Flickr's Interestingness and Images of Katrina

5 September, 2005

Recently, Flickr released a new feature they call "interestingness":

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.

This is a functional definition. A photo's interestingness quotient is determined by the behavior of Flickr users, it mechanically records, aggregates, and expresses their tastes as demonstrated by their use of the site.

Over a million strong and from all over the world, the Flickr user base is a relatively diverse bunch. It is surprising, therefore, to look at the interesting photos from the last 24 hours and see such strong visual coherence. These photos look less like the result of an automated algorithm than a traditional hand-picked curatorial process. They have a coherent aesthetic. What's more, it's a surprising one for a twenty-first century photo-sharing internet website: high formalism. All the formalist genres and cliches are here: perfect exposures, a prevalence of black and white, surrealist collage, macros, urban emptiness, poor strangers figured as types, careful compositions that emphasize the geometric qualities of the subjects, etc.

Here's a sampling of Interesting images from 31 August 2005, so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about:

The Sinking Bridge
<a href=""The Angels and the Devils of San Francisco
Firenze, Ponte Vecchio
role model... ?
<a href=""Hurricane Katrina [Spotlight on a Crisis]
plaza de mayo - safariBA
Paint by Water and Light

Now, what's surprising about looking at this grid of images is how much it differs from the aesthetic more commonly found throughout the wider Flickr photostream, which is made up, in large part, of flash-flattened snapshots of family and friends, low-res cameraphone snaps, cute pictures of pets, hand-made art and collages, screen captures from the web, inspirational imagery decorated with stirring slogans, etc. A glance at the all time most-used tags will quickly confirm this: baby, beach, cameraphone, cat, christmas, family, party, trip, vacation, and wedding are a representative sample.

So you can get a sense of the contrast with the Interesting photos, here's a recent image labeled with each of those tags:

Father's Day 2005
People at the beach
George's Banger Royale
Tiger likes laundry
Cake Eaters
Snowman Cake
Ending the summer
Stu's sparkle

Rather than the slickness of Modern high formalism, this looks a lot more like the pre- or post-modern aesthetic of the snapshot: images that gain their meaning not from their visual power, but from their personal associations and the context of their use. Their takers treasure them because of their power to make present loved people and cherished events. They are aids to memory, not fuel for the aesthetic eye.

So what does the divergence of these two aesthetics tell us, either about the tastes of Flickr's users or, if they exist, the company's human curators? One conclusion to draw might be that the professional and semi-professional photographers who make up a minority of Flickr's users are having a disproportionate influence on the metrics that go into Interestingness because they are more active. They make more comments, mark more photos as favorites, look at more pictures not by their current contacts, and therefore their activity has a greater weight in the algorithms that choose the Interesting photos. Similarly, to the extent to which Interestingness is curated, it seems that Flickr is choosing to align itself with these people's pro-am aesthetic, predictably in that they are the company's most active and vocal customers.

Right now, in the midst of the aftermath of Hurricaine Katrina, it's an especially interesting time to look at Flickr in the light of this contrast. When it comes to images of Katrina, these two aesthetics are colliding in interesting and surprising ways.

The web has been saturated with powerful professional journalistic photos of the human misery and physical devastation caused by the flood. And a lot of those images have found their way onto Flickr:

Hurricane Katrina
st. bernard parish, louisiana

In their captions for these pictures and their comments on them, people tend to record their own shock and horror on seeing these images for the first time. Re-posting the photos on Flickr is a kind of outgrowth of these original reactions. The users want to assert their own powerful emotional experiences in front of these images as real and to share those feelings with others. This usage reminds me of the omni-presence of pictures of the burning World Trade Center towers after September 11th. While Katrina has not produced such a singular iconic image, the desire for images which can act as avatars of our feelings about such an event is still very strong.

Another somewhat surprising use of Flickr in response to Katrina is the posting of pictures taken of TVs and screen shots of news websites displaying coverage of the event:

Too Little, Too Late
no, this isn't stupid at all...

This is a kind of contemporary version of the long held practice of saving newspapers with headlines anouncing shocking, important, or historical events. They are (in this case virtual) tokens which connect those of us witnessing events solely through mass media with those events' physical reality. Just as the physical presence of a saved newspaper filled the void of the absence of first hand knowledge of, say, the Kennedy assasination, these captured images provide substitute mememento mori for distant tragedies, things we can show our grandchildren as proof that we were there.

Secondarily these images, along with those directly reposted from mainstream sources, provide a vehicle for people to critique the media's coverage of events. For example, the person who posted the third image above (showing an announcement aimed at people in federal disaster areas that was broadcast on MTV2), captioned his photo: "something tells me that anyone in a federal disaster area is not going to be sitting around watching a Gorillaz video on MTV2, nor are they going to have access to the internet...". And the third photo in the previous group, of the man holding a baby stadning in waist-deep water, drew the following comment from a user called djune: "The look on his face says it all... 'won't you help me instead of shooting photos?!'"

The original images (collages, drawings, photo alterations, etc.) that people have posted in response to Katrina are some of the strangest and most disturbing representations of the disaster that I've come across:

Gone With The Water
New Orleans, Nevermind
The Next Katrina

They have aspects of nineteenth century Folk art in the way they struggle, often not wholly successfully, to transform powerfully felt private imagery into universal expressions. Often they evince extreme points of view, whether religious or political, which, while they may seem uncouth in the context of traditional mid-twentieth century journalistic values, make up a big part of people's real world reaction to historic events.

The Katrina images on Flickr that have most touched me personally are the ones most in line with the second of Flickr's two aesthetics that I outlined above, that of the snapshot:

hurricane katrina miami beach
Hurricane Relief

These are pictures people take in the same mode as any other they place on Flickr: to capture something they come across in their own lives, most often of familiar and beloved people and places. The power in these photos doesn't come from their visual surfaces, but from the stories and feelings they embody: the care package ready to be mailed off to the Astrodome, addressed to "Any Katrina Refugee"; the soaked bird rescued from Miami beach which bit the photographer's finger and flew off the next day; kids playing at running a lemonade stand dedicating its profits to "Hurricaine Relief" on a beautiful sunny late-summer day.

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