Tags: flickr



Unlabelled search fields

Adam Silver is writing a book on forms—you may be familiar with his previous book on maintainable CSS. In a recent article (that for some reason isn’t on his blog), he looks at markup patterns for search forms and advocates that we should always use a label. I agree. But for some reason, we keep getting handed designs that show unlabelled search forms. And no, a placeholder is not a label.

I had a discussion with Mark about this the other day. The form he was marking up didn’t have a label, but it did have a button with some text that would work as a label:

<input type="search" placeholder="…">
<button type="submit">

He was wondering if there was a way of using the button’s text as the label. I think there is. Using aria-labelledby like this, the button’s text should be read out before the input field:

<input aria-labelledby="searchtext" type="search" placeholder="…">
<button type="submit" id="searchtext">

Notice that I say “think” and “should.” It’s one thing to figure out a theoretical solution, but only testing will show whether it actually works.

The W3C’s WAI tutorial on labelling content gives an example that uses aria-label instead:

<input type="text" name="search" aria-label="Search">
<button type="submit">Search</button>

It seems a bit of a shame to me that the label text is duplicated in the button and in the aria-label attribute (and being squirrelled away in an attribute, it runs the risk of metacrap rot). But they know what they’re talking about so there may well be very good reasons to prefer duplicating the value with aria-label rather than pointing to the value with aria-labelledby.

I thought it would be interesting to see how other sites are approaching this pattern—unlabelled search forms are all too common. All the markup examples here have been simplified a bit, removing class attributes and the like…

The BBC’s search form does actually have a label:

<label for="orb-search-q">
Search the BBC
<input id="orb-search-q" placeholder="Search" type="text">
<button>Search the BBC</button>

But that label is then hidden using CSS:

position: absolute;
height: 1px;
width: 1px;
overflow: hidden;
clip: rect(1px, 1px, 1px, 1px);

That CSS—as pioneered by Snook—ensures that the label is visually hidden but remains accessible to assistive technology. Using something like display: none would hide the label for everyone.

Medium wraps the input (and icon) in a label and then gives the label a title attribute. Like aria-label, a title attribute should be read out by screen readers, but it has the added advantage of also being visible as a tooltip on hover:

<label title="Search Medium">
  <span class="svgIcon"><svg></svg></span>
  <input type="search">

This is also what Google does on what must be the most visited search form on the web. But the W3C’s WAI tutorial warns against using the title attribute like this:

This approach is generally less reliable and not recommended because some screen readers and assistive technologies do not interpret the title attribute as a replacement for the label element, possibly because the title attribute is often used to provide non-essential information.

Twitter follows the BBC’s pattern of having a label but visually hiding it. They also have some descriptive text for the icon, and that text gets visually hidden too:

<label class="visuallyhidden" for="search-query">Search query</label>
<input id="search-query" placeholder="Search Twitter" type="text">
<span class="search-icon>
  <button type="submit" class="Icon" tabindex="-1">
    <span class="visuallyhidden">Search Twitter</span>

Here’s their CSS for hiding those bits of text—it’s very similar to the BBC’s:

.visuallyhidden {
  border: 0;
  clip: rect(0 0 0 0);
  height: 1px;
  margin: -1px;
  overflow: hidden;
  padding: 0;
  position: absolute;
  width: 1px;

That’s exactly the CSS recommended in the W3C’s WAI tutorial.

Flickr have gone with the aria-label pattern as recommended in that W3C WAI tutorial:

<input placeholder="Photos, people, or groups" aria-label="Search" type="text">
<input type="submit" value="Search">

Interestingly, neither Twitter or Flickr are using type="search" on the input elements. I’m guessing this is probably because of frustrations with trying to undo the default styles that some browsers apply to input type="search" fields. Seems a shame though.

Instagram also doesn’t use type="search" and makes no attempt to expose any kind of accessible label:

<input type="text" placeholder="Search">
<span class="coreSpriteSearchIcon"></span>

Same with Tumblr:

<input tabindex="1" type="text" name="q" id="search_query" placeholder="Search Tumblr" autocomplete="off" required="required">

…although the search form itself does have role="search" applied to it. Perhaps that helps to mitigate the lack of a clear label?

After that whistle-stop tour of a few of the web’s unlabelled search forms, it looks like the options are:

  • a visually-hidden label element,
  • an aria-label attribute,
  • a title attribute, or
  • associate some text using aria-labelledby.

But that last one needs some testing.

Update: Emil did some testing. Looks like all screen-reader/browser combinations will read the associated text.

Commons People

Creative Commons licences have a variety of attributes, that can be combined together:

  • No-derivatives: the work can be reused, but not altered.
  • Attribution: the work must be credited.
  • Share-alike: any derivates must share the same licence.
  • Non-commercial: the work can be used, but not for commercial purposes.

That last one is important. If you don’t attach a non-commercial licence to your work, then your work can be resold for profit (it might be remixed first, or it might have to include your name—that all depends on what other attributes you’ve included in the licence).

If you’re not comfortable with anyone reselling your work, you should definitely choose a non-commercial licence.

Flickr is planning to sell canvas prints of photos that have been licensed under Creative Commons licenses that don’t include the non-commercial clause. They are perfectly within their rights to do this—this is exactly what the licence allows—but some people are very upset about it.

Jeffrey says it’s short-sighted and sucky because it violates the spirit in which the photos were originally licensed. I understand that feeling, but that’s simply not the way that the licences work. If you want to be able to say “It’s okay for some people to use my work for profit, but it’s not okay for others”, then you need to apply a more restrictive licence (like copyright, or Creative Commons Non-commercial) and then negotiate on a case-by-case basis for each usage.

But if you apply a licence that allows commercial usage, you must accept that there will be commercial usages that you aren’t comfortable with. Frankly, Flickr selling canvas prints of your photos is far from a worst-case scenario.

I licence my photos under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. That means they can be used anywhere—including being resold for profit—as long as I’m credited as the photographer. Because of that, my photos have shown up in all sorts of great places: food blogs, Wikipedia, travel guides, newspapers. But they’ve also shown up in some awful places, like Techcrunch. I might not like that, but it’s no good me complaining that an organisation (even one whose values I disagree with) is using my work exactly as the licence permits.

