Charles Arthur On Technology

The kids stay in the picture
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In my childhood, one of the events we loved as a family was my father loading up his slide projector with pictures - more precisely, transparencies - which we would then view en famille in a darkened room. A natural component was the pauses while a recalcitrant slide was urged in or out of the projection slot. (You'll have seen the same process if you went to a business presentation more than 10 years ago; probably with fewer landscapes of beaches than we saw, though.)

In my childhood, one of the events we loved as a family was my father loading up his slide projector with pictures - more precisely, transparencies - which we would then view en famille in a darkened room. A natural component was the pauses while a recalcitrant slide was urged in or out of the projection slot. (You'll have seen the same process if you went to a business presentation more than 10 years ago; probably with fewer landscapes of beaches than we saw, though.)

Photo sharing, and photos, have come a long way since then. Cameras alone have evolved dramatically. Slides are almost extinct, even among professionals, who are increasingly moving to the most powerful digital SLR cameras. Digital cameras have long since outsold "proper" film cameras, although the disposable point-and-shoot film models still do a good business.

But it's not just the photos which are digital. We've got the internet too, where you can find like-minded people tangentially interested in pretty much anything you are - hence all the specialist websites and newsgroups devoted to discussing, well, pretty much anything.

And why shouldn't that apply to photos? Wouldn't it be fun to be able to put on a slide show with your pictures? Or perhaps - and this is where you have to make that essential internet, networked leap of imagination - a slide show on a theme, with lots of peoples' pictures?

To satisfy the obvious desire to show off our pictures, a number of "online photo-sharing" sites have sprung up. Best-known of these, at least among the digerati, is Flickr ( www.flickr.com). But there's also HeyPix! ( www.heypix.com), Snapfish ( www.snapfish.com), Ofoto ( www.ofoto.co.uk), Buzznet ( www.buzznet.com), Smugmug ( www.smugmug.com) and Shutterfly ( www.shutterfly.com). The largest is Ofoto, which was bought by Kodak in 2001, and boasts about 20 million members.

Most of the sites offer free storage, though some (such as Smugmug) must be paid for. Still, they price in dollars, and with the dollar so weak, $29.95 annually is just £15 for the lowest-grade Smugmug subscription. (The subscription automatically continues unless you stop it.)

But it's worth asking yourself: do I really want to be paying forever to have those photos online? This "subscription trap" is increasingly common. The sites' reasoning is that the more you use them, the more valuable the content becomes to you; for the site, though, the cost of storage halves every year, and bandwidth costs aren't going up. Thus, you end up paying continually for something that's costing the company less to provide each year. Therefore, you might prefer to try some of the free sites. But there's often a catch here too. For example, with Ofoto, if you upload a stack of photos but then don't buy anything (such as a print) for 12 months, your membership and your photos vanish. True, you will get some e-mail warnings, but if you've changed your principal e-mail address and haven't updated the site, you'll lose the lot.

Other sites have similar conditions. (To see them, go to the main webpage, and click on "terms of use" - usually a small text link down at the bottom.) HeyPix insists you upload at least one image every six months, or they all go to the bit bucket. Flickr says free users must use the account once every three months, and offers a paid-for "Pro" version, which lets you upload 1GB of photos each month, and "permanent" archive high-quality originals. Buzznet doesn't seem to have any upload or usage requirement.

What marks out the great photo-sharing sites from the me-too ones is the ability to "tag" photos and then to create slide shows with them. Flickr's tagging system has caught the imagination of many internet users. You can upload your picture of the Eiffel Tower and tag it "Eiffel Tower", "Paris" and "night displays"; you or anyone else can then search for Eiffel Tower pictures and pull up yours. Such tagging systems are becoming known as "folksonomies", because, unlike "taxonomies", they're produced from the bottom-up, by the folks who use the system. Taxonomies, like taxes, are imposed from above (and are quite useful for classifying plants or animals), but there's nobody with the time or inclination to classify your photos, except perhaps for you. It seems the most common tag on Flickr is "cameraphone". Guess why.

By using or searching through tags, people can create "groups" of photos from all over, drawing on the material that's already been uploaded by others. A favourite on Flickr last week was "transparent screens", a collection of photos uploaded by various people using a trompe l'oeil method of putting a picture of what's behind the computer screen on to the screen - see www.flickr.com/photos/w00kie/sets/180637/ and marvel.

Flickr (which seems to me the best of the bunch) also allows the creation of "notes" on pictures, which when you mouse over them display the comments put there by the photo's owner. This is smart and entertaining (even, sometimes, informative - see www.flickr.com/photos/plasticbag/578303/).

Once you start, using photo-sharing sites can become addictive quite quickly - providing, that is, that taking photos and sharing them is part of what you like to do. You can even upload pictures from your mobile phone, include them on your blog, or use others' pictures on your blog. (If you're going to be sending a lot of photos, then broadband is a must, both for uploading and viewing; using the sites on dial-up can be a dull, wait-laced experience, rather than the snappy move from picture to picture that you'd want.)

Even if you're not that keen on taking photos - and it's the case that most people are consumers, rather than generators, of content - you can drift about on sites like Flickr, creating your own slide shows of your own or other peoples' photos for your own and others' entertainment.

And if you're still looking for that darkened-room experience like we used to experience, it's easy: just connect your computer to your television set and turn off the lights. The nice thing now is that it's not only your immediate family providing the photographic expertise - it's the whole world. (Well, the bit using photo-sharing, but that's still more than your family.) And that's the power of the internet.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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