Flickr Explore

The vast photo-sharing site Flickr has a feature called Explore that has been around for quite some time. It is essentially a popularity contest driven by many factors, some listed below in this blurb from flickr:

Flickr labs have been hard at work creating a way to show you some of the most awesome photos on Flickr. We like to call it interestingness. Besides being a five syllable word suitable for tongue twisters, it is also an amazing new Flickr Feature.

There are lots of things that make a photo ‘interesting’ (or not) in the Flickr. Where the clickthroughs are coming from; who comments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are constantly changing. Interestingness changes over time, as more and more fantastic photos and stories are added to Flickr.

Granted that there are enough photographers (many millions) with enough photographs on flickr that finding the “interesting” images among the less interesting images can be tough so this is one of flickr’s many social tools to help those of us who use it. I’ve found some excellent photography through exploring Explore and some of those photographers have become friends over time. Explore can be useful.

If one is new to flickr and wants his or her photography to be seen, using flickr’s social tools: tags, groups, comments, discussions and more to bring people to one’s photography is a good thing. It’s the mixture of these web-based social tools with competition that makes me uneasy about Explore.

flickr is a social site where the content is contributed by users: photographs, threaded discussions, groups and whole sub-cultures. With no users, flickr would just be a bunch of tools with nothing to show for them. So, it’s in flickr’s best interest to build tools that collect more users and encourage them to post more photographs. Tools like Explore, while questionable in terms of a photographer’s creative development are very useful for flickr as they drive more use.

Gaming the system
Explore can be looked at not just as a tool for exploration but also as a popularity contest driven by: views, favs, comments, tags, and other ingredients flickr labs cooks up.

Once looked at this way Explore can be “gamed;” a flickr user can find ways to have a photograph listed on Explore by taking direct action rather than passively hoping that it will become popular. A few techniques for this are garnering comments or quid pro quo commenting (I comment on you if you comment on me), comment groups where the rules are that if you want a comment on your image you have to comment on 5 others, and so on; putting the right tags on the image, and more. I know there are many more ways to game Explore and the more technically sophisticated flickr users have come up with ways that are both ingenious and fascinating and maybe sick at the same time (how far will people go to become popular?).

Flickr Scout and trophy walls
And, lest you think this is some small detail that a half dozen flickr addicts are concerned with, the web site Flickr Toys uses people’s fascination and concern with Explore to drive advertising revenue. With flickr Scout any flickr user can enter their user name and come up with a beautiful array of thumbnails of each of their images on flickr that has made Explore. Many flickr users concerned with Explore build these arrays and then post them in their flickr streams like a wall of trophies.

People newer to flickr get excited when they get their first “trophy” and sometimes post one of these arrays with a single photograph in it. Others post these arrays at intervals with more and more images in them and it’s implicit in this that large arrays are better than small arrays.

Competition and creativity
Even without Explore there are many instances of popularity driving the kinds of images photographers take and share. One of my favorite flickr photographers who happens to have world-class skills and a great eye for composition, found one particular image that his fans went wild over and he repeated that theme through dozens of photographs seemingly to drive his popularity. Variation on a theme is one thing but this was obviously pandering to fans to drive popularity, his creative process was shut down and he seemed to be focussed on popularity, not photography.

My biggest concern with Explore is that many flickr users change the way they take and then process pictures on their computers in order to become more popular.

If you follow the most popular images on flickr you’ll notice that most of them have increased color saturation, contrast, and sharpening, to the point where some almost look unnatural. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with this stuff but when experimentation is driven by concern with popularity that bothers me and it leads to a pervasive look on flickr of over saturated images.

Also, and this is extremely important, if I’m trying to drive my own popularity I’m less likely to take chances with my photography and in fact, I might take fewer pictures or post fewer pictures, only saving and posting the ones that seem like they might become popular.

