Time was, when some drunk guy in a bar challenged you to elucidate the relationship of photographic technology and the reification of personal experience under the conditions of 21st-century global capitalism, gosh, you couldn’t even get started without plowing through a stack of books by Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and assorted other pointy-heads. Nowadays you just tell him to go take a look at flickr.com, the classy little photo-sharing site all the bloggerati are uploading their visuals to. Or better yet, you whip out your camera phone, snap a shot of the guy, key in a caption, e-mail it to your Flickr account, and tell him to go take a look in a few hours, after friends and strangers from around the world have marked up the image with comments on his haircut, his waist size, and the phenomenology of digital media.
Flickr didn’t invent online picture sharing, of course, but it was the first such site to recognize itself as much more than a hosting service for personal photo albums. Tricked out with features inspired by the latest fashions in online-software design—post-Friendster social-networking tools, “folksonomy”-friendly image-tagging code—Flickr turned enough industry heads to win itself a $35 million buyout from Yahoo, announced last week. Flickr has also won a devoted following of users hungry to explore the possibilities its Web-centric toolset opens up. It’s a place not just for self-display, but for an emergent visual conversation: One popular thread consists entirely, and with a certain random elegance, of pizzas, manholes, coins, and other circular objects centered squarely in the frame. The “Iraq” tag joins snapshots of anti-war protests and Baghdad patrols in a piquant mix. The frozen moment proliferates here, as it has done increasingly since photography was invented, but never before has its social life been such a party.