Before allowing commercial use of your creative works, you should ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” The worst that could happen includes scenarios like white supremacists, misogynists, or whacko conspiracy theorists using your work on their websites, newsletters, and billboards (with your name included if you’ve used an attribution licence). If you aren’t willing to live with that, do not allow commercial use of your work.

When I chose to apply a Creative Commons Attribution licence to my photographs, it was because I decided I could live with those worst-case scenarios. I decided that the potential positives outweighed the potential negatives. I stand by that decision. My photos might appear on a mudsucking site like Techcrunch, or get sold as canvas prints to make money for Flickr, but I’m willing to accept those usages in order to allow others to freely use my photos.

Some people have remarked that this move by Flickr to sell photos for profit will make people think twice about allowing commercial use of their work. To that I say …good! It has become clear that some people haven’t put enough thought into their licensing choices—they never asked “What’s the worst that could happen?”

And let’s be clear here: this isn’t some kind of bait’n’switch by Flickr. It’s not like liberal Creative Commons licensing is the default setting for photos hosted on that site. The default setting is copyright, all rights reserved. You have to actively choose a more liberal licence.

So I’m trying to figure out how it ended up that people chose the wrong licence for their photos. Because I want this to be perfectly clear: if you chose a licence that allows for commercial usage of your photos, but you’re now upset that a company is making commercial usage of your photos, you chose the wrong licence.

Perhaps the licence-choosing interface could have been clearer. Instead of simply saying “here’s what attribution means” or “here’s what non-commercial means”, perhaps it should also include lists of pros and cons: “here’s some of the uses you’ll be enabling”, but also “here’s the worst that could happen.”

Jen suggests a new Creative Commons licence that essentially inverts the current no-derivates licence; this would be a “derivative works only” licence. But unfortunately it sounds a bit too much like a read-my-mind licence:

What if I want to allow someone to use a photo in a conference slide deck, even if they are paid to present, but I don’t want to allow a company that sells stock photos to snatch up my photo and resell it?

Jen’s post is entitled I Don’t Want “Creative Commons By” To Mean You Can Rip Me Off …but that’s exactly what a Creative Commons licence without a non-commercial clause can mean. Of course, it’s not the only usage that such a licence allows (it allows many, many positive scenarios), but it’s no good pretending it were otherwise. If you’re not comfortable with that use-case, don’t enable it. Personally, I’m okay with that use-case because I believe it is offset by the more positive usages.

And that’s an important point: this is a personal decision, and not one to be taken lightly. Personally, I’m not a professional or even amateur photographer, so commercial uses of my photos are fine with me. Most professional photographers wouldn’t dream of allowing commercial use of their photos without payment, and rightly so. But even for non-professionals like myself, there are implications to allowing commercial use (one of those implications being that there will be usages you won’t necessarily be happy about).

So, going back to my earlier question, does the licence-choosing interface on Flickr make the implications of your choice clear?

Here’s the page for applying licences. You get to it by going to “Settings”, then “Privacy and Permissions,” then under “Defaults for new uploads,” the setting “What license will your content have.”

On that page, there’s a heading “Which license is right for you?” That has three hyperlinks:

  1. A page on Creative Commons about the licences,
  2. Frequently Asked Questions,
  3. A page of issues specifically related to images.

In that list of Frequently Asked Questions, there’s What things should I think about before I apply a Creative Commons license? and How should I decide which license to choose? There’s some good advice in there (like when in doubt, talk to a lawyer), but at no point does it suggest that you should ask yourself “What’s the worst that could happen?”

So it certainly seems that Flickr could be doing a better job of making the consequences of your licensing choice clearer. That might have the effect of making it a scarier choice, and it might put some people off using Creative Commons licences. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I would much rather that people made an informed decision.

When I chose to apply a Creative Commons Attribution licence to my photos, I did not make the decision lightly. I assumed that others who made the same choice also understood the consequences of that decision. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that some people made uninformed licensing decisions in the past, which explains why they’re upset now (and I’m not blaming them for making the wrong decision—Flickr, and even Creative Commons, could have done a better job of providing relevant, easily understable information).

But this is one Internet Outrage train that I won’t be climbing aboard. Alas, that means I must now be considered a corporate shill who’s sold out to The Man.

Pointing out that a particular Creative Commons licence allows the Klu Klux Klan to use your work isn’t the same as defending the Klu Klux Klan.

Pointing out that a particular Creative Commons licence allows a hardcore porn film to use your music isn’t the same as defending hardcore porn.

Pointing out that a particular Creative Commons licence allows Yahoo to flog canvas prints of your photos isn’t the same as defending Yahoo.

The tragedy of the commons

Flickr Commons is a wonderful thing. That’s why I’m concerned:

Y’know, I’m worried about what will happen to my own photos when Flickr inevitably goes down the tubes (there are still some good people there fighting the good fight, but they’re in the minority and they’re battling against the douchiest of Silicon Valley managerial types who have been brought in to increase “engagement” by stripping away everything that makes Flickr special) …but what really worries me is what’s going to happen to Flickr Commons. It’s an unbelievably important and valuable resource.

The Brooklyn Museum is taking pre-emptive measures:

As of today, we have left Flickr (including The Commons).

Unfortunately, they didn’t just leave their Flickr collection; they razed it to the ground. All those links, all those comments, and all those annotations have been wiped out.

They’ve moved their images over to Wikimedia Commons …for now. It turns out that they have a very cavalier attitude towards online storage (a worrying trait for a museum). They’re jumping out of the frying pan of Flickr and into the fire of Tumblr:

In the past few months, we’ve been testing Tumblr and it’s been a much better channel for this type of content.

Audio and video is being moved around to where the eyeballs and earholes currently are:

We have left iTunesU in favor of sharing content via YouTube and SoundCloud.

I find this quite disturbing. A museum should be exactly the kind of institution that should be taking a thoughtful, considered approach to how it stores content online. Digital preservation should be at the heart of its activities. Instead, it takes a back seat to chasing the fleeting thrill of “engagement.”

