The Sublime Beauty and Terror of Public Domain Flickr

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer and editor Josh Fruhlinger tells us more about the ridiculous things one sees while searching through Flickr.

cool perk of doing tech slideshows: judging whose fingernails are least gross in creative-commons licensed pics of various gadgets on flckr

— Josh Fruhlinger (@jfruh) April 21, 2014

Josh! So what happened here?

For one of my freelance gigs, I write a couple slideshows a month on tech topics for ITworld. This may sound like dull content creation drudgery, but I get to do them on subjects that interest me — the one I was working on when I posted this was about the etymology of various terrible web buzzwords and phrases — and I get to put jokes into them, so I’m generally pretty pleased with how they come out.

Finding the images is always the trick. ITworld doesn’t have an account with one of the stock image companies (at least not one that freelancers get to use), so I generally hunt for public domain or Creative Commons licensed imagery. This means I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia and Flickr, which include some stuff that’s very professional and useful and other stuff that’s…less so. But, honestly, I prefer it! There’s something a bit more spontaneous about it: You’re more likely to get goofy, enthusiastic pictures of people who are genuinely excited about getting their new laptop out of its box or whatever. It’s not staged — you can see all the stuff on their desk — and the charm makes up for the bad lighting.

In this case, I was trying to track down a product shot of the original Dell Streak, because that seemed to be the first phone that was referred to as a “phablet.” Which meant that I saw a lot of close-up pictures from 2009 and 2010 of people holding a Streak in their hand at trade shows and electronic stores (while holding another phone in their other hand to take the picture, probably?). And since a close-up on the phone also meant a close-up on their fingernails, I spent some time trying to figure out whose were the least unsightly. It came down to these two, and I think you’ll agree that #2’s were better, though I’d say still not great.

Dell Streak.

(As a side note, after the article was published I heard from linguist Ben Zimmer that the first phone called a phablet was actually the older Nokia N900, which meant I ended up swapping in a sadly fingernail-free photo from Wikipedia.)

What are some of the more crazy things you have come across in doing these searches in the past?

Sometimes I have to search not just for specific items or people but more abstract concepts, so I put some pretty weird search terms in and get some weird results back. Once I was looking for “Duke of Cool” — I have literally no memory why, but the result has been burned into my brain, for obvious reasons:


The uploader titled this “Duke of Dork,” so I’m not even entirely sure why it came up. Does Flickr know “cool” and “dork” are semantic flipsides of one another, somehow?

Also, I wouldn’t call this “crazy,” but one of the most common genres on Flickr is “photoset of dozens of pictures taken by nonprofessional photographer at some kind of government/professional conference and then uploaded indiscriminately.” These can be good places to find pictures of public figures who might be otherwise hard to track down, but they’re generally poorly lit and composed photos of some of the dullest forms of human interaction that our society tolerates. Somehow I stumbled once onto the following picture from a youth panel on texting and driving at what appears to be a government-sponsored “distracted driving summit,” in which literally every person in the photo looks like they want to kill themselves out of boredom. I kind of love it.

sad and distracted

Finally, there’s a Creative Commons–licensed picture on Flickr of TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington hanging out with Chamillionaire of “Ridin’ Dirty” fame:


I’m honestly not sure why every single article about Arrington (or, for that matter, Chamillionaire) doesn’t use this as an illustration. I did it, Wikipedia does it, and I urge you to do it too.

Lesson learned (if any)?

Really, keep your nails clean and well trimmed. Actually, you should be good about grooming in general — especially if high-res pictures of any of your body parts are going to go online, because you never know where that image is going to end up. Maybe it’s in a slideshow about stupid tech portmanteaus, or maybe it’s in a supermarket ad in Prague. Hygiene first! Also, even if you just stand next to someone long enough for a picture to be taken, people will be assuming the two of you are pals who hang out all the time (sorry, Chamillionaire).

Just one more thing.

I don’t think it’s a secret that Flickr is past its heyday — which means, from my perspective, that the heyday of photos from random people that have been explicitly tagged to allow reuse is also past. Honestly, it’s easier to find a picture of a phone from 2009 than it is to find one from 2014 on there. Assuming Yahoo doesn’t go bankrupt/accidentally unplug the servers, at some point it’s going to become this weird time capture, a slice of an archaeological dig representing the second half of the ’00s.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.

Photos by Paul Swansen, Jung-nam Nam, Ludie Cochrane, Jason Meredith, and Brian Solis, respectively.