Finding new ways to browse

A group of rather loosely connected thoughts about browsing and sharing digital images, serendipity and metadata...

Earlier this month George Oates, the original force behind The Commons on Flickr, gave a presentation in Bristol on her past work on The Commons and her current role at the Open Library.

George noted that her presentation had three themes:

  • It's all about increasing access
  • Learn to love (and exploit) networks
  • Institutional knowledge as substrate

I found one of George's observation about Flickr really interesting. Talking about the metadata that a particular photo entered Flickr with (date taken, type of camera) and the metadata that has been added to it (tags, placement in groups and sets that give it context through association) George noted that

It's almost as if all this metadata provides some sort of surface tension that prevents the photo from sinking into the depths of obscurity amongst these billions of photos.

I thought again of that comment when reading Nate Solas's post on the Walker's New Media Initiatives blog, about the Art Finder collection browse/search functionality on the ArtsConnectEd site.

Screenshot of artsconnected, a way to browse artworks online.ArtsConnectEd in 2009.

Writing about The Big Idea for the interface, Nate said:

What if we could start with everything and narrow it down from there? Offer the user the entire collection and let them whittle away at it until they found what they wanted?

It's all browse. Keyword is just another filter.

I found it interesting how long I spent fiddling round with the filters on the site before I went looking for a box to type search terms into.

This experience - where browse = happy serendipity - leads me to the new Galleries feature on Flickr (and and a rather overdue update about our Commons work on Flickr). The new tool lets you gather together up to 18 photos by other people (none of your own) into a named and annotated set, which is then shared with all site visitors. It's a way of curating what you think is good or interesting work on Flickr, and then presenting that to other people. It's a serendipitous experience for Flickr browsers - and has been exploited for yesterday's dust storm in Sydney - and adds yet another aspect of surface tension to all the metadata options Flickr already makes available.

It seems that the page where you can see which of your photos is included in which galleries is private (like stats) but we've had a nice little start with 13 photos in 11 galleries, including Netweb's Gallipoli gallery, Brenda Anderson's Glaciers on a human scale gallery, and zyrcster's Night photography across The Commons gallery. As the Indicommons crew have pointed out (No longer up - Ed), this make the cross-Commons curating group members were already doing much easier.

Screenshot of collection images posted on Flickr with notifications of they galleries they have been included in.Collection images on Flickr in 2009.

I've just noticed that in the FAQ Galleries are described as 'favourites on steroids'. I've been thinking about favourites a bit over the last couple of weeks, since this Election Night photo was used in a post on the Flickr blog.

Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931.Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931. Ref: 1/2-066547-F. This image on Flickr.

The coverage added significantly to the image's 'surface tension' (see the jump in visits below) and the photo has been favourited 268 times since.

View of stats on the Library's Flickr account in 2009, showing jumps in views at times our material was highlighted elsewhere.

Watching this happen confused me a little - I don't (personally) really see what people get out of favouriting (I'm not alone in this!). But galleries make more sense to me - favouriting for the intent of sharing. It's also another fantastic example of how Flickr encourages community within the enormous site - people are leaping onto this new feature, even though they can't promote their own work through it. And of course, all this activity adds more and more contextual information - surface tension - to the individual images.

My own first gallery - of photographs of photographers across The Commons - is here.

By Courtney Johnston

Courtney did almost every job in the web team, and is now out in the world and in charge of everything.

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