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April, 2005

Annotating on Flickr with a Side of Social Networking

I ran into the "memorymap" tag on Flickr the other day thanks to Waxy.org (which is actually where I get lots of my links). A "memorymap" takes the new satellite feature on Google Maps and combines it with the annotation capabilities of Flickr to create an annotated map of some area you know well. I believe this was the first "memorymap" on Flickr, and as you'll see, it's an annotated map of Mathowie's childhood.

Alongside "memorymaps" on my recent Flickr coolness scale is "whatsinyourbag. This is just a tag that lets people know you've emptied your bag out for the world to see. On most photos, the contents of the bag are labeled. Just like "memorymaps," "whatsinyourbag" is a fun look into other people's lives.

Moving beyond the fact that these are just cool things to do, there are two things that really stand out for me in using Flickr in this way. First, using annotation to provide context to an image is a brilliant way to create community around photos. Blogs are a place to annotate your life or the news, and the ability to extend this annotation idea to photos was a brilliant move on Flickr's part. It takes social software a step beyond just comments, which allow people to interact in more general ways. I think annotation is an important trend that we'll be seeing more and more of in lots of different spaces. Just look at YellowArrow and Grafedia, which allow you annotate physical space. It's a cool way to add extra context to almost anything. (In fact, that's probably pretty close to the definition of annotation . . . oops.)

The second thing that jumps out at me are how these Flickr users are using tags. "Whatsinyourbag" is not a tag that is used for yourself, otherwise it would be "whatsinmybag" (which is also a common tag on these photos), however, the point is that they're using tagging to create communities. Tagging is a great way to create a community without having to develop any additional backend. While you can create groups on Flickr, and in fact, there is a "whats in your bag" group, it only includes five photos, versus the 531 under the "whatsinyourbag" tag (ooh, that rhymes).

So, what's my point? Well, first and foremost it's to say these things are cool and you should look at them. But it's also that people will find entirely new ways to use cool features if you allow them to play around. It's amazing. I'm sure the Flickr people never imagine that people would take a satellite photo and annotate in such a way.

The lesson: users are really smart!

Lesson two (and this is a big one I think . . . not that lesson one wasn't): Social networking works best when it's not the primary objective of a website. In other words, sites like Flickr and blogs generally tend to be a more accurate picture of your social network than something like Friendster (and this may need to be a whole other post).

Arienna Foley touched on this in an entry on Get Real. While I was thinking about the whole thing this morning my mind somehow wandered to Gmail and I realized that the list of top 20 contacts that Gmail displays when you go to contacts is probably the most accurate representation of my social network that exists. I think the reason for that is because the primary use of Gmail is person-to-person contact through email and social networking becomes a secondary result. One of the big problems I've always had with Friendster and the rest is that people end up "collecting friends." That's not how real life works. With Flickr, you end up making friends through real shared interests, not random things you write down in a profile. It's never explicitly about networking, which is what makes any real networking event great.

Take college for example, is there any better place to network? You're all there for the same reason, to get an education. But the outgrowth of putting lots of people who are the same age and most likely have similar interests in one place is that lots of friendships will develop. You don't go to college to make friends (not officially at least), but that's what ends up happening.

I think it's kind of an interesting point (probably not all that original) and one that's worth exploring a little further. For all those who made it all the way to the bottom, I apologize for the tangent, that's just how my brain works. Most of the time I start writing about something without having fully explored it and end up somewhere completely different by the end. But before I go off in a completely different direction I better cut this off.

April 8, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.