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“atmedia” tags on Flickr

A tagIn their write-ups of @Media 2006, Eric Meyer and Peter-Paul Koch have both spoken out to discourage the use of the “atmedia” tag for photos on Flickr which have no (apparent) relevance to the event itself. Personally, I’m with Russ Weakley in the opposite camp.

The whole point of tags on Flickr (and elsewhere) is that they are not rigid categories decided by the site owners. Everyone uses them differently, and most people pay no heed whatsoever to the global namespace. For example, when I tag pictures of my family, I use “family”, and the first names of whoever appears in the photo, e.g. “family martin fiona”. This is because I’m thinking about the relevance of these tags in the context of my personal space on Flickr. I’m tagging these photos for my benefit, and for my friends and family–not to provide the entire Flickr user base with a convenient way of reaching these photos via a global search.

Tags are descriptive rather than prescriptive metadata. With tags, you can throw as much or as little description as you like at an item. This allows for enormous flexibility, which encourages people to actually attach metadata in the first place. This is a good thing. However, the metadata is also likely to be incomplete, imprecise, and highly subjective. But this subjectivity is actually a strength when it comes to “social” tagging schemes.

The reason tags are gaining ground on traditional fixed classification schemes is that people like being able to create their own labels, with their own personal relevance. People like not having to ponder whether they should file a photo of Westminster Abbey under “Places:UK:London” or “Architecture:Churches:Gothic”. Would Flickr contain even a tenth of the metadata if it provided a set of categories instead, and asked people to classify their photos accordingly? I don’t think so. Aside from the cognitive overhead involved in making those decisions, there’s the usability aspect to consider, too: repeatedly navigating a categories is going to be more difficult than just throwing a bunch of tags into a textbox.

So although it may be frustrating for one person to search for the tag “atmedia” and be confronted with photos of Big Ben instead of Big Veen, someone else is sitting in front of their computer perfectly delighted with Flickr for allowing him to group all the pictures from his trip with a single convenient, and–for him–highly specific and descriptive tag.

It’s fine to suggest a canonical tag for use in classifying photos or other data (blog posts, links, etc.). But trying to specify exactly what that tag should and shouldn’t be used for, goes against the grain of the system. It’s a futile effort at best.

In fact, Flickr already has a mechanism for grouping photos with a narrow set of common criteria: groups. It takes a few more steps to submit a photo to a group than it does to tag it, but that’s the price you have pay for increased relevance in this case. There was a group for @Media 2005, but there doesn’t seem to be one for this year’s event yet. If anyone is interested, I’ll create one.

(As a final note, I have to say that I’m absolutely gagging for the new Tags feature in Movable Type 3.3. It’s about time…)

5 replies on ““atmedia” tags on Flickr”

It’s fine to suggest a canonical tag for use in classifying photos or other data (blog posts, links, etc.). But trying to specify exactly what that tag should and shouldn’t be used for, goes against the grain of the system. It’s a futile effort at best.

I agree wholeheartedly. Which is why I said:

I just have two things I’d like to suggest that @media photo taggers please do (or don’t)…

If that ain’t a suggestion, then pardner, I dunno what is.

Eric, my apologies. I read something other into your comments about tagging than what you actually said, which is sound advice. PPK, I think, takes the notion of a suggestion a step further, when he says:

Please remove the “atmedia” tag.

As speakers at the conference itself, you both speak with a certain amount of authority, and I have a habit of reacting rather poorly when the voice of authority tells me what to do, rather than suggests it. In this case, I went into Crazy Rant mode, which was unjustified. (Still, it’s better than the Machete Alternative.)

It’s always worth finding out if one actually disagrees with someone before starting an argument. But that’s never stopped me before 🙂

Martin, it seems to me that the basis of your argument is that the person uploading and tagging his/her own photos has the right to ignore the effect on the global community of Flickr if they want to. Nobody can argue that they have the right to do that. They obviously have the right, because they can. However, it seems rather selfish and irresponsible to tag a photo on a global community website that creates a confusing and frustrating experience for others on the site. It would make more sense to tag using something more descriptive than just atmedia. Perhaps atmediatrip? If that person is the only one who is going to want to see those photos (ie, they are personal to them) then a more well-defined tag would make more sense. I don’t see the point in defending someone’s right to ignore the effects of their own actions on the community at large. This issue here is not about control or forcing people to do anything. It is about suggesting behavior that is more logical and responsible. That is my take on it.

