site by Google, they were made available to the national federated image search/repository Picture Australia, and they also existed in our OPAC. Still, that was no match for Flickr.

Flickr’s roots in MMOG ‘Game Never Ending‘ makes it the ideal place for cultural institutions to explore the notion of ‘playable collections’. The social norms and community behaviours that have emerged and are encouraged around image content in Flickr (as opposed to other photo sharing sites) enable historic photographic collections to become game entities. Albeit with a slightly different rule set.

In the Commons images lose the boundaries placed on them by collecting institutions. They take on new contexts and meanings, and they become maleable. All images in Flickr take on these more fluid characteristics, but in the Commons they way others see, respond and interact with these images is slightly different.

In fact I think it is really important to point out the difference in observed behaviours between our photos in our standard Flickr account. I’m not sure how the other institutions who are contributing to the Commons are finding it, but we’ve noticed that there seems to be a difference in behaviour and social norms in tagging and commenting on our Commons images versus our other images. Presumably the obvious ‘historic’ nature of the images combined with the fact that the institutions aren’t the photographers has an effect on this.

The global reach of Flickr and its active international user base (although far from evenly distributed proportional to online population) is impressive. Although our collection is very much focussed around Sydney and NSW, we’ve still managed to attract some tagging in other languages. Other Commons contributors have far more international images and should be drawing more internationalised tags and comments.

What are people doing?

The Commons has several obvious types of engagement from the point of view of a contributor. I hesitate to put these into ‘levels’ because almost everyone does each of them. The first seven, at least, are integral to the ‘game play’ of Flickr and should be judged against the rule set of the game system itself, rather than necessarily against outside behaviours.

Visitors can engage in –

1. Viewing

Viewing comes in many forms and can be counted when those views occur on Flickr. This is the simplest but also least useful way of measuring the project. What is useful about view data, however, is the ability to track the trends and patterns in viewing and observing when and deducing why certain images generate more views at a particular time.

2. Favouriting (“bookmarking”)

“Favoriting” (US spelling) on Flickr is the equivalent of bookmarking. Flickr users ‘favourite’ for many reasons and this is another very simple measure of the relative popularity of an image. It is important to understand that whilst an image may be ‘favourited’ by many different users the reasons for their ‘favoriting’ are not revealed. Again, it is through observing bursts of favouriting of the same object by multiple users, or the favouriting of many objects by the same user that potentially reveals more.

3. Friending (“I am interested in seeing more/connect with me”)

Friending on Flickr identifies a desired but not necessarily reciprocal relationship between the ‘friender’ and the ‘friendee’. The Powerhouse decided after a few weeks to reciprocate all friend requests and we also look at the photos taken by our ‘friends’ and where appropriate tag, comment, and ‘favorite’ their images too. This social reciprocity is really important but also time consuming.

At 12 weeks we had hit 612 ‘friends’. Each of these friends now gets visual notification of new images we upload.

4. Social commenting (“here I am”)

I’m calling the comments that say ‘awesome photo’ or ‘cool picture’ as social commenting. This is a really loose way of describing comments that are really about leaving a linkback-ed mark of a visit. Akin to an “I woz ere” but in a more networked way.

On Flickr this social commenting acts as the ‘social glue’ that binds the communities that play the ‘Flickr game’, together. Whilst it is very tempting for museum professionals to downplay or scoff at this sort of interaction, it might be useful to think of these sort of comments as playing a role akin to comfortable seating or a nice cafe in a museum gallery.

5. Tagging (“let me help”)

Because the Commons specifically asked the Flickr community to ‘help tag’ images the tagging that is done within the Commons tends to generate some pretty useful additional metadata. Whilst the account holder can see who the tagger was, the rest of Flickr cannot. Tagging here is a great example of altruistic behaviour as the tagger is neither the image creator or owner.

6. Image content tagging (“here’s something interesting”)

Flickr also allows the notation of an image with the ‘add note’ function. We’ve noticed that some users are helpfully identifying particular buildings, landmarks, signage, flags and other important elements within an image with these tools. This creates a certain kind of additional metadata that isn’t about the object/image as a whole, but about a certain subset of the content.

