April 11, 2008
Video: the Flickring Image

Something is afoot in the land of online imagery.

My Twitter account has come to serve as the CNN crawler to my RSS feeds' feature stories and interviews: little bits and snippets of news with tinyurl pointers to the latest events. As I scrolled through my account this morning, I saw that at 5:31 PM yesterday, Derek Powazek tweeted "Are you resistant to change? Join the EVERYTHING NEW IS BAD army! http://www.flickr.com/groups/changeresistance/", which was my first clue that something was up. I thought Derek was just being snarky, so I didn't take the bait -- but at 5:57, Matt Howie followed suit with "Man, just when you think nothing can top Livejournal user drama, Flickr "no video" people go and redefine the term 'user drama'". The topic died down for a while (evidence that my circle, now in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties, are getting more interested in things like cooking and kids than teh Intarwebs in the evenings), but then at 1:01 AM EST my photographer friend Rannie Turingan tweeted "What do you think of Video on Flickr? http://tinyurl.com/5qdqqw". Molly Wright Steenson's tweet "all your base are belong to Flickr Video" was the next on the topic at 11:07, followed by my "Holy crap Flickr Video" at 11:15 and Kevin Smokler's "Flickr video kicked my kitten..." at 11:24. Right now the blogosphere is discovering something new and, like a bunch of curious kittens (thanks, Kevin) we're poking it, prodding it and figuring out what we think of it.

A lot of the reaction so far has been negative, as Derek's tweet seems to have foreshadowed. (This isn't surprising; Derek's wife Heather Champ Powazek works at Flickr, so both Derek and Heather are sitting at ground zero for this one -- in fact, Heather posted a video on the official Flickr blog called 'Video on Flickr' that served as an official teaser for the feature on April 8.) Ryan Gantz posted an interesting Obama-meets-Anti-Flickr-Video mash-up image titled 'leave flickr alone', which is only one image in the pools We Say NO to Videos on Flickr (25,239 members), NO VIDEO ON FLICKR!!! (10,544 members) and We say NO to Videos on Flickr UNCENSORED! (27 members). It's the last one that's particularly interesting; aside from the fact that yes, you do have to click through Flickr's safety screen to get to it (Flickr's CYA clause for NSFW images), it's the only one of the three to have a number of actual videos appearing on its initial page. In fact, six of the thirty images on the pool's initial page point to videos, all of whom seem to be illustrating the point that – shocker! – adding video to Flickr opens the door to questionable content. Actually clicking on them, though, shows that the content isn't that questionable – the first one, a short video called 'Genesis in Reverse' by a user called Claudia Veja is straight out of art school, featuring what appears to be a naked woman wandering through a city, but the film is shot in such a way that it shows no 'questionable' body parts aside from some ankle and some collarbone. The second, Easter Photowalk 2008' by ♥ shhexycorin ♥, is a hyperaccelerated autobio piece with the most questionable bit being a guy trying to kick a pigeon or two. PETA might be annoyed, but they'd be hard pressed to file charges. The third, Genesis in reverse part 2', also by Claudia Veja, is a continuation of the first that is somewhat sexier (featuring a risque outfit, a cigarette and, later, some cross-gendered makeup) but still isn't what I'd deem NSFW. The others? A dog getting peanut butter off his nose, a cat drinking from a toilet and a dog named Gilligan running at double-speed around a yard.

Titillating stuff, that. So what's going on here?

It doesn't feel like the objection is to the content being posted to Flickr so much as it is to a photography site being diluted by the addition of moving images. Keep in mind that this is the same site that earlier threw a fit about some users (myself included) using the site as a repository for illustrations and visual art. That issue died down after a while, but here we see a change that appears even more radical being thrown into the mix and the kerfuffle that results. Why the change?

It's easy to imagine that this is Flickr's parent Yahoo! (full disclosure: Yahoo! is a C3 partner company) trying to make the best out of not owning YouTube, but several things suggest that this is not the case. When you visit the official Flickr blog, the post that officially announced Flickr Video (April 9th's "Video on Flickr!") notes the 90-second limit on uploaded clips, and their reasoning behind it. Check it out:

Video! Video! Video! The rumours are true and "soon" is now. We're thrilled to introduce video on Flickr. If you're a pro member, you can now share videos up to 90 glorious seconds in your photostream.

90 seconds? While this might seem like an arbitrary limit, we thought long and hard about how video would complement the flickrverse. If you've memorized the Community Guidelines, you know that Flickr is all about sharing photos that you yourself have taken. Video will be no different and so what quickly bubbled up was the idea of "long photos," of capturing slices of life to share.

