Welcome to the digital age, where the customs surrounding the 150-year-old practice of photography have been almost completely exploded in a staggeringly brief 24 months. Just as blogs turned armchair writers into a journalists, the newest generation of photo-sharing sites—companies like Fotolog, Flickr, HeyPix and Smugmug—allow shutterbugs to publish their photos before mass audiences and find others who share the same pictorial predilections.
In the old days, families took out the camera for special events, then showed the pictures to relatives, friends and neighbors who suffered in silence those boring basement slideshows. In the late ’90s, things started to change, but not as drastically as it first appeared. The first batch of photo sites, like oFoto, Snapfish and Shutterfly—along with similar services on the major Web portals—essentially adapted the traditional model to the Web. Users could upload digital photos to online albums, share them with select acquaintances and order prints through the mail at slightly better rates than they got at the local drugstore.
It turns out these services missed a few basic truths about the galloping advancements of the digital age. With the proliferation of digital cameras and particularly camera phones (150 million sold last year alone), taking pictures is suddenly easier and cheaper than ever before. So shutterbugs are now more inclined to snap—and to share—more than just significant personal moments. The original online photo services also failed to recognize that people log on for attention and validation; if it’s easy and harmless, they’ll happily blast their photos out to millions of people.
It took a few hungry startups to harness these trends. Fotolog, one of the oldest of the new breed, has 1.1 million users all creating their own public photo blogs, or as CEO Seifer puts it, “a million reality TV shows, only without the pain and humiliation.” On the site, there’s no distinction between public and private photos; users can post an image a day to their blogs for free, or pay $5 a month for more expansive privileges. The whole world sees the result. (For some reason, Brazil is best represented on the service, followed by Chile and then the United States.)
One of the hottest companies in the blossoming industry is Flickr, a year-old Vancouver-based startup. It goes even further to exploit the effects of group publishing on the Internet. Husband-and-wife team Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake were developing a multiplayer game when the photo-sharing feature of their project suddenly started attracting outsized attention on its own. So they ditched the game and concentrated on Flickr, which in a year has attracted 360,000 members and some feverish online speculation that it may soon by acquired by Yahoo. (Flickr declined to comment on the rumors.)
On Flickr, you can choose to make your photos either public or private (but more than 80 percent of the 5.5 million photos are public.) You can annotate your pictures, adding captions within the frame, or post comments below other users’ photos. Most significantly, you can append “tags,” adjectives that describe the photo’s category (such as “dog,” “poodle,” “cute”). Then all of the photos that share a particular tag can themselves be explored as a group, which online pundits call a “folksonomy.”
The result is something that approaches a vast theater of collective performance art. Various groups on Flickr are devoted to photo collections of confusing street signs, mannequins and Halloween costumes. There’s a group devoted to pictures of dogs, naturally, but there’s also a group devoted to pictures of dogs’ noses. One popular thread includes photos of circular objects framed within squares. Fake says that the best part of the service is finding like-minded shutterbugs and getting recognition for your art. “There’s a real magic to getting reactions to the work you’ve done,” she says.
As Flickr and other photo-sharing services expand in popularity, there’s also the ever increasing likelihood of forging real-world connections through these sites. Flickr user Nicholas Otto, a high-school senior from Wisconsin, recently attended a Milwaukee Bucks basketball game and took a picture of his own image when it flashed on the giant Jumbotron in the Bradley Center arena. After he posted the photo on Flickr, he got a message from another high schooler, whom he had never met, who was also at the game and saw him on the Jumbotron—and then later saw his photograph on Flickr. They began chatting and struck up a friendship.
That may indicate the real power of these new photo-sharing sites. I may not be enthralled by pictures of dogs’ noses or someone’s latest meal. But connecting with people with similar interests and aesthetics, and harnessing my inner photographer—that’s worth capturing for posterity.