7. Content commenting (“let me tell you more about this”)

Here’s where the value of the Commons is easiest to explain to other cultural sector professionals. This is old-fashioned community engagement and we’ve been really lucky to have engaged a number of prolific and dedicated members of the Flickr community who have taken up the challenge of identifying the exact dates, locations and other unknown details about the images we’ve uploaded.

Whilst some of the information we are learning about the images this way could probably have been discovered by the Museum itself, that the public has been able to do this for us and often within hours of new images going up on to the site speaks volumes.

This is also very much about empowering and acknowledging the importance of ‘amateur’ knowledge, which in the networked environment can often outpace, and sometimes outperform, isolated ‘professional’ knowledge.

8. Content embedding (“I’ve stuck this on my site/blog/profile”)
9. Content remixing and connecting (“here’s my images that fit with yours”)

Although harder to track, the other obvious purpose of the Commons is to encourage re-use. Re-use of heritage materials radically asserts their relevance in contemporary society and is an increasingly necessary bridge between the world of ‘museums as holders of old stuff’ and the world of ‘museums as places for inspiration (and connection)’.

All of this is ‘user generated context’ (cf. Haque) as much as it is ‘user generated content’. Context is increasingly what matters in a world overloaded with content, and museums through the exhibition medium should be specialists in understanding the importance of ‘context’.

And of course, our Tyrrell Today group has already gathered 123 images that are contemporary location photography matching the historic photography of the Tyrrells. This shows a huge amount of commitment from others in the Flickr community – to go out and purposely reshoot a Tyrrell from today’s perspective and we’re thrilled to have generated this much interest. We hope we can reciprocate.

Here’s an example.

(contemporary image by lifeasdaddy)

Some basic quantitative stats at 12 weeks

So with all that in mind, here’s some raw figures to consider.

How many?

600 photos uploaded (at 12 weeks)
103,000 views of photos

How are they being found?

69% via Flickr
2% via external search
6% via other websites (blogs etc)
21% direct to URL

Most popular:

Woman inside a settler’s hut (2nd most favourites) – 1735
Wool sorting room, Clifton Station – 1334
Cutting Out – 1011
Bondi Bay, Sydney (3rd most favourites) – 967
Circular Quay 1892 – 945

Perhaps not surprisingly for a global audience the top three images are those without geographic specificity and thus more general global appeal.

Most favourited:

Kookaburras – 29
Woman inside a settler’s hut – 19
Bondi Bay, Sydney – 15
Frank Senior, sculler – 13
The start of girls’ snowshoe race, Kiandra – 11

How many tags?

2433 tags (excluding machine tags)
Average tags per image – 4.055, median 2, standard deviation 4.93 (a fair number of objects have no tags, mostly the newest)

Most tagged:

George St, near Hunter St – 26
A farm homestead – 24
Choir, St Andrew’s Cathedral, looking east – 23
Sydney from Shell Cove, North Shore – 22
Woman inside a settler’s hut – 21

Some answers to some other frequently asked questions

1. What has been the impact on image sales?

It is early days and too early to tell whether or not we’ve ‘lost’ sales as a result of putting these images in Flickr. Interestingly we are getting a lot more online enquiries about purchasing these images and the offline (telephone, fax, etc) haven’t noticeably declined. It is too early to tell but I think once the other benefits of being in the Commons are brought into the equation we will have massively gained.

2. What happens when other institutions add their images? Do your images get ‘lost’ in the flood of new content?

Actually we’ve found that in this situation more is more. When new institutions add their images we see new peaks appear in our stats. This is because with each new addition comes a slew of blog posts across the blogosphere. The addition of the George Eastman House recently and the Bibliotheque de Toulouse both generated new types of media coverage of the Commons as a whole.

Also as the Commons evolves new features are added by the Flickr team so with the George Eastman House came cross-Commons ‘search‘ which will become even more useful as more complimentary collections are added – which in the case of the Powerhouse probably means more Australian collections.

