Flickr’s survival is a minor miracle of the Internet age: it’s one of the few sites that Yahoo acquired in the last decade that it didn’t kill off or change beyond all recognition. That’s because of its core base of very loyal and very talented users. Unfortunately, that kind of base means a popular uprising whenever anything about the site changes, a minor revolt happens.
We at Consumerist are grateful for the continuing existence of Flickr: thanks to Creative Commons-licensed photos and photos licensed through our own Flickr pool, we populate these pages with original photos contributed by our readers and other talented people.
This time, what Flickr changed seemed like a really good idea. Maybe if they had made it an opt-in beta test, that could have worked a little better. The site’s innovation was using photo recognition to automatically generate tags for users’ photos.
In a few minutes of poking around Flickr, I saw a hamster labeled “people.” Here’s another relatively non-offensive example, unless you’re my dog: at right is a camera phone snapshot of my dog plotting her next move while watching a squirrel in my backyard. She’s small compared to the rest of the picture and the picture was taken from the back and at an angle so she isn’t dog-shaped, so what did Flickr’s tagging system label her as? A bird. Without any other tags by me to provide context, they tagged the picture with “bird,” “outdoor,” and “animal.”
Other examples were a lot less innocuous. Users noticed photos of black people that were tagged “animal” and “ape.” Don’t call the robot racist, though: photo of a white and blonde woman taken at a color run was tagged “ape.” From an evolutionary point of view, we’re all apes, but that is probably not where the tagging robot was going with that.) A photo of the metal fence outside of the Dachau concentration camp was labeled “jungle gym,” since it kind of looks like one if you’re a photo-recognition computer that doesn’t understand context.
Or boundaries. Some users complained that they felt like their privacy had been violated because the tagging robot added tags to photos that had been limited to “friends and family” only. “I can’t help but feel violated that the Flickr auto tagging has invaded my [friends and family] photos,” one user posted. “That is very invasive. Flickr has no place trespassing like that. It is just morally wrong. You were not invited in.”
A Flickr staff member explained to users upset about the change why some of the tags were incredibly generic, like “people” or “indoors.”
The overwhelming majority of searches on Flickr include some very general terms – sometimes alone and sometimes in conjunction with other, more specific terms. When people search Flickr, general tags often help in getting your photos found.
If you have a Flickr account and want to opt out of getting auto-tagged entirely, so far your best option is to turn off search for your account. you can do that here. That does mean opting out of having your photos searched and found by strangers.