When friends and contacts are neither.

I noticed something weird in how I use Flickr today and wondered if maybe there is a disconnect between social software systems and utility in web applications. I know flickr has continually moved away from the social software label, but their application still has firm roots in such a system.

I started using flickr back when it was a flash-enhanced backchannel chat at etech many moons ago, and when it was finally released to the world, it was built off the previous web trend of social software [1]. You used to have 5 or 6 different levels of contacts with various rights attributed to your images, but thankfully they simplified the process into basically “contacts” and “friends/family” (friends and family can be separate, but they’re basically equal).

So the odd thing is that I’ve been adding really good photographers as “friends” even though I’ve never met them. Real-life friends I’ve shared many beers with have been demoted to “contacts”. Half my contacts list contains people I’ve never had any contact with whatsoever aside from looking at a photo of theirs on flickr.

When I first joined flickr, I did the natural thing and connected to everyone I knew online as contacts with people I met and hung out with in real life as friends. But flickr isn’t just a social software app and is a great utility, and the one page I hit on flickr.com many times a day is the “Photos from your contacts” page. What I quickly found is that while I love seeing my friends take photos of the beach, and their family, and meals they eat, eventually the feed was getting clogged with one friend’s fascination with a subject, or another friend’s attempt to upload thousands of photos at once.

I realized mapping my personal relationships of “contact” (acquaintances) and “friend” clashed with the actual utility of Flickr. With almost 300 contacts, I’ve taken to keeping my favorite photographers as friends, and viewing photos from “friends and family only” and switching that back to “photos from all contacts” occasionally when I have nothing to do and time to kill. A bunch of pro photobloggers I’ve never even emailed are on my friends list, while people I have attended many parties with and enjoy talking to are demoted to contacts. At this point, the word “contact” lacks meaning and I can’t think of a new term they should swap it out with.

This presents weird social problems. I worry when I set a stranger as the elevated “friend” level and they get the email from flickr describing it — it feels like a social faux pas that I’ve overstepped my bounds [2]. Similarly, I don’t have the heart to completely delist anyone from the lowest contact level, especially those I’ve talked with at many parties, on the off chance they notice.

Maybe it’s my early adopter status and adding so many friends as contacts early on when the application was just getting going, but I’ve noticed the leftover social software components don’t really mesh with how I use the app anymore. Flickr is a really useful, fun way to share photos with friends — it is software and it is social in nature, but the old conventions of social software don’t really apply.

I’m curious what comes next — what terms should we use to describe social and utilitarian connections in the latest web applications?


[1]. It’s weird how the best example of web 2.0 technology was born during the 2003 social software boom that has since passed. Is the next king of web development trends going to spring from all this web 2.0 hullabuloo by learning from current mistakes and conventions and outlive this era?

[2]. For the ancient-in-web-years reading this, you probably remember a time when Carl Steadman added you as a life partner on sixdegrees.com

Published by mathowie

I build internet stuff.

13 replies on “When friends and contacts are neither.”

  1. Matt, I only have one-fifth of the contacts on Flickr that you do, but I still struggle with similar issues. I disagree, however, that the social software aspect has somehow been left behind or outgrown.
    I’ve never been very drawn in by social networking apps, but for the first time on Flickr, I’ve connected with people through their photos and group pools. And while I’m with you on the usefulness of the contact-breakdown that Flickr provides, I can’t help but feel like you just ought to take a minute to rearrange your friend group delineations…
    You say that Friend/Family is mostly the same thing, which is true, but they are different. I use a very loose definition of “family” on Flickr, putting all close (real-life) friends in there – the type of people that it sounds you like you are sad to see dropping to “contacts.” “Friends,” then, for me, are acquaintances I’ve met over Flickr and other photographers whose work I want to watch, leaving “contacts” as everyone else. I have always only watched my “Friends & Family” feed, and it makes life a lot easier. When someone from my “contacts” comments on a photo, I usually take a bit to browse through theirs and others, but that’s it.
    I, too, get nervous that people can see which group they’re in (it’s not in the email they get, but it is on your profile), but there are some things you just have to let go…


  2. Your idea only works if all your own photos are public. The privacy settings favor a separation of friend/family and contacts. Contacts are people whose photos I like to look at, but who I don’t want looking at my private photos. I have photos that I only want to share with a select group of people (real life friends and family). If I used your schema, I would have to have two different sets of people- one who I show my own pictures to, and another whose pictures I want to look at.


