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Flickr Explore – Why the Donkey is an Ass

So before I get started I’ll come clean and say I dislike Explore. I dislike it a lot. Please read this blog post with that in mind, hopefully by the end you’ll understand why. Also feel free to disagree with me, but if you do then add a comment explaining why you think I’m wrong or with your reasons for liking Explore(in its current format). If you think I’ve made a mistake in the theory, or would like to add something to it then please get in touch!

What is Explore?

It’s the most Interesting photos on Flickr. There isn’t a lot more definition to it, that I can find from Flickr staff, there is a definition of Interesting. What it contains is the 500 most Interesting pictures “found” in the last 24 hours. There seems to be a shift within this, so things can drop into and out of Explore within the 24 hour window. There is also a seven day window, after which things stay lodged in Explore. I use the word “found” rather than “uploaded” because it appears that pictures can make their way in days after they have been added. We’ll come to some maths in a bit and it’s worth bearing that little factoid in mind for the adding up section. The Flickr description of Interesting also mentions it beingĀ  “Beautiful, amazing, moving, striking – explore and discover some of Flickr’s Finest.”

What does being in Explore mean?

Well, normally what it means is a big boost to the number of views and comments that your images will receive, for the period that you are “in Explore”. I defy anyone to say it’s not a massive boost to the ego as well. If you are looking to make money from your photography then it is also a large chunk of free exposure for your work, companies that sell images seem to trawl Explore looking for artists to approach for a license to sell their images.

Having seen some of the images that makes their way into the top 500 the only one thing I can be certain of, apart from the above, is that it doesn’t mean you are a good photographer or that you take good pictures. Saying “My picture must be good, it got into Explore” is therefore a delusion of fairly epic proportions. Unless you agree that all the poor pictures are equally as good as yours as well of course.

Some VERY quick maths

There are roughly 7 million image uploads to flickr per day, this means that Explore is 0.007% of those shots, if you take into account the fact that images can get a ride days after their upload then that percentage shrinks even more.

The mystery of the Donkey Ride

I’ve seen pages and pages of things written about how Explore picks it’s candidates. One thing is pretty certain from the evidence of I have seen; There is not an individual combination of views\comments\favourites\galleries that will trigger the ride. There doesn’t seem to be a combination of groups, tags, sets, or geo-locations that will do it. It’s also obvious that there cannot be any element of human intervention in picking the 500, it must all be done by automated systems, unless Flickr have a couple of thousand staff hidden away in a bunker looking at images all day everyday. What a depressing job!

An automated system must have rules and criteria, if Explore was a product of an random number generator then people would quickly notice that images with no comments were making their way in,given the size of Flickr and the maths I mentioned above the rules have to be fairly simple. A system that had too many criteria or was too complex would be expensive to implement, lets not forget that Flickr was an independent company before they were consumed by the Yahoo! leviathan, and would also be difficult to maintain and adapt.

A theory

My current theory is that there is a “sum total” of Interestingness across an individuals stream, there is a lower and upper limit for this total if you are outside of these limits then you will not get into Explore regardless of the quality of the images you produce. There must also be a global “Explore Score”, this is the Interestingness rating that an image must achieve to be eligible for a ride on the Donkey. It’s widely known that every image has an Interestingness score, there is a Greasemonkey script that can show you this as a ranking against all the others in your stream. Adding up all your Interestingness scores would give you the sum total for your stream.

To summarise, there are (at least) two factors at play that judge whether an image is Explored:

  1. Whether your stream is above or below the Interesting “Sum Total”
  2. Whether the image meets the global “Explore Score”

There also appears to be a window that the sum total counts for, so images older than X months no longer factor into the calculation, this would account for why there seems to be patches of time where you can suddenly get a shot Explored, then go back to not having anything. To back this bit of the theory up; my first image to be Explored had it’s Donkey Ride on September 30th 2010, I then had random rides through October and November and then a period between December and January where I had a shot in everyday, on the 23rd January this stopped and I didn’t get anything until March 30th. This was exactly six months after my first Explore, of course co-incidence and random chance could be at play here, but I’ve never been a believer in co-incidence, especially where automated computer systems are concerned. A shifting time window would make sense, it reduces the overhead on the systems that calculate the Interestingness score and also offers the chance to “get back in” to Explore as older images drop off of the end. This would account for the feelings that the “algorithm must have changed” or that certain individuals are banned from getting into Explore.

Disclaimer: This theory is the result of conversations with other Flickr denizens and my own observations of the process, I could be 100% wrong. I don’t have any insider knowledge of Flickr or how Explore actually operates. If you bet the ranch on the above and lose, don’t come crying to me, also if you are silly enough to bet on it – send me some cash via paypall!

Why Explore is bad(Danger, here be dragons!)

If, and I admit it’s a BIG if, my theory is correct then Explore is very bad. Actually even if my theory is wrong then I stand by the first two reasons for Explore being bad. It’s bad for new photographers just starting out “Why can’t I get my shot into Explore?” with a low sum total, I know when I was first starting out that I found the whole thing deeply demotivating. It’s bad for genuinely good photographers for much the same reason but with the added downside of not getting the easy access to the exposure they need to advertise their work. It’s also REALLY bad for 365’ers, the sum total of Interestingness is going to be much higher on their streams, making Explore a vanishingly small likelihood.

I also feel that Explore pushes people into a niche, they find a shot type(landscapes, macro’s, portraits, whatever) that gets them onto the ride and they stick with it producing the same old shots over and over again. This is fine if you are happy with doing that, I’d find it exceptionally dull both for me and the people viewing my shots. I’ve removed people from my contact list for being boring!

There is also a risk that the exposure and ego boost from Explore makes people think they are more skilled at photography than they actually are, the old “My picture must be good, it got into Explore” comment above is a prime example of that. I’d be the last to stand in the way of someone who wants to grow and develop their photography skills, but it’s important that people remember that learning a skill takes time and that your haven’t reached the end of the path as soon as you get your first Explore, or even your fiftieth come to that.

Testing the theory

An interesting(should that be “Interesting”) way of testing the theory would be to create an entirely new Flickr account, only use it for your best shots and restrict the number of images in your stream to say twenty, deleting old ones as you upload new. As long as your contacts are aware that you have this account and comment in the same way and you add it to the same groups my guess would that you could bingo Explore pretty much every time.

Conclusion

So I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I hope I have outlined why I feel Explore is a flawed concept. I’m not going to offer any ways of changing or improving it, there is enough in that for a whole new blog post. If you are looking to get yourself into making money from Flickr(something that goes against the Terms of Use, if you read it closely), I think it’s best to keep your options open, Explore is the best way of getting the exposure you need, but it’s far to fickle and restrictive to be useful as a marketing tool. I can recommend RedBubble as a damn good site for sharing and selling your work, the standard is MUCH higher than the Flickr average, I know this isn’t saying much.

I think it’s also important to remember why we as photographers take pictures – for the love, the joy, the beauty that we see through the lens and capture for eternity. It’s good to remind ourselves of this every now and then – especially when look at Explore and splutter “What the f**k, how the hell did THAT get explored?!” at the screen.