A year or two ago, in one of my classes at the InterLakes Senior Center, a man asked me how he could get a copy of the information he finds on web sites. I explained to him how to add the site to his list of favorites so that he could come back to it later. When I finished with this explanation, he asked me how to put that in his file cabinet. Only at this point did I realize that he was asking me how to print the contents of a web site so that he could put a piece of paper in his physical file cabinet. I tried to explain why people don’t do that but instead just save electronic links to electronic material. He remained unconvinced so I explained to him how to print a web page. I suspect he now has a file cabinet full of paper taken from the web, badly formatted and rarely read.
I guess I thought that because I’ve been involved in software development and online culture for as long as I can remember, I would be immune to the difficulty that one encounters when faced with new technology and the new ways in which it sometimes requires you to think. I’ve adopted and adapted to all kinds of new technology in my many years of studying, creating and working with various types of software and hardware systems.
And yet today I found myself in conflict with Flickr and the way it presents information. I went to England and France for a few weeks and now wanted to share photos from the trip with my friends and family. I’ve done this before and struggled with Flickr but figured that it’s two years later so surely the problems I had must be fixed by now. But they aren’t. They’re still there. A huge part of me thinks the problem is with Flickr, that the creators and managers of Flickr are wrong in the way they’re thinking about things. But then I remembered the guy from my class and thought that maybe the problem is me and my thinking. Maybe I’m just wanting to create a file cabinet full of paper in a world where file cabinets full of paper are unnecessary.
I think the problem, where I come into conflict with Flickr, is the “photostream.” This is the main page where my photos will be displayed. The underlying notion of the photostream is that immediacy is of the utmost importance. That is, whatever has happened most recently is what is most important. So when I upload my photos, the ones taken most recently are displayed first by default. This means that if I upload the images from a trip, those from the end of the trip appear first. Of course, when I upload images from a trip, I want to tell a story to my viewers, the story of my trip. This means that I want the images to be displayed in the reverse order from the default in the photostream. But there is no way to change the order of the images in the photostream.
The solution appears to be in Flickr’s use of “sets.” I can put the photos into a set and then order the pictures so that they tell the story of my trip. This is easy to do and works very well. The problem is that there is no way to get the sets displayed in place of my photostream. Instead, the set sits off to the side and the visitor has to click on it to view it. But when the visitor clicks on the set, the images are displayed as thumbnails by default and the visitor must then click a tab called “detail” in order to see the images in a size that can be easily viewed. Most people don’t know this and so even if I give them a link directly to the set, they will not be able to easily view the images. Another problem I have with Flickr is that when I look at full size images, there is no easy way to go to the next full size image. There is no “next” button. All of these problems lead me to believe that the folks at Flickr do not think of viewing photos as a linear, possibly narrative, process. Instead, like much of Web 2.0, whatever has happened most recently is most important. And whatever has happened most recently is unconnected (narratively) to whatever happened right before that.
My first thought is that this is a mistake on Flickr’s part. But perhaps I’m the one who is mistaken? Maybe I’m thinking of time-based linearity in a world that has moved past such ways to organize experience? Is linear narrative akin to the file cabinet? From my perspective, it’s difficult to believe this is true. It seems illogical. But my student in the senior citizen class thought his way of thinking about things was perfectly logical too. How can I tell? I can rationalize the need for linear narrative but is it just a rationalization that I use to try to preserve a way of thinking that is no longer necessary?
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.