I've been wanting to post about Flickr for almost a year, almost since in I joined in March of 2011. It took me almost as long to decide to join in the first place, because I was wary of putting my stuff out there to be critiqued. A writer on the popular Light Stalking blog had noted that Flickr commentors could be brutally honest and to be prepared for that if you join. So I eventually got up the gumption and I'm still active and loving it.
But, I've learned a LOT in a year about the way the Flickr community operates. It is very different than I thought it would be. So here are my thoughts on the whole thing.
You get absolutely everything on Flickr (which makes sense, since there untold numbers of members from literally all over the world). You get the cream of the crop – photos that have won awards, contests, been published in magazines; you get photos that are beautiful or interesting but done by amateur photogs with no intent to go professional; photos that are just moments in someone's life that they want to share; and photos that are basically on Flickr to make use of its fundamental purpose as file storage.
If you go beyond that, things get strange. Like the paradoxes – photos that are magnificent but receive little adulation, while squarely mediocre photos get tons of love. I've stumbled across a photostream where the member posts five or six shots of the same subject with miniscule variations – and yet each photo garners hundreds of comments. On top of that...they're not even great photos. What motivates other members to keep fawning? It is a mystery.
But there are many mysteries on Flickr. Such as the members who have truly beautiful images, and yet inspire members to continue to comment on every single one of them, day after day, without any of the said photos being posted to a group (more on groups in a minute). In one vein, it's heartening; it's great that someone can find so many dedicated fans for good art. In another vein, the loyalty is still a bit of a head-scratcher. Does the photographer know all these people? Does he or she belong to some big photo group in some big city, where all the members commit to patting each other on the back on Flickr? Is the photographer actually famous and I just happen not to know who they are? You could ponder these things without end, let me tell you. (It's also sad to see great quality photos posted to dozens of groups that yet only received three or four comments – but, more on groups on a minute)
All in all, photos-wise, Flickr is a phenomenal place to find some of the best photographic images you'll ever see, and there is such a wide variety from, again, all over the world. There's something for everyone. Last summer, thanks to Flickr, I discovered three places in California that I knew I wanted to visit on my next trip – Round Valley, Natural Bridges State Beach, and Treasure Island. I made it to all three places and had a wonderful time. Without Flickr, I'd have just been plodding along the streets of Berkeley furtively taking photos of people's gardens.
Oh, there are many kinds of people on Flickr...
The nice ones. These are people who graciously comment on one of your photos after you've commented on theirs. They make sure to visit your photostream with a modicum of regularity. If you make a joke or ask a question in your comment, they reply. They add you as a contact because they want to keep up with your work – or are simply returning the favor because you added them first. They reply to a private message if you send them one. You know. Good, neighborly behavior.
The quiet ones. These people tend to post artistic, moody images. They may not post regularly, because they're off brooding. They often do fabulous work but are not exactly interested in other people (or other people's photos). Yet they still garner a nice following because of the quality of their images. You may add them as a contact; you may comment on their photos frequently; but they are too busy philosophizing over depth of field to notice or respond in kind.
The divas. These photographers have great stuff and they know it. Often they are world travelers and have photos from Hawai'i to Bali to Egypt to New Zealand. You wonder if they are trust fund babies. Each and every photo posted was taken with a Canon EOS 5D MkII. They only post to groups like Outdoor Photography Magazine and Popular Photography Magazine. But here's how you really know a diva. They never, ever, ever acknowledge anyone's existence (and by that I mean comments). There could be 100 comments salivating over the light and composition and use of foreground subjects, and you will hear nary a word of thanks. It does make you wonder why people continue to, in fact, acknowledge a diva's existence.
The heroes. These are photographers who are good-natured, have great photos, and get lots of comments – but for every comment they get, they go to that person's photostream and do them a solid. I know two men in particular who do this doggedly. No matter how many people flock to their photos, these guys always flock right back. If I have a photo that doesn't have a comment, all I've got to do is go comment on one of Russ or Daniel's photos. Their comments to me might be repetitive (few variations on 'excellent photo, great job!') but who can blame them? Their effort is truly heroic.
The favoriter. This Flickr member gets his or her kicks by favoriting millions of photos a day. Okay, that's an exaggeration. But they likely have hundreds of thousands of favorited photos over the course of their click-happy time on the website. I have to wonder what's the point. Do they seriously want a gigantic collection of what they feel is the best of Flickr? Or are they too lazy to post comments and they feel we will appreciate a favorite just the same? Questions linger.
The ship passing in the night. These are photographers who are probably very committed to their own circle of friends and just don't know what to say to anyone else. So you comment on their lovely images time and again, not looking for reciprocation, just wanting to support them. And then one day – bam! They leave a very friendly comment on one of your better photos. You beam. You giggle. You feel moisture at the corner of one eye. And then...days, weeks pass, and they never post another comment. Ever.
