The Powerhouse is coming up to the 2nd anniversary of our joining the Commons on Flickr. Back when we joined there was only the Library of Congress and we trusted that we were making the correct decision back then. (I’ll be blogging an interview with Paula Bray around the time of the anniversary.)
A lot has changed at Flickr in the intervening time but I’m still confident that the Powerhouse made the right choice. In fact, the impact that joining the Commons on Flickr has had on the organisation has been unexpectedly significant. We’ve even started to move some photographic collections that were acquired as ‘archives’ into ‘objects’ in their own right. And photography is becoming an important marker of what we do at the Powerhouse. We’re delving into photographic competitions much more too and we’ve changed how we approach visitor photography too.
A couple of days ago Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum in London blogged a question – “Why do museums prefer Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons?”.
This was responded to by Liam Wyatt of Wikimedia Australia who outlined a case for why Wikimedia Commons might, in fact, be a better fit than Flickr – especially now that the Commons on Flickr is currently not taking new requests to join whilst they process the volume of existing applications.
For the Powerhouse the aim of placing some of our “no known Copyright” photography into the Commons on Flickr was to seed these photographs to a large, broader and interested audience who, in return, could add value to the collection by commenting and tagging the photographs.
Later, we’d find that other value would emerge.
The well documented Flickr API allowed for the construction of a good number of mashups and other applications to be built upon the photographs both by others and by us. We published a book, made easily and relatively quickly using the data.
For us the Flickr Commons is currently different from the Wikimedia Commons for a number of reasons –
1. Context matters a lot.
There is a reason why the Commons on Flickr has focussed almost solely on photographic collections, and that is because Flickr is a site that has been and continues to be designed for people interested in photographic images. As the Library of Congress stated in their initial rationale for joining Flickr, it was to “share photographs from the Library’s collections with people who enjoy images”. And where is the largest community of people with such an interest on the web? Flickr.
2. User experience and community
Because of this known user base Flickr has a well developed user interface and user experience which purposefully creates and helps encourage certain social norms and acceptable behaviours. The requirements of verified user accounts and personal information all work to reduce the negative effects of anonymity – critical in building a positive sense of community, even if they exclude some users as a result.
3. Managing that community
Flickr has a well developed set of community management tools and community managers who are employed specifically to ensure the community ‘plays nice’ and there is a hierarchy of escalation should it become necessary. The cost of US$25 per year is incredibly cheap for this.
4. A sense of content control
Uploaded images as well as any user generated content such as tags or comments can be removed at any time.
Flickr has good enough tracking and measurement tools which are useful for checking where users are coming from, what they are looking at, and what they do. Ideally the statistics that we could draw from Flickr would be more useful and able to be downloaded in raw form and segmented – but even in the rudimentary state it is possible to see ascertain why there are sudden spikes of traffic to particular images, or when an image gets lots of comments.
The Wikimedia Commons is, currently, a pool of images which can be used for many purposes. However without visibly active community around the images they exist without a clear ‘intended purpose’. In fact they only encourage viewing or takeaway (download). For some people this is liberating – a resource without obvious legal or social constraints. But much in the same way a museum is neither a library or a “shed full of stuff”, the ability to have known manageable social constraints is in fact quite valuable.
I am pleased that Liam mentions the Wikipedia Usability Iniative and once this is completed the Powerhouse and others will no doubt explore the opportunities.
Even without direct participation in the Wikimedia Commons the Powerhouse has been interested to see that many of the images have been copied into the Wikimedia Commons. And then used to illustrate various articles in Wikipedia. This has been a fortuitous outcome but it was never a primary aim of the Commons on Flickr project – nor would it be one today. Other Commons institutions have not been as positive about this migration of content to Wikimedia.
For us, the overall community effect of Flickr and the deep engagement by a small but passionate group of Flickr users, has been the most positive result for us.
Whilst Wikipedia and Wikimedia are, in themselves, exciting projects, their structure, design and combative social norms do not currently make them the friendly or the protected space that museums tend to be comfortable operating in.
Whilst Liam (especially! 1 & 2) and many others are working hard to make Wikipedia and Wikimedia a better place for museums and their content, these are very difficult structural issues to resolve.
It is worth remembering that when the Commons on Flickr started it was the brainchild and passion of George Oates. She was able to ‘make it happen’. Now Liam Wyatt might be in a similar position – if Wikimedia were ‘less democratic’ (some might say dysfunctionally democratic). Except the structure of Wikipedia/Wikimedia makes that nigh impossible.
Nevertheless I’m excited about the strategic workshop in Denver looking at how museums might work with Wikimedia that will surface many of these issues. They are complex and many.