Brian, the basis of my argument is that in an unrestricted tagging scheme such as Flickr operates, no-one can tell you what tags you are and are not allowed (or “supposed” to use). I agree that it’s perfectly fine–and even a good idea–to suggest a common tag to pull together images with a common theme. What I’m arguing against is asking people to remove a tag (in this case, “atmedia”) from images to which the tag appears only peripherally relevant.

My problem with this is: who determines the acceptable uses of the tag? Flickr itself doesn’t even do it. There is no team of Flickr administrators sifting through photographs and sending emails to people instructing them to add or remove certain tags. Just as you think it’s irresponsible for people to “ignore the effects of their own actions on the community at large”, I think it’s irresponsible–not to mention somewhat rude–for one person to ask another to remove a tag when they have differing opinions abouts its interpretation and its relevance to the photo. (Note: I’m not ragging on Eric here; I misinterpreted him originally, and that’s not what he said.)

This is especially true in a global community like Flickr, where not everyone tags their photographs in English. Take the word “haar” as a simple example. In English, this is a kind of fog. In Dutch, it means “hair”. Have a look at the photos tagged with “haar” on Flickr. How do you think a Dutch user would react if someone left a comment saying that they should remove the tag “haar” and use “hair” instead? Or if someone suggested that they are “ignoring the effect on the global community of Flickr” by assigning a tag that has meaning only for a small subset of Dutch-speaking users?

The word “atmedia” doesn’t have that same kind of linguistic ambiguity, but it is still semantically ambiguous. What is a photograph of “atmedia”? Is it a picture of the venue? (What about a picture of the venue on a day when the conference is not being hosted there?) Is it a picture of someone at the conference? (What about a picture of the catering staff at the conference?) Is it a picture of one of the speakers at the conference? (What about a close-up of just the speaker’s hands?)

Just as the word “haar” means different things to different people depending on the language they speak, the concept “atmedia” means different things to different people who attended the conference. Some people will use it to tag pictures they took inside the conference centre, and that’s fine. Other people will use it to tag all the photos they took while they were in London for the conference, and that’s fine too, because that is the meaning they have assigned to the tag “atmedia”.

If you don’t like that example, what about the suggested tag “me”? Would you argue that “me” is a poor choice of tag because it creates a “confusing and frustrating experience” for people looking for pictures of themselves? If not, where is the line and how do you define it?

This entire discussion of Flickr tags reminds me of the battles between presecriptive and descriptive grammar. But the endless debates on “his” vs “their” for nonspecific pronoun references are predicated on an agreed model of what language should do. It should communicate.

I don’t think there is any equivalent consensus about what Flickr should do. I use it to archive all my mobile phone photos and display the best of them. Martin uses it to show family photos to people scattered all over the world. I have friends who use it as a community site, to store their photos for personal reference, or to showcase their fine art photography. Tag usage reflects that variety – some tags are intended for the outside world, some for private use.

Unless there is a single, agreed use of Flickr, there is no possibility of a shared goal against which things like user experiences and tag usage can be evaluated. And that’s one of the things I like about the site, personally. It’s a slice of humanity, not just in the content of the photos but in the mental models the members encase them in. To dictate the latter would be as stifling as dictating the former.

If user experience is the concern, it would be better to either use the search functionality more subtly, or suggest improved search mechanisms for the “delta” release (if they are planning such a thing.) That way you’re only trying to get a small group of people (you, or Flickr developers) to change something – not the entire user population. You’ll have more chance of success.

You’ll also not block that new, fantastic tagging scheme that will remake the face of the net in the next decade. Which one? No idea – but revolutionary ideas come out of chaotic sites like Flickr.

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