Flickr is a thoroughly post-photographic medium. (Unsurprisingly, it is also thoroughly postmodern.) As proof, one need not even look at the images themselves. Embedded within the very structures of Flickr are the seeds of post-photography. Here are a few of them.
According to Susan Murray, the photostream operates as the “narrative center” of Flickr life (155). Yet in keeping with the ideas of post-photography, the stories are not in the images themselves. Rather, they are found in the ever-changing sequence of images, the ebb and flow of the digital stream as it swells and shrinks and changes course. This is where the narratives of post-photography lie. In the words of John Suler, the “‘spaces’ between images” are as much a part of the story as the photos themselves (556).
Since new photos are continually added to the photostream, it functions as a sort of living chronology with no definite beginning or end (Van House 3). As a result, the stream becomes a reflection of the photographer and his or her particular style (Suler 556). It shows how the photographer’s work changes over time and serves as a visual “stream of consciousness,” mapping the contours of his or her experience (Suler 556).
Like water in a stream, new images appear at the top of the photostream. As they age, they disappear from the front page as others replace them. According to Murray, each photo has a “limited time in the spotlight” (155). This structure fits with the post-photographic sense that images are transient and disposable, not something to cling to but rather, something to use and then discard.
Apparently, Flickr users hold a similar understanding. In Nancy Van House’s study, they described their photostreams as “transitory, ephemeral, ‘throwaway,’ a stream, not an archive” (3). According to Van House, they did not express much interest in looking back through old images, whether their own or those of others (3). Instead, they would rather spend their time looking at fresh photos. One participant in Van House’s study reported, “I do not review [my] photos often because I know what I shot so I’d rather look at someone else’s” (4). This attitude is typical of post-photography and exemplifies the shift from photos as a form of memory to images as a means of communication.
The photos—and most recently, videos—provide the primary content for Flickr. Unlike other media, the images on Flickr are the focus of the site rather than simply illustrations (Van House 3). This in itself reflects the post-photographic notion that images are capable of sustaining discourse without the aid of accompanying text. It also contradicts the ideas communication scholars rooted in the modern worldview—Neil Postman, for example—and suggests the influence of postmodern sensibilities.
According to Van House’s research, most Flickr users upload a mix of “content-oriented” and aesthetic images (5). That is, they combine photographic images of special moments with post-photographic images of the mundane aspects of everyday life. In a period where photographic attitudes still hold considerable sway, this mixing is to be expected. Still, according to Murray mundane images dominate the Flickr landscape, carrying with them the post-photographic aesthetic of “ephemera” (Murray 155). In this regard, Flickr continues the trend started by cameraphones.
Comments play an important role in the social networking aspect of the Flickr community. They are seen as “rewards” for successful photographers and help in the development of relationships. According to John Suler, these snippets of text are necessary because it is difficult to build and sustain relationships in a strictly “preverbal” medium (558). Unlike traditional photography, which is centered on preserving existing relationship, post-photography tends toward narratives that are more universal than specific and relational.
Still, Suler also notes that the comments users post can help to shape the environment of the photostream (557). In particular, they can be used to encourage certain aesthetics and practices that are valued by the Flickr community (Murray 158). Indirectly, then, comments might help to stimulate interest in the post-photographic “ephemera” aesthetic by rewarding photographers who practice it.
Apart from the photostream, the tagging system is the primary means for categorizing images on Flickr. The system is a typical example of a “folksonomy,” a hallmark of the Web 2.0 movement. Interestingly, though, Flickr users maintain that tagging is done for the benefit of viewers, not for the photographer (Miller and Edwards 352). According to one user, tagging is “what you’re supposed to do—a community thing” (Van House 4). This idea of tagging for others points to the fact Flick users largely are sharing their photos with an unknown audience. Immersed in the post-photographic “Snapr” culture, they have no qualms about making their photos available to strangers—precisely the functionality that the tagging system provides.
In addition to tagging, groups and pools provide a loose organizational structure that allows users to gather images around a certain theme or interest. The emphasis of the these structures, then, is on collection and comparison (Murray 155). According to Murray, they provide less of a sense of narrative than the photostream (155).
Even so, groups and pools can create a space for shared memories to be constructed (Suler 558). Since post-photography does not preserve memories in the personal and familial style of photography, these spaces offer a valuable alternative that allows members to create a sense of shared experience and belonging. In addition, groups and pools sometimes alter or nuance the predominant Flickr aesthetic, allowing users to push out ideas about what “ephemera” might look like in their particular contexts (Murray 158)
The Flickr software contains an algorithm for determining the interestingness of an image, presumably based on the number of views, comments, and other activity that it receives. The exact formula for calculating interestingness is a closely guarded secret. Whatever the technique, it must be effective because, according to the Flickr site, the company is seeking a patent to protect it.
The very existence of such a feature says something about the nature of Flickr and its images. According to Van House, most photos uploaded to the site are “of topics of immediate interest” (5). That is, they are timely photos that reflect on or make a comment about the present. This emphasis—which equates “interesting” with “current”—speaks to the immediacy of post-photography and its shift away from the timeless quality of traditional photography.
Flickr is a “community” only in the postmodern sense of the word. In effect, users are represented by the photos that they post as well as by whatever scant biographical details they choose to provide. As a result, it can be difficult to separate the amateur from the professional (Murray 155). According to Murray, however, both types of photographers have value to the Flickr community (159). The result is a breakdown of traditional hierarchies, rendering post-photography a more even playing-field (Murray 158). If post-photography is like language, then Flickr is like free speech.