Update 8 a.m. PST January 14: Sorry, I ran out of invitations, but you can request them from Photophlow's home page. Update 8 a.m. PST January 11: I added links to a couple of helpful videos.
For a Web 2.0 powerhouse, Flickr feels awfully Web 1.0. At least that was my conclusion after spending a few hours in the chat rooms of Photophlow, a start-up that grafts a highly interactive experience on top of Yahoo's photo-sharing Web site.
Flickr deserves credit for pioneering what can be done with photos on the Internet beyond merely displaying photos and albums. Flickr advantages include tags that let members sort and search photos, groups for finding like-minded photographers and sharing photos, and maps to sift through pictures geographically.
But Photophlow, which presents a chat room interface to the act of browsing Flickr, makes all those interfaces seem static. For me, the site felt like wandering through a museum with a group of new acquaintances, commenting on pictures as we went from room to room. And some of the rooms featured our own pictures.
The site is invitation-only right now so that Oortle, the start-up behind Photophlow, can keep up with growth. I ran out of invitations, but you also can request one at the site, which is how I got in.
I'm not the only person who's favorably impressed.
'A comfy coffee lounge'
"It really changes the way I use Flickr," said Alex Almeida, who publishes the Phat Photographer blog, who described Photophlow with a different metaphor. With its instant interaction, "it really is like a comfy coffee lounge with a big shoe box of photos where people can chat comfortably and pull any of those photos out of the shoebox and discuss them."
And Photophlow made it much easier to find new contacts, Almeida added. "I also was able to pick up the pace on getting people that were interested in my photography, as well as other similar interests, on my contact list," he said.
The site was founded and mostly programmed by Berkeley, Calif., resident Neil Berkman. Before founding Oortle, the company behind Photophlow, Berkman most recently was vice president of engineering at online dating site Engage.
After Berkman had a working Photophlow prototype, he found out Flickr actually once had something similar, a chat room interface called Flickr Live that the company scrapped. His searches on the subject led him to a resurrected Flickr Live mock-up by Bryan "striatic" Partington, whom he hired to be interface designer.
Berkman's company now has a handful of other part-time and contractor employees, but he isn't willing to say how exactly he plans to turn Photophlow into a revenue-generating operation.
Some ideas that occurred to me are advertising, subscriptions, premium features, and reserved rooms for photography classes, but the only thing Berkman would say on the subject was, "A big item on our list is adding support for more structured activities and events like tutorials, critiques, and competitions."
To me, Photophlow looks like just the kind of thing Yahoo might be interested in snapping up. But Berkman has plans that extend beyond Flickr--to social-networking superpower Facebook, for example.
"We've built the real-time collaboration technology underlying Photophlow in a way that makes it relatively easy for us to build very different services on top of it," Berkman said. "We will be taking advantage of this to build support for other photo-sharing services. These new applications will be distinct from the current Flickr-centric Photophlow service. A Facebook version is in the works."
How it works
With Photophlow, members join a chat room, either their own or an existing one. On the left side of the page is a collection of recently browsed photo thumbnails, and on the right is a space where anyone in the chat room can place a photo for discussion.
The site design can lead to a spontaneous sort of group free association. That's because the images on the left change each time a member searches for new pictures, and that can be done by explicitly searching, by clicking to see what a particular chat room member's photos are, or by clicking on hyperlinked words that Photophlow identifies in the chat.
For example, Photophlow highlighted "wink," "hook," "harsh criticism," "hoarfrost," "bear fetish," and "Pauli exclusion principle." Clicking these links shows photos that can lead the conversation in new directions.
With all the distractions, don't expect to keep a conversational thread going for too long on the general rooms. Users can set the conversational topic, but nobody seems to pay much attention.
The design works in part because photo enthusiasts are the kind of person who's likely to show up in the chat rooms, so a basic minimum compatibility is likely already achieved.
That's not to say the discourse is always enthralling; you take the bad with the good. Commentary during my chats ranged from uninsightful "nice photo" remarks to much more useful expert critiques by Tiny Malone of the Portfolio Pro. Off-topic conversations tackled everything from goose migration to how somebody's date went.
It's not just a chat room, though. Photophlow also integrates with Flickr itself for adding comments to photos. And its facility for making fellow photographers to your Flickr contacts list is vastly easier than Flickr's obtuse interface.
That's all possible because of the openness of Flickr's application programming interface, or API. "The nice thing about working with Flickr's API is that so many applications have been built on it, and Flickr has been so responsive to its developer community, that it's been able to support virtually every feature we've conceived of," Berkman said.
The bad is that the site hangs up occasionally, and I had some trouble at times retrieving various members' photos. I think the "magnify" operation shows a photo that could be magnified a lot more. Sometimes the pace of searches and photo postings is more frenetic than I'd prefer (hint: if you click the "private" button, your searches and posts will be for your eyes alone).
But I'm willing to cut the site slack--it's still in beta testing. When will Photophlow come out of beta?
"This depends on a number of things, including funding," Berkman said. "We could benefit from some additional engineering help. I'm optimistic that we can be open within a few months, but at this point I wouldn't go so far as to say I expect it."
Flickr probably need not be too worried about being gobbled up by Photophlow, a site in its comparative infancy and one that probably couldn't exist without piggybacking on Flickr's immense following.
But there are signs that perhaps Flickr is getting the message. On Tuesday, the company published a job posting looking for a senior Flickr user interface designer.