In this context, the existence of video on Flickr makes more sense, although admittedly from a somewhat narrowed perception of what the purpose of Flickr actually is. If one perceives Flickr as an online 'photo diary' of sorts, in effect a visual blog, then incorporating video is only a further step towards accomplishing the real mission of the site – by enabling video additions, one can create a richer visual record of one's life. One could argue that given this narrow definition, the Flickr videos should be stripped of their audio tracks, but since Flickr does allow the existence of text as titles, comments and other paratexts to each image, it makes sense that audio may be permitted only insofar as it is a component of the videos – MP3s without images wouldn't fly, but audio with images is perfectly reasonable.

It also remains to be seen whether or not Flickr will restrict uploads to purely non-fiction images; the question is whether Flickr exists as a record of what actually happened, versus a method by which we share the visual components of our lives that are important to us. If it's the latter, than the earlier kerfuffle over whether or not illustrations are permitted seems to be moot.

What's really at hand is a question of web application philosophy. Some people argue that the ideal digital lifestyle is comprised of only a few applications that do everything, whereas others argue that one's life isn't complete without dozens, if not hundreds, of microapplications that only do specific things and do them very, very well. In a way, it's a reflection of an argument that happens in academia all the time, and can be found at the very root of academic thinking – whether a university should have a liberal arts focus, or a more technical school focus. Letting Flickr serve up anything visual that one wants to share with the world is a very open, liberal arts mentality, but restricting it only to still, non-fiction photographs is a more restrictive, do-one-thing-and-do-it-better-than-anyone technical school mentality.

For my own personal use, I want to say that I'm all for the open model because at heart I'm a very liberal arts kind of guy. However, my experiences at MIT and in CMS in general have taught me the virtues of the niche specialty as well. What I want is one place that aggregates all my content streams into one reflection of my existence online – this will be my personal site or personal blog. To have that site be auto-populated by content collected from different sources is the new web model; for instance, this essay is being written for the C3 weblog but it may also appear in my regular personal blog because it's a record of what I've been up to. People only interested in the content relevant to that source can only bookmark the C3 weblog, but people interested in everything I create can bookmark my own personal blog. (It's http://www.geoffreylong.com/journal, by the way.) I also contribute to a number of other blogs, including the weblog for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, so my personal blog should become an aggregate of the content I author for each blog in addition to the content I author for my own. Given that I have multiple sources for just text alone, it stands to reason that I may also have multiple sources for audio and for images – so in that case, Flickr shouldn't have incorporated video because it's muddying the focus of that particular source.

I started this post with all those Twitter references for a reason – Twitter has managed to carve out a fascinating new niche for itself by creating a second type of text, a haiku as opposed to a regular blog post's long-form poem. (Interesting aside: Twitter was a side-project of early podcasting software company Odeo, much the same as Flickr was the side-project of Ludicorp's Game Neverending – which is why the suffix for much of the pages and functions in Flickr is .gne.) Yet many bloggers, myself included, have found a way to incorporate their tweets into their existing blog using just this type of syndication/aggregation model. The trouble is that generating a system like this is still fairly complicated. It's where we're headed in the next 6-12 months, if new software like the Twitter application for Facebook or the Movable Type Action Streams plugin are any indication, but this is some cutting-edge stuff.

Flickr's incorporation of video might be the right solution for right now, enabling photographers to dabble in uploading video without stepping on YouTube's toes (and let's not forget that Yahoo! is still playing coy with Google in an attempt to fend off a hostile acquisition from Microsoft), but I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see a Flickr Video spin-off site by mid-2009 – especially if the syndication-aggregation model of blogging continues to flourish. What Flickr video offers over its competitors is the built-in Flickr community, so once that community has been sold on the way that Flickr offers up what is essentially micro-videoblogging, there's very little reason not to split off Flickr Video into its own sister site – thus producing evidence of web applications reproducing through budding and subdivision, not through spontaneous generation.

Now there's a mental image I could safely dub NSFW.



Geoffrey: While your analysis of the fear and loathing of video is compelling, I'd want to add a few more terms and/or some other media history to the conversation. Namely, debates around authenticity and form, or really medium, which have haunted the history of documentary, if not film more generally. Could there be a fear about loss of camera function and specificity; which medium works better at the truth?


You bring up several interesting issues, including whether or not 'truth' has a place in a web application.

Arguing that a tool can only be used in one particular intended way has never worked very well, and as we've seen time and again, the misuse of such tools often leads to their eventual popular adaptation. The Internet itself is a great example of this, mutating from humble DARPANET origins into its current wonderful sprawl.

We could certainly debate whether photography or video work better at capturing the 'true' record of someone's lives, but then we might be tumbling into an abyss of epistemology. A more interesting (and legally pragmatic) debate might be had over who has the right to determine the 'true' use of a technology.