Leaving Flickr Commons could have been the perfect opportunity to invest in long-term self-hosting. Instead they’re abandoning the Titanic by hitching a ride on the Hindenberg.

Pattern praise

Two months ago, I called Twitter out on their insistence that developers use OAuth when authorising with Twitter while they themselves continued to use the password anti-pattern when they wanted to peek into third-party address books.

I’m happy to report that Twitter have since fixed this. If you go to the Find Friends portion of the “Who To Follow” section, you’ll now be greeted with links that lead to correct authentication with LinkedIn, Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail.

Thanks, Twitteroonies!

Meanwhile, Flickr recently launched their own “Who to Follow” functionality. There is nary a password request in sight: they’ve implemented correct authentication right out of the gate for Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail and Facebook.

Thanks, Flickroonies!

See? I’m not always bitching’n’moaning.

Small pieces, loosely joined by machine tags

I’ve already described how machine tags on Huffduffer trigger a number of third-party API calls. Tagging something with music:artist=..., book:author=..., film:title=... or any number of similar machine tags will fire off calls to places like Amazon, The New York Times, or Last.fm.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to include Flickr in that list of third-party services but I couldn’t think of an easy way of associating audio files with photos. Then I realised that a mechanism already exists, and it’s another machine tag. Anything on Flickr that’s been tagged with lastfm:event=... will probably be a picture of a musical artist.

So if anything is tagged on Huffduffer with music:artist=..., all I need to do is fire off a call to Last.fm to get a list of that artist’s events using the method artist.getEvents. Once I have the event IDs I can search Flickr for photos that have been machine tagged with those IDs.

There’s just one problem. Last.fm’s API only returns future events for an artist. There’s no method for past events.

Undeterred, I found a RESTful interface that provides the past events of an artist on Last.fm. The format returned isn’t JSON or XML. It’s HTML. It turns out that past events are freely available in the profile for any artist on Last.fm with the identifier last.fm/music/{artist}/+events/{year}. Here, for example, are Salter Cane gigs in 2009: last.fm/music/Salter+Cane/+events/2009.

If only those events were structured in hCalendar! As it is, I have to run through all the links in the document to find the hrefs beginning with the string http://www.last.fm/event/ and then extract the event ID that immediately follows that string.

Once I’ve extracted the event IDs for an artist, I can fire off a search on Flickr using the flickr.photos.search method with a machine_tags parameter (as well as passing the artist name in the text parameter just to be sure).

Here’s an example result in the sidebar on Huffduffer: huffduffer.com/tags/music:artist=Bat+for+Lashes

It’s messy but it works. I guess that’s the dictionary definition of a hack.


We have some new location-centric toys to play with. Let the hacking commence.

Flickr has released its shapefiles dataset for free (as in beer, as in it would be nice if you mentioned where you got the free beer). These shapefiles are bounding boxes that have been generated by the action of humans correcting suggested place names for geotagged photos. Tom put this data to good use with his neighbourhood boundaries app.

Speaking of excellent location-driven creations by Tom, be sure to check out ; a little OS X app that updates your FireEagle location every five minutes by triangulating your position with Skyhook.

Meanwhile, in another part of Yahoo, has been released in Beta form. It looks very nifty indeed. Pass it some human-readable text and it will try to figure out what physical locations are mentioned in the text. You can help it along by using structured data like the and microformats, but it seems to be pretty good at natural language parsing. Christian has put together some good examples to illustrate his JavaScript Placemaker/YQL mashup.

Slowly but surely we’re heading towards a future where everything is geotagged.

Welcome to the machine tag

At the same time that Flickr are demonstrating idiocy in the human resources department, they continue to do so some very cool stuff behind the scenes.

Aaron has been walking through some new API methods over on the Flickr code blog, quoting something I said in a chat with Steve Ivy:


…which I don’t even remember saying but the shoe fits.

There’s something about the mix of rigidity and haphazardness in machine tags that appeals to me. While they all share the same structure, everyone is free to invent their own usage. If machine tags were required to go through a specification process we would have event:lastfm=... and event:upcoming=... instead of lastfm:event=... and upcoming:event=... but really, it simply doesn’t matter as long as people are actually doing the tagging.

With the introduction of these new API methods, it looks like there’s room to build more finely-tuned apps to pivot around namespaces, predicates and values.

Paul Mison has written an desktop-like machine tag browser which shows at a glance just how many different machine tag namespaces are out there. Quite a few pictures have been tagged with adactio:post=... since I first introduced the idea.

The tragedy of The Commons

When Flickr announced The Commons at the start of this year, I made no secret of my enthusiasm for the project. Since then it has gone from strength to strength with more and more institutions adding their collections; the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and many more. That growth has largely been as a result of the tireless work of George Oates.

George has been fired. It beggars belief—it certainly beggars mine.

The Commons is not just one of the finest achievements on Flickr, it’s a shining example of just how great the web can be. If the project dies because of the idiotic actions of some short-sighted bean counters at Yahoo, it will be a great loss for you, me and our culture.

My trust in Flickr has been shaken. I’m beginning to think that entrusting Flickr with my photos, my data and my memories might prove to be an ill-judged decision.

Steven Pemberton was right.

Iron Man and me

All of my Flickr pictures are published under a Creative Commons attribution licence. One of the reasons I switched over to using this licence was so that people didn’t have to write and ask me whenever they want to republish one of my photos. But I still get plenty of emails from people asking me if it would be okay to use one of my pictures. I’m very lax at responding to those requests. If and when I do respond, I point out that they don’t really need to ask; as long as they credit me—as either adactio or Jeremy Keith—then they can use my photos wherever and however they want.

Back in March, right before I was setting out for Mix’08 in Vegas and South By Southwest in Austin, I received a typical request:

Is the photo Andy in the VAB your image on flickr? If so can you please contact me with regard to possibly allowing us to use a part of this image in a feature film.

