The Commons: Vital, virile, virtual and viral

Posted by zyrcster in Articles
McCall Cover, Joan Caulfield

I am a co-founder of Indicommons.

That sentence feels full of hubris, since many people ‘co-founded’ Indicommons; the position, if any, that Indicommons holds in promoting and supporting The Commons on Flickr is the result of many people’s efforts, all of whom can claim, rightly, to be co-founders of this blog and community. That sense of ‘community’ is exactly what makes The Commons vital, virile, virtual and viral.

The GLAM community this week (art galleries, libraries, archives and museums) was lit afire this week when the news spread that Flickr has disabled the registration page through 2010 for The Commons:

Due to the current backlog of requests, we will not be accepting new registrations or requests to join the Commons through 2010.

It surprises me, as both a co-founder of Indicommons and as, more recently, a staff member of Flickr, that some have mistaken this statement to mean that Flickr is not supporting The Commons or is not adding new institutions to The Commons this year. The only thing this statement can mean is (a) that there is a backlog of registrations that need to be converted to accounts and (b) that the ability to register intent to join The Commons is temporarily disabled. The Commons page is live, the ability to limit searches to only Commons material is live, and (the most important piece to The Commons) the No Known Copyright Restriction license is live on Flickr.

At the heart of it all, this infrastructure is the foundation for The Commons – everything else that makes The Commons so vital is actually the community. This infrastructure is why every report made by The Commons’ institutions since the project began two years ago states that their goals have been met and expectations exceeded. I think the strongest evidence of the power of The Commons is well captured by Seb Chan, Courtney Johnston, and Kate Theimer (ArchivesNext) in recent blog posts regarding the ‘debate’ about The Commons.

The Commons is vital: we all know this.

'Mother and Child'

The community is the sum of the institutions that hold accounts on The Commons, the members who leave folksonomic information on the content in The Commons, and the staff who work behind the scenes to support the infrastructure of The Commons. Vitality is the living, breathing soul of this community; if the infrastructure brings the content of public institutions, no matter where they are physically located in the world, to people anywhere in the world with an internet connection regardless of their economic or social status and if that infrastructure lends new insight to that content, then The Commons is very much not simply alive but also vital. It is vital since it transcends physicality and propels content to those who may otherwise not have access to history or who have the ‘missing link’ that fills in the gap for archivists and enthusiasts alike.

The Commons is virile: we all should know this.

LSE Sports Day, Malden Sports Ground, c1920s

The significance of this should not be underestimated. The community is a reiterative edifice which is spiral in structure. It begins with art or history, it goes through an archival process which is largely confined within the walls of an institution, then explodes onto the public stage where new information fills any lacunas of uncertainty, thus becoming stronger evidence which answers questions about who we are or where we are or what we are and what we can become. And so the spiral repeats itself and expands itself, for as new information is pushed into the world, it provides more opportunities for new information to be obtained. This is the virility of The Commons. Through the community, archival material strengthens who and what we are in the global and local communities.

The Commons is virtual: we need to embrace this.

Paris Exposition: night view, Paris, France, 1900

The miracle of all of this is that The Commons is a global entity composed of local forms hosted on a virtual stage (or platform). This platform is Flickr. The platform exists: it is here, it is accessible despite rumors to the contrary, and it is constantly expanding. It expands every time an institution uploads a photo asking, “Where is this? What information do you have to help us identify this event?” and the community responds with rich anecdotal or scientific evidence that does identify the event.

The platform will continue to expand as long as the community contributes to it and the servers are running it.

But the platform, any platform, cannot be beholden or trapped within some one person’s personality. I am a very strong and very opinionated personality. I cannot be defined as the public face of Indicommons or The Commons, depending on which role you choose to view me in. The cult of personality is anathema to The Commons in any form, especially when you take the term at its most base meaning: public. This is very much a public phenomenon, one that is unique; there has never been a project like this hosted anywhere.

Now for two brief stories. The Commons exists not because of one person, but because one institution (the Library of Congress) contacted a social media website (Flickr) and suggested the idea. Of course strong personalities made it happen. But that doesn’t mean that the concept is solely one person’s child to raise by themselves and by themselves alone. Think: Village raising children. Better still, think: Common ground raising information for a global audience by a global network.

My second story is that for months, I carried this blog on my back, then I accepted a job offer which left me no time to blog at any of the five blogs I currently manage, including this one. In fact, a few of the original co-founders of Indicommons are doing other things with their time right now … but there are people in the community who stepped into the vacuum. So, back to the first story: there is a team at Flickr who provide support for The Commons. This team has people, some of whom like the limelight and others who do not, who are passionate, emphatic, opinionated, and in love with The Commons. Any time anyone says anywhere that The Commons is in a state of decay because one person is no longer on the team or there is no team or there is no public face of The Commons is actually backhanding the silent, quiet effort of those whose jobs entail the support of The Commons. Worse, they undermine the vitality of the project.

The Commons is viral and it depends on you.

Crowd - Union Sq. (LOC)

One only needs to ask, “Does this work for me?”

Does it work for you as an institution that you can post images to The Commons asking, “What is this, please?” and receive commentary on Flickr, Twitter, blogs, email and Facebook and within a matter of hours get data in the form of links to maps or other supporting documentation, personal stories, and metadata that enhances the value of the artifact you uploaded? And from an audience not limited to geeks or scholars but that reaches the masses wherever it is that they choose to hang out on the internet? The viral nature of Flickr itself makes this possible.

Does it work for you as an audience that you have access to the biggest names in Australian, European and American institutions’ archives; content that has previously been locked away behind glass or in a basement or trapped on a glass plate negative? Does it work for you that you can easily step up to the mound with new information to pitch to … The Smithsonian Institution? The Library of Congress? The Nationaal Archief all the way over in The Netherlands?

