Flickr is a photo and video hosting site that is easy to use for both individuals and institutions, and seeks to create a community of users to interact with one another’s images. According to the site’s About page, their team works to make photos both accessible and shareable and to allow for users to organize each other’s images collaboratively. Let’s see how the site works to fulfill these expectations.
The first thing I did was create a new account. Flickr doesn’t require users to register in order to view public photos, only to upload their own images and videos. Free accounts allow users to upload up to 1000 images (there’s been some uproar over this recent rule and how Flickr chose to transition existing accounts to meet the new restriction) and have ads throughout the site, while Pro accounts have unlimited storage space, no ads, and more detailed statistics on how users are interacting with your photos.
Uploading my own photos was easy enough! Once you have added images to your photostream, you can sort them into albums, add tags, choose your favorites, or set locations of photos to a map. After adding contacts from Google, Facebook, etc. you can add friends to view and interact with your photos.
This feature is one of Flickr’s most unique – collaborative organization. Users can allow others (either public or restricted lists of friends and family) to add tags to their photos, comment on the content, and otherwise help to organize the images in their photostream. Users can also join groups to do the same for other users’ photos.
Flickr extends this collaboration into is its own effort to do digital public history in the Commons. As the site describes, the goal of this section of the site “is to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives.” The Commons began in 2008 as a partnership with the Library of Congress, and currently cultural heritage institutions can register and submit their own photographic collections to the project. Users are encouraged to add tags and comments to the collection images, thus helping to co-curate the content.
I was pleasantly surprised to come across an account for the State Archives of North Carolina and to browse through images from the history of my home state. Though the NC Archives are not technically one of the contributing institutions to the Commons, they aim to do the same kind of collaborative historical image sharing and curation as participating institutions are there. One album features the Somerset Place Plantation, a very small, state-run historic site that I interned for. The site is several hours’ drive from where these images are housed in person, so having them digitally available to the site’s four staff members makes their interpretation possible.
So, what are some of the ways Flickr could be used to do digital history? At its most simple, Flickr can host photos and videos that historians and institutions want to make public. The site has further capabilities, however, to increase public interaction with these images by allowing users to help organize them – a type of co-curation that other social media platforms don’t offer. Institutions participating in the Commons are doing just this as part of the project, but other cultural heritage institutions and museums can do the same via their own accounts. Though the site provides little space for substantial historical interpretation (a limitation that should be further considered), the potential for crowdsourcing curation and public access to photographic archival collections makes Flickr an important resource for digital historians.