Andy in the VAB

I didn’t respond. I was too busy packing and gearing myself for a big showdown with Microsoft (this was right before they reversed their decision on IE8’s default rendering). I soon received a second email with more details:

The photograph would be cropped in a way where no people would be shown. We are interested in using this image as a background to insert our main characters which would be included as part of a biography film on our main character which is shown at an award ceremony honoring him in the film.

I thought it was an odd picture to be asking about. Let’s face it; it’s not a very good photo. It’s blurry and washed out. I guess it’s somewhat unusual in that it was shot inside the at Cape Canaveral. Usually members of the public aren’t allowed inside. Myself, Andy and Paul were lucky enough to be part of the first open day since 2001. It was all thanks to an invitation from Benny, a bona fide rocket scientist at NASA—thanks again, Benny!

I never got around to responding to the emails. I figured that, whoever it was, if they really wanted to use the picture, they would notice the licence and realise that they didn’t have to ask permission.

I quickly forgot all about it. Other events were foremost in my mind. I got a call from Pete Le Page and Chris Wilson telling me that Internet Explorer 8 was going to render pages as if it were—get this—Internet Explorer 8. Now I was going to Vegas for a celebration instead of a battle.

After a long trip across the Atlantic, I awoke in my hotel on the first morning of the conference, eager to hear the opening keynote. But before I could head downstairs, my mobile phone rang. I answered it and the woman on the other end said, “Hi. I sent you two emails about using a picture of yours…”

“Ah, right!”, I said. I then launched into my usual spiel about Creative Commons licencing. I explained that she was free to use my picture. All she had to do was include a credit somewhere in her little movie.

“Well”, she said, “the thing is, getting your name in the credits usually costs at least $1,500. That’s why we need you sign the license release form I sent.”

“Wait a minute”, I said. “What is this for?”

“It’s for a movie that’s currently in production called Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jnr.”

Holy crap! One of my photos was going to be in Iron Man? That certainly put a new spin on things.

“So I guess you want to use the picture because it’s inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building?” I asked.

“No. We just thought it was a picture of some warehouse or something.”

The woman on the other end of the phone—her name was Ashley—said she could reimburse me for the use of my photo if I signed the form she sent. I thanked her, told her I didn’t need any reimbursement, and said I would print out and sign the form for her. Ashley made it clear that I would need to get the form faxed to her before the end of the day.

There was a printer in my hotel room so I set about getting it connected up to my Macbook. That’s when disaster struck. My Macbook began making the dreaded ticking time bomb noise. Within seconds, my hard drive was dead, broken, kaput. Pining for the fjords, it had shuffled off this mortal coil and was an ex hard drive.

Well aware of the irony of my Apple hardware failing while I was attending a Microsoft conference, I abandoned all hope of printing out the license release form and sat in on the opening keynote. This consisted of a few words from Ray Ozzie, a quick look at IE8 and about a billion hours of Silverlight demos. That’s what it felt like anyway.

The next day, I made my way to Austin for South by Southwest. That turned out to be quite an adventure.

Once I finally made it to Austin, I settled into a comfortable routine of geeking out, having fun and generally over-indulging. As I was making my way to the conference centre one morning, my mobile phone rang. It was Ashley.

“Sorry I didn’t manage to get the form to you”, I said. “My laptop died on me. I know it’s too late now.”

“Actually, there’s still time”, she responded.

“Look”, I said. “Let’s cut out the computers completely. Can you fax the form to my hotel? I can sign it and fax it back to you straight away.”

And that’s exactly what we did.

Iron Man was released a few weeks later. I never got ‘round to seeing it in the cinema; I’m not a big fan of the whole cinema-going experience. But some time later I was travelling across the Atlantic yet again and one of the in-flight movie options was Iron Man. I fired it up, wondering if my picture had made it into the final cut and even if it had, whether I’d be able to spot it.

Three minutes into the movie, there was my photo.

Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey Jnr. in Iron Man

It fills the screen. The camera lingers over it while performing its best Ken Burns effect. Not only was Robert Downey Jnr. photoshopped onto the picture, Jeff Bridges was on there too! The Dude!! …On my picture!!!

My Flickr pictures have been used in some pretty strange places but this must surely be the strangest …and the coolest.

Before and after

Shepherding Passionate Users

Heather Champ is speaking about community management at An Event Apart San Francisco.

She begins with a little history lesson in the Ludicorp/Flickr/Yahoo story. Flickr is constantly evolving and Heather’s job is to make sure that people’s experience on the site remains pleasant. Flickr is huge and sometimes when people are complaining in the forums, Heather would like to just show them the statistics on how much processing Flickr is doing.

Heather demonstrates the amazing spread of real-time information coming into Flickr, showing examples from the Asian tsunami and the July 7th bombings in London. The counterbalance to these really big world events are the personal events being documented: births, deaths, weddings. Heather shows an wonderful touching from Ari of her grandfather’s death.

Heather’s role is community manager. Sometimes she feels like a piñata—people beat you with sticks and you still have to give them candy. She’s helped out by a lot people; regular Flickr users.

Good guidelines really help: Don’t be creepy. You know that guy? Don’t be that guy. As Flickr has grown, the guidelines have stood the test of time really well.

It’s important to give people tools. Allowing people to flag up their own photos as potentially offensive is hugely helpful. Allowing people to block other users is also really empowering. Heather herself has used this to block the angry hordes who were leaving nasty comments about video in her photostream. Then of course there’s always reporting tools; allowing people to report problems.

Communication is key. Heather relates the story of the long downtime; over six hours (never believe the developers when they tell you that everything will be fine). During the downtime there were constant updates on the blog. It’s really important to be open and transparent. When things to go wrong, own it. Admit it. Don’t try to whitewash it. Also, if you need to make a change to how people experience your community, don’t wait. Flickr waited eighteen months to finally do the Flickr/Yahoo merge and they really regret it.

Don’t create super villains. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and take actions that won’t be appreciated. If you don’t handle that situation well, you can end up with a super villain—someone who keeps coming back to haunt you forever …just like the people in that amazing New York Times article about trolls.

