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Flickr gets personal with people tagging

Flickr is introducing a new kind of tag this week, one that lets you tag your friends on the service in photos they appear in whether you've taken the photo or not.

Social photo-sharing site Flickr is adding a long overdue feature this week that lets users assign a name tag to people in photos. While the service is overflowing with photos of sweeping landscapes and close-ups of bug eyeballs, the Yahoo-owned company has noticed that many of its users are simply using it to share shots of friends and family, and that the existing tag tools were not made with people in mind.

The new system has been designed as a hybrid of the original tagging tools and Flickr's notes feature, all wrapped up into one. Users can tag a Flickr friend or contact in the shot, as well as draw a box around them, which looks and acts just like it does when creating a note so that when users mouse over a photo, they can see who a person is by what box they're in.

An identical system was introduced by rival photo service Photobucket back in late 2007, but there's a big difference between the two: Flickr's system is designed for the Flickr community alone whereas Photobucket's would let users link a people tag to any social-networking profile of their choosing. Flickr's implementation might be a little more limiting, but it makes a better case to join the service and fill out one's profile.

People tags look just the notes feature, except they double as normal tags too. Yahoo / CNET

Privacy and notifications

Each time a user is added, they get a notification through Flickr's inter-service messaging and via e-mail. Their friends get notified too, although this happens in Flickr's user activity stream which each user sees whenever they go to Flickr's home screen. Users can also see all the photos of themselves on Flickr in one central location, including on their profile--just like on Facebook and MySpace.

Of course users won't necessarily be able to add themselves, or others to every shot, and that's by design. In a call with CNET News on Wednesday Matthew Rothenberg, who is Flickr's head of product strategy and management, said that the privacy controls protect all three parties: the person who shot the photo, the person in the photo, and the person who added the photo to Flickr. And for anyone to tag another user in a shot, their permissions have to line up with the wishes of the two others.

Feel like de-tagging yourself from every photo you've ever been tagged in on Flickr? There's a big red button for that. CNET

On top of this three-way permission control system, there's also a way to globally set whether people can add you to shots, and what kind of relationship they need to have with you to do it. This includes an ejector seat-like button that can de-tag you from every photo you've been tagged in all at once, as well as a security measure that won't let anyone tag you in a photo once you've already de-tagged yourself.

Workflow and facial recognition potential

When adding someone to a shot, Flickr's people-tagging tool offers up suggestions from your contact list as you type. Yahoo / CNET

A major difference between Flickr's people-tagging system compared to Facebook's is that there isn't an engine built in that can remember and suggest the last few people you were tagging in any given photo set. Rothenberg says this could be added later on, but that Flickr's auto-complete is fast enough for it not to be an issue when users are looking up a friend's add to name it. In most cases you simply need to type just two letters to narrow it down to a shortlist of the person you're looking for.

The system has also been set up so that you don't need to enter any special people-tagging mode to start tagging friends--you can just double click on someone in the shot for it to come up with the people-tagging option.

Power users are not left out either. If you don't want to go through photos one at a time, you can just skip to Flickr's batch organization tool. This isn't automated like some of the facial recognition software tools we've recently looked at, which can give you suggestions of people it thinks might be in your photos. But it makes it a whole lot easier to go back and people tag (or de-tag) hundreds of your old photos all at once. This can be useful if you're trying to convert a photo set with one person into a batch of name tags.

Speaking of facial recognition, to be clear, it's not a part of Flickr's people-tagging system (yet). But just because it's not, doesn't mean third-party programs won't be able to tap into Flickr to do it. Rothenberg said that like any Flickr feature, people tags are being added into the API, and should be deployed for application makers to use in just a few weeks. That could be good news for sites like and Polar Rose, which will be able to do some of the people-tagging magic they've done for Facebook using Flickr's community instead.

The new people-tagging feature could be arriving for some as soon as Wednesday, but like with other new Flickr features it may take up to a day or two to migrate through Flickr's servers.