Comments Sections: A Clarification

Nick Bilton: One of the realizations I’ve had about startups is that they take on the DNA of their founding fathers or mothers. Caterina Fake told me when they started Flickr that they wanted it to be a pleasant experience and a happy platform. So with the first few thousand photographs that were up there, all the employees at Flickr wrote all these really nice notes. Even if it wasn’t the most beautiful photo, they’d say, This is the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen. I love the framing. It created, from the beginning, this very happy place.

There are many true things in Nick’s statement in an article about Twitter in Fast Company. We very consciously created the comments section of Flickr, we did want Flickr to be a happy place, and for a long time it was. We wanted people to behave in a civilized way, and they did. We did not want to comments to devolve into glib pronouncements, snarky putdowns and ad hominem attacks as they so often do. We wanted real connection, appreciation and human flourishing.

However, we never exhorted people to say something was beautiful that was not beautiful, and Flickr, and I, and the team were all deeply committed to the idea that you honor the wholeness of people, and that your comments be thoughtful. The team was encouraged to participate in all the conversations, because it is the founding team that determines how the software will behave, who set the tone, define the limits of what is tolerated on the service, which I wrote about in Wired.

The idea was the opposite of blanketing the comments sections with compliments, superlatives or “Likes”.  We tried to think about the photos we were looking at. Say something thoughtful. And that was what we were with great effort building into Flickr’s comments sections, which can easily become transactional, liking, and hearting,”Great!””Beautiful”,”Love it”! and on to more liking and hearting. Thinking about things takes time. It’s a slower internet. It’s a better internet.

Author: Caterina Fake

Literature, Art, Poetry, Homeschooling Mother. Founder & CEO, Findery. Co-founder, Flickr & Hunch.

14 thoughts on “Comments Sections: A Clarification”

  1. As far as I remember the first pics on Flickr were mostly Game Neverending in-jokes with no attempt at photographic style: my favourite was a blurred image of a piece of paper on which was scrawled HELLOOOO JAMES YOO BIG EEJIT which still makes me giggle inwardly


  2. Now you remember Flickr before anyone else was there! It was just a GNE clubhouse.

    Those were Flickr Live images–remember that? Chat with images, which was a novelty at the time. Those were incongruously posted as the first pictures in people’s photostreams , which became Flickr, and photosharing, which had a different intent altogether. Our commenting efforts only began with the demise of Flickr Live and the rise of Flickr Flickr, when we commented on photos people took themselves, outside of the context of the chat.

    I had an angora bunny, and David Hasselhoff, and a dog and child with finger in his mouth. I’m afraid to look, actually.


  3. I was an early user on flickr and have remained with it for all these years.

    In my mind, the one thing flickr did (not sure if this was on your watch) was Explore. Explore pushed popularity into a whole new place and of course, as soon as people got it, they gamed it. I think intentions were good creating it but over the years it has devolved into something less than wonderful. Not just because of the gaming but also because photographers who used to take chances now found out what was popular and just did it over and over again. And, colors and contrast got amped up and what one found (and many times still finds) on Explore is not a great representation of some of the better photography on flickr, just the most popular for various reasons, few having to do with aesthetics.

    I use flickr because over many years I’ve made many great friends through it and I see some excellent photography on it. The comment system remains excellent although I can’t stand that people post all this dancing iconic crap when a simple “that’s a nice image” would do just fine.

    I hope Yahoo’s stumble doesn’t kill it, that would be a real shame because even with things like Explore, Flickr remains a terrific social network and you can be proud that you started something really great.


    1. It didn’t even take years, Explore started to be gamed right away. And we had to build tools to deflect the gaming. Algorithms are meant to do things automatically, but they always need attention, and attention doesn’t “scale”. So it was eventually, effectively, abandoned.

      The thing I felt best served the community in finding and appreciating other people’s work was the blog. It was written by people, not algorithms. Someone wrote it, selected the photos, and emphasized different styles and perspectives. I don’t have the same aesthetic as the current bloggers, though. The pictures they choose these days are a bit too perfect, IMO. Closer to advertising than really expressing an individual vision. Good curation is difficult.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Good curation is difficult.”