When the universe gives you lemons, make lemonade. When there was unannounced downtime on Flickr, they turned it into a colouring contest: print out these circles, colour them in and the winner will get a prize. Over 2000 submissions were uploaded. The level of creativity was startling. Every one participated ended up getting an extra three months on their account.

Change is hard. A very vocal minority responded really badly to the addition of video on Flickr. Some people had very fixed ideas about what Flickr’s purpose was. In the first 48 hours of a new feature, you’re just going to get people responding to the fact that there’s been a change of any kind. In the next two weeks, you get a clearer idea about what people think about a feature.

Heather finishes up with some stories.

There’s the tale of the subway flasher. These stories that break into the mainstream bring with them a flood of people to your site who are not part of your regular community.

Another great story involves a thief who stole a Mac and then subsequently used Photobooth and unknowingly uploaded photos to the real owner’s Flickr account.

When they launched geotagging, the Flickr folks thought that there would be islands of porn in the middle of the ocean. What actually happened was that somebody managed to spell FUCK over Greenland, just through geotagging a ton of photos!

You can’t make this stuff up and you certainly can’t predict it.

One last story. Pandas are cute and cuddly. But in the Flickr universe, there are two warring groups of panda conservationists who try to hack each other’s accounts. Unbelievable but true.

Ni Hao, Monde: Connecting Communities Across Cultural and Linguistic Boundaries

Simon Batistoni is responsible for Flickr’s internationalisation and he’s going to share his knowledge here at XTech. Flickr is in a lucky position; its core content is pictures. Pictures of cute kittens are relatively universal.

We, especially the people at this conference, are becoming hyperconnected with lots of different ways of communicating. But we tend to forget that there is this brick wall that many of us never run into; we are divided.

In the beginning was the Babelfish. When some people think of translation, this is what they think of. We’ve all played the round-trip translation game, right? Oh my, that’s a tasty salad becomes that’s my OH — this one is insalata of tasty pleasure. It’s funny but you can actually trace the moment where tasty becomes of tasty pleasure (it’s de beun gusto in Spanish). Language is subtle.

It cannot really be encoded into rules. It evolves over time. Even 20 years ago if you came into the office and said I had a good weekend surfing it may have meant something different. Human beings can parse and disambiguate very well but machines can’t.

Apocraphyl story alert. In 1945, the terms for Japanese surrender were drawn up using a word which was intended to convey no comment. But the Japanese news agency interpreted this as we ignore and reported it as such. When this was picked up by the Allies, they interpreted this as a rejection of the terms of surrender and so an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Simon plugs The Language Instinct, that excellent Steven Pinker book. Pinker nails the idea of ungrammatically but it’s essentially a gut instinct. This is why reading machine translations is uncomfortable. Luckily we have access to language processors that are far better than machines …human brains.

Here’s an example from Flickr’s groups feature. The goal was to provide a simple interface for group members to translate their own content: titles and descriptions. A group about abandoned trains and railways was originally Spanish but a week after internationalisation, the group exploded in size.

Here’s another example: 43 Things. The units of content are nice and succinct; visit Paris, fall in love, etc. So when you provide an interface for people to translate these granular bits, the whole thing snowballs.

Dopplr is another example. They have a “tips” feature. That unit of content is nice and small and so it’s relatively easy to internationalise. Because Dopplr is location-based, you could bubble up local knowledge.

So look out for some discrete chunks of content that you can allow the community to translate. But there’s no magic recipe because each site is different.

Google Translate is the great white hope of translation — a mixture of machine analysis on human translations. The interface allows you to see the original text and offers you the opportunity to correct translations. So it’s self-correcting by encouraging human intervention. If it actually works, it will be great.

Wait, they don’t love you like I love you… Maaa-aa-a-aa-aa-a-aa-aaps.

Maps are awesome, says Simon. Flickr places, created by Kellan who is sitting in front of me, is a great example of exposing the size and variation of the world. It’s kind of like the Dopplr Raumzeitgeist map. Both give you an exciting sense of the larger, international community that you are a part of. They open our minds. Twittervision is much the same; just look at this amazing multicultural world we live in.

Maps are one form of international communication. Gestures are similar. We can order beers in a foreign country by pointing. Careful about what assumptions you make about gestures though. The thumbs up gesture means something different in Corsica. There are perhaps six universal facial expressions. The game Phantasy Star Online allowed users to communicate using a limited range of facial expressions. You could also construct very basic sentences by using drop downs of verbs and nouns.

Simon says he just wants to provide a toolbox of things that we can think about.

Road signs are quite universal. The roots of this communication stretches back years. In a way, they have rudimentary verbs: yellow triangles (“be careful of”), red circles (“don’t”).

Star ratings have become quite ubiquitous. Music is universal so why does Apple segment the star rating portion of reviews between different nationality stores? People they come together, people they fall apart, no one can stop us now ‘cause we are all made of stars.

To summarise:

  • We don’t have phasers and transporters and we certainly don’t have universal translators. It’s AI hard.
  • Think about the little bits of textual content that you can break down and translate.

Grab the slides of this talk at hitherto.net/talks.

It’s question time and I ask whether there’s a danger in internationalisation of thinking about language in a binary way. Most people don’t have a single language, they have a hierarchy of languages that they speak to a greater or lesser degree of fluency. Why not allow people to set a preference of language hierarchy? Simon says that Flickr don’t allow that kind of preference setting but they do something simpler; so if you are on a group page and it isn’t available in your language of choice, it will default to the language of that group. Also, Kellan points out, there’s a link at the bottom of each page to take you to different language versions. Crucially, that link will take you to a different version of the current page you’re on, not take you back to the front of the site. Some sites get this wrong and it really pisses Jessica off.

Someone asks about the percentage of users who are from a non-English speaking country but who speak English. I jump in to warn of thinking about speaking English in such a binary way — there are different levels of fluency. Simon also warns about taking a culturally imperialist attitude to developing applications.

There are more questions but I’m too busy getting involved with the discussion to write everything down here. Great talk; great discussion.

No fooling

There are two problems with April fool’s day on the Web.

