Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nice chat, by George.


George Oates, one of the founders of Flickr, came to the office for a chat today. What a treat.
George is an Adelaide girl – home visiting her decidedly arty parents before going off to give important speeches on international web development in Sydney and then Spain.
Ours was the classic meeting of netizens.
She waved to me as she came in the newspaper’s revolving doors. I knew instantly who she was but wondered how she recognised me. I knew her because I had researched her online. I had visited her Flickr pages and her blog and assorted articles about her. What I had not anticipated was that she would do the same to me. So there we were, strangers confidently waving in recognition.
Photographer Mark Brake bought us both coffees and we sat in the purple plush chairs of in the grand atrium foyer of Sir Keith Murdoch House here and, well, chatted. I tried to “interview” George. But it is an odd thing. If one takes to one’s subject, it becomes more chat than interrogation. And, anyway, George turned out to be quite guarded on any half controversial issue regarding Flickr. It did not matter from a news point of view because whichever really important issue we may have plumbed – content filters and net neutrality, for example – would have taken more words to articulate than there is space provided in the news pages. News stories are short and tight. They are no place for extrapolation.


But I learned a number of interesting things about George Oates.
She is the classic unspoiled Aussie. She may have been part of the receiving end of a $35 million corporate buy from Yahoo, but there is not a ticket on her. She said yes, she had a few shares in the company and of course, the shares were bought out. I t was just “jam”. Plain good luck. She spends her life pinching herself at the wonder of it all, she said.
And having the same sort of fun she always had.
The great expression of her new-found affluence in the cultured high life of San Francisco would seem to be bacon parties. She explained the concept of wrapping bacon around all manner of foods and cooking the resulting bundle on her fancy BBQ, or as the Americans call it, “grill”. Anyone who had been once to one of her bacon parties was committed to come to the next one. That was the only rule of George’s bacon parties.
There ya go. Is that eccentric geek or what?

What I did not know about George Oates was that, after dropping out of two universities because she is “not the studying kind”, she turned up as a “red shirt” at Ngapartji Multimedia Centre in 1996. I gave speeches at Ngapartji. I was on the board at Ngapartji. I remember the red shirts well, but I do not recall George in particular. I wish I did. What a dividend she turns out to be of that now-defunct brave enterprise. It did not give her the training she now uses but it did give her the connections and enough HTML to springboard out into more serious software and onwards through the game that didn't to the photo sharing application that did.


The de rigeur question of the day was her take on the backward nature of Australia's broadband. It is one of the slowest in the world - definitely the slowest in the developed world. She made the right noises of disdain. And we talked some of censorship and how one defines porn and offensive material. George laughs at the misconception of so many that the admins of Flickr are sitting about waiting to pounce on unacceptable material. "We're not arbiters. We're stweards," she said. She was ready to give the concept of "unacceptable" a bit of dissection. It's all deeply moot. But the revelation was that the Flickr community was the decisive factor in judging Flickr content. "They sort things out," said George.

And the old Flickr rule of "don't be creepy" remained surprisingly effective.

The Flickr International issues were another kettle of fish, one that George really didn't want to explore for the mainstream media. She gave it a cautious shot, explaining that different countries had different laws and different filtering systems. One country may not necessarily be able to see content available to another country.
Different laws on content and copyright in different countries may be a headache on one hand but an advantage, perhaps, in the long run - when it came to keeping the liberty of the net alive. After all, said George, people can store data in different places and they can move date. The up side of this website mobility was the difficulty of over-regulating the net and perhaps it would be the net's salvation. We can only hope.

On YouTube George was generous spirited. She said she saw it as a vehicle for people to talk to and see each other. It expressed the voyeur in all of us. YouTube may be burdened with copyright issues from Disney and its ilk but, at the same time it was demonstrated a shift of content away from Disney and its ilk - the people producing their own content.

There are all sorts of new things afoot at Flickr. It continues to evolve and George sees immense promise in metadata - and is keen to play with time sliders. The way in which in just four years Flickr has shown itself to be such a brilliant recorder of history has rather fired her. Indeed, she is keen to know what the academics are finding interesting about Flickr and what they are studying. Some people already are doing their PhDs on the photo sharing phenomenon.

There are so many facets. George pointed out the "life cycle" she had observed among Flickr users. After posting humble first pix of family or friends, their subsequent photos would show greater effort with light, fancy backlit pictures, then they would have gone out and bought a Canon and started shooting macros and doing fashion shots - and the next thing you know they were working as wedding photographers.

There were myriad other facets of Flickr I'd have liked to explore but we were in the usual newspaper rush. The 'tog had to get his pix in - for which he wanted to walk George out in the city streets.




So I produced my camera to get my Flickr pic of George and she produced her camera to get her Flickr pic of me.

And, heavens above, the queen of digital photo sharing uses an old-fashioned film camera.