Photographs allow people to share a special moment with friends and loved ones. But unless you were a part of that moment, other people’s photos can be like other people’s holidays: not very exciting but still requiring feigned interest.
Photo-sharing sites on the web mean that people can inflict their snaps on you no matter where you are. And, of the hundreds of sites online, the one grabbing the most attention at the moment is committed to giving you access to thousands of strangers’ collections as well. So popular is http://www.flickr.com that it has been bought by Yahoo, which already has its own photo-sharing facility.
Yahoo’s strength lies in its eagerness to offer users as many services as possible and, since its inception, it has achieved this by incorporating small successful operations rather than potentially waste time, energy and money on developing these services itself.
Unlike other sites, Flickr members’ collections are openly accessible to all unless they declare otherwise, and less than 20 per cent choose to do so. This offers a staggering catalogue of images, so to assist browsing through the almost six million photos, Flickr uses a tag system. Users tag their photos and collections with keywords. Recognising that millions of anonymous photos can potentially create a cold online environment, Flickr embraces interaction. Members can leave a description on each photo and other users can leave a comment.
Like-minded folk can join into groups, adding a community feel to what might otherwise be an impersonal experience. The site offers a list of the all-time most popular tags, from Africa to zoo, and of the most popular groups.
Flickr is swiftly becoming a default service, a generic brand. Its ubiquity is another example of how internet brands tend to swallow their particular market.
If it didn’t exist, it is likely that another similar service would dominate the photo-sharing market in the same manner.
MSN Hotmail was so prevalent in the 1990s that for millions the words hotmail and email were interchangeable. Google is so dominant amongst search engines that the term has passed into the lexicon.
Amazon and eBay are similar examples: 10 or 20 per cent of internet users might have other offerings they prefer, but the majority will go straight to the market leaders.
On the high street, you might prefer one bookstore to another because it has better deals, a wider selection or a nicer coffee shop; but if you’re just buying a common paperback, the one that’s closest to you is probably the best choice.
On the internet, in theory all the services are as close as each other. This idea doesn’t take into account that it will take you a much shorter time to find what you want on a site that you have used before, that you know well, have an account with and is included in your bookmarks.
Many sites require registration and for those reared on a diet of hyperlinks and favourites, filling out forms is a turn-off, which encourages the popularity of one standard site rather than a multitude of options.
Why is Flickr ahead of the other options? For starters, its democratic credentials and open access system mark it out from the crowd. It also has the quirky feel that helped propel Yahoo and Google to world domination.
Members are greeted in different languages every time they log on, links are phrased in a chummy manner and the words “you” and “your” are everywhere.
Although to some this might seem a little forced, it is preferable to the sterile atmosphere offered by the major camera companies. Clearly a lot of work has gone into the little details.
“There are lots of theories and ideas as to the reason for Flickr’s immense popularity,” says Caoimhe Burke, a researcher in multimedia at DCU. “Essentially it is the most user-friendly photo-sharing service online, but it offers far more to its users than online photo storage.
“The communities that the service facilitates help to ensure its popularity among existing users and add a unique dimension that serves to attract new members.
“Admittedly it probably has more of a trendy image than other services. The service was conceived and developed by a group of young internet enthusiasts and has become the service of choice amongst the young and hip.” Perhaps the most important of all the factors is Flickr’s appeal to bloggers.
More often than not, a blog will carry the phrase “view my Flickr”, rather than “view my photos”. As blogging becomes more and more popular in the mainstream, it is carrying Flickr with it to ever-increasing exposure.
“Bloggers are attracted to Flickr because the service provides tools that are specifically used for uploading images to blogs,” says Burke, who has looked at the blogging phenomenon as part of her thesis and runs her own blog at caoimheb.blogspot.com
“The majority of blogging software and services are compatible with Flickr, making it an easy choice for users with blogs.
“Flickr also provides code that can be inserted into blogs to produce a badge that displays some of the user’s recently uploaded images and provides a link to their account. This adds a nice extra element to weblogs and a huge number of users are choosing to incorporate their Flickr account into their weblogs.”
Flickr’s generous offerings to bloggers may be paying huge dividends for Yahoo. “News of innovative online applications and services tend to spread at a phenomenal rate via blogs,” says Burke. “Consequently it’s only logical that as bloggers are so well catered for by Flickr it has become a popular choice amongst them.”
© 2005 The Irish Times