prompting participation – a missing social software feature

I’m a long term, and fairly heavy, user of the photo-sharing site flickr although, over time, my usage of the site has changed from being a place where I primarily shared my best and most interesting photos to one where I mostly upload photos directly from my cameraphone.

I primarily use zonetag, developed by Yahoo Research Labs, as my uploader because it has some functionality not currently offered by other similar services including Shozu. Once it’s running on your phone, zonetag pops up every time you take a photo and asks if you’d like to save it to flickr. It then asks if you’d like the include the cell location data, which links up with flickr’s new(ish) maps functionality and plots your photo on a map, and what level of privacy you’d like. It does other cool things too, like allows you to delete all the local copies of photos that you’ve uploaded, making that particularly tedious task far easier, and it can connect to the RSS feed of your choice for tag suggestions.

We’ve enlisted the help of several local weather watchers – members of the public who are interested in documenting and explaining the weather to others – for an experiment at BBC Leicester. We’ve set up a flickr account for each of them to upload their photos to. Once added to the invitation only group pool set up by BBC Leicester, the photos are automatically pulled into a BBC weather page. Each day, staff at BBC Leicester use their flickr account to favourite one of the photos and that appears, in the same page and again automatically, in the same page.

We’ve also set-up several of the participants in the project with zonetag accounts to get photos from their cameraphones, stamped with their location data, uploaded to flickr. We also pointed zonetag at BBC Leicester’s RSS weather feed to provide tag suggestions so that if, for example, snow fall that’s been predicted occurs and a weather watch takes a photo of it on their phone, the tag "snow" will automatically be suggested.

The weather watchers participate in their own time and retain ownership of their own photos. The BBC simply embeds those photos using the flickr api, just as a blogger or user of a social networking service would do. The real benefit to this approach is that there is no need for the BBC to build an uploader or to own, manage, resize or in anyway store the content AND the participants are able to do what they set out to do regardless of whether the BBC applies any editorial process to the photos, namely that they can share their photographs of the weather with a potentially wider audience.

It’s easy for the participants to take part – using flickr is very straightforward – but I think it’s fair to say that part of the reason this experiment has been a bit slow off the ground is that it’s easy to simply forget to upload a fresh photo each day, especially if the weather is unchanged or isn’t doing anything particularly interesting.

If the BBC, or zonetag, was able to add a feature that would prompt users to take a photo based on time or location, details the application uses from the phone anyway, I think we’d see much greater participation in projects like this. Users could then set their zonetag settings to prompt them to take and upload a photo either at set times of day, set intervals, or when they are at a specific location.

There are lots of ways that people could use this, either for the expression of personal creativity or as part of a research or media led project.

For instance, a photoblogger doing a taking a photo of the weather outside their window each morning might find it useful to be prompted to do so, as would a commuter who blogs about their journeys to and from work or the mother doing a photo essay where she captures a photo of each day in the year of her child. Location, too, could be used to prompt a photo with similar applications.

Actually, prompting participation like this, far from being annoying, would be a useful way to drive usage of microblogging services such as twitter ("your last update was n minutes ago, update now…"), plazes ("you’re in a new place, want to tag it?") and Jaiku. The prompting would, of course, have to be user configurable so as no to become intrusive but I see no other reason why a feature couldn’t or shouldn’t be incorporated like this.

Do you work for yahoo, plazes, jaiku, twitter or another service that could incorporate a feature like this? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

One Comment

  1. Great post Robin.
    Lot’s of resources I hadn’t come across but chiming with some ideas I’ve had at the back of my mind for a while.

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