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Why Flickr Commons? (and why Wikimedia Commons is very different)

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.

5. Statistics

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.

8 replies on “Why Flickr Commons? (and why Wikimedia Commons is very different)”

This article is being quoted on wikipedia, as what the New York Times Book Review calls “bullies” argue to delete 49000 articles.

In addition, there are these media quotes:

New York Review of Books: “a lot of good work—verifiable, informative, brain-leapingly strange—is being cast out of this paperless, infinitely expandable accordion folder by people who have a narrow, almost grade-schoolish notion of what sort of curiosity an online encyclopedia will be able to satisfy in the years to come…There are some people on Wikipedia now who are just bullies, who take pleasure in wrecking and mocking peoples’ work”[45]
The Economist: “The behaviour of Wikipedia’s self-appointed deletionist guardians, who excise anything that does not meet their standards, justifying their actions with a blizzard of acronyms, is now known as “wiki-lawyering”.[46]
The Guardian: “And then self-promoted leaf-pile guards appeared, doubters and deprecators who would look askance at your proffered handful and shake their heads, saying that your leaves were too crumpled or too slimy or too common, throwing them to the side.”[47]
The Telegraph “The rise of the deletionists is threatening the hitherto peaceful growth of the world’s most popular information source. It’s on the discussion pages of articles nominated for deletion that anger creeps in. Policy documents are referred to only by abbreviations…the favourite of the deletionists WP:NOTE (notability)…The notability debate has spread across the discussions like a rash.”[48]
PC Pro magazine: “For an example of the dark side running out of control, though, check out Wikipedia…It seems Wikipedia has completed the journey by arriving at an online equivalent of the midnight door-knock and the book bonfire”
Los Angeles Times”…if even a small number of useful articles are being deleted in the name of keeping Wikipedia clean, isn’t that like allowing a few innocent men to hang in favor of a lower crime rate?…Wikipedia’s community has become so rushed, so immediatist, that it is not willing to allow embryonic articles even a tiny modicum of time to incubate”[49]
The Telegraph:”Wikipedia should delete the deletionists”[50]
“Wikipedia: A Quantiative Analysis”, PHD: “the Wikipedia community needs to rein in so-called deletionists — editors who shoot first and ask questions later.”[51]

Okay, I can’t sit on this one. Good thing I was painting our ceiling yesterday rather than being on twitter.

There is a disturbing undercurrent among some of the participating institutions in Flickr Commons that do not seem to have thought through what it is to support the growth of a commons of the public domain.

Posting images with ‘no known copyright restrictions’ into any webspace should be a positive contribution by cultural institutions to the re-building of free use by the public of the heritage they are generally paying to have preserved. But if some participating institutions have been unhappy that their digital content has been placed in Wikipedia/Wikimedia without their permission, then I suggest they need to box up their computers and return them to the store, because they are still not ready for the internet.

Flickr, Wikipedia and other community sites are shaped by the public as users, not audiences. Users don’t ask for audience participation, they demand the ability to be equal players in the creation and sharing of their culture. Flickr members contribute and share photographs as well as tag, comment and discuss. They don’t exist passively for you to come along and manage them. The “socially combative” and “dysfunctionally democratic” Wikipedia is the second largest website in the world, and happily defies chaos theory by getting better over time.

Cultural institutions can believe they are “managing” and “controlling” the context, audience experience and engagement on the internet by “permitting” users to participate in their socially normative walled gardens, but with attitudes like that I’m almost surprised they are allowed into any community. This is the same old dinosaur model the music and movie industries use when they believe digital copy controls are the only way to preserve their business.

If you want culture to thrive, set your public domain collections free digitally and let them exist wherever users want on the web. Live with some chaos for a bit. You can have Flickr commons for engagement and feedback and Wikimedia commons for the public good. Make it your business to do this. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Digital culture is profoundly different because of its democratising potential, and the internet is almost the only place left on the planet where it is possible to to experience a commons of any kind. Don’t box Wikimedia into some kind of Lord of the Flies experiment fit only for the geeks and nerds.

“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.”

I could not agree with that statement more. The Wikimedia community has devolved into people who care more about why a person is giving what they give–and assuming the worst about their motives–than what they give. I gave over 2,500 images to Wikimedia Commons, including photographs of Madonna, Kanye West and many others, and ultimately found the place to be so inhospitable that it became apparent they thought they were doing me a favor by allowing me to upload my images.

What I found most fascinating about this post and ones connected to it is that I’m apparently not the only one who sees this.

David Shankbone

@lewis: Shelley at the Brooklyn wrote about the complexities of content moving from Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons way back in November 2008 here. As she said, it got resolved but required negotiations to ensure that the correct rights information was also carried across.

Oh, and for a reminder of some of the face to face stuff we’ve been doing on the ground with local Wikipedians (other than Liam!) see here.

We have had some similar complexities after emulating the “no known copyright” statement for DigitalNZ. But with all respect for Shelley, the Brooklyn’s experience still tells me that the implications of a museum contributing to a commons had not been thought through.

A commons is a place where permission to use a shared resource is not needed – Larry Lessig, James Boyle and others have written on this extensively. “No known copyright” is not a licence, for they are only possible for copyright items. It is a good faith disclaimer rather than a certification, but it cannot fairly restrict use – commercial or otherwise – of images that can be shown to have no copyright. Flickr and Wikimedia have had teething problems with rights and public domain statements, but these have been added to greatly by cultural institutions being unclear of rights themselves.