        Indeed, as it good moderation. Your original crew was terrific but once you left it lost its creative spirit.


  4. I was just commenting the other day that I feel that Flickr showed me what good customer care looks like. You set the bar high, but not too high. I think it is the right height. I wish current popular apps and sites took as good of care as you all did back then.

    I do have a question though…. Did the level of customer service (and feature insight and dev exposure) become too much? Also, did the super fans become too high maintenance? I wonder if that is why more companies don’t provide the care (and insight) that you provided.


    1. Ideally, the comments sections are managed by the photographers themselves. So if you want, only people known to you can comment. Or you can open the comments to everyone. Reading each and every comment is impossible for any company, no matter the size. so having good admin, moderation and blocking tools for individual users is important, even indispensible.

      I’ve posted some on the LinkedIn network recently, but they solicit posts on controversial subjects from me and I always refuse: they have no way to moderate comments, block trolls, basic community management tools.

      The forums, and Explore, as rwanderman notes above, did get out of control, and quickly. And I think the hands-on nature of our customer service was not sustainable over time. As a community grows there is just more volume, you lose the general knowledge of who is who. And you can’t scale Heather Champ. There’s only one of her.

      So there’s a golden age in any software, for the early adopters, and for the superfans. And smaller communities are always kinder, and more civilized, and better cared for than the big platforms.


      1. I think the breaking point for the forums being truly useful was when we went international, and the whole German thing exploded. After that, a big enough percentage of the community just decided we (staff) were their enemy and did their level best to break us down. Supporting the software of Flickr was dead simple- but interacting with the community after that was an endless Gordian knot with waves of angry people no matter what you did. I can say seriously I had some PTSD that stayed with me for a few years, and some of it was replayed at Glitch.

        (Hi Cat! Hi Marya!)


  5. “Ideally, the comments sections are managed by the photographers themselves.”

    What was so great when your early crew was in place (Heather was terrific) was that you gave us models of what good comment moderation looked like and many of us learned from you how to do it. I know I did. Modeling good behavior can scale if the right people (a la tipping point) do it. Sort of like using imitation for good rather than simply popularity.

    But, because Flickr was a very early player in social networking, some of us came with manners learned in the analog world (treat people like they’re in your living room).

    I’m afraid that in the age of Trump things will get worse before they get better. Maybe Trump is the bottom though and we can go nowhere but up from here.


  6. Have you ever considered taking Flickr back? I mean now that Yahoo is disintegrating it would seem you could get it in a fire sale. Or, do you think it’s too damaged to make great again?

    I think if it became known that a small group of people who really get what Flickr is about took it over it might really flourish again, not just as a great place to share photography, but as a social network.

    We can hope…

    Short of that, what do you think will become of Flickr in this Yahoo shakeup?


    1. Well that has occurred to me. And even was proposed by one of the big private equity firms that were hovering around pre-Marissa. But the spaghetti is pretty tangled into Yahoo; the work it would take to liberate it would be tremendous.

      I love the social part more the the photography. You’ll see that, in spite of having gone to art school and being a generally creative person, for me it really wasn’t about the photos, but about the people, the way people engaged around photos. So you’re right, that’s where its heart was. Is.


      1. I think what continues to maker Flickr great is that it’s a social network that revolves around photography. I’ve never warmed to either Facebook or Twitter because they seem to me to be social networks about social networking. I prefer the way Flickr is set up and I’m glad you weighted the social part as you did, it shows to this day.

        I really do hope Flickr comes out of this Yahoo mess in one piece and able to thrive (again).


  7. The culture began during GNE/Flickr Live sessions. Welcoming, but not saccharine; thoughtful, but not phony; and-after a while- curiously self-organizing and self-policing. It was great to be part of it all!

    Thanks to everyone involved: Caterina, Bhikku, EmDot, and Heather! (And are you sure you can’t scale Heather- why should Derek, the dogs, the goats and the chickens have all of the fun?)


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