Photography: Entrer dans le rêves
If you’ve ever felt that Flickr’s Explore page has been ignoring you, that your images deserve the attention the page brings and that Yahoo’s site just isn’t fair… you’re right. Flickr’s Explore page is neither fair nor intended to be fair. As Serguei Mourachov, an engineer responsible for the page’s algorithm, explained to us in 2008:
“The algorithm that populates Explore pages is not fair by definition. It’s not created to judge, but to find something that could be interesting.”
The probability of reaching the explore page, referred to as “PEP” by Flickr’s engineers, is based on the numbers of views, comments, and favorites an image has generated. Of those three, favorites are the most important, followed by comments, with views carrying the least weight. The relationship between the three elements though is changed several times each year to adjust to the “current climate of the Flickrverse.”
Photos also need to meet a number of conditions: they have to be public, safe and contain EXIF data. And they need to have passed a threshold, such as picking up at least two favorites, in order to be eligible for assessment by an algorithm which can be so important for any photographer looking to market their images on the Web’s most important photo-sharing site.
Crowdsourcing Isn’t Fair
The premise of the algorithm then is inherently unfair. Flickr doesn’t employ reviewers to assess each uploaded image, judge its quality and decide whether it deserves an airing on the site’s most important platform. Instead, it uses crowdsourcing, working on the assumption that images that the community has deemed popular are those that must be the most interesting.
Crowdsourcing though ignores the different ability of individuals to move crowds. When an image depends on the actions of others to push it through the Explore page’s algorithm, contributors who are as good at networking as they are at photographing are going to have a distinct advantage. Great photographers who prefer to shoot, then sit quietly while admirers tell their friends about their fantastic imagery will struggle to achieve results.
That might not be fair but it’s also the way the world works. Despite the importance of online portfolios and marketing, it’s still word-of-mouth and personal connections that bring in the jobs for most professional photographers. The same is true of attention on Flickr, a site that’s been known to bring in licensing sales, print purchases and even commissions.
Other apparently unfair conditions are worked into the algorithm too. The aim of the Explore page isn’t to show the best images submitted over a particular period but to show the most “interesting” images. If the algorithm were left entirely to itself, some photographers, particularly those who both shoot well and are well-connected, would inevitably dominate. Their images would be shown again and again at the expense of other photographers with equally good images but with perhaps less developed online social skills. A photographer like Rebekka Gudsleifdottir, who has been on the site since 2005 and whose images pick up thousands of views and hundreds of favorites within days, would be on the Explore page with every upload.
The algorithm then uses a number of calculations intended to reduce the benefits of either deliberate marketing or the massive popularity of some photographers. Submitting images to more than 15-20 groups reduces the PEP score, as does entering them in groups set up specifically to bring in comments and awards. Groups that have a high number of unsafe submissions are also treated with suspicion.
Photographers Are Excluded at Random
To maintain variety and ensure that newer photographers have a chance of being profiled, the algorithm introduces a random element each time the PEP is calculated. It might exclude a particular picture that would otherwise qualify, or it can even choose to ignore all of the photos of a particular user.
Most importantly, Flickr also limits the appearance of photos shot by the same photographer so that they’re are only shown at intervals of several days.
“The problem we try to avoid is typical for our Last 7 Days page,” Serguei told us, “where sometimes you can see the same photos after page reload.”
There is then an element of unfairness built into Flickr’s Explore algorithm. Using a system that looks only at the numbers generated by an image rather than the image itself gives an unfair advantage to photographers who are good with people rather than — or as well as — skillful with their cameras. Good images can also be ignored because the photographer has been successful in the recent past — or for no reason that has anything to do with the image at all.
But those quirks in the system are there for a reason. Excluding photographers at random allows other photographers with lower PEP scores but equally interesting images an increased chance of hitting the Explore page. Reducing the scores of photographers who submit to lots of groups means that popularity has to be gained over time and with a portfolio of images rather than with a big push on one photo. Most importantly, both those conditions help to ensure that the Explore page is genuinely interesting and varied.
For photographers looking to pick up the benefits of the massive exposure that a hit on the Explore page can bring, the strategies are clear enough:
- Make friends. Comment on people’s photos, take part in group discussions and use the site for networking as well as photo-sharing. Those friends will look at your pictures in return, boosting your PEP score.
- Upload at intervals. You should only be uploading your best pictures to Flickr but if you can’t hit the Explore two days in a row, it might be worth waiting before you share your next Explore-worthy image if you’ve just been successful.
- Shoot great pictures. It doesn’t matter how good your networking skills, the currency on Flickr is good photography. Without good images, you’re not going to win the favorites and comments you need to boost your PEP score.
- Don’t take it personally. Hitting the Explore page is not a judgment on your abilities as a photographer. It’s the result of an algorithmic calculation based on the reactions to your image.
“Explore pages are for viewers and not a photography popularity contest,” says Serguei. “Many great photos of excellent photographers never made Explore because of various reasons. And it does not mean they are bad.”
Learn more about Flickr and its ability to generate sales for photographer in our book The Successful Flickr Photographer, available from Amazon.