Firstly, there’s the curiously timeless nature of online publishing. Google has a habit of preserving everything we write in amber so that long after a joke has been published in the context of April 1st, it resurfaces in search results where it may the taken at face value.

Secondly, it becomes very difficult to separate “real” stories from the japes. Remember a few years back when Google launched their GMail service? Remember what day they launched it on? I recall quite a few people who refused to believe the veracity of the announcement.

With that in mind, here are some tidbits that are most definitely pranks:

  • GMail adds time-travel support using an e-flux capacitor to resolve issues of causality.
  • John Resig releases Class Query for developers who are sick and tired of brevity and simplicity. This one is only funny if you a total code nerd but if you are a total code nerd, it’s very funny indeed.
  • The Web Standards Project follow up their bookmark campaign with hyper-localised social tagging.
  • Moo announce the MightyCard.
  • The latest World of Warcraft character is the bard with damage effects like “epic solo” and “shoegazer”.
  • The BBC show flying penguins.
  • And finally, every single featured video on YouTube is a winner today.

These bits of news, on the other hand, are for real:

  • Joe launches Captioning Sucks in an attempt to bring sanity and standards to the worlds of film and television. Any garishness you may experience is intentional.
  • The good people over at Flickr have resurrected Game Neverending—the game that many years ago served as the genesis for Flickr itself (that’s why you’ll still the .gne extension to this day). The message announcing the resurrection is, of course, very much a joke.

There was one other announcement from Flickr but they managed to get it out right before the dreaded day of foolishness. The site now has a flawless import feature that has completely scrapped the password anti-pattern. Instead they’re using authentication APIs from GMail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail (that last one is actually a bit of a cheat as Yahoo do not offer any export API for external services).

Needless to say, I’m over the moon about this (although Lachlan is less pleased). First Dopplr, now Flickr. And I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even put Flickr in the running in the race to do the right thing. Consider me suitably chastised.

Common people

George just announced a wonderful new initiative. It’s a collaboration between Flickr and the Library of Congress called simply The Commons.

The library has a lot of wonderful historic images. Flickr has a lot of wonderful people who enjoy tagging pictures. Put the two together and let’s see what happens.

I think this is a great idea. They get access to the collective intelligence of our parallel-processing distributed mechanical Turk. We get access to wonderful collections of old pictures. And when I say access, I don’t just mean that we get to look at them. These pictures have an interesting new license: no known copyright restrictions. This covers the situation for photos that once had copyright that wasn’t renewed.

The naysayers might not approve of putting metadata in the hands of the masses but I think it will work out very well indeed. Sure, there might be some superfluous tags but they will be vastly outweighed by the valuable additions. The proportion will be at least which, let’s face it, is a lot better than 0/0. That’s something I’ve learned personally from opening up my own photos to be tagged by anyone: any inconvenience with deleting “bad” tags is massively outweighed by the benefits of all the valuable tags that my pictures have accrued. If you haven’t yet opened up your photos to tagging by any Flickr user, I strongly suggest you do so.

Now set aside some time to browse the cornucopia of . And if at any stage you feel compelled to annotate a picture with some appropriate tags, go for it.

I really hope that other institutions will see the value in this project. This could be just the start of a whole new chapter in collaborative culture.


At this year’s dConstruct, George treated us all to a sneak peak of a new location-based feature on Flickr designed to solve the sunset problem with Interestingness®. It’s launched a few weeks ago. It’s called Places and it’s basically a mashup of location and interestingness®. Kellan has written about it—revealing a nice secret feature—and Dan has given us an insight into the design of the URLs.

Like most people, the first thing I did was to look at my own town. I really like the “Featured Photographers” bit. That turns out to be especially useful or those places that bear watching for topical, rather than personal, reasons. Take a look at the page for Baghdad. It’s not quite citizen journalism—soldiers belong to a narrow band of citizenry—but it’s a great way of seeing pictures from the ground without the intervention of a media filter.

self portrait: convoy New shoes Playing Soccer in Iraq by Elisha Dawkins, US Army, May 3, 2007 (DOD 070403-A-3887D-139)

Speaking of interesting locations, Dopplr has now officially left Beta and opened up its doors to everyone. Like Tom, I’ve found it to be surprisingly useful. It’s already got some nice Flickr integration and Aaron has been playing around with some automated tagging between the two sites.

Lock up your data

There have been a number of experiments carried out to investigate the effects of video on communication. I recall hearing about one experiment done with mothers and babies. The mothers were placed in one room with a video camera and the babies were placed in another room with a monitor showing a video feed from the mother. The babies interacted just fine with the video representations of their mothers. Then a one second lag was introduced. The babies freaked out.

I was reminded of this during the closing panel on day two of Fundamentos Web. Tim Berners-Lee dialed in via iChat to join a phalanx of panelists in meatspace. Alas, the signal wasn’t particularly strong. Add to that the problem of simultaneous translation, which isn’t really simultaneous, and you’ve got a gap of quite a few seconds between Asturias and Sir Tim’s secret lair. The resultant communication was, therefore, not really much of a conversation. It was still fascinating though.

Some of the most interesting perspectives came from George and Hannah—the people who are working at the coalface of social media. George asked Sir Tim for advice on the cultural side-effects of open data—how to educate people that publishing on sites like Flickr means that your pictures can and will be viewed in other contexts. Interestingly, Sir Tim’s response indicated that he was more concerned with educating people in how to keep their data private.

This difference in perspective might be an indication of a generation gap. The assumption amongst, say, teenagers is that everything is public except what they explictly want to keep private. The default assumption amongst older folks (such as my generation) is the exact opposite: data is private except when it is explictly made public. The first position matches the sensibilities of Flickr and Last.fm. The second position is more in line with Facebook’s walled garden approach.

I was really glad that George raised this issue. It’s something that has been occupying my mind lately, particular in reference to Flickr.

Flickr provides a range of ways of accessing your photos; the website, RSS, KML, LOL… and of course, the API. It’s a wonderful API, certainly the best one that I’ve played with. I had a blast putting together the Flickr portion of Adactio Elsewhere.

