Flickr Auto TagsWhen I opened Twitter on Monday, one of the first tweets I saw was this message from Heather Champ. Champ, a well-respected mind in community circles, is the former director of community at Flickr, a role she held for five years.

In the tweet, Champ criticized Flickr’s decision to automatically apply tags to previously uploaded photos. These tags were generated by image recognition technology. She called the move “so community hostile that I fear my head may explode from even thinking about it.” In a follow up tweet, Champ further highlighted a settings page within Flickr where she had specifically indicated that she was the only person who could add tags to her Flickr uploads.

Jessamyn West, also well known in the community space due to her work on MetaFilter, tweeted similar criticism.

What Happened

Last week, Flickr launched new versions of their website and their desktop and mobile apps. A big part of this roll-out was tied to image recognition. Flickr is now using this technology to automatically tag photos uploaded the service. Not just photos uploaded from this point, but also photos uploaded in the past.

As you can see from the forum thread dedicated to this issue, the response from the community has not been great. For many Flickr users, their tags are an extension of their content and, for Flickr to come in and retroactively change their tags, is to change that content. Many users are requesting an opt-out of the tags. A Flickr representative posted an update 5 days ago, noting that the uploader can go back and delete the auto-tags, if they would like. Currently, it can only be done one photo at a time. While that may be practical for someone with dozens of photos, it just doesn’t work for someone with thousands. However, the representative promised that batch-editing would be available at some point.

Flickr has apparently been auto-tagging images for some time. The recent change has allowed these tags to be viewed and deleted, which is a feature that some Flickr users have requested, as community member The Searcher noted.

TechCrunch reported on Tuesday that Flickr was thinking about allowing an opt-out. They say it’s “at least being actively discussed” but “is not yet being built.”

If you want to know what an auto-tag looks like, check out this old photo of my friend Jared. If you scroll down and look under tags, you’ll see a bunch of gray tags. These are the tags I set. At the end of them is one white tag, “indoor.” That’s an auto-tag.

The Power of Suggestion

I know why Flickr forced the change – to maximize the value of their newly-enhanced search function, as well as the image recognition technology. But was that really necessary? Was it really that hard to get this right?

This was as simple as asking each member a question in a dialog box at the top of the site. “Flickr is now able to identify what’s in your photos and automatically add tags to help more people find them.” And then you give them an option to add all tags, manually review the tags that will be added or deny all tags. And there you have it: crisis averted.

I believe that a substantial number of people – possibly a majority – who saw the dialog box would have simply decided to add all tags, either immediately or after reviewing them. Plenty would have also denied them. But again, no big thread of community complaints. I’m not sure what these tweets from the Flickr Help account are saying, but I definitely wasn’t presented with any dialog box to approve the change.

With the opt-in dialog box applying to old photos, Flickr could have then used new uploads as a way to get members on board with the new feature. When you uploaded a photo to Flickr, you could be prompted that “Flickr has identified some tags based on the content of your photo,” and then people could remove them if they want (most people would likely just keep them) or disable the feature altogether. These small adjustments would have allowed Flickr to substantially grow their tag database without the complaints.

There are some changes you have to force. This is not one of them. Flickr’s data is so massive that there is really only an incremental benefit to adding “indoor” to the picture of a man, or “animal” to the picture of a turtle or “ball” to the picture of an Easter egg.

Why Aren’t Power Users Part of the Feedback Loop on New Features?

Back in December, Flickr generated similar backlash when they decided to sell prints of images released on the service under certain Creative Commons’ licenses. As I said then, being legally right doesn’t mean you are doing right by the community. It took a few weeks, but they backtracked and stopped selling the photos. Just like with this controversy, they could have avoided it by simply asking first. They still would have plenty of prints to sell.

Coupled with this most recent issue over auto-tags, Flickr is painted at as organization that really doesn’t understand its power users. Why isn’t there a group of 10, 20, 50 people who Flickr has identified as power users that they communicate with in a private forum? Why aren’t they running changes like this by that group? It seems like at least one member of such a group would have raised concerns regarding these changes. And saved everyone a lot of headaches.

If that group already exists, why the breakdown on issues like this?

What Now?

It seems pretty clear that Flickr should go back and do what they originally should have done and offer an opt-in. And then respect that opt-in. You can still have auto-tags as a feature, you just have to give people the option to use them. I can see the benefits of it. But people should want to use it because they see those benefits – not because they are forced to do so.

That would be the best way to handle it. Instead, what they will probably do is keep everyone automatically opted-in, but give them an option to opt-out. That way, they’ll opt-in everyone who has uploaded photos, but no longer visits the website or has heard about this controversy. That’s a mediocre¬† way to handle it. Not a great one.

Flickr is acting as if they are Google Images. Flickr is a community. Google Images is a machine. Flickr must be careful never to confuse the two.