Flickr Mashups and Interestingness

flckr.jpgIn designing and developing The American Image: The Photographs of John Collier Jr. website with The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology we’ve found ourselves spending a lot of time in Flickr. The Collection of photographs found on the site are pulled in from Flickr using a Flash-base mashup. The Shooting Script activity works in similar way: pulling out John Collier Jr’s images as well as those of other Flickr members. An earlier post, Colonizing Social Spaces, looked more broadly at the benefits and drawbacks of museums utilzing social networking sites. In this post, I’m going to look exclusively at Flickr and our experience with the American Image site.

Many Mashups

We looked a number of interesting Flickr mashups before we began the project and there are plenty of examples to look at. ProgrammableWeb lists 152 Flickr mashups and can imagine there are more that aren’t listed there. Along with the sheer number of examples, there are a lot ways to go in developing a Flickr mashup. The Flickr API supports a wide range different technologies; the “API kits” go from ActionScript to Ruby. We decided on using Adobe Flash (although currently we’re developing a mashup using Ruby on Rails).

One of the better mashups we came across was Findr developed by Doug Marttila. He was kind enough to let us see his code and although we wound up developing something from scratch, Doug’s code help us get up to speed. Findr is a good example of just how feature-rich Flickr mashups can be. The mashups developed for the American Image site are decidedly simple.

Back on Flickr
John Collier Jr’s Flickr site
which pre-dates the launch of the American Image has already received 2,000 views. Back in October when put up the first test images we began to get interest. Almost immediately, we received comments and had photographs favorited. As a way to connect with these visitors we added them as contacts. Since we (The Maxwell Museum and Ideum) are representing John Collier Jr. who died in 1992, we’ve decided not to go out and comment or favorite others photographs. While this is certainly the correct approach it does limit our ability to fully operate within the Flickr community site. By favoriting and commenting on others photographs, you can increase your network and drive traffic to your Flickr site.

We have joined a number of groups and have been adding photographs as way to make connections with different communities. Right now John Collier Jr. is a member of 28 Flickr groups. Some groups are regional ones like Essence of Maine or The American Southwest, others focus on black and white photography, and still others focus on vintage photographs or very specific topics like Farm and farmer or Caves and Mines. In the Farm and farmer group we received an interesting comment on Collier’s photo Feeding time for baby beeves. Apparently, we (John Collier Jr.?) don’t know the difference between dairy and beef cows? The things you learn on Flickr!

Joining groups has made an enormous difference in bringing traffic into the Collier Flickr site and has helped make contacts. However, you can’t join every group on Flickr and plaster the same photo in every group. Recently, Flickr has cracked down on this practice as many were using it to boost “interestingness” flooding as many 60 or 70 groups with the same photo.

Undoubtedly, interestingness is a unique Web 2.0 invention. Yahoo! (who owns Flickr) has even gone to the extreme of patenting it, while others think it might be Yahoo!’s secret weapon in its search battle with Google. We are interested (in interestingness?) because we want people to see John Collier Jr’s amazing photographs and we of course we are curious.

One of John Collier Jr’s photographs, Albert Gagnon’s daughters knitting was among Flickr’s Top 500, the most interesting photographs on October 26, 2006. On that date it was #245. As of yesterday it had dropped to #283. Interestingness is continually calculated based a variety of criteria. As Flickr’s About Interestingness page tells us…

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

Recently, I came across Scout a tool that let’s you find and monitor the position of your photographs on Flickr. (This only tracks those that are in the Top 500, or Flickr’s “Explore.”) Finding Albert Gagnon’s daughters knitting and its’ history in Scout I thought it might be interesting to conduct a crude experiment.

Picture 3.png

I emailed a few friends and asked a few people here at the studio if they would favorite and comment on the photograph. (It helps when you think the photograph really is a great one.) Two of the comments were posted weeks ago. We added seven more comments, and favorited the photo seven times and pushing it up about 40 places in interestingness ranking for the day, landing at #242, its highest ranking ever.

While were not advocating gaming the Flickr system (although I guess that’s what we did?), it is interesting to get a glimmer of how interestingness works and what’s involved in changing a photograph’s ranking. Moving a photo posted in October from #283 to #242 took seven people, not much of a payoff for the effort. Certainly as we continue to develop mashups, having a better understanding of how applications like Flickr work is essential.

Update (1-17-06): After this post was written, an additional comment and a favorite helped boost Albert Gagnon’s daughters knitting to #164 on Flickr’s top 500. It may be that this new activity helped reach some sort of an “interestingness threshold,” catapulting the photo 80 places up. Or perhaps the timing was a factor. Most of the original comments and favorites happened within a relatively short period of time. There certainly more to learn about interestingness.

Also, The American Image: Photographs of John Collier Jr. was listed in the Best New Mashups on the Programmable Web blog.

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