Why Flickr’s Explore Sucks Donkey Balls

“I can see that we’re a community divided about the Top 500. Change is coming. Big change. I don’t have a firm date, but we need something that’s far more inclusive. Is there any way that 500 photos a day could capture the breadth and depth of this wonderful community? I think not.

So, for those who are fed up with Explore, please be patient. Don’t let the tired old broken down Donkey change you into something that you’re not. And for those who currently feel blessed by the golden light the donkey sends your way. Well, I’m sorry if the changes that come upset you in that you’re going to have to share your spotlight with many more people.”

Heather Champ, Flickr Community Manager, June 2009

“One of the things we are looking to do this year is to really dramatically improve the user experience. If you remember, years ago Flickr’s mission was to appeal to more of the prosumer photographer — and it was really about surfacing high quality photos from a niche of photos, and we’ve changed that mission.

And the mission for Flickr today is to be the premier place for sharing photos with those people who you care about the most. So we are transitioning from the former mission to a new mission. We’re learning a lot about what people want.”

Steve Douty, Yahoo VP in charge of Flickr, May 2011

When Heather Champ said that Flickr’s Explore section was a “tired old broken down Donkey,” back in June of 2009 she was right. Unfortunately, however, the “tired old broken down Donkey” is even worse today and someone seriously needs to take it out back behind the barn and put it out of it’s misery for good.

Steve Douty, I hope you’re “that guy.”

In an article entitled “The Unfairness of Flickr’s Explore Page,” Dean Shanson at Photopreneur breaks down some of the basics about how the Flickr Explore algorithm works and why exactly it is unfair. In his article he quotes former Flickr engineer Serguei Mourachov on the unfairness of Explore:

“The algorithm that populates Explore pages is not fair by definition. It’s not created to judge, but to find something that could be interesting.”

The problem is that Explore is anything BUT interesting. It’s a total and complete waste of space on Flickr. Do you really, really, really love browsing through page after page of mediocre cliched photographs by complete strangers that have all been watermarked to hell? You do? Great! Then Flickr’s Explore is perfect for you. Each day through some magic lucky charms anti-transparency donkey (or so the myth goes) Flickr presents 500 photos by members of the site.

People like getting into Explore because it brings more traffic to their photos and attention. But really, except for that little feel good thingy when you get in there (and the that little feel bad thingy when they blacklist you), the collection of photos there really point to just how stupid Flickr’s secret sauce algorithm really is.

Maybe Explore was “cutting edge” when it was launched years and years ago. But today there are so many smarter ways to present me a list of recommended photos than some dumb algorithm that knows nothing about me.

So let’s talk about how Explore could be improved. To do that we have to think about what makes a photo interesting to me. Here are several *very relevant* factors that Yahoo/Flickr could use when presenting me my own personalized Explore page.

1. If someone is my friend. There is a super good chance that I am going to find their photographs more interesting than a complete strangers.

2. If someone is my contact. There is a super good chance that I’m going to find their photographs more interesting than a complete stranger, but maybe not as interesting as a friend.

3. If I fave photos with the tag “neon” on them. I just might like seeing photos of neon signs. Likewise, if I fave photos tagged “graffiti,” I might really like photos of graffiti.

4. If my friend faves a photo by another one of my friends, that might be more relevant than a fave by an absolute stranger.

5. If my friend is actually in a photo, I might want to see that photo.

6. If I search for a certain term frequently on Flickr maybe that’s a clue?

7. If I fave a very high proportion of a certain user’s photos, I may want to see more of them — again, especially if they are listed as my friend/contact.

8. If I fave shots in a certain geographical region, maybe I want to see more of those. If I live in San Francisco, and what goes on here is relevant to me, and I fave a lot of photos tagged San Francisco, then maybe it’s better to show me those than some dumb flower macro photo with a big bee and and even bigger watermark on it taken by someone in Guam (no offense if you live in Guam).

9. If a friend and I both tag the same event tag or unique tag. I might want to see those.

10. Finally, If I’m blocking someone I probably don’t want to see those photos. AT ALL!

It’s fine if flickr still wants to use some of the basic ways that explore works. Show me photos with lots of faves, comments, tags, notes, views, etc. But personalize it! Do you want engagement? Then give me photos I will engage with, not photos by total and complete strangers.

Imagine if you went to your TiVo’s recommendation section and it said, yes, we know you’ve been doing that thumbs up thumbs down thing for 2 years now, but screw it. Here are 500 television shows that complete strangers like that you might like too.

Or imagine if on Pandora, even though you’ve been giving the system input on what sort of music you like, it just said, who the hell cares what you like or think, alot of strangers like Sammy Hagar, so I’m sure you will too. Aren’t we cutting edge and hip?

Or imagine if you went to Amazon.com and down where they recommend products to you based on other people searching for the same product, they just put some dumb stuff that 500 strangers liked. Yes I know you’re searching for DSLR sensor cleaning swabs, but might we recommend this new brand of tampon?