3. What is your favourite story about the power of the Commons?

See my earlier post on the ‘discovery’ of the Mosman Falls.

4. Aren’t you worried about releasing these images as de facto ‘public domain’? Don’t you want attribution and credit for collecting, preserving and making these available?

We’ve noticed that our images are now spreading to the Wikimedia Commons, and are also being used in blog posts and various websites. And, although we haven’t specifically encouraged remixing – primarily because of the nature of the content of most of the images – there have been some Flickr users who have notified us of the intent to create screenprints and other derivatives of some images.

Now, because these images have been identified as ‘no known copyright’ there is no legal need to attribute the source of these images but every single re-use or embed of our images to date has featured an attribution. This is another testament to the nature of the Flickr community. Now that some of these images are also in the Wikimedia Commons it will be interesting to see whether the same courtesy attribution occurs.

5. I work in a museum/library/archive and we already have a Flickr account. As a matter of fact, we’ve had one for ages. Why is the Commons so different?

The two obvious differences are the banding together of collections under the promotional umbrella of ‘The Commons’; and the application of ‘no known Copyright’ to the images. The increasing prominence of the Commons within the Flickr ecosystem brings Commons images to many more people than a regular Flickr account. Together this creates an interesting effect – comparatively more interest in the images and more engagement around them. I wonder whether this is the effect of providing a clearing in the surrounding data smog where the intention of putting up historical images is very clear and contextualised (rather than obscured)?

6. What is the big deal about ‘no known Copyright’?

I guess the answer is both philosophical and practical. Philosophically it makes sense for publicly-owned heritage images to be made available to the public in a digital form to reuse and repurpose except where there are cultural sensitivities involved. This may not apply to institutions that aren’t publicly funded of course.

On a practical level it makes sense because asserting Copyright (or even Creative Commons) over something that clearly wasn’t made by you is full of legal complexities. Not only that, it complicates matters for learners of all ages who legitimately want to see and use these images – if only they knew they existed.

7. What are you doing with all the tags and comments?

Tags are easy and we’re treating them just like our other community generated metadata. Now we’ve passed the 3 month mark we’ve pulled all the tags to date back into our own collection database online where they will soon appear alongside the tags that have been on our own site.

Comments are a little more tricky and we’re working out ways that we can dedicate resources to going through these and updating the collection records properly. There are several factors that make this less than trivial – paradoxically many of the images with the most ‘documentation’-style comments are also the ones that have not been fully catalogued by our own curatorial staff. I expect that we will have resolved a proper process for the ingestion (and crediting) of information supplied via Flickr comments in the next six months.

8. How do you manage the community that is forming around your content on Flickr? What is the time commitment?

As I mentioned right at the top of this report we are still coming to terms with this. Our Image Services Manager, Paula Bray, does the bulk of the responding, commenting, favouriting and interacting. She is an avid photographer too and had her own Flickr account prior to joining the Museum and well before this project. She spends at least an hour a day in Flickr – yes, even weekends – and that’s not counting the time she spends selecting and preparing the content for bulk upload.

I drop in and out of our account to check what is going on each day also spending about 20-30 minutes a day making sure things are as they should be.

This need for ‘continuous participation’ is a challenge but it is reaping enormous rewards. However within an institution of our size and structure both Paula and I are spending considerable time ensuring we have a strong case for the resourcing of this ongoing participation which is part of the reason why we’re testing different metrics and documenting outcomes as we go.

9. How do you upload the images to Flickr? (and pull down those tags and comments)

We use the very well documented Flickr API to both upload and download. It took about 5 programming hours at most to build our uploader and also a downloader in PHP. After the images are uploaded from our collection database we have to go in and add them to the correct groups, geotag what we can, and then change their permissions so everyone can see them. Easy.

Need to know more? I will continue to post reports periodically. Courtney Johnston at the National Library of New Zealand (kia ora!) has posted a similar report on what they’ve learnt from the first year of having a ‘standard’ Flickr account. And, Bridget McKenzie in the UK has produced a good discussion paper arguing the pros and cons of having a Flickr presence for your institution.