  3. I think the problem stems from using “friends”, “family”, “contacts” in ways that don’t make sense. By using them to specify privacy and even usability options, flickr has changes their meaning. e.g. Someone may not be my friend, but if I like their photos and want to view them in a larger size, they may have to put me in their “friend” category.


  4. I guess that’s what I’m saying — that the relationship stuff doesn’t work for me as both an permission model and a way to track members I like. That seems like two different groups to me. I have plenty of photographers I like and want to see their stuff, but I have no connection to them so they wouldn’t understand a photo a few friends would find funny/touching/interesting.


  5. The current system is a little strange for me too, though moreso because I’ve never really used Flickr with people I know in real life since they’re generally into myspace, and even loading a profile from that site makes me feel like I’ve stumbled into Geocities, circa 1992. One idea that was suggested by a few of us when the contact system changed was the ability to make your own groups and sort your contacts into it, though I think the possible UI complexity of that kinda killed it.
    Personally, my contacts are a miss-mash of people I helped get acquainted with the service when they first popped into live, people I’ve talked with in #flickr, a bunch of photographers who’s work I’ve admired, and the ever increasing number of bloggers who’ve got themselves accounts.
    My friends list is mainly made up of people I made friends with in FlickrLive, a couple of people I know from other stuff online, and people I’ve really got on well with in #flickr. Pretty much all of my Friends are people I know via, or because of Flickr itself; I really doubt that if I joined Flickr today the designation would mean the same thing. Besides the social connotations of marking someone as your friend, I like the friends setting as a way to share a little bit more of my real life than usual with people I trust, the photo I uploaded that gave me a slightly public way of noting my father’s death being a pretty good example of that.
    Oh, and if you add someone as a contact, then set them as a friend, they shouldn’t get a mail telling them you made them a friend, just the one about you marking them as a contact (though they’ll still see their designation on your profile page).


  6. Okay guys, I absolutely agree that there ought to be two distinct schemas: friendship/feeds and permissions. You definitely hit the nail on the head there, Matt, Sam, and Cushie.
    It’s not something I thought of because I don’t restrict who can access full-res stuff from me (and I publish with only a BY-SA license), but that certainly makes sense.
    I still think, Matt, that some of your problems could be alleviated by forgetting about the titles to the groups and just developing a scheme of who goes into group 1, 1.5, or 2; but I also agree that permissions should exist apart from friendships. That certainly is sticky social territory.


  7. I asked George of Flickr about Flickrlive at SxSW last year. She said it was nice, but not the direction they were heading, so it was deemphasized.
    Strangely, that was the first thing in Flickr that I used, exclusively for months, before using the photostream aspects. Great fun, IMHO.
    I think it’s gone now, or at least I can’t find it.


  8. I addressed the “someone is uploading a whole lot today” thing by setting it to only show 5 from each person.
    Perhaps we need “Inspiration” as a category? Then you could put all your favorite photographers in there.
    It’d be swell if you could just append the categories and get the view of that:
    (Thanks for reminding me of the Carl my Life Partner thing. Hee hee. I’m an old web codger.)


  9. Perhaps we need “Inspiration” as a category? Then you could put all your favorite photographers in there.
    That reminded me of another flickr idea: add the 10 most interesting photos from yesterday into my friends and family list. So like, at the bottom, there’s a line of photos that were the most interesting that day, below my contacts’ photos.


  10. Hopefully this hasn’t already been mentioned, and I’m sure it’s been beaten to death in certain circles (of which, I guess I’m not a part), but I’m still pretty frustrated by the fact that if I want to list photos as friends or family, the people viewing have to have an account to get full size and such. I wish they would allow a guest account at this point. I want to use Flickr as a way to dissmenate(sp?) pictures to others in high quality if they want, but I really don’t want to hassle friends and family (most of which are barely computer literate and very hesitant about signing up for things) like a salesman.
    that’s my beef…old, yes, but well..it’s mine


  11. So totally agree with all of u here about the current mismatch between permissions and relationships right now.
    I’m sure a lot of folks have had similar issues and are writing in to Flickr folks as feedback. I’d think it’ll be best to ‘create’ relationships (Friends, Family, Faves, Hotties, Events etc.)
    And hey, I totally miss FlickrLive too 😦 Thought it was the future of online chats. Whatever the hell is happening to chatting anyways? Ppl just pulling the plug because no one found a way to monetize it? Or the guise of “child porn proliferation” like Microsoft uses?!


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