This idea of trying to find someone else’s formula (short cut) for success and then trying to mimic it is everywhere today and by having a social tool like Explore the folks at flickr are enabling a part of human nature: competitiveness, that in creative arts like photography, doesn’t lead to more or better work, just work that is aimed at being popular.

If you’re flickr, Explore is a great way to drive more use. if you’re a flickr user it’s important to be clear about any affects your interest in Explore is having on your photography.

In case you think this post is driven by sour grapes because my photography hasn’t made Explore I should tell you that I’ve been listed there more than most. And, I’ve noticed that there is no coincidence between what many would agree is my best work and my work that has become popular. Maybe because I’m older and a bit more secure than the mean flickr user who my guess is in their mid twenties, this stuff has never had any influence on the types of pictures I take or the ones I choose to share on the web. I’m happy when others like my work and comment on it but I would never want that attention to drive my creative process.


  1. Ricster: The interesting phrase in your comment is “making it to explore.”

    Remember, the “making” is social popularity which may or may not have a thing to do with your photography. So, if you don’t think about it and focus on your work and forge ahead, no doubt you’ll make fine photographs that will eventually be discovered, tracked, and you’ll end up being featured in Explore. But, even if that never happens you have to understand that it has nothing to do with the quality of your work.

    It is very possible that many of the best photographers on earth are on flickr, undiscovered and so, with no social popularity. That doesn’t mean that their work is less good, just less known and so, less popular.

    Keep taking pictures, keep looking, commenting, faving and learning and no doubt it will be meaningful to you in one way or another.

    Thanks for reading my rant and for the comment.

  2. Thanks Richard. I’ll definitely do that as I even plan to take a formal photography course in the next few months to improve further. Kudos to your great web site!

  3. Richard,

    I just wanted to send a follow up comment to this article. I finally made it to Flickr Explore with this picture!

    I continued to really work on my photography and post processing skills to make the story come out. Although Explore is definitely a social recognition, i finally got it off my chest with this one.

    Kudos to your site and i hope that other Flickr users come across this article and continue to be inspired more with photography and what they love doing that got them into this hobby in the first place.


  4. Congratulations Ric. I totally get it that having one of your images show up in Explore is thrilling and my rather cynical take on it all is only one angle, the other, which I’ve experienced just like you, is the thrill of seeing one of your images turn up there.

    The question for you is this: Now that you’ve had an image get popular (and it will get more popular from being on explore) will that affect how you approach photography and/or flickr in the future?

    Keep an eye on yourself and see what the affect of recognition like this is and of course, no matter what, keep up the good work.

  5. As far as i can tell right now it won’t affect me in a negative way or make me lose track of my photography passion. Reaching Explore doesn’t stop me from trying to do better with my pictures. In fact, i plan to take photography lessons and continue to be better at what i do. Thanks for all your insights on this wonderful topic.

  6. Agree with your original post! I am having a great time finding out that there are a few people besides some good friends of mine and myself, who have realized ‘explore’ is simply a game. Quite unfortunate that ‘serious’ photographers ( I confess to be an entry level amateur) play along instead of enjoying the experience of Flickr differently. Even more unfortunate, it seems to me, that for a whole host of flickrites and participants of other such forums, is all about notoriety, rather than enjoyment and quality.

  7. Alex: Right, you got it.

    But, we don’t want to sound like sourpusses, meaning, it’s nice when our images get recognition. If they get a lot of recognition and explore picks them up, great. When recognition affects how we take and process pictures, then things start to get weird and when we enlist our friends to help bump us up in popularity then it’s a game.

    I’m finding the same gaming going on with Twitter and commented about it here.

    Scroll down for my comment. Not sure Glenn got it but I don’t think he’s got experience with flickr like we do.