Using the API, I was able to put together my own interface onto my photos and the latest photos from my contacts. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that—there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of third-party sites that use the Flickr API to do the same thing. However, a lot of those sites use Flash or non-degrading Ajax. But I use Hijax. That means that, even though I’ve built an Ajax interface, the fundamental interaction is RESTful with good ol’ fashioned URLs. As a result—and this is just one of the benefits of Hijax—the Googlebot can spider all possible states of my application.

You can probably see where this is going. It’s a similar situation to what happened with my pirate-speak page converter. Even though I’m not providing a direct interface onto anyone’s pictures, Google is listing deep links in its search results.

This has resulted in a shitstorm on the Flickr forum. Reading through the reactions on that thread has been illuminating. In a nutshell, I’m getting penalised for having search-engine friendly pages. I, along with some other people on that thread, have tried to explain that Adactio Elsewhere is just one example of public Flickr data appearing beyond the bounds of Flickr’s domain—an issue tangentially relatred to intellectual property rights.

In this particular sitution, I was able to take some steps to soothe the injured parties by creating a PHP array called $stroppy_users. I also added a meta element instructing searchbots not to index Adactio Elsewhere which, I believe, will prevent any future grievances. As I said in the forum:

If a tree falls in the forest and Google doesn’t index it, does it make a noise?

I think the outburst of moral panic on the Flickr forum is symptomatic of a larger trend that has accompanied the growth of the site’s user base. Two years ago, Flickr was not your father’s photo sharing website. Now, especially with the migration from Yahoo Photos, it is. If you look at some of the frightened reactions to Flickr’s pirate day shenanigans you’ll see even more signs of this growth (Tom has a great in-depth look at the furore).

As sites like Flickr and Last.fm move from a user base of early adopters into the mainstream, this issue becomes more important. What isn’t clear is how the moral responsibility should be distributed. Should Flickr provide clearer rules for API use? Should Google index less? Should the people publishing photos take more care in choosing when to mark photos as public and when to mark photos as private? Should developers (like myself) be more cautious in what we allow our applications to do with the API?

I don’t know the answers but I’m fairly certain that we’re not dealing with a technological issue here; this is a cultural matter.

Social networking

Here’s a list of websites on which I have an account and which involve some form of social networking. I’m listing them in order of how often I visit. I’m also listing how many contacts/buddies/friends/connections/people I have on each site.

My Social Networks
Linked inRarely90

This is just a snapshot of activity so some of the data may be slightly skewed. Pownce, for instance, is quite a new site so my visits may increase or decrease dramatically over time. Also, though I’ve listed Del.icio.us as a daily visit, it’s really just the bookmarklet or Adactio Elsewhere that I use every day—I hardly ever visit the site itself.

Other sites that I visit on a daily basis don’t have a social networking component: blogs, news sites, Technorati, The Session (hmmm… must do something about that).

In general, the more often I use a service, the more likely I am to have many connections there. But there are some glaring exceptions. I have hardly any connections on Del.icio.us because the social networking aspect is fairly tangential to the site’s main purpose.

More interestingly, there are some exceptions that run in the other direction. I have lots of connections on Linked in and Facebook but I don’t use them much at all. In the case of Linked in, that’s because I don’t really have any incentive. I’m sure it would be a different story if I were looking for a job.

As for Facebook, I really don’t like the way it tries to be a one-stop shop for everything. It feels like a walled garden to me. I much prefer services that choose to do one thing but do it really well:

Mind you, there’s now some crossover in the events space when the events are musical in nature. The next Salter Cane concert is on Last.fm but it links off to the Upcoming event … which then loops back to Last.fm.

I haven’t settled on a book reading site yet. It’s a toss-up between Anobbii and Revish. It could go either way. One of the deciding factors will be how many of friends use each service. That’s the reason why I use Twitter more than Jaiku. Jaiku is superior in almost every way but more of my friends use Twitter. Inertia keeps me on Twitter. It’s probably just inertia that keeps me Del.icio.us rather than Ma.gnolia.

The sum total of all my connections on all these services comes to 890. But of course most of these are the same people showing up on different sites. I reckon the total amount of individual people doesn’t exceed 250. Of that, there’s probably a core of 50 people who I have connected to on at least 5 services. It’s for these people that I would really, really like to have portable social networks.

Each one of the services I’ve listed should follow these three steps. In order of difficulty:

  1. Provide a publicly addressable list of my connections. Nearly all the sites listed already do this.
  2. Mark up the list of connections with hCard and, where appropriate, XFN. Twitter, Flickr, Ma.gnolia, Pownce, Cork’d and Upcoming already do this.
  3. Provide a form with a field to paste the URL of another service where I have suitably marked-up connections. Parse and attempt to import connections found there.

That last step is the tricky one. Dopplr is the first site to attempt this. That’s the way to do it. Other social networking sites, take note.

It’s time that social networking sites really made an effort to allow not just the free flow of data, but also the free flow of relationships.

South Parking

It’s the day before @media America and I’ve been making the most of what San Francisco has to offer. That doesn’t mean I’ve been a culture vulture, exploring museums and sits of historical interest. Instead I’ve been meeting up with fellow geeks and observing them in their natural habitat.

I went by the Flickr offices yesterday. It was somewhat, um, whacky. Within five minutes of my being there, a full-blown rubber rocket fight erupted. This sort of thing is, apparently, a perfectly normal occurence.

I liberated Paul, Cal and Dunstan (yes, he’s alive and well, honest) for a short break in the sunshine. They spent the entire time reminiscing about crappy English things that are hard to come by in San Francisco—like fried breakfasts and maltesers (that’s not a serving suggestion). What a bunch of sad bastards!

After a late night of microformat geekiness with Tantek, I went over to the offices of Six Apart. They had very kindly invited me to come by and see what they’ve been working on for the next (imminent) release of Movable Type. I had a lot of fun talking with them about code, user testing and community. I wish I could tell you everything they told me but my lips are sealed on a big announcement that’s coming. All will be revealed on June 5th.