The lonely artist. These are photographers I've mentioned above – they have beautiful stuff, but no one seems to notice it. Yeah, it's a big world out there in Flickr land, but it's sad to see such amazing photos go under-appreciated. Your mind starts to whir: did they do something in the past to alienate everyone? Have they been on Flickr for eight years and people are just sick of seeing them? Do they leave nasty comments on other photos? Who will ever know. This tragedy, however, leads right into...
The complete and total head-scratcher. These are photographers who post badly composed, un-contrasted, un-saturated, cluttered images of dead forests and fuzzy twilit streams and still get ten to twenty comments per image talking about 'beautiful photo!' and 'I love this!' This is where my theory of some amateur photo club patting each other on the back comes into play. It is the ONLY reason for such nonsense.
The missing and/or dead. Lastly, these are people on Flickr who have simply stopped posting. You do have to wonder what happened in their lives. It could be anything: a bad divorce, a sudden catastrophe, a realization that underwater basket-weaving is actually their one true love. Here's a case in point: one of the most amazing photos I've ever seen on Flickr, of two egrets surrounded by the golden water of sunset taking flight in perfect balletic harmony, was posted by a Brazilian woman very interested in the plight of endangered animals in Africa. She posted beautiful things. But her last post was in 2008. I am convinced she was run over by a rhinoceros.
Remember how I said the Light Stalking guy warned us to be prepared for brutal honesty on Flickr?
I can count on three fingers the number of times I've even seen someone get the guts to even remotely critique a photo or offer a suggestion. 99.99999999% of the time the photos are all praise; some of it earned, some obviously not. There are, of course, several categories of comments to be found on the site.
The thoughtful praise. Someone looked at your photo, was moved by it, and decided to tell you exactly what they like. Example: “I'm impressed by how you managed to keep the natural tone of the colors in the sunset while still preserving some detail in the foreground. I can't believe this isn't HDR!” Of course it doesn't have to go that far. A simple “What a beautiful flower. Thank you for sharing this with us” will do.
The pointless utterance. This is the one- or two-word comment. “Great.” “Nice.” “Love it.” If they're really indifferent, they won't even end it with a period. Gee, thanks. (The pointless utterance comes with a particular sting when you know they've only come to your photostream because you went to theirs first. Ouch)
The personal comment. These are always nice; shows they care. “I'm really loving this whole series of butterflies!” or “I like what you've been doing with black and white lately.”
The cut-and-paste. This accounts for probably the majority of comments on Flickr. Everyone uses it, though some people use it exclusively – though this is not a good thing. To be more specific, these are words: “capture,” “compo,” “DOF,” and a host of others designed to pinpoint something good about the photo without going into ANY detail. Pair it with an overused adjective and you have the cut-and-paste in all its glory. “Great capture!” “Wonderful compo.” “Nice DOF.”
The deflection. This kind of comment always leaves one feeling conflicted. It goes something like this: you post a picture of, say, a solitary rock at Mirror Lake in Yosemite, and a commentor says, “Man, I remember visiting this place as a kid. Brings back good memories.” (This totally didn't happen to me) So what you're saying is, you think I'm a hack and you're only commenting because I commented on one of your award-winning photos first, and to avoid lying, you're just going to focus on the history/interestingness of my photo in the larger context of the world and time.
The hideous group award. I specifically do NOT join groups where commenting/awarding is mandatory. (One group even threatens to remove you if you don't follow through – because they are tracking you. Dudes!) I'll get more into this later (yes, group analysis still a-comin'!), but most of the group award icons are awful. Huge. Animated. Some Flickr users even warn that they will remove your comment if it includes such a thing. I don't blame 'em.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I do belong to one award group, but hand to God, they invited me first. I'm supposed to post one photo of a rose and then award three others. I do my duty, and then quietly disappear)
The look-at-me. As bad a group awards are, as pathetic as deflections make you feel, the “look at me!” has got to be the most heinous thing I've ever seen on Flickr. Now, this is my opinion only. It's not like I hate the people that do this or something, because in the end, it's just Flickr, not the nuclear arms race. But, it strikes me as especially odd when someone comments on your photo and then says, oh by the way, check out my latest photo – and then posts the image. In the comment. Still worse, somehow some folks are able to post a modestly-sized horizontal grouping of six or seven of their best shots (or something; I don't know, I always look away, numbed with horror). “Look at me!” Dudes. If you're gonna comment on my photo...for the love of all that is sacred...don't make it about you.
There's so much to be said that I just cannot say it all here. Basically groups are started by a member or members who want to have a place for all the photos of a certain genre or place to be collected. There are general groups for nature, black and white photography, grafitti, national parks, portraiture, autumn; more specific groups for only Yellowstone or only sports or only the San Diego Zoo or only silhouettes. You get the drift. There is such a diversity of groups that there is literally something for everyone – like the Stick Figures in Peril group (hi-larious), where members post photos of warning signs from around the world showing a stick figure about to meet its doom if it does a certain action.
Initially you join a group because you want to be a part of something, or you want to be able to see all the beautiful blooms of spring with just a click. There are discussion threads, which cover everything from 'say hello!' to 'comment on your favorite photo by the person above you' to games and so forth. It can be very fun if the group has an active community. Some groups have hundreds of thousands of members; some have (ahem) 54.