  8. Hi. I was also bitten by the explore virus…. At the first time you feel noticed, then there was a period of time (one year ago) when every photo I uploaded to flickr got into explore, it felt even better, then when a single photo didn’t make it i felt really upset, and then I realized what a nonsense was all of this explore deal. Explore and flickr focus on single pictures, now i feel more driven to story telling by a set of pictures. I don’t have time to write hundreds of meaningless comments, i prefer to go out and take pictures instead.
    My question is what do you get from all of this? I’ve learned that if you make into the explore front page you will get a lot of exposure, like thousands of visits. will you get into getty or national geographic? from a commercial point of view or professional engagements, can you get something from an explorer front page? i doubt it. Do you improve your photography, i doubt it…. just go to the well know “la amicizia fa la diferenza” group (aimed to hit explore front page) and look at the pics, tailored for flickr explore and really far away of what is a professional work in many senses.
    btw this is my flickr url:
    thank you

  9. eloy: Right, what do we get out of making explore? Well, these days in the world of the social internet, popularity is a commodity and so, it’s possible that people who work to increase it are becoming “richer” in a new category of “wealth.”

    Popularity as a commodity is the micro version of facebook and flickr’s popularity as social networking sites. They become more popular (and successful) the more users they get and keep and users stick with these sites because they become popular…

  10. Good afternoon Richard,

    What great article. I only discovered it today. You’ve summed up the entire issue very nicely. You’ve cleared up many of my own internal conflicts on this matter. Everyone who posts on Flickr should read this.

    Warmest regards,

  11. Thanks Shannon. I’d not read the piece in a while so just gave it another read myself. Nice to know it makes sense to longtime flickr users like you.

  12. Yes it is a good article and I do agree. I am fairly new to Flickr and I do enjoy it. I do have a tendency to oversaturate and oversharpen my photos which is ok for the small size at which they are displayed. I became aware of this when a newspaper who uses my photos said some of my photos were breaking up when they sent them for printing. Their system automatically sharpens them for printing. My photos were too soft before but this probably suited them anyway. Certain types of photos also show up better in small thumbnails and others can be overlooked. I oversaturated a sunrise on my laptop while I was away and when I got back home found it was a bit ‘overdone’ when viewed on my home computer. This went into Explore and is still there. However, my photography has improved from using Explore and I have started to experiment with HDR which not even heard of before using Explore. I love HDR photos but have quickly realised that they are often not too good on Explore either. Your article has reinforced my own view and encouraged me to keep a balanced mind about it all while continuing to enjoy my photography. Thanks

  13. Rosie: As long as you keep in mind how popularity is affecting you, you’re safe. The minute you let popularity drive what you do to your images you cross a line and you’re no longer doing things to suit yourself, you’re doing things to suit your audience and drive your own popularity.

    Just keep it clear.

  14. Fantastic post at kottke tonight:

    From a list of rules for young photographers, a definition of talent:

    “Talent is not when your friends tell you they love your work, but when people who don’t like you have to admit it’s good.”

    Using that definition, it’s interesting that you can’t figure out whether you’re any good or not from your 300 friends on Facebook, the 23 people who liked your Tumblr post, the 415 people you follow on Twitter, or the 15 people who faved your Flickr photo.


  15. Richard,

    Thank you so much for your great article, and also thanks to all commenters for your often very recognisable words.

    I’ve just started to enjoy Flickr, but was wondering what this magical Explore thing was all about. Thanks to your article I understand it a lot better, and from now on I’m going to keep the distinction between popularity and quality in mind with everything I do on Flickr.

  16. Fantastic Alexander, that’s the best way to both preserver your own sense of what you like about your photography and your sanity. Keep taking great pictures, popularity will take care of itself. Happy Holidays.

  17. Richard,

    The little analysis is great, and comments have some great opinions here. Some of the images on explore are really good, and I have found some nice people/good photographers but sadly because of these gamers’ (as I see it) unsporting behaviour I no longer use the Explore function.

    I run a rather large group on flickr, and when I took it over there were these comment farming threads. Every day I ask myself whether I am overstepping my authority to close them. I still haven’t made up my mind.

    Personally, explore has very little meaning, I live by my own philosophy. However I do feel that like the silly sheep ( ), that flickr needs to be reminded the ease at which explore can be exploited.

