Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crowdsourcing and photography's future: Part 2

I've been posting photos on Flickr for a while now (clicking on photo will enlarge it in my Flickr account). This Sandhill Crane seemingly communing with the construction cranes on the isthmus skyline was shot from the bike path along the John Nolen Drive causeway here in Madison.

But I first visited Flickr to search for pictures, and I still spend a lot more time on Flickr as a consumer of images than as a maker. Flickr has become the functional equivalent of Google for image search.

Just as Google has a page rank, Flickr has a kind of picture rank (which they call "interestingness"), so that when a search turns up hundreds or even thousands of pictures, you're likely to see those you're most interested in first. This ranking is partly derived from the metadata like titles, captions and tags that users append, but mostly it's derived from viewers' responses -- including how often they click to enlarge the thumbnails, for example. These viewer responses are tracked and recorded by software.

The result is a kind of networked, distributed visual processor of awesome power. It's not perfect, but no one has ever figured out a better way to sort through millions of pictures in an instant -- and find usable results. The actual microstock agencies operate in much the same way, though the Flickr interface is probably by far the most elegant and functional. It's no wonder this is affecting professional photographers.

Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian of the impact on photojournalism.
Half a dozen lurid and splodgy pictures in the local paper brought home to me the death of an honourable profession this week. I took them. I am in my small way responsible for impoverishing an old friend, because he, not me, is a professional photographer, and his living has been more or less abolished by the changing world. Just as film has been replaced by digital, professionals are being replaced by amateurs. The changes are partly technological and partly economic, but the final blow to his profession has come from Flickr and similar Web 2.0 sites.
Brown points out that the difference between an amateur and a professional isn't that the pro always takes great pictures -- it's that the pro always comes back with usable pictures. But the Internet is eroding the usefulness of this distinction.
A picture-sharing site like Flickr contains the work of tens of thousands of talented amateurs, all of them capable of producing one or two photographs a year that could be published anywhere. A British photographers' site, EPUK, has calculated that if only 1% of the pictures on Flickr are publishable, that would mean 1.5m usable pictures uploaded there every year. Most of the drudgery of identifying good, relevant pictures is also done here - by the photographers themselves, who tag them, and by the other users, who notice them and have their interest recorded by the software.

Perhaps none of these people could make a living as a photographer, but few want to. Any money they make is gravy for them - and bread taken from the mouths of professionals.
In effect, the same Internet-driven wave of change that disrupted the music business and its existing business models with the advent of MP3 file sharing is now turning the business of photography on its head.

(Part 2 of 3 Parts. Part 1.)

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