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December 22, 2004

Notes from ITP: Flickr-as-web-services edition

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Been away, working on a bunch of things including, most speculatively, a proposal for a book with the working title Organization in the Age of Social Devices, where devices refers both to our tools and to the things people do with those tools when left to their own devices. The collected themes of the book will be no surprise to readers here.

All that is so 2006, however, and this is still 2004, so I want to try to capture some of what I’ve been seeing this semester at ITP. Unlike last year, where the fall semester largely resolved itself for me into a single big surprise (the pattern I’m calling Situated Software,) this year I’m seeing lots of distributed effects, with no one common thread, so I’m going to do a series of posts of things I’ve seen.

So, first of all, ITP is Flickr-obsessed. The community is either in the grip of a fast-moving addiction, or we’re an epicenter of a pandemic; time will tell.

I’ll start with two quick Flickr stories…

First, one of our students, after working on the floor late one night, headed home, and in the time it took to walk the 4 blocks between ITP and his apartment, another group whiteboarded a goodnight message to him, snapped a photo of it, and uploaded it, knowing that he would check Flickr the minute he got home, and that their photo would show up in his stream.

Flickr is nominally asynchronous, but has achieved, at least at ITP, a kind of social near-synchrony. Everyone who’s used email for longer than a month knows the mental calculation of ‘email vs phone’, as in “I need to reschedule a meeting happening N hours from now. Will they check their email, or should I call?” The more email-driven a person is, the lower N can be before email won’t work. This group is so camera-centric and Flickr-obsessed that that N for Flickr is sub 1 hour.

Another story: one of our students doesn’t have a laptop, digital camera, or cameraphone. (At ITP, this is, in terms of ostentation, roughly akin to wearing a feather boa to work.) She is nevertheless a Flickr user, participating in the service by uploading screenshots from school. When the service has become so essential to social life that not having a camera isn’t enough to keep people from participating, you know something is up.

More importantly for social software generally, both the Flickr API and the inclusion of tags have turned Flickr into a service as well as a site. Both (24 people documenting 48 hours in NYC) and (photo contests) simply use Flickr as their back-end, as Flickr handles the uploading, tagging, and re-sizing, and has a fantastic set of APIs.

The Bickr work was particularly interesting, because the main instantiation of the game was in a console, housed in retro-fitted furniture from the Salvation Army and decked out with candy-colored arcade buttons and a joystick. (There is a pure web interface as well, but it feels less satisfying.)

In this model the interface is a way of providing an amusing and physically pleasing interface that is only accessible to the community inhabiting that space, without requiring the application logic or database being co-located with the interface. The guts of the box is a Linux machine running the Flash interface, and a bunch of controllers connected in serial — no mouse, no keyboard. Using Flickr to bootstrap the image catching, tagging and displaying functions let the designers concentrate on simplifying the physical interface.

There’s a lot of good news here for Flickr in business terms, of course. As one of my students pointed out, Flickr seems to have avoided the Fuck Fotolog-style controversies, with a sizable number of ITP power-users going with the Pro service. I’m not sure how they avoided the typical user flames, but some of the factors seem to be Flickr being more on the personal side of the personal-to-public spectrum, whereas moblogs are often touted as publishing tools, and people seem to have an easier time paying for personal service than membership in a community; people with camera phones are already used to paying for getting the pictures off the phone; and Flickr has less of a conversational dynamic than Fotolog, and so less outlet for that kind of self-amplifying outrage.

It also has some business downsides as well —- the Pro pricing model assumes moderate use over steady periods, but both 24in48 and Bickr can drive incredibly spiky usage in short periods, not well accounted for in Pro pricing. However, making all the participants in things that use Flickr as a web service have a Flickr account will dampen adoption of the subscribing services.

Worse, there is a HotorNot-like incentive to leave all the photo-hosting costs with Flickr, rather than caching and re-serving locally. This tension between types of fees and who “owns” the user is an unanswered question in web service business models generally, but As Brewster Kahle put it “If you want to solve hard problems, have hard problems.” It looks like Flickr is the site of those hard problems, and of many of the potential solutions.

And this is the ur-message of Flickr use at ITP — this is what web services looks like when it’s not “Web Services.” No SOAP, no UDDI, no BPML4WS, just good old REST-alicious modeling of resources, and an adopting population that wants to get things done. This is an easier and more labile version of web services than anything being hawked by Big Iron or (Big Binary) vendors.

Flickr wasn’t the only story of the semester, of course, just the one with the most threads. I’ll try to capture other observations in later posts.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Jay Fienberg on December 24, 2004 3:58 AM writes...

Flickr is probably the best current example of the post-blog landscape, e.g., where blogging is happening without or outside of blogs.

Also, I don't know if it'll happen this year, but I've seen one business website development proposal where major portions of the contents of the site are getting online via a theoretically simple custom web interface that just posts things through Blogger and Flickr. In other words, forget developing or managing back-end CMS, just build on top of free/inexpensive web services that manage one's online text and images.

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