Flickr + Libraries = Scary, Scary, Scary to Some Folks

By Michael Stephens |
    "Another benefit of using Flickr at your library and tagging your photos with your library's name and location is that it gets you found in the great pool of all of the photos in Flickr. Maybe someone is searching Flickr for his or her hometown and discovers images of the local library and learns of services or programs he or she didn't know about... Participating in this type of social software community is relatively inexpensive, can offer presence, and it's fun!"—Michael Stephens, "Web 2.0 & Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software," LTR (42:4)
This post has been cooking a long time, from what might have been a TTW Mailbox entry to here. I want to tell everyone about a bit of drama that's playing out right now, right after DOPA passed the House, and what may be boiling up (and over) in an important moment in time for social software, users, and libraries. The theme here for me is FEAR.

First, though, an e-mail from a librarian who needed my advice:
    Dear Michael:
    Thanks for the Ten More Things about Flickr post, but unfortunately, our filter here at the library is blocking all Flickr photos. We can un-filter it for staff or adult patrons who ask, but the way it is being blocked makes it look like something is wrong with the web page, so patrons may not know it is being filtered. Our Automation Co-ordinator says it is a borderline case because too many people violate Flickr's policy on what can be publicly posted. He will remove it if enough people agree with me. All the colleagues I've spoken to agree with me in theory, but they don't use it themselves so they can't really advocate for it. Is there any chance you could say a few words in Flickr's favor?
    A Flickring Librarian Wannabe
Thomas Ford Memorial Library's Flickr Photos I've said a lot about Flickr and the benefits for libraries—in fact, there's a section in my issue of Library Technology Reports on Flickr use. "Too many people" do not violate Flickr's policy... I am getting weary of these blanket statements about social software-using folks being evil or doing bad things; sure there are some, but I've seen a lot of self-correcting going on via the community's members. If you haven't tried Flickr and are just repeating what your "IT Coordinator" has said, take a look for yourself. Remember, this is an experiential world we're moving into.

My Third Place: The Library... or Somewhere Else?
What if I want to upload my vacation pictures to Flickr and choose to stop at your public library to do it, and I find the site is blocked? I may just leave and go to the local Starbucks or wifi cafe. I may file it away in my mind: "Libraries must be afraid of this cool image site... too bad."

So AFLW, I'd get the librarians together and have a little meeting about this, maybe do a demo of Flickr with everyone and go from there.

So, now, this next wave of Flickr interest comes up, just after the first round of the DOPA decision. I can't help but think the two are connected. In the last twenty-four hours, I have received some forwarded e-mail messages from librarians who have received troubling messages about Flickr; the messages to the librarians seem to be coming from the same e-mail address. Here's one that your library may have received:
    Yahoo's, which your library uses, contains porn accessible to minors. Any public library that directs children to an adult oriented and uncensored website like Yahoo's Flickr is being criminally negligent. That Yahoo website which your library uses contains thousands of hardcore and even child porn images that have been presented to children for over a year now. Those institutions that choose to provide access to adult oriented social networks online which endanger youth will be reported to the US Justice Dept next week. Thank you.
A couple of days ago, I noticed that someone tagged a hardcore image of a nude woman "library" in the feed I subscribe to of all pics tagged "library." A few on-the-ball librarians reported it, and that person and image has since been removed from Flickr.

Colorado College Tutt Library's Photos on Flickr As a means to make a point about what images might show up on Flickr, folks, that just doesn't help! I ask, who would do that other than someone trying to make a point? This proves to me the community works—it's self monitoring and correcting.

Makes me wonder: are we that afraid of letting our communities correct—or not correct—that we'd rather just block it or drop the whole thing?

Another e-mail message just came in from a library director who wanted me to know what was happening. This must be heating up right now... The message goes on to list a bunch of URLs of Flickr images that include nude or scantily clad people, some artisitc, some not. The message is from someone who, in looking back at this person's history with Flickr, etc., has been waging a war against social software for a while. It looks as though Flickr discontinued his or her account some time ago. If you have received a message from this person, search on the e-mail address and follow the links. Look closely.

Please be aware that Flickr is NOT "Yahoo's Flickr adult oriented amateur porn website"—it's a photo-sharing community that offers a way to make connections and have conversations. I've "favorited"images and commented and tagged. And Jenny and I have demonstrated its use all over in the Roadshow. I've flagged images that "may offend" before, and I've advocated that libraries use Flickr as well.

Folks, this is like walking down the street in any medium (i.e., in Second Life) or larger town—you'll come across varying folks with varying interests and lifestyles; you'll come across the seedy neighborhood with the triple-x storefront; you'll come across the library, where, hopefully, you'll find a busy building, brimming with patrons outside and in; you'll likely find something for everyone.

I ask that you do not make any spur-of-the-moment, reactionary decisions, Flickr'ing Librarians! What I sincerely hope will not happen is the libraries and associations that have started using Flickr will abandon the site because they are scared... come on! Don't let this type of e-mail campaign derail you. Look at the big picture of how this site and many others are used and can benefit your online presence. Let's teach our users about the good and bad of online communities, BUT LET'S NOT just close the door and lock it!

Karen Schneider wrote this week here about library practices that mystify her including:
    Libraries that block instant messaging/gaming/Flickr/YouTube and so forth because computers should be used for serious purposes. Have you ever browsed your new-book shelves? Danielle Steele, Jan Karon... let a thousand flowers bloom, but don't kid yourselves that you have an intellectual renaissance going on over in the stacks. Libraries serve important roles in society, and one role is that as provider of recreational information. Whether it's in a book or on a screen, let people explore their worlds.
Librarian, tech trainer, author, and social software advocate Michael Stephens. Amen.

So What Can We Do Now?
  • Be aware that in this 2.0 world, folks can make connections and find others that share their interests, passions, and views. There will always be a few bad eggs that try to ruin it for everyone. Knee-jerk, seemingly mollifying decisions can damage a library more than one can envision in the near term.
  • Call your senator about DOPA. Now!
  • Educate your staff, your board of trustees, and governing agencies about social sites and the issues surrounding them. Learn about the legal ramifications.
  • Read Flickr's Terms of Use and check out the Report Abuse page.
  • Compare one or two threatening anonymous e-mail messages with the good that Flickr and other social sites have brought to your institution or your users.
  • Educate your users—your community—about the good and bad of social software. I'd much rather give a roadmap and some guidance to someone instead of blocking access.
  • Unlock Flickr, other social sites, and social tools so people have access and can check out this online world IN THE LIBRARY!
  • Don't be afraid.
I'd like to hear what other librarians are thinking and how they've responded to these threatening messages. This is a conversation that should play out now—in the open—with libraries, users, our association, everyone, before rattled folk start an online witch hunt for social sites! I truly believe the good outweighs whatever bad might be found there.
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