    Thank you

    Wish you a good new years


    P.S. Just in case you want to know, I found your article in the group I admin: Self Taught Photographers / Discuss.

  18. Chao: Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for posting the link to my Explore article in your group. Much of the social internet is obsessed with popularity so why should flickr be any different?

    As long as we all keep the difference between what we personally like and what the crowd following us likes, all will be well. It takes work to keep these things sorted, I’m glad you’re doing it in your group.

    Happy New Year to you too.

  19. Happy New Year! I happened upon your article while investigating how flickr users game Explore due to behavior members have been resorting to in order to boost views and comments, namely, sending unsolicited email to ‘look at my picture’, and putting their pictures into comments made on my images.
    Let me offer some perspectives as an AI programmer for a well-known search engine. Because Explore is a mechanical means of highlighting popular images and does it’s work by approximating human behavior, it isn’t foolproof. It has no ability to judge an image based on its pixels and emotional content. It can only judge the worth of an image by the behavior of other members. If it uses view counts to measure worth, then if you can maximize the number of views by promoting it in certain ways. If the algorithm assigns worth based on who views your image, one can try to get high-ranking flickr members to view it by various methods I’ll refrain from passing on here. And so on.
    Flickr has an interest in maintaining the integrity of its algorithm and I imagine they spend a lot of r&d to counter the gaming efforts of self-promoting users. It’s a hard thing to do. Everyone posting to your article knows there’s plenty of mediocre images that get explored, and lots of really terrific images that do not. This shows that the algorithm has a lot of room for improvement. Google faces the same challenges because web sites invest a great deal of effort and expense to “optimize” their “page rank” to get the most favorable position on the search results page. Consequently they are constantly revising their algorithm to re-level the playing field and produced the true best results.
    All of us crave feedback on our images so we can learn and improve. That requires exposure and frankly, getting explored is one of the best ways to get exposure and acquiring new contacts. It tends to be one of the best proxys for measuring worth of an image, like it or not. This creates pressure on the photographer to get images explored and unduly influences the art and joy of photography by biasing the photographer’s vision.
    Until flickr improves the algorithm to make it less subject to gaming, I’d suggest we concentrate more on our art and less on explore. We all know a good shot when we see one, so, let’s go out and make them. And, have fun at it! Don’t keep wondering if “this one is good enough” to be explored. I still believe recognition will come to those who achieve the most memorable work, and, where recognition is the unintentional benefit of doing a good job.

    All the best,

  20. Dave, while I appreciate your comment here, I’m not sure you read my post.

    It tends to be one of the best proxys for measuring worth of an image, like it or not.

    I guess we’ll have to disagree on this point. And, not only do I think it’s not the best or even a good proxy on measuring “worth” (whatever that means) of an image, there remains no relationship that I can tell between quality photography (a subjective aesthetic opinion) and popularity (something that can be gamed).

    This creates pressure on the photographer to get images explored and unduly influences the art and joy of photography by biasing the photographer’s vision.

    This is what I stated in my post. Did you read it? If so, what did you think?

  21. Hi Richard,
    I did read your post, but I can’t agree that Explore is worthless for measuring popularity because it monitors behavior in addition to influencing behavior. Since popularity can be gamed, its usefulness as a measure of popularity is certainly suspect. If you decide Explore is essentially worthless for this purpose, I won’t try to argue to the contrary (very hard anyway), because I agree that it’s power to influence is seductive, and hence, probably destructive. Your point,
    “My biggest concern with Explore is that many flickr users change the way they take and then process pictures on their computers in order to become more popular”
    is well-taken.
    Another point,
    “Explore .. competitiveness, that in creative arts like photography, doesn’t lead to more or better work, just work that is aimed at being popular.”
    is an unfortunate result of a well-intended effort at highlighting popular work (note that popular isn’t necessarily good). In the ideal world, popular and good would be equivalent.
    And lastly, your point,
    “if you’re a flickr user it’s important to be clear about any affects your interest in Explore is having on your photography.”
    is a great exhortation to avoid its seduction to dictate subject matter and post-processing styles.
    The question remains, where can we get good quality feedback on our work? We’re loath to say anything negative, and mostly just praise the obvious qualities with the usual bland comments, or just fav’ing it. Explore partially fills the need. I wish it were not so, because of its tendency to influence. I think that if the algorithm can be improved, Explore may become more useful than it is now, for both flickr and its users. In closing, I know there are groups that offer honest critique to those bold enough to post to them, and sites like will really test your metal for quality, using human reviewers. Perhaps these are better avenues for feedback?
    I’ll cut myself off now; too long-winded. I appreciate your thoughtful post and the many followup posts.

