Flickr tags could be more useful using taxonomies

Flickr is a great site, no doubt about that. Great to share photos with others, brilliant design. But there is one thing that always made me thinking. Flickr often is named as a best practise for the strength of tagging vs the weaknesses of taxonomies.

I do not like the way of tagging on flickr. I do not like it because i found it useless for me. I virtually never click on tags to search photos and i do not subscribe tagged feeds. Instead, i use the photostreams or photosets because they make sense to me. I am not sure whether that is only my personal impression but i guess not. There are of lot of flickr users simply ignoring tagging. That is remarkable, because tagging is considered as a key feature of flickr.

Tagging seems to be far less powerful when there is no collaborative approach assisting the user. As mentioned in this previous post, it is helpful to have suggestions when you have to decide which expression might be appropiate for your asset. It is less effort for the user to agree to these suggestions than to create a new expression.

This collaborative agreement is not only convenience for the user who is creating the meta information for an item. It also improves the quality of results when searching for information. The suggestions by other users to „adopt” tags can also be seen as a guidance to use the „right” expression for an item. This increases the likeliness that other people can find the item because there is a common tag set for it.

Of course, there are major differences between a bookmark in delicious and a flickr photo. Mostly, a photo does not reach the critical mass of viewers that are necessary for a folksonomy effect, and therefore a collaborative approach of tagging in flickr would not be as effective as in delicious. In the flickr case, there must be other concepts to achieve valuable benefits of tagging. What about this:

The idea would be to use taxonomies and a thesaurus to assist the user in tagging. For example, i am posting a photo from a hiking tour in the swiss alps „switzerland” and „hiking”. A taxonomy driven algorithm would give me hints to use other tags: „europe” in addition to switzerland and „sports” and „recreation” in addition to hiking. A thesaurus could also find synonyms like „mountaineering” or „climbing”. I would be able to decide whether i want to use them or not.

Could be a powerful tool. I agree with Rosenfeld in this point:

I’d love to hear of any good examples of metadata ecologies where user-generated tags and controlled vocabularies have been successfully combined […]

3 thoughts on “Flickr tags could be more useful using taxonomies”

  1. I like your idea of improving the tagging process. But: If you have not tagged a picture with ANY tags at all (like Robert in your example does) that would be pretty much useless, unless you let the „thesaurus algo” use the title of the file, which itself will contain useless information in most cases as well (img_2332.jpg etc.). So that wouldn’t help in those cases, where the user doesn’t use tags at all. But it could speed up the process of tagging for the other users, Ack.

    Looking at your example again, I notice that all his photos are uploaded by his mobile phone, which you can see from the „Robert Scoble. Sent from my smart phone.”. Have you ever tried to upload a photo from your smart phone? So you send this photo by email to your „secret” flickr email address, and you’re happy that you’ve made it to give it a headline and a description (through subject and text), but you dont want to get your fingers wounded by entering the special keywords for beeing able to tag the picture (not to say that you have to remember the syntax).

    As more and more users own a mobile phone, capable of uploading photos to their photo sharing service, more and more will do so. That leads to the problem outlined above (the-no-tags-at-all-problem). There will be some apps solving this problem, by letting the user tagging the photo first, and taking care of the right syntax of tagging at flickr, 23, whatever. One application where this seems to be possible is ShoZu ( I haven’t tried it yet, but Nico uses this for uploading his photos (, and is not using the tagging feature of the app…besides „moblog”.

    Another problem with your mentioned tagging technique is that the user gets lazy: When you add a new link to delicious, more often than not there will be some tags already. You choose some of ’em and click right away. It’s easy, you just need your mouse, which most people love. If there weren’t you would define some yourself (at least if you want to find the link later on…). So it would probably better for the „sensefulness” of tags for a specific link, picture or else, if you let the user choose his tags in the first place, and later on let him refine the list using your above mentioned mechanism (which is pretty much what you say anyway…).

    Nethertheless I think you are right, because „the user” IS lazy (at least I am…) and of course it’s better to have „close matching tags” than „no tags at all” ;-)

  2. Why bother with asking people to add automatically generated tags? If you start to search for something on the basis of the tag, why not have the search engine also bring up closely related categories? There will be incidences where things are going to be closely related, by not everyone is going to put ALL or even most of the necessary lables on them.

    Creating an evolving network of related tabs might be the best idea. You could even make a game of it, for people to play at work. Bring up two photos and ask the user to give a tag that applies to both.

    Additionally, if you want to get the „folksonomy” effect, you are going to have to allow others to add tags, and not just the original filer. The effectiveness of any given set of tags relies upon how transparent the „filing system” is to others. Tags are individually assigned nomenclature. On the plus side, they allow the person who invented a given system of tags to find things relatively quickly. On the down side, anyone who thinks differently will have difficult time using those tags.

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