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Photo tag 'face-off' proves vanity reigns supreme

From identification to organization, photo tags can be a useful. But a closer look reveals most users do it for selfish reasons.

I recently went on a nice, long vacation, and the first thing I did when I got back was to upload some of the best 200 or so photos I had taken.

As an experiment, I uploaded many of the same shots to two services--Flickr and Facebook. Both let users tag photos, so I wanted to see which ones would get tagged first, and not by me.

The winner? Facebook.

Just an hour or two after having uploaded to both services, all of my 88 shots on Facebook had been tagged. The most amazing part is that very few of them were tagged by me. Right after my upload, I tagged a handful of them, which in turn alerted those users to view the shots. From there, they (not me) went on to tag some more of my photos, continuing the cycle.

Facebook lets you tag individuals within the photo like in this group photo. CNET / Josh Lowensohn

Flickr, on the other hand, was a different story. I uploaded close to 200 photos to the service. There were still the same shots of the same people, but there were also additional shots of landscapes or nature. Of those shots, only a handful were tagged, and only by one user--my colleague Stephen Shankland, whom I had pestered to look at my artistic capturing of sand castles. His tags weren't even of people; instead, he added descriptive keywords about the photos.

Now, to be fair, I have far more friends on Facebook than I do on Flickr--more than eight times the number to be exact. But in terms of photo usage, my Flickr activity far outweighs what I do on Facebook. I've only created 37 albums on Facebook which contain a total of 532 photos. On Flickr, I have 101 photo sets (Flickr's nickname for albums) which total 3,438 photos. More importantly, anyone on Flickr can see the photos I've uploaded, not just people I've put on a friends list.

In terms of use, the sites are quite different, too. Facebook may have gotten into the photo arena a little later than Flickr, but it's quickly outpaced it. The company says it's getting 900 million photos uploaded each month from its more than 200 million users, whereas Flickr's official numbers put that number somewhere around 90 million uploads from some 40 million registered users. Just keep in mind those 200 million Facebook users are probably not using the site specifically for photo hosting like they are on Flickr.

A tale of two tags

So why are Flickr users so hesitant to tag other people's photos? There are many reasons, but the biggest is that the two tagging systems are just plain different.

In the case of Facebook, tagging is all about letting the service know which of your friends are in the shots so it can notify them, and send news items to their friends' news feeds. For Flickr it's a little more complicated, since the service uses tags both as an organizing medium and a way for users to get their photos automatically categorized into its search engine, public groups, and contests.

Flickr lets your friends add tags to your photos, giving you more ways to sort and find your shots. CNET

Facebook's system also understands that you're probably uploading a dump from your digital camera, and that many of the shots will contain the same handful of people. For that reason, once you tag someone in one shot, it puts their name on the very top of the list when you're tagging another photo in the same album. This makes it really simple to plow through a big roll of party pictures.

Flickr, on the other hand, offers very little in the way of tag suggestion. If you add tags to one photo, there's no short list of tags you've recently used, which could help speed things up. Instead, it urges you to use its bulk organizer to add tags to photos in batches. The benefit of this, though, is that you don't even need to use its folder-based organizational system. Instead, you can sort photos by the tags you or others have given them.

That's another area where the two services differ. On Facebook, your friends are able to tag themselves or others they're friends with in any of your photos. You or the people who have been tagged in a shot can remove that tag, but that's the extent of the operation. On Flickr, the controls are more granular. By default, only you can add tags to your photos. You can also set it to limit who can add tags to your shots to just friends and family, people you've marked as contacts, or open it up to any Flickr user.

Exceptions to the rule

Despite the lack of Flickr tag love for my pictures, it's not that way for everyone. There are some power users on the service who have made it their duty to tag other people's photos. For instance, when Flickr rolled out its Commons section, which was a collection of archived photos from the Library of Congress, it left it up to users to add tags--and they answered.

According to a post-project study (PDF) done by the Library of Congress in late 2008, of the 4,615 photos that were a part of the initial collection, 67,176 tags were added by 2,518 different Flickr users. That means there were more than 14 tags per photo that the Library of Congress never had to worry about. In turn, it gave both users and the library simpler ways to sort through the catalog than titles alone.

But using the Commons project as a frame of reference for user tagging behavior may not be fair. That set of photos was promoted and available to the entire Flickr community, whereas the good majority of user photos can go unseen or be set to private.

The two major ways to self-promote on Flickr are to either max out the number of tags you have on any photo in order to show up in more search results (the max is 75 per photo), or to publish your photos to groups pages, which let other users easily discover your work. On Facebook this promotion is done for you with the news feed whether you've tagged your friends or not. Flickr has its own version of this, with a collection of the most recent uploads from people you've befriended, but there's little incentive for you to add tags or even click through to the whole photo since the thumbnails are so large.


So is this all just about ego? Definitely. There are plenty of party photos on Flickr, but no real standardized way to link them up to users of the service. You can add tags with their names, but that does not take you to their user profile, or give you a singular way to find all of the photos of them in case people are using alternate spellings of their names in tags. It also doesn't alert the user that there's a new photo of them like Facebook does.

On the other side of the coin, it's fair to say artistic shots just don't work well with Facebook's somewhat limited tagging system. Facebook is all about people, and despite the fact that you can add text tags that don't have to be linked to other users on the service, the option to sort or filter by those tags is currently missing.

In the future I foresee both sites implementing the other half of this missing tag equation. Facebook's text tags can clearly be made more useful, and Flickr could quite easily find a way to create a new set of tags, or tag shorthand that could be used to link specific contacts with photos they're in. In either case, the most popular tags are always going to be the ones that link back to the people in those photos.

Note: This post has been corrected to clarify the number of photos uploaded to Flickr per month. The story originally stated 30 million per month, when the actual number is closer to 90 million.