Why I like Flickr

About a month ago, I got hooked on Flickr. My friend danah has insisted that I write something about it.

The back story: since 1999, I’ve been working on a project called Graffiti Archaeology. I shoot photos of graffiti-covered walls over a span of years, and document how they change over time.

I can’t be everywhere at once, though, so I must also rely on other people’s photos to fill in the gaps in my historical record. By the time when I launched the website in November 2003, I had received permission to use the photos of perhaps a half-dozen other photographers, most of whom I had contacted individually via their own graffiti-themed websites.

One of my goals has been to expand grafarc beyond San Francisco, to cities I’ve never been to. But this means relying entirely on other people’s photos. This research task (finding the photos, tracking down the people who took them, and sleuthing out exactly where and when they were taken) is almost as labor-intensive as producing the website itself.

That is to say, it was labor-intensive, until I joined Flickr. On my first day on Flickr, I found the Graffiti group, containing hundreds of photos uploaded by people all over the world. I also searched for tags like graffiti and its variants (grafitti, graf, etc.). I refined my search with location tags like San Francisco or Los Angeles. I immediately found dozens of photos I wanted to use on my site.

Flickr’s use of tags and EXIF data took all the effort out of finding the wheres and whens. Contacting the people who took those photos was effortless, because of Flickr’s people-centered paradigm. What’s more, Flickr is a self-selecting community of people who are predisposed to share. So when I asked people to let me use their photos on grafarc, they did so freely and enthusiastically.

What happened next took me by surprise. Coincidences began to materialize out of the ether. I met a new contact from LA who had recently shot some graffiti in Zagreb, and he offered to go back and shoot the same spots on his next trip. Another contact, from Peru, began uploading photos of spots I’d been to in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. And both of these people had independently shot photos of the same subway station in Budapest, four years apart. Meanwhile, here in San Francisco, my local contacts triangulated their cameras on emerging hotspots, and began recording their progression at near-filmic frame rates. And one person contacted me who had been in the same abandoned building as me, at exactly the same time. Something about the structure of Flickr seems to make this kind of coincidence commonplace.

I created a Flickr Group for contributors to grafarc, and invited about a dozen friends and contacts. The group has begun to grow at a steady pace, and its photo pool has filled up with rich, loamy data. I am now swimming in photos. And people who have met up there are now sharing information via comments on each other’s photos, creating a rich discussion space around them.

The funny thing is, this is something I always envisioned for grafarc. I wanted the site to attract the people who share my weird obsession with graffiti, and I wanted it to become a center for this kind of discussion. I imagined that at some future time, I would add a forum section to my site, and somehow create that community. But the community apparently couldn’t wait for me to do that. In Flickr’s fertile and promiscuous environment, communities can form spontaneously around the tiniest kernel.

I can’t wait to see what will happen next.