Web 2.0 makes physical photo albums obsolete

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When Briana Tomkinson got her wedding photos back from the photographer, she struggled to decide not which poses to print but which Web site to display the images on. A more critical decision had been made weeks earlier when she and her then-fiancé selected the person for the job of shooting the wedding. In a Yaletown coffee shop, Tomkinson told the Straight that “One of the key concerns in picking a photographer was being able to own the digital rights to the images.”

While the couple did purchase a full set of prints from their photographer, they haven’t put them into a traditional album or made duplicates for friends and family. It’s not that Tomkinson, a strategist and account manager for a digital marketing company, doesn’t have a wedding album. It’s that the album is on-line, on Flickr (www.flickr.com/ ), one of the first photo-sharing sites to become popular in the Web 2.0 era.

Since Flickr’s launch—in Vancouver in 2004 by husband-and-wife team Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake—similar services have come and gone. Many have been taken over by larger companies: Yahoo Photos was shut down after Yahoo acquired Flickr in 2005, Ofoto became Kodak Gallery (www.kodakgallery.com/ ), Snapfish (www.snapfish.com/ ) was bought by Hewlett-Packard, and Photobucket (www.photobucket.com/ ) is now owned by Fox Interactive Media.

Each of the sites provides similar functionality. Users can upload and store images on-line, and share them with others. In this era of YouTube, most of the sites feature video sharing as well. Google’s Picasa Web Albums (www.picasaweb.google.com/ ) adds a few photo-editing features—the ability to fix red eye, eliminate blemishes, and crop photos—but to use them, you must install the Picasa software onto a Windows-based computer.

Picnik (www.picnik.com/) offers basic editing tools that are free and on-line. You can edit your photos right on the site, and then push them to various social-networking sites or back to your computer’s hard drive. Advanced editing features, such as the ability to adjust brightness and contrast, are available only with a paid premium membership, but red-eye reduction, rotation, and cropping come free.

Most photo-sharing sites mimic traditional photo albums in terms of how you organize images. This is where Flickr really stands out from the pack. The site makes use of tagging—essentially, the addition of descriptive labels—so that order can be brought to an entire library of images.

Tomkinson tagged her wedding photos with terms such as Briana, Will (her husband), Tomkinson, and wedding. Anyone looking for her wedding photos, then, could visit her Flickr site and search for wedding or click on that particular tag to see all the pictures from the big day. It’s the Web 2.0 way of organizing things without actually organizing them. It’s also a paradigm shift that some can’t wrap their heads around, as Tomkinson discovered.

“Flickr worked great for us and our generation,” Tomkinson said, “but our parents didn’t get it.” The older members of her family found the Flickr interface confusing. “The photo stream was difficult too,” she said, “because they didn’t understand the power of tags and searching.”

That’s why, when Tomkinson’s son was born last year, they uploaded most of the photos taken of the newborn to Picasa Web Albums. “The commenting is not as good, and search is less useful because metadata and tagging is less used there, but photos are organized in albums,” she said.

The other site she’s posted baby photos on is Facebook (www.facebook.com/ ). Uploading images to Facebook is a slow and tedious process, and people who don’t have accounts can’t be tagged, so children can’t be easily labelled in photos. But Facebook automatically updates her friends and family when she posts new photos, so more people see the images there.

“The whole point of being on those services is to make a connection with friends and family,” Tomkinson said. “You have to pick the photo-sharing service for the audience you are sharing photos with.”

She’s been meaning to make a traditional baby album-easy these days because you can order prints, calendars, and even bound books through most photo-sharing sites—but so far she’s only made about five prints of her son, for parents and grandparents. She doesn’t even have a snapshot of him in her wallet. His image is in a digital picture frame at home, on various computer desktops, and on her iPhone.

In the digital era, wallets are thinner, and our photos are never more than a click away.

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