understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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A Flickr of Web 2.0

posted by:Jeremy Hessing-Lewis // 11:59 PM // July 11, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


Welcome to Web 2.0, where your life is the content. Thanks to such upcoming venture capital stars as folksonomy, social networking, Wikis, and architectures of participation, this second wave is already upon us. Yet, just behind the jargon and Silicon Valley hype, lies a collection of legal and ethical issues mirroring and amplifying previous iterations of online participation. This ID Trail Mix will briefly survey some of these issues using Flickr photo sharing as a case study of Web 2.0.

Flickr as Web 2.0
The name Web 2.0, although still under debate (and litigation), is an umbrella term used by a series of conferences hosted by O’Reilly Media and MediaLive International. Without referring to any specific technological innovation, the name is used to describe a collection of web tools and standards that fit within broad themes such as usability, participation, standardization, remixability and convergence.

Flickr currently has an estimated 1.5 million users in the increasingly competitive digital photography after-market. Despite the abundance of innovation, the Flickr mission statement remains sufficiently straightforward: 1) “We want to help people make their photos available to people who matter to them” and 2) “We want to enable new ways of organizing photos.” To accomplish these goals, Flickr has deployed an overwhelming number of tools. Pictures can be uploaded via email, cell phone, Flickr software, and of course the old fashioned web browser. They can be annotated, blogged, bookmarked, printed on mugs or t-shirts, and published in coffee table books.

And then there is the public dimension, where “available to people who matter to them” seems to include just about anyone with an Internet connection. While pictures can be set to private, most users post publicly in order to avoid having to assign individual permissions to Uncle Hank and Cousin Sue.

Users are the New Bots
When Yahoo! acquired Flickr in March 2005 for an undisclosed amount, it was not immediately clear why it would invest in a small Vancouver company when it already had a far more popular photo sharing site in Yahoo! Photos. The answer is based in how Web 2.0 tools can be used to sort content. Not only are the photos submitted by users, but they can also be annotated and categorized by members of the community itself.

Photo by Open Door Exit under a Creative Commons Licence

Flickr organizes photos by way of folksonomy. In other words, content is identified in an open-ended system of collaboration. A taxonomy by folks. Meta-tags are added to each photo by the person posting the photo. Depending on the level of permissions, all Flickr users may be able to add additional tags. For example, I might include the tags “Birthday” and “Party” with the above photo. My photos would then be returned by searching for any of these tags. Another user might add “Jeremy Hessing-Lewis” at some later point. Some users even add GPS locations to situate photos in geographic context.

Unlike Google, which uses computer algorithms known as crawlers to locate and identify content, a folksonomic system will give results as interpreted by humans. Still, the ultimate goal remains the same: enable users to find content that they want.

It’s no surprise that Yahoo! also acquired the bookmarking site Del.icio.us in 2005 to complement its folksonomic goals. Del.icio.us allows all users to bookmark sites and add tags to the bookmarks in order to produce annotated lists of popular web content. The inevitable convergence allows Flickr users to add Del.icio.us bookmarks to photos, groups, and portfolios. This effect, where users add value to the network, is known as an “architecture of participation.”

Although the public may accurately classify content, folksonomy vastly complicates online privacy by limiting the content creator’s ability to disclose specific identifying details. While an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of laptops may correctly identify pictures of your birthday, do you really want an infinite number of monkeys browsing your birthday photos?

It’s not hard to imagine how folksonomic sorting could further impair privacy and anonymity. What if I choose to post pictures anonymously only to have others fill-in the remaining details (as in the above example)? What about controlling descriptors accompanying your image? The result is that although I may begin by disclosing my information in a certain way, inevitably “I am what you say I am.”


Photo by Fabz under a Creative Commons Licence

Social Networking
Since the $580 (US) million purchase of MySpace by the media behemoth NewsCorp, social networking has been the star of Web 2.0. While the idea of online social forums has been around since the earliest days of the web with such legendary haunts as the WELL, the social element is now built-in to just about every possible site.

Flickr’s social networking features are, not surprisingly, based around photography. Users can create a “group” and so long as it is listed as public (the default), anybody can contribute photos. People may then discuss the photos and form their own online communities forged around certain themes. The “wedding” tag alone contains 2, 544 groups. Each includes a collection of images and vast amounts of personal information. Although I didn’t attend Mark and Ruth’s Wedding, I feel like I was in the wedding party.


Photo by Voteninjaparty under a Creative Commons Licence

By participating in Flickr groups, even voyeurism becomes a social activity. Relationships forged in this environment fall victim to exactly the same elements of preying-upon and web-stalking as have conventional chat rooms. The only difference is that a predator doesn’t have to wait to ask for your picture. Instead, they start with your picture and lure from there.

Photo by Steve Crane under a Creative Commons Licence

The Network is the Platform
The most threatening Web 2.0 feature that I foresee is that the interface will become so usable and efficient that users will no longer recognize that they are passing information over a network. When a computer user’s desktop becomes an extension of a website, users give-up both privacy and proprietary control of their information.

