FlickR: Promoting social behaviour using patterns

Today’s discussion is about the use of design patters as a way of promoting and guiding social behaviour in social media. I will use Flickr as an example as well as some of the patterns recognized in the book Designing Social Interfaces by Crumlish and Malone [1]. It will be a small selection of many patterns suggested and I’m not going to talk about the graphical design or the interaction but I will have a look at patterns related to the language and structure.

Flickr is described by Wikipedia as a video and image hosting web where people can share photos and videos, doing so as participants in an online community with friends. The resent redesign of the site has not gone unnoticed but despite the mixed critique negative  and positive, Flickr has to this date as many as 87 million registered users.

Flickr has what Engestrom (2005) describes as a “shared object” as being a social object connecting people. The idea was also further developed by McCharty [2] as being social-objects where people themselves connect to objects and define a deeper meaning for the object to gain a better understanding.

So maybe a good start is to have a quick look at the business model.


Where’s the money!

Flickr is based on free accounts with advertising and subscribers.There are three types of accounts, free, ad free and doublr. The free account offers 1 terabyte of photo and video storage, ad free costs currently $49.99 and has the same storage as the free account, and doublr currently costs $499.99 for 2 terabyte storage. Other sources of revenue is to sell data generated in the platform to third parties [3]. In order to get people to continue to publish photos there is a strong emphasis towards a flow where there is a constant activity. Morell for instant is saying about Flickr’s model: “Finally, the advertisers want activity (especially countable activity), and so the platforms are designed to increase information flow and renewal rather than archiving, integrating or systematizing the information on the platform.” Ok that’s pretty clear so let’s have a look at how Flickr uses patterns to do this.

How do we talk?

When Flicker addresses the user this is done in a conversational tone. An example is their community guidelines. This is of course a matter of context, to whom you are speaking and in some way the content of what you are communicating. But by doing so, Flickr is creating an easygoing atmosphere, which is more likely to appear between people in an ordinary conversation, but at the same time without neglecting the importance of the message. In other words without losing the fact that these are written instructions.


One of the paragraphs from the guidelines, notice the use of words suck as don’t panic or misunderstanding.

Another interesting design pattern is the choice of grammatical person “I” or “You”. Flickr is using second person “You”.  This will create a feeling that the site is talking to you, but can be perceived as a bit more distant than using the possessive form of first person “My” for example. The reason to use “You” is to invite an open socializing form rather than to create a feeling of a very private sphere.


It’s easy to see that there is an intuitive taxonomy going from “You” to “Contacts” and “Communities” and even further to the much broader “Explore” in the top menu bar.

The Social Structure

When it comes to structure and making it easy to find information, Flickr uses of personal tagging as a means of self organizing objects. Crumlish and Malone are metaphorically saying, “pawing the cow path” when referring to the users mental model and how the design should follow the way people usually act.  The tagging pattern is used as the say for large unstructured data. Others as Marlow et al. [4] try to establish taxonomy for social tagging systems. What is important to have in mind is that tagging is not mandatory. Rather as Marlow says, the users do it primarily for there own retrieval but the system design encourages the use of a more explorative and social use. For instance it’s also possible to tag photos taken by others. So this is a way of enforcing the social aspect in a playful manner where the usage of tagging evolves as the user becomes more experienced over time.

Another key element is the use of groups formed by different criteria based on the content, where photos can be shared between members, see for instance Negoescu et al. [5] show that sharing photos in this manner is very common by Flickr users.


Flickr uses social patterns to create a common ground where much freedom still exists in how social you want to be. But on the other hand, seeing that tagging and grouping strongly emphasize social activities, one can draw the conclusion that we are encouraged to become more social and interactive.


1.  Crumlish, C. Malone, E., (2009) Designing social interfaces: principles, patterns, and practices for improving the user experience. CA, O’Reilly Media, Inc.
2. McCarthy, J., (2011). Bridging the gaps between HCI and social media. Interactions, 18(2), p.15.
3. Morell, F. (2010). Commercial providers of infrastructure for collective action online Case studies comparison Flickr – Corporation model and Wikihow – Enterprise model.
4. Marlow, C., Danah M., Boyd D., Davis M. (2006). HT06, tagging paper, taxonomy, Flickr, academic article, to read. HYPERTEXT ’06: Proceedings of the seventeenth conference on Hypertext and hypermedia. Pages 31-40.
5. Negoescu, A., Gatica-Perez, D., (2008). Analyzing Flickr groups. Proceedings of the 2008 international conference on Content-based image and video retrieval – CIVR  ’08, p.417.


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