Galleries, museums, libraries and archives have relied for decades on controlling access to the physical copy in order to levy user reproduction charges on public domain works as a form of revenue. The digital space changes all that by making copying a digital image effectively free. But instead of embracing the digital space as a new way for the public to experience their culture away from imposing institutional edifices, a growing number of institutions are using the copying inherent in placing their collections on the internet as a means of triggering new copyright. Now no longer is van Gogh the artist of a work in the public domain, the National Gallery in London is. Now they don’t merely charge reproduction costs for high resolution art prints, they licence the copyright of their “new digital work”. The public, if they are given gracious permission, may take a low resolution copy for their own personal use. Perhaps let them eat cake.

This enclosure of the digital public domain by the institutions that are tasked with preserving heritage culture in my view is incredibly damaging to culture itself. That it should continue in digital spaces that are designated as commons both surprises and disappoints me.

And, er, yeah, I’m staying out of the Wikipedia/wikimedia politics for now.

In response to Lewis Brown I must say that the reason we joined Flickr Commons at the time we did was due to this great opportunity that was presented to us that we pursued because of two pivotal reasons.

-We were excited that a project of this type was on Flickr-a photographic community that we were engaging with at the time and a community that we were passionate about doing this with.

-The other reason was that it gave us our first chance of making out of copyright content available to a broader public-something that we are also passionate about.

It wasn’t that we made a decision to not contribute to other sites in the same way but more about the right time and right platform for us considering our resources and work commitments. I have been working on this project for nearly two years now and feel just as passionate and committed to it the day that we started. It does require a lot of my time and I acknowledge this and continue to participate with our community. Most of this happens when I am not at work because there are a number of other commitments/projects that have to be delivered. I think it is important to note that a lot of institutions are under-resourced for social media projects and this may be why not all platforms, on non-institutional sites, are considered and why one may be preferred at any given time.

We are definitely not unhappy that are ‘no known copyright restriction’ content has appeared in Wikimedia, in fact the opposite, the more our images are used and discovered the better. We have research that this actually increases sales, but that is not why we make our content more accessible.

I agree that there are very different licensing models across many institutions and that can partly be due to not reviewing their models for a long time, don’t have sufficient staff in the roles of copyright, rights & permissions and haven’t been involved in an open access initiative. But in saying that I think that many institutions are addressing these issues now due to projects like Flickr Commons, CC licensing and Wikimedia and this has resulted in the education of staff and the changing of policies, look at what the Brooklyn Museum has just achieved with their copyright project. We too are implementing our Open Access image repository that is part of our Strategic Plan, something that we have been able to change at management level due to our work with Flickr Commons. We have also been strongly against supporting claiming copyright in a digital image where the content of that image is clearly out of copyright but I think this post is now dealing with more than one issue and moving into the complexities of rights.and that could go on for a while.

I, too, ran into problems with some rather dictatorial Wikipedia editors several years ago when I was asked by an Arts Foundation that manages a collection of mixed media sculptures of famous historical personalities, to include images of these sculptures in appropriate Wikipedia articles. A self-appointed scholar of English history considered the sculptures too “doll-like” in his view (the sculptures are 18″ tall) even though they are in permanent collections of several national museums and will soon be exhibited in the Clinton Presidential library. So he checked my list of contributions and systematically purged the images from each article that included them negating hours of my work. I tried Wikipedia’s resolution process but the man was totally intractable and quite honestly I didn’t have the time or inclination to continue to argue with him. I finally told the executive director of the foundation that the entire project was a waste of time and I found it very frustrating that an opportunity to share art was destroyed by one man’s interpretation of what he considered to be art or not. They say Wikipedia’s problem is that it is too democratic. In my experience, it’s not the democracy that’s the problem, it’s the inability to control such little tin-plated dictators that’s the real issue.

I would also like to comment on Lewis Brown’s observations. Back in 2005 after my parents both died, I gave a lot of thought to my own mortality and wondered what I could do that would leave at least some lasting legacy. Early in my career I had become a photojournalist so was experienced in photography. Later, working as a director of technology for a public university, I had acquired a number of technology skills. I also had observed that many schools and even universities had eliminated many history classes and the arts from school curriculums because of budget shortfalls. So, I decided I would travel around in my spare time photographing art and historical architecture and uploading my images to Flickr with CC non-commercial licenses so they could be used freely in any classroom or for private purposes like blogs. I now have over 17,000 images on Flickr that have been carefully titled and tagged to facilitate searching with another 40,000 in post production. I’ve even geotagged some although it gets rather time consuming as none of my current digital cameras have geo coordinate functions built in.

I found that many world class museums allow non-flash photography but there are still quite a few who do not. I spend my own money to travel to quite distant locations to photograph the art there for the public archive I have created on Flickr and I always include a link to the appropriate museum’s website in my image descriptions to encourage admirers to plan their own in-person visits. Most of the art I photograph is in the public domain because of its age. So, why do some museums continue to prohibit this type of activity? I would almost guarantee that the museums get far more benefit from the publicity such images provide than what little revenue they may not receive because someone uses one of my images instead of buying one of theirs. I thought their primary mission was to promote the appreciation of our shared cultural heritage?

When I encounter a museum that prohibits photography, I’ve tried to explain my archive project to the curators, provided a link to my archive and request special permission but, as I am not offering to pay some large fee, I am usually refused. I am careful not to disrupt other visitors and try to meticulously record proper identification information. But some museum administrators are simply not receptive to sharing “their” collection in this way.

And while I’m on this rant, why is photography of traveling exhibits prohibited when the items in the exhibit are in the public domain? If I travel to the originating museum, I am often allowed to photograph the work so why am I prohibited when the work is displayed in a host venue? It’s very frustrating when I could fly much more cheaply to Los Angeles to photograph an exhibit instead of Rome (although I must admit, Rome is more fun!) Since I am paying my own airfare, such prohibitions increase my costs and further limit my ability to provide even more images for public use.

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