From there, it was a short stroll to the Technorati offices to regroup with Tantek and continue the microformats mission together with Erin Caton, flown in fresh from Vancouver. We left the Technorati hub (which was, as might be expected, buzzing on the day of its freshly-launched redesign) and set up camp at Caffe Centro in South Park.

After a productive afternoon of coffee and wiki-editing, the coup de grace was visiting the offices of Twitter. I’m such a fanboy that I was practically squealing with delight at the mere thought seeing the home of ambient intimacy. The fact that all the people there were absolutely lovely was the icing on the cake.

After a day like that, I feel like a kid that’s been let loose in a toy shop.

Conceptual and photographic art in Brighton

Spring is in the air here in Brighton. The sun is showing its face, people are rediscovering their skimpier clothes and a young man’s fancy turns to… art.

Clearleft’s landlords, Lighthouse, have organised an interesting exhibit in the foyer. It’s the latest project from the Blast Theory collective. They call it Day of the Figurines:

Day Of The Figurines is part board game, part secret society. The game is set in a fictional town that is littered, dark and underpinned with steady decay.

The foyer is currently dominated by a table covered in miniature building facades and populated by tiny -like homonculi. Visitors to the exhibit can register their mobile phone numbers, claim figurines as their own and give them names and back-stories. For 24 days, they can partake in a kind of SMS-based adventure game. The figures will obey commands sent from their owner’s phones, have adventures and interact with other figurines (this part isn’t handled by any high-tech robotics: there are two people stationed in the foyer who update the figurine positions every hour).

I’ve registered a figurine of my own. His adventure begins tomorrow.

In a slightly more traditional vein, there’s a nice photography exhibition currently running a stone’s throw away from the Clearleft offices in Brighton’s trendy North Laine. Miss Aniela—she of Flickr fame—is displaying a selection of her online work.

It’s interesting to see the pictures outside of the confines of the browser. The descriptions for each picture come straight from Flickr so technically there shouldn’t be anything new to be had from the exhibition but it’s still quite gratifying to behold the pictures in a non-pixel format. Call it the Moo effect.

Day of the Figurines runs from April 4th to 27th at Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street, Brighton.

Miss Aniela is showing from April 6th to 30th at the North Laine Photography Gallery, 7-8 Kensington Gardens, Brighton.

Ghost in the Machine Tags

Richard has some very nifty ideas up his sleeve for the next iteration of his site. Some of these are design-related and some are technical. He just gave a peek into the technical side of things by explaining how he’s using tags to tie content together. Not just any old tags, mind: machine tags.

You may remember that Flickr rolled out machine tags a while back. That’s their name for what’s basically tripletags; tags that take the form of namespace:predicate=value. There’s some tight integration between Upcoming and Flickr using the machine tag upcoming:event=[ID]. You can see a looser coupling (one way rather than bi-directional) in the recently-updated events section of Last.fm which uses lastfm:event=[ID]. As an example, take a look at the page for a Low Lows concert I went to and took pictures of.

Richard is making use of machine tagging to associate his Flickr pictures with his blog posts. He’s also planning to use Amazon’s API to associate ISBN numbers with blog posts, raising the question of which namespace to use:

We therefore need a triple-tag version of the ISBN tag, and here’s my suggestion: iso:isbn=0713998393. ISBN is a standard recognised by the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) so I thought it made a certain sense for ISO to be the namespace. Other standardised entities could be tagged in a similar way, such as iso:issn=15340295.

Seems like a sound idea to me. I might experiment with machine tagging reviews here in that way and then pulling in complementary information from Amazon.

But that’s for another day. For now, I’ve gone ahead and integrated Flickr machine tagging here… but this works from the opposite direction. Instead of tagging my blog posts with flickr:photo=[ID], I’m pulling in any photos on Flickr tagged with adactio:post=[ID].

Now, I’ve already been integrating Flickr pictures with my blog posts using regular “human” tags, but this is a bit different. For a start, to see the associations using the regular tags, you need to click a link (then the Hijax-y goodness takes over and shows any of my tagged photos without a page refresh). Also, this searches specifically for any of my photos that share a tag with my blog post. If I were to run a search on everyone’s photos, the amount of false positives would get really high. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature of the gloriously emergent nature of human tagging.

For the machine tagging, I can be a bit more confident. If a picture is tagged with adactio:post=1245, I can be pretty confident that it should be associated with http://adactio.com/journal/1245. If any matches are found, thumbnails of the photos are shown right after the blog post: no click required.

I’m not restricting the search to just my photos, either. Any photos tagged with adactio:post=[ID] will show up on http://adactio.com/journal/[ID]. In a way, I’m enabling comments on all my posts. But instead of text comments, anyone now has the ability to add photos that they think are related to a blog post of mine. Remember, it doesn’t even need to be your Flickr picture that you’re machine tagging: you can also machine tag photos from your contacts or anyone else who is allowing their pictures to be tagged.

I realise that I’m opening myself up for a whole new kind of spam. But any kind of spam that requires namespaced tagging on a third-party site is pretty dedicated. If someone actually goes to that much effort to put a thumbnail of an inappropriate image at the end of one of my blog posts, I probably wrote something particularly inflammatory in that post—which would make the associated thumbnail a valid comment, I guess.

Here are some examples of posts I’ve been machine tagging on Flickr:

Once again, like Upcoming and Last.fm, these are event-based. But the machine tagging would work equally well for location-based posts. So when I go up to Scotland next week and blog about it, I (or you or anybody) can then go to Flickr, find some nice pictures of Edinburgh and using the adactio namespace, associate the pictures with the blog post.

It’s a strange mixture of RESTful URLs here and taggable objects there.

If nothing else, this will be an interesting experiment. Machine tags don’t have the low barrier to entry of regular tagging but they aren’t as complex as something like RDF. It might be that they hit the sweet spot between accuracy and ease of use.

Oh, and if you find any Flickr pictures related to this blog post, tag them with adactio:post=1274.

Buddy icons

Twitter is 0wnzored by my pictures.

Brian Suda Dan Cederholm Dave Shea Derek Featherstone Tantek Çelik

Brian, Dan, Dave, Derek and Tantek.