As a developer, do you like having access to an API and content that you can use to create exciting new places for the internet traveler to enjoy?

Does the viral nature of the internet help this project achieve and exceed its goals?

Then The Commons is very much alive and well, thanks!

A carpenter at the TVA's new Douglas dam on the French Broad River, Tenn. This dam will be 161 feet high and 1,682 feet ong, with a 31,600-acre reservoir area extending 43 miles upstream. With a useful storage capacity of approximately 1,330,000 acre-feet

I’m very excited to see the new content that will be added to The Commons this year, from both the current institutions and the new ones that are, as you read this, signing contracts and setting up their accounts. My prediction is that 2010 will blow the doors off The Commons so long as people peruse the content, institutions continue uploading and promoting the content, and developers build cool toys that add new dimensions to the content. Do you really need a cult of personality to lead this charge?

No, because The Commons is everyone’s plot of land to sow and reap rewards in. There is no tragedy of The Commons because culture is not a finite resource by virtue of its vital, virile, virtual and viral attributes.

Cris Stoddard was among the first members of the Flickr Commons group in December 2008 and among the founders of Indicommons in January 2009. Cris has worked at Flickr since the fall of 2009.


11 Responses to “The Commons: Vital, virile, virtual and viral”

  1. Frankie Roberto Says:

    Good points, well made.

    Tis a shame the backlog can’t be dealt with a bit faster though, eh? Still, guess it’s better to do it properly than to do a rush job…

  2. Stephanie Fysh Says:

    Cris mentioned in the Flickr Commons group the other day that they hope to lift the hold on registrations before 1 year – they just didn’t want to end up saying a date they might end up unable to meet.

  3. George Oates Says:

    Hear, hear!

    As much as it bolsters me personally to hear how people appreciated my work pushing The Commons from within the company in its early stages, to rest on that laurel doesn’t do any good to the people who are working every day to keep the program alive and kicking every day. It’s been over a year since I left, and yet, it lives! And is vital!

    (I noticed that someone had linked to a somewhat off-hand note I made against a bookmark on delicious about volunteering. I certainly hadn’t meant that to be blown out of proportion. Probably far more like the same reaction that many Commons appreciators had – how can I help?)


  4. Henrik Moltke Says:

    Sorry but this is completely Orwellian – there is a backlog of one year; you cannot get in touch with Flickr Commons, ask questions or call someone on behalf of an institution? How is this “Vital, virile, virtual and viral”?

    I for one am disappointed by the obvious lack of resources devoted by Yahoo to the project – and it’s so far-off from the good old Flickr I used to love.

    it reminds me why corporate, walled-in commons are not such a good idea. . I understand the effort by a few good people (if they’re still around?) but unless Yahoo puts some time and money into the commons, it will IMHO become a tragedy. I would gladly donate to the Flickr Commons had it not been the Yahoo Commons – but it is, isn’t it? And I would advice any institution to join a truly open commons such as the Wikimedia one, instead.

  5. zyrcster Says:

    Hi Henrik,

    I’m sorry that you feel it’s Orwellian or that The Commons needs some public figure head to validate that the program is alive and well and has a team.

    There is time and money devoted to The Commons. The misunderstanding as to why the registration page had to be turned off seems to come from those with an agenda, since the institutions that are in The Commons by and large continue to report success with the program. Also, all of that backlog will be joining The Commons this year, which will more than double its size, so I’m not seeing anything Orwellian at work here – I’m seeing that a problem got identified (the registration system itself was interfering with the ability to be timely about bringing new members into The Commons) and the problem is now fixed. You will start seeing new institutions in The Commons soon and then the revised reg page will be re-opened.

    As for it being Orwellian to not be able to contact us, I’m not sure how accurate that is, given that there are groups in which anyone can participate and in which staff also participates.

    Last, it’s a terrible and false dichotomy to say that it’s either/or. That’s it’s either Wikimedia or Flickr. That’s a poor argument, a fallacy. Flickr is but one avenue that GLAMs have to promote/share their content; an avenue that presently works. An avenue that I’m thrilled to be a part of via both Indicommons and Flickr.

  6. Eric in SF Says:

    Woo!! Cory Doctorow just blogged about this on BoingBoing:

    That should significantly raise awareness of The Commons especially among the digital generation who may not hang out in library circles.

  7. Flickr to double its Commons collection | dv8-designs Says:

    [...] The Commons: Vital, virile, virtual and viral Previously: [...]

  8. Henrik Moltke Says:

    @zyrcster OK, so maybe I was overreacting a bit – I just found the headline in stark contrast to my own experience trying to contact Flickr Commons on behalf of a large cultural institution. As to the fallacy, I do not believe it’s either or. I believe cultural institutions that invest in openness should not put their eggs in one basket. I just don’t get why it has to be so difficult to get in touch with Flickr Commons – IMHO it shouldn’t be exclusive, but maybe I am wrong here? I’m glad to see that there are more institutions in the pipeline, and wish you all the best for 2010.

  9. zyrcster Says:


    Which institution are you affiliated with? Maybe I can help. :)

    Flickr staff can be reached using the Help by Email system (the Get Help link at the foot of all Flickr pages); I realize this isn’t the same as giving you my work email address, but the request will reach the right people.

  10. Henrik Moltke Says:

    @zyrcster I added you as a contact on Flickr; we can continue there.

  11. Link Love: 2/5/2010 « The Bigger Picture Says:

    [...] adds to the conversation about the backlog on the Flickr Commons. The National Archives just launched on the Commons. The Commons is vital, virile, virtual, and [...]

Leave a Reply