Playing Favorites? / Repost from Chicago Photography

Posted on June 17, 2010

Blank Space

Some of you might have noticed that the same photograph by Kymberly Janisch has graced the homepage for this group for some time, and maybe wondered if that was fair. Shouldn’t I rotate that image some more, and maybe give a little added exposure for the other members of the group, as well?

In fact, that was my plan, originally, back during one winter day, when I took a look at that photo, and noticed how much I loved in and thought it captured the mood of that season. I decided that in each season, I’d look for one photo in the pool that captured that moment from my point of view, and ask for permission to feature it. But then Flickr surprised some of the owners of the groups on its system with a sudden policy change.

In what the company was said to be an effort to combat spam, Flickr started attaching “rel=no follow” tags to all outbound links from group descriptions, irreversibly. A number of owners were quite upset by this surprise. At the time, I did write in to Flickr support, and ask if, perhaps, the nofollow tags could be set to fall off after a reasonable amount of time had passed since the last revision. If the concern was spam, surely this would leave the problem addressed, because one would assume that spam groups would be tracked down and deleted before the tags fell off? Say, have the tags fall off after a few months, so the policy wouldn’t end up hurting the honest users of Flickr along with the spammers?

The suggestion fell on deaf ears. I didn’t even get a response. The owner of another group who made me aware of this problem (by publicly reporting what had just happened to his group) certainly saw no sympathy from the staff member who responded. So the policy is as it is, something that Flickr just isn’t going to budge on or be reasoned with, about. One just has to build it into one’s plans.

Were I to replace the photo, the outbound links to the rings to which this group belongs, and the ring homepage, would instantly get nofollowed. That would certainly not be fair to the other members of the rings which bring this group a share of its traffic, as those members would lose pagerank. The group’s homepage on would instantly be hurt in the search engine rankings, and some years of experience in dealing with these matters tells me that before long, this group would be harmed in the process.

So, certain choices that I wouldn’t have otherwise made, now become mandatory. The link to my global ring return page rotted when Geocities went out of business. I’d like to fix that, but I can’t, so we have a dead link that’s going to stay dead. One of the rings I submitted this ring to, just before the policy change, turns out to have been abandoned. I’d like to stop feeding hits into a ring that isn’t reciprocating, but I can’t, not if I don’t want to undercut this ring’s ranking, and the traffic of each of the members of this group, in the process. I could add other examples, graphics on other groups I run that now look malformed because Flickr changed how code was interpreted by its system in a highly non-intuitive way, right before the policy change, but I think that you get the point – the change has tied my hands.

Somebody will probably ask me if I’ve explained this to Flickr management. The answer is no, because after I explained a very similar problem right after they started slapping nofollows onto the outbound links from profiles, the staff member with whom I was talking responded by slapping nofollows on all of the links on the profile for the Flickr account I was writing from, seeming to think that this solved the problem. “See, it’s a done deed, so you don’t need to worry about the damage any more. You’re stuck with it.” Kind of like having somebody drive in for repairs, express his worry that his car might suffer from rust damage if he drives around in the string rains too much, and then finding that the mechanic on duty has responded to this concern by having his car dropped into Lake Michigan.

If I wrote to Flickr management, expressing my concerns, I don’t doubt that I’d get the exact same kind of “help”, all over again. “And if that happens, then you’ll start fixing all of that stuff that you’d like to fix?”, somebody might ask. Answer: no. I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior. In the short run, doing so might serve our best interests, but in the long run, it sends a terrible message, and willful sabotage is atrocious behavior under any reasonable standard.

We, as users, can’t change bad policies when they’re this far along, because whatever those policies might be about in the beginning, eventually they’re about the staff having the satisfaction of winning a test of wills with its users. Something that, as I said, one has to factor into one’s plans. But at least one can take a stand and express one’s dissatisfaction in a firm manner. If enough users and group owners do that, then the next time somebody in management comes up with a half baked notion, maybe he’ll look back on the last fiasco and back off from that idea, before the rest of us even know he thought of it, and before getting stubborn about it becomes a matter of saving face.

One can always hope.

That having been said, having Ms. Janisch’s very lovely image as a permanent feature instead of a temporary one, however unintentional, is hardly the worst part of this outcome. As frustrating as this was, things could have easily turned out far worse. The artist could have deleted the image from her stream, leaving us with a red x in the description that I’d have no good way of fixing. I could have missed that post and edited the group description after the change. could have gone out of business. None of this happened.

And let’s hope at least that much good luck continues.