For example, Flickr incorporates a fully web-based “Organizr” program. It is a simple browser-based tool for uploading and sorting pictures without having to install additional software. Users need only click and drag thumbnail images into a web-based desktop. This simple procedure poses two important privacy issues.

Firstly, superior ease-of-use will likely increase the number of photos that users share. As most computer users will attest, clicking and dragging is often done without considering the full implications of the action. The Organizr feature allows users to load personal pictures to a public, online repository with almost no consideration of the consequences.

An extension of this concern is that increased ease-of-use lowers barriers to participation by softening the technology. An early example of this behaviour would be the transition from command-line operating systems to the modern Windows or Mac desktop experience. In terms of Flickr, users who may not previously have shared their pictures online may find themselves posting personal images. This will increasingly be the case as ordering prints online becomes common practice. Such users may not fully understand the subtleties of access permissions, copyright law, or one and half million voyeurs.

Secondly, when the network is the platform, all of the user’s information is permanently housed on the servers of the host company. When Yahoo! acquired Flickr, the company’s servers were moved to the US where they are now governed by US federal law. As more and more web-based programs are developed (see eg. Google Calendar), the impacts on personal privacy will be significant. Having lawful access to telecommunications systems in one thing, but having access to an archive of any user’s content should certainly be enough to make law enforcement salivate.

As Web 2.0 continues to be developed, some of its drawbacks are becoming increasingly clear. Will folksonomy be the final death knell of online anonymity? Will society recognize the threats posed by increased social networking? Will privacy laws be able to protect the tremendous increase in both the amount and variety of personal information being shared online?

While these details may not be resolved any time soon, you can already order prints of Mark and Ruth’s wedding from the nearest Target location…to be picked-up within the hour.


Very interesting Jeremy, I wasn’t aware of these developments. However, I am not surprised that this is occurring given our society's seemingly endless need to know everything about everyone. I use the term 'society' in the broadest sense as I have no intention of offending anyone who really doesn’t care to browse through Mark and Ruth’s wedding photos. But I have to say that I don’t think papers like the Enquirer are going to be very pleased, as this new technology sounds like it might take over some of their voyeuristic “turf”. After reading your piece I have two thoughts:

1. Why do corporations, or anyone for that matter, care about what I wore on my wedding, how many bridesmaids I had and whether or not Aunt Suzy wore the red or blue dress? After working on the data brokerage report I know that there is big money in efficient/effective advertising but as consumers we really have to become more educated and opinionated. You see if we, society in general, mind our own business and curb our curiosity technological developments like folksonomy won’t really be viable. I know it is an idealistic thought but what happened to people minding their own business? Haven’t they heard the age old expression “curiosity killed the cat”?

2. This is a bit more of an aside, but your piece triggered a question that has been lingering in my mind lately - what is the Internet/Web - is it a public domain (like Mooney’s Bay) or a private space (more like my backyard where I can open the fence when I want to invite people in). It seems that there are really two camps here, those that subscribe to the idea that Web content is all part of a public domain and should be freely accessible and endlessly available (a view often supported by corporations and governments) and then there are those who believe that users should have a choice to make their presence and online interactions known or remain anonymous (the view obviously preferred by this blog and other privacy advocates). But how can you legislate for something that has yet to be fully defined? Perhaps that is the problem. It seems to me that until there is consensus on what the Internet/Web is exactly (i.e. what is public, what, if any, is private, the boundaries, etc…) the legislature is going to be endlessly scurrying to legislate for something that they don’t fully understand. Obviously, we all have our own interpretations of ‘things’ but wouldn't a definition help to put everyone on the same starting page - afterall, don't we all mean to talk about apples?

Posted by: tanya at July 11, 2006 11:03 AM

In response to the public domain vs. proprietary space distinction, I think there's certainly something of interest in the context of user generated content (the New New Media): http://michaelgeist.ca/component/option,com_content/task,view/id,1321/Itemid,70/nsub,/.

While browsing the Flickr terms of use, which is actually just the Yahoo! terms of use, s. 9 refers to CONTENT SUBMITTED OR MADE AVAILABLE FOR INCLUSION ON THE SERVICE. This provision creates a default licensing arrangement for the content that you've submitted. Here, Yahoo! is taking a pool of proprietary content and declaring it public, but only for its own uses. The point is that automatic icensing has made the distinction between public and private content increasingly complex. This is an excellent example of how intellectual property can be tied to privacy issues.

Posted by: Jeremy at July 12, 2006 11:07 AM

At the EyeTap Personal Imaging lab (James Fung who built this anonequity site, is from our lab: www.eyetap.org) we just started a project that allows users to share experiences online using their cameraphone, to all their social networking sites and blogs.


Privacy is something we are definitely considering in developing the system, so far all our users are public, but perhaps there are ways to protect users from future cyberviolence. In places like Korea, where there is high penetration of broadband/mobile, there is foreshadowing of what is to come:


If you guys have some ideas on how to protect privacy, would really appreciate it, as we are building this system and users are contributing very personal content.

Posted by: Daniel at August 19, 2006 06:08 AM

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