What Explore lacks completely is personal relevancy.

And while we’re at it. If I’m an adult on Flickr. And I’m over 18. And I specifically go to the opt in settings and say, yes please, I’m sooooo ok with actually seeing naked breasts as art, please let me see it. When I go to Explore, I should actually be able to see photos of the adult human body (gasp).

And if you, on the other hand, are not 18 or you specifically don’t want to see boobies, then likewise you should be able to check that setting and Explore should be smart enough to not show them to you.

But to just filter out all moderate/restricted content out of Explore, another way the algorithm is stupid.

One of the things I like about the photosharing 500px by the way is that they don’t seem quite so scared of the naked human body as Flickr is. I actually have been spending a fair amount of time in their recommended photos and have found them soooooo much better than what Flickr serves up.

So Flickr do us a favor. Let’s kill that broken down tired old donkey. Let’s freshen up the Flickr image a bit and do something that’s actually innovative and just plain makes sense for once. The time to revamp Explore into something so much better is upon us.

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  1. Max Vernon says:

    Hi Thomas,

    Your articles are always interesting.

    Have you heard of filter bias? That’s where you only get to see that which you’ve already identified as interesting; thereby filtering out what you haven’t yet identified as interesting.

    Flickr’s Explore page is simply that. A page where you can “explore” as yet unseen contacts photos. If as you propose, the Explore page was tailored to you, all you might see is the same old tired bokeh shots you thought were interesting during your first day on Flickr.

    Personally, I prefer to use my list of contacts photos for that particularly benign task.

    I prefer to find photos by people I’ve never heard of, and who shoot subjects I’ve never thought of, and who are interesting people. People like you. By the way, I found you through Explore. Before you got blacklisted, I suspect.


    Max Vernon

  2. The Seneschal says:

    The Flickr website reminds me of cargo pants and Dave Matthews music. Meaning, it was great years and years ago. Unfortunately for Flickr (and cargo pants), it’s 2011.

    It’s amazing that Flickr hasn’t evolved. Including your #10. The only thing that blocking someone on Flickr does is prevents that person from commenting on your photos or Flickr-mailing you. Blocking someone should be just that… BLOCKING; no photos, no comments in the forums, nothing.

  3. Max Vernon says:

    @The Seneschal – hey I’m wearing cargo pants and I love Dave Matthews!

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    It’s amazing that Flickr hasn’t evolved. Including your #10. The only thing that blocking someone on Flickr does is prevents that person from commenting on your photos or Flickr-mailing you. Blocking someone should be just that… BLOCKING; no photos, no comments in the forums, nothing.

    yes, for sure!

    I prefer to find photos by people I’ve never heard of, and who shoot subjects I’ve never thought of, and who are interesting people. People like you. By the way, I found you through Explore. Before you got blacklisted, I suspect.

    If would be super easy for flickr to personalize explore while still giving you a tab that you could go to of complete strangers. But the primary purpose of the section should be to show me interesting photos. Today that’s not happening.

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    Max, maybe Explore needs to show you more photos of Dave Matthews. Here is one to start you out:


  6. Max Vernon says:

    Good one, Thomas. Faved!

  7. The Seneschal says:

    @Max Vernon
    This article is proposing Flickr’s Explore be more intelligent. Even Flickr staff admits Explore is ‘broken down’, as cited above.
    As Explore currently is, the photos it features mean nothing to me (9.9 times out of 10 I’m bored to death of the photos in Explore). If Explore was more intelligent, I’d spend more time there. And that’s the goal for any website; to have their users spend more time on the site.

  8. Max Vernon says:

    @The Seneschal – I agree that Explore could use some tweaking… I’m just not sure it being programmed with a bunch of filters based around your previous “faves” etc, is the best way to go. I’d rather see Flickr put it’s huge resources behind interpreting the content of photos to showcase photos that are unique.

  9. Max Vernon says:

    for instance, I just saw http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryanschude/5693907237/ on Interesting in the Past 7 days…

  10. Rob-L says:

    I like Sammy Hagar!

  11. Bowman! says:

    This is just another reason I can’t justify paying for a pro Flickr account any longer. Yes, it is nice to get prolific and post 1,000,000 photos (I’m looking at you TH) but, I have hard-drives and negatives. Until Flickr can get more incentives through things like Explore etc., I will be a “prosumer” minus the pro.

  12. Cirkus says:

    @The Seneschal that was the funniest analogy i have heard in a while….

    This deserves dialogue. The flickr platform is so archaic when they could be on the cutting edge with the right people behind the scenes who actually care about the product.

    lets not even get started with community management and extending the flickr brand offline… grrr.


  13. William Beem says:

    While I don’t think of this as a replacement for Explore, there is a feature I’d like to see. Essentially, I’d like a button while viewing a photo that says “Find more like this.” If Apple’s Genius can do it with songs in iTunes, it would be nice to see Flickr do it with photographs.