  22. Dave: I wasn’t trying to say that Explore and other popularity “engines” are worthless for measuring popularity, but that (social) popularity is worthless for measuring anything except social popularity.

    It isn’t just that Explore can be gamed, but also that it feeds on itself: if something is popular it tends to become more popular because people are sheep and will go see what the crowd is looking at and join in.

    All of this has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetic worth of the photograph, everything to do with the crowd following itself.

    I’ve been on flickr since it was a small Vancouver concern (pre-Explore) and I can tell you that the quality of the photography on flickr has changed; I won’t say it’s gotten worse, that’s a matter of subjective judgement. I will say that the way it’s changed (amped up saturation and contrast) is a direct reflection of what’s popular.

    Let’s say we agree on this and agree that social popularity is at least one of the drivers of the kinds of photography people are posting there. In this context it becomes harder for people to take chances with their work and grow as artists.

    This is a problem even in the analog art world but flickr’s tools amplify the problem and because we can easily see the results, it’s easy to see where this is going.

    In the past when I was much more active on flickr I had many images on Explore regularly and I can tell you that very few of the folks who found me through that means stuck around and became long time contacts and online friends giving me regular and useful feedback on my work. I do have long time contacts but I got them on my own by manually exploring Flickr looking for work and people I liked.

    I’d rather have one great contact on flickr than 1000 mindless ones commenting on my images to link back to theirs.

  23. “I’d rather have one great contact on flickr than 1000 mindless ones commenting on my images to link back to theirs.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

  24. Thanks for reading and your comment Nick. This is true of all social media: Twitter, Facebook, all of it.

    I have no clue how people on twitter can track 5000 contacts especially when some of those contacts post dozens of posts a day (some an hour).

    Again, the idea of quality seems to have gone out the window in much of the social media world, it’s all about quantity.

    Maybe some are thinking that if they get enough followers they’ll be able to “monetize” the connection a la google or facebook. I don’t know but I do know that I continue to go through my flickr contact list and make it smaller so I can more easily see the work of those I follow.

  25. I really wish flickr would institute anti-gaming algorithms, but I know that’s not going to happen because they _want_ the increased activity that comes with the Explore game. Also wish they could somehow “discount” the Interestingness of really cute girls who take photographs of themselves — creating a stream of narciporn is a really easy way to build followers and faves. I know that view is “sour grapes” … but I’m _never_ going to look good in a bikini, folks. For giggles, I created a Narciporn group, if you’re interested: . Of course, nobody will join it.

  26. Great comment Colin. I’d not heard the term “narciporn” before. Did you coin it? I agree, lots of it up there and it does generate a lot of views, although fewer comments as old perves don’t easily go on the record.

    You nailed it when you said that popularity algorithms and so, contests drive use and use is money, or at least popularity for the platform.

    It would be interesting to see how the founders would have dealt with this had they stayed on board: there are few or none left of the original group who both designed and engineered flickr and I think much of the Explore stuff was designed with the best of intentions, but over the years as Yahoo took over there was little attention paid to the quality of the experience of using the site, more attention paid to page views.

    I’m still an active member of flickr, if for no other reason than to enable embedding images here.

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