a website for photographers: what does it take?

a few days ago there was flickr's 10th anniversary, and the site has made quite a splash — good and bad — with their recent changes.

granted, flickr was not designed for photographers. rather, it was designed as a web-based shoebox. to this day, it serves that purpose with very few glitches, more so at present when one Terabyte of storage is allowed for free. 

however, people have a knack to cast websites into their own needs. likely with the advent of the democratization of photography — thanks to digital cameras, and the boom of the internet to a wider audience — flickr was able to serve as the gathering place for people that wanted to pursue photography beyond a shoebox holder.

unfortunately, flickr would break at the seams. the site never really pursued a photo-centric presentation of one's work:

  1. photos were cropped to a square thumbnail at the center without user selection.
  2. an emphasis on meaningless statistics, such as views/faves.
  3. a one-solution-to-all approach to explore the site via Explore page.
  4. dormant development/update of groups, which still has a late-90s functionality.

some of these failures are easy to fix, but others may require a site overhaul. one of the great difficulties with users appropriating the site to their needs was the high-levels of confusion that was created. for example, Explore is not a sort of critical/curated selection, but rather a social-metrics based photo selection that does not have a correlation to merit. but this confusion generated so many of the site's ills. elsewhere, groups such as the (infamous) Help Forum and Flickr Central gave the impression of official involvement, with users being confused for employees. more recently, even in the rollout of major changes, there was a failure to explain these changes. most sites make a short video to explain the changes/clicks and how the functions being rolled out work into a vision. instead, the site's changes had some good (bigger images, no more thumbnails), and great failings: no cohesive design, but one (seemingly) driven by ideas on coding prowess. it also showed that flickr was trying to follow the evolution taking place at other sites, rather than pursue a vision that was based on its years of experience.

for all of these failings, during the golden years, many photographers managed to learn in their own way and propel themselves within, and outside, of the internet. a number of groups, such as Utata, provided a sensible instigation to do more than take photos that were hoped to make it to Explore.

so then, in personally having been on the site since 2005, and active (uploading) through 2009**, what would be the features that would make for a good photography site? by this, I do not mean a we-are-all-artists site, but one that fosters the art of photography, and not a social site with photographs as its currency: the currency should be the pursuit of photography, not the photographs themselves. here are some notions:

forgo all metrics, but allow for some tracking features.

most sites these days provide means to use tools such as Google Analytics, and that should be useful to photographers, if they want it. if the photo pages gets a lot of views from a website that may have, without permission/attribution, linked to the photo, then it is good to be alerted. views and faves counts are useless because of their unreliability, and lack of control (e.g., people are not at the site at all hours, it is the nature of a global base).

remove the contests/competition

the idea of a ranking algorithm in photography is antithetical to the pursuit of photography, and drives an unhealthy pursuit for attention. it is rather clear that this is also what drives traffic/users to a site, and it is an easy temptation to make a site profitable.

devise a site-exploring algorithm

with the hype over big data, one of its perfect uses is to tailor the site's exploring for a given user. on flickr, there was the Greasemonkey script that would show one's contacts faves. provided one would add contacts on the merits of their photographs, rather an a social passive-aggressive duty, then the script offers a superior result to a socio-metrics based algorithm.

be big and small

a big site is great for exploring its photos, but useless for promoting one's photography needs: one is overwhelmed if not lost (e.g., 500px's lack of groups). a structure for groups and discussion is essential to the site, and rather than anarchy (as in flickr), something grows with time. in this instance, lessons learned from many discussion-based sites can be adopted.

love the comments, hate the comments

the user must be given control over comments on the a photo page. many comments are vapid ("Great Capture!"), others are passive-aggressive cut-and-paste useless words with links to their pages. Instagram and 500px have taken measures towards this problem, while flickr still allows HTML tags to be part of comments. in some ways, the user has to be fearless in "curating" the comments on a photo page.

templates!

on the one end there is the fiasco of MySpace customization, and on another, there is the unwelcome rigidity from flickr. yet, Tumblr thrives relatively well. a site can control the templates and their customization features, and with time allow for users to apply their CSS talents to make further template designs.

precise site management groups

while it is very unlikely that flickr's programmers designed the site, the impression gathered is that of an absent design team: any sort of integrated aesthetics are absent, and instead it is about what can be done with today's software, and what other sites are doing. it is imperative that the user experience be given the utmost effort towards a sensible design and functionality. 

curating

as part of the process to learn photography, one must be able to pursue the means to curate series of photographs. flickr has provided this functionality through their Gallery pages, though it has to be made possible to energize them and make them points of interaction and discussion. a greater power for its use would require access to photos outside the site, and this is a harder problem to solve. presently, Tumblr offer such an opportunity, while an integrated functionality to a site offers greater potential.

in general terms, the new site developers would have to overcome the hi-tech malaise of "flickr killer" mentality. even for less photographic-centric sites, this thinking requires a replication of flickr-features, which may not be of service towards a successful site.

in closing, the design of a site such as this requires quite a bit of algorithmic and social know-how that builds on the usage of the sites developed so far. there is also a major problem to solve about the financial success of such a site. ideally, the site should have a sizeable functionality be free, with some customization at a fee. yet, it is unclear if a "free+" site could survive financially. further, the structure of how to balance user feedback and the "lynch mob" activity that besieges the Help Forum on flickr has to be avoided. also, users cannot be confused for the site's staff. this is not to imply that a group can be structured, clearly, that it is a user-based to assist with questions.

the simplest question, once all the ideas are in place: is there a need for such a site?


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** I was encouraged by the changes rolled out on May 2013, but the execution was extremely flawed, and soon after beginning some uploading frenzy, it had to stop.