In Soviet Google, image tags you

14 May

Or, Why we still need image curators

Piccry Release Version 2.0Today I got an e-mail inviting me to join Piccsy, a social media service that goes live later this week.  It’s clearly a challenge to Pinterest, but combines some of the channel type features of FlipBoard.  Piccsy, the brain child of one of the founders, is aiming for a piece of the visual content curation space.  Why there?  It’s not a very blue ocean – but it is a very big ocean.  Why so big?  Because it’s one of the last areas of search that still requires a human touch. 

Images are a realm where computers haven’t yet caught up to people.  Google image search works because of the tags that people manually add to photos, or because of the way that people name their pictures.  The Great and Powerful Wizard of Google can’t (yet) look at an image and know what it’s a picture of.  (I know, I know, don’t end a sentence with a preposition; but “know of what it’s a picture” makes me sound like a sophomore English major.)  Google can’t read images the way it can read text.  So, while search can help us to discover images, we still need that human element.  We still need people to act as curators, telling us what an image is of, tagging it in a way that helps us to find just the perfect image to match our search terms.

Boo Radley HouseRecently, I was looking at my site stats and found that almost every day someone comes to MaggieCakes by searching for “boo radley house.”  This seemed… a little odd.  So, I Googled “boo radley house” myself and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but this picture that I took of a house in my town which I tagged as, you guessed it, “boo radley house.”  This house doesn’t have anything to do with Boo Radley – other than it reminds me of him.  The tag is completely subjective, and says more about my love of To Kill a Mockingbird than it does about the house.  But Google doesn’t know that.  I can’t understand the picture, but it has to trust me, subjective tags and all.

One of the top (Creative Commons licensed) images on Flickr for the search “mom and me.” Photo credit to artistic55w.

There’s so much more of the human element in image search than there is in standard search – so much more ego and personality involved in image tags.  Have you ever tried searching for relative or personal terms on a visual search like Flickr?  Try “mom,” “dad,” or “high school reunion.”  You won’t get pictures that look like stock photos of moms, dads, or high school reunions – but images of the photographer’s mom, the photographer’s dad, or the photographer’s high school reunion.  Imagine (standard) Googling “Mom” and the top ten results all being “I love my Mom” fan pages – it’s like that.

Mother and child

One of the top (Creative Commons licensed) images on Flickr for the search “mother and child.” Photo credit to Hanoi Mark.

The difference in search results for the terms “mom and me” and “mother and child” is amazing – although really they should be pictures of the same things.  “Mom and me” gives you pictures of (largely white) middle class westerners, while “mother and child” gives you images of impoverished women in traditional ethnic dress and their babies.  The tags are different because, subjectively, the photographers think of the subjects of the images differently — not because the images actually represent objectively different things.

Until Google knows that “Mom and me” should also be tagged “mother and child,” we’ll need image curators. Until Google (it could be another company, but let’s be honest, it’ll be Google) can look at an image and understand it, we’ll need people sharing and tagging photos.  For now, the image curation space is still a big wide ocean, so jump right in and make your own, totally subjective, splash.

Questions of the day: How do you tag your photos?  Do you ever wonder how other people stumble upon them?  What terms they’re used to find them?

One Response to “In Soviet Google, image tags you”

  1. Static Instants May 14, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    “In soviet Russia…” Love it!

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