  14. […] was called ” WHY FLICKR’S EXPLORE SUCKS DONKEY BALLS” and was written by Thomas Hawk (Original article). Of course a title like that is made to draw attention to it, but a second reason this seemed […]

  15. I’m really liking 500px and the fact that can post the nudes I shoot without threats of being flogged. I will say that I am more picky with what I post now on there vice on Flickr. I have way too much history (almost 7 years) on Flickr to let it go but I have come damn close.

  16. O Hunter says:

    We agree that Flickr’s Explore is unsatisfying, but I’m at a loss as to what you think was the intent behind its creation. It seems to me that the purpose of Explore is to bring to the attention of the Flickr user photos that he/she would not otherwise see: hence the name “Explore”.

    You want Explore to highlight photos from people who are already on your contact list (which would make it more appropriately named “Highlight”). I don’t see much value in this because I would think that if someone is on your contact list, you’re already checking his/her photostream? And if you have so many contacts that you couldn’t possibly keep up with them all, well, whose fault is that?

    My problem with Explore is that Flickr users figured out how to game the system and artificially boost the “interestingness” of photos so as to get them featured. A good portion of Flickr groups exist for this purpose: “Post a photo and leave a [hollow, meaningless] comment under 5 other people’s.”

    Why is it that Explore should be the means by which a Flickr user finds “relevant” content? That’s what tags are for; that’s what groups are for. You want your Flickr experience to be completely insular experience, and the flaw, as you see it, is that Flickr doesn’t make it easy enough for you to ignore the rest of the huge user base. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting an insular experience, but the fact that it’s not that way isn’t due to an oversight on the part of the people who designed Flickr; the exposure to content from “complete strangers” is the whole point. You just don’t like what Flickr is about.

  17. kelco says:

    I have been considering downgrading my “Pro” account cause it’s time to renew and Flickr just hasn’t been as fun as it used to be. I even titled the last photo I posted “To renew or not to renew, that, is the question”. Ironically, it ended up in Explore. Maybe that algorithm is smarter than we give it credit for…

  18. Michael says:

    As a Picasa user, I would like to say that most of your criticism of…well…most things…comes off as a petulant child that is making up problems for themselves because everything is amazing and nobody cares.

    For example:

    “My maid didnt turn off the lights after she was done cleaning my filth. This is fucking bullshit”


    “Why is the bank asking me whether or not I want to hear their services in english or spanish? Why should I have to answer it? This is dumb and it sucks DONKEY BALLS”.

    I think Louis CK once referred to this phenomenon as “white people problems”. Articles like this is the antithesis.

    Thank you TechCrunch for directing me to another site that is nothing but worthless rhetoric filled with didactic, polemic and overall detrimental bullshit.

    Good photos though.

  19. Eric says:

    You’re talking about something different than explore, I think. Most of your suggestions are basically asking Flickr to tell you the most interesting photos from people in your social graph. Which is fine and it’s kind of mind boggling Flickr doesn’t offer that already.

    But Explore is supposed to be more about discovery and serendipity. It’s about photographers I’ve never heard of and subjects and styles I never thought of. At least it would be if it worked; the algorithm has been broken for some time.

    If anything they should fix the Explore algorithm to reveal a better diversity of photos, and then fix the damn contacts page to incorporate most of the features you’re talking about. Or just plain fix the damn contacts page, and maybe come up with a separate personalized recommendation engine.

    But this is Flickr so I’m sure they’ll spend the next four months working on changing the font on the help forum or some equally useless “feature”. Real innovation seems to scare them these days.

    As a side note, these days I rely almost entirely on http://fffflckr.com/ discover new photos. Flickr could do a lot worse than to just buy that from the developer and integrate it into the site.

  20. Kirkyshooter says:

    I think I see the problem here, Flickr is not about you, neither is explore, it is about other people, everyone really, and that is bruising your ego. If you don’t like looking at explore, then don;’t click on the explore part of the page. If you don’t like Flickr, go somewhere else, nobody’s forcing you to stay…

  21. Stefan says:

    I disagree. I don’t want explore to show me stuff I already like. Neither do I want to see photos from nor photos of my contacts. I want to find new stuff I have never seen before. The goal should not be to personalize explore, but to make sure its output is interesting and of a certain quality. Therefore I love the rating system of 500px. It works really well, especially because ratings for older photos lose value. Because of this, the highest rated photos change all the time. (This is a big flaw in deviantart’s favourite system: if you look through the most popular pictures, you’ll see that they never change much)

  22. Flickr, Dave Matthews Band, Alternative Music, Blizzcon and Comic Con – these are the things that I have liked years ago, but then when people started liking these for the wrong reasons, each and every one of these became one sad mess. It might be appropriate to say their popularity made them banal.