diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 22, 2007

You know how websites sometimes "upgrade" and "improve their functionality" to improve the "end user experience"? Don't you just hate it when that happens? Today's example: Flickr - the online photo management application.

Today Flickr has two new functions. One of them is called Places, and it's quite cool. The concept is very simple - a page on Flickr for every place in the world. Just type a placename into the search box and off you go on your travels. There's a page for Paris, and a page for Timbuktu, and a page for Skegness, and even a page for the beach at Luskentyre in the Outer Hebrides. On each page you get a selection of either interesting or recent photos, plus a couple of local photographers and some relevant groups. Take the London page, for example. Lots of iconic photos of the London Eye and Big Ben and bright red phone boxes. Just what you'd expect to find. The images aren't quite so relevant in other locations, however. Wickford in Essex, for example, is a town seemingly populated entirely by cats, while Amersham in Bucks is famous only for "Tricia's birthday party". Never mind, I'm sure the site will sort out appropriate tagging eventually.

Meanwhile several Places appear to be missing. Take Brixton, for example. Flickr knows of several Brixtons - one a village in Devon, another in South Africa, one in Australia and a fourth in New Zealand - but it's never heard of the big one at the end of the Victoria line. And then there's Croydon. Flickr's heard of Croydon, the major settlement in South London, but apparently nobody else has. "We couldn't find any photos taken in Croydon." it complains. "It looks like no one on Flickr has ever taken a photo in Croydon." Yeah right. Quarter of a million people live there and not one has a camera? I think not. The problem appears to be that the whole of London has been defined as "London", and therefore no individual suburbs, towns and boroughs have their own individual identity. All you'll ever find for Ealing or Muswell Hill or Streatham are the same pictures of the London Eye and Big Ben and bright red phone boxes. Still, if this means that Wembley's been forgotten, maybe that's just as well.

And then there's the really rubbish thing that Flickr have just done. They've replaced their existing maps with "an experimental new map view", just to be a bit more flash and wow and 2.0. Unfortunately they've got rid of the old maps rather too prematurely. The new map view is still very experimental, and unfortunately it's trying to be too clever at the expense of functionality. Previously you used to be able to zoom in on a point on the map and see pink dots representing a selection of photos geotagged around that location. Not any more. Now a "Photo Ribbon" slowly loads across the bottom of the map, and pink dots eventually appear to show where these were taken. Previously hundreds of photos - now approximately 20 (restricted to either "recent" or "interesting" shots). Flickr's world is smaller and less fascinating as a result.

And lots of great things that used to be possible no longer are. A couple of years ago I walked twelve miles due west from my house and took 40 photos along the way. You used to be able to see all 40 photos on one map, just to prove that they fell in a straight line. Not any more. Now you can only see about half of them at any one time, and you have to jiggle along the Photo Ribbon to see the rest. Same with my more recent Meridian set. You can see the Greenwich end or you can see the Essex end, but you can't see both. Want to follow my photos along the Regent's Canal? You can't, not all the way in one go. Where's Metroland? Not telling you. Flickr maps used to be map first photos second, but now it's photos first map second. Geography has been abandoned at the expense of flashy visuals. There's dumbing down for you.

This is a very new feature, and the developers admit that they're still ironing out a number of bugs. But it's also the perfect example of why you shouldn't remove something old (and admittedly imperfect) before you've fully trialled its replacement. Over-complex, over-featured, and under-tested. Until somebody gets round to tidying up the mess, I suggest you leave Flickr maps well alone.

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