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Using tags to improve the Flickr experience

The photo-sharing service's director of product management talks about the many ways tagging adds context to the understanding of what users are doing and seeing.

Flickr's The Commons project is an example of how the site's users can bring useful context to information from a single source, in this case the Library of Congress.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--In return for the huge amount of work Flickr users do to tag photos on the popular photo-sharing site, they should get the benefit of the algorithms the service uses to bring meaning to the data.

That's how at least some at Flickr feel, according to Kakul Srivastava, the service's director of product management said in her talk, "The next generation of tagging: Searching and discovering a better user experience," at the Web 2.0 Expo here Thursday.

The idea behind that theory is that as Flickr users proactively add tags to countless millions of photos stored on the site, the service is able to draw some very specific conclusions about the behavior of those users and the things that are happening around them.

This graph shows how, over time, Flickr users have continued to add a tremendous number of tags to the photos on the service, a rate that continues to grow. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And no wonder: The sheer amount of tags users have added over the four years the service has been operating is breathtaking: according to Srivastava, if you took the average text size of all the tags added to Flickr photos and laid them out, it would line the floors of 14 Wal-Marts.

"It's an incredible amount of content to parse, to reveal, and to take the meaning of," Srivastava said.

Unfortunately, I would have to say that the talk didn't deliver on its title: Srivastava didn't share anything particularly new with the audience, discussing mainly things that were probably already well-understood by most in the room.

Still, it was an interesting presentation, particularly because Srivastava talked about some of the ways that Flickr has evolved over the years, and what it's possible to learn based on how it's grown.

One of the most notable changes has been what she termed the increasing sophistication in the way Flickr users tag photos.

At first, she suggested, people were mainly tagging photos to add context about themselves. Then, gradually, they added context about other people, and then found ways to express shared experiences through their tags.

The best example of that--though more complex than what most people get involved in--is Flickr's The Commons project.

Within the first hour after the Library of Congress photos went up, Flickr users had added 150 tags to them. Within 24 hours, users added 11,000 tags. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

This is a project that launched in January with the U.S. Library of Congress as a pilot partner. The idea was that the Library of Congress provided a large collection of archival photos for the Flickr community to add tags to for additional context.

The reach of the Flickr community was immediately obvious, she suggested. The project launched with no tags, and within an hour, users had added 150 tags. Within three hours, the number was 767 and by the end of 24 hours, fully 11,000 tags.

Beyond that, Flickr users were able to add all kinds of contextual comments to the photos. Srivastava pointed to one such photo, a picture of a stream of dock workers leaving work at the end of the day, which had several user comments appended to it.

One of them was quite striking. The user noticed that all the African Americans in the photo were on one side of the stream, while the whites were on the other.

"Looks like 'quittin' time' was a segregated as the rest of life," the user commented.

Where the Flickr user community's participation in The Commons project is useful is in bringing personal context to images that previously had none. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For Srivastava, that kind of comment is deeply important because it adds significant cultural meaning to a photo that otherwise was just another in a large collection.

Another notable emergent behavior on Flickr, she said, is the ability to determine when some sort of newsworthy event is going on, simply because of the use of a tag.

For example, she pointed out that traditionally, "Popemobile" wasn't a very common tag. But all of a sudden, she said, it was being used by a lot of people in the Washington, D.C., area, and by virtue of that, it was possible to see that something was going on around the Pope's recent visit to the United States.

In the end, Srivastava's talk didn't break new ground, but it did illustrate the ways that Flickr sees its users explaining the world around them through the use of tags. The concept itself may not be news, but tying it together and thinking about the many ways tagging on a site as popular as Flickr adds meaning is a worthy exercise.