Tags: 9 Comments

  • You’ve got enough for a thesis here.

    Thanks for all the useful information about your accounts and images’ Flickr useage.

    On the matter of “Friending” (surely a term which has leaked from Facebook) – The Powerhouse’s flickr contact/friend/family policy of reciprocating can be contrasted with that of many other cultural insitutions on Flickr, and even in The Commons.

    Most cultural institutions will only Flickr-friend another cultural institution or known archivist, and the Library of Congress will only Flickr-friend another member of The Commons.

    I like the affirming nature of recieving a contact pat in return (e.g. from Powerhouse), but I also find it useful to go to the contact list of such cultural institutions to find new sources of the sort of historical images in which I’m interested. A sort of index of quality (e.g. the National Archives of Australia on Flickr)

  • Just a quick thought about:
    > contemporary location photography matching the historic
    > photography of the Tyrrells

    I assume the images are (being) geotagged? In that case it may be interesting to keep an eye on Google’s Streetview project as well. I am sure they will ‘do’ Sydney soon.

    They provide a pretty simple way of recreating the view from the photo. Just provide latitude, longitude and viewing direction and voila.

    As a bonus, people can take that (present day) image and move around.

    http://googlemapsapi.blogspot.com/2008/03/street-view-in-api-or-how-i-spent-my.html

  • “Cutting out” and “Circular Quay 1892” may have got a bump because they are featured on the FAQ page of The Commons here:

    http://www.flickr.com/commons#faq

    Or, are those 2 photographs on that FAQ page beause you told Flickr they were so popular?

  • Hey guys,

    this Commons project is pretty neat, eh?

    For us, at least, its all thanks to the Museums on the Web conference.

    We’re tallying stats and interesting figures, and I’ll make sure we send you all a note when we publish them so we can all see what’s working and come up with some exciting new ideas as to how to make this all even better!

    -Cheers!
    Ryan Donahue
    Webmaster, George Eastman House

  • Seb Chan

    Sjors,

    Yes about 50% are geotagged. Our map is available here along with GeoRSS and KML.

    We are reingesting the geo data and have started mapping our entire collection (beyond our photos). Here’s a quick glimpse from what we were trialling last year. We’ve progressed a lot further since them, the fruits of which will be seen shortly . . . .

  • @Bob – I think you’re completely right about the affirming thing. I do the daily work on the National Library of NZ’s Flickr account, and still get a kick out of people befriending us.

    As I noted in my write up of our first year on Flickr (linked to I the final para above by Seb – thanks Seb!) I befriend nearly everyone who befriends us, & also periodically hunt out new collecting institutions on Flickr.

    I do do a little checking before return-friending: I usually have a squizz at their photostream and run my eye down their groups. I’ve decided not to return-friend people based on adult content or their membership of groups like ‘Hot Naked Asian Chicks’. Apart from that, if you want to be my friend, then welcome!

  • Courtney – I don’t quite understand what you’ve got against Hot Naked Asian Chicks.

    But, I’d be very interested in the reason behind the friend-exclusivity policy of some other institutions. I can see that the time involved in reciprocating can easily get out of hand, especially when conducting the type of simple and appropriate vetting you describe. In allocating time resources I’d rather see the Library of Congress putting up more images, rather than trying to get the largest group of contacts on Flickr.

  • Seb Chan

    Reciprocal friending takes time and resources and there are also fixed limits within Flickr to the maximum number of contacts an account can have (although no limit to being a contact of others).

    Some institutions also legitimately argue that by reciprocating contacts that there might be some implied institutional approval of the other account – which may be problematic from a communications policy perspective. That they are even allowed to post/release content to Flickr might be tricky enough.

    This is another example of the technologies moving faster than policy, and in some cases, law.

  • Frank McArthur

    excellent post. I am so pleased so that the powerhouse has made their collection available via flickr.

    One point – on flickr you can have 3000 unreciprocated contacts or unlimited reciprocal contacts.