But then you get greedy. After posting in a few groups, you notice that you're getting more comments. So you join a few more groups. You get a few more comments. Suddenly you're a member of 98 groups and you figure you should stop before hitting 100 and becoming a complete, desperate dweeb.
Then you realize there are good and bad times to post in a group. Though the community is worldwide, there are enough people who live in your country to know that posting to a group at 2 a.m. is not smart if you're trying to grab attention. However, if you're in a big group where photos are posted every minute, you know once you post that it will move quickly off the front page. So you start strategizing again. Soon, you realize that getting comments has become an obsession.
Some people deal with this by joining a group where commenting and awards are mandatory. You may stumble across a just-okay photo with 39 comments and think, 'what can I learn from them?' Then you realize that 38 of the comments are gaudy awards with no personal message whatsoever, just people sweating whilst filling their “post 1/award 9” requirements before the Machine catches them resting and deactivates their membership. Needless to say, I feel this is kind of a shameless way to get comment which, sadly, are the currency of Flickr. (Just like comments are the currency of the blogosphere. Cough. Cough)
Of course, I don't truly know the motivation of people who join these kinds of groups. Maybe they just love handing out awards indiscriminately. Maybe they like brightening someone's day with a .gif of a kitten with its nose endlessly scrunching. These are benign things. I just...I don't know. I'll never do it.
(For clarification, this is not the same as having html for saying, like, 'this photo was seen in Colors of the World!' or whatever. You can chose to do that if you want, it's not mandatory)
But you know what I found through all this? Posting what you think is a potential National Geographic cover in 45 distinct groups, doesn't actually get you any more comments. In fact, whatever logarithm determines what motivates someone to comment on your photo is completely unknown to me. It's just not something you can force, outside of an awards group. You can't make them love you. And if you put all your time and effort into generating adoration, you will only be let down. I don't know what makes four hundred people decide to comment on six photos of the exact same bird sitting on the exact same branch half-obscured by the exact same rotted leaf. I don't know why one guy posts stunning street photography from my hometown and gets dozens of views and absolutely zero comments, every single time. It makes no sense. And that is the true mystery of Flickr. Don't try to solve it. You'll only go crazy.
So, what's funny is that while I've learned a lot about Flickr in a little over a year, the only thing I've learned about my own photography is that sometimes the photo you almost don't even want to post is the one people gravitate to the most. Outside of that, I can't worry about why a photo I absolutely adore and consider a new pinnacle of my craft, only got two comments. Or why for a while I could post just about anything and it would get upwards of 16 comments. Or why that one day stopped. I won't worry about why someone who used to always visit me never does anymore, even though I never forgot about them. I just have to take my head out of that game, and enjoy seeing my photos in a nice community, with faceless photographers I've come to really like whose work I enjoy immensely. And that's what it should be about. Right? The old adage “the more comments a photo has, the better it is” just isn't true.
So I stopped posting every single photo in as many groups as possible. I just gave up, literally. And guess what...I still get comments, from the people that remember me and whom I remember to remember. After a week or so I might put, say, a photo of a chimp eating a dandelion in some relevant groups (animals, the zoo), and it won't get me any more comments. But that's okay. I've let it go. I am free.
There are plenty of other places to share your photos and be a part of a photography community on the, as they say, interwebs. Facebook, obviously. Google + (of which I'm not a part) apparently had big name photogs liking the possibilities there. I adore the look and layout of 500px, though I refuse to join until I feel worthy. There are some ridiculously fabulous photos on there.
Some people feel Flickr is about to fall by the wayside – or that it already has. I say, people are too eager to announce the death of something (probably the same pesky people considered 'early adapters'). There's room enough for everybody in this world.
I read a comment once on a blog about the sheer banality of the commenting on Flickr, how it's just photographers in the infancy of knowledge and skill, trying to use words like 'composition' and 'depth of field' in an attempt to sound big-time. I'll admit...sometimes...coming from certain people...ehhhh. Well, anyway, this person's snobbish comment is totally lost on anyone because hey, head over to 500px – a much more mature, worldly, exclusive version of Flickr – and guess what? They're saying the exact same things! Cut-and-pastes! Deflections! Pointless utterances! Just because these comments may be coming from people who have a little more experience doesn't make the quality of said comments any better. And if you're the kind of person who'd rather see “nice job” from some bum fumbling with his MkII in the wilds of the Amazon rather than a housewife whose blossoming photography is saving her from meaninglessness, then you suck.
Finally (yes, at last), I should clarify that I've learned a lot about photography in general in the year since I've been on Flickr, but that came from getting out there and shooting and not being afraid to go to places I'd never been before (and alone, no less). It came from sitting in Barnes and Noble pouring over photography technique books I can't afford, and from hitting the blogs and websites whenever time allows. Flickr may be able to pat you on the back, but only hard work and experience can lead you to where you want to go.