News & Politics

The Best $24.95 MoveOn Ever Spent

MoveOn's popular Flickr photo-sharing account shows how political causes can engage people who are already socializing online.
If you're a typical fan of Flickr, the community photo-sharing site that was recently bought by Yahoo, then you are undoubtedly already familiar with Flickr's tagging system, which allows anyone who uploads a photo to the site to add his or her own topical notations to each photo. One of the site's best features is its main tags page, where not only can you see some of the hottest tags in the last few days (snowday and lennon being two example), but you can also browse the site's most popular tags, which are arranged in a "tag cloud" that shows each word (beach, birthday, cameraphone, japan, me, vacation) and indicates its relative popularity by the word's type size. Click on any tag and you're taken to a stream of recent public photos with that tag.

But if by some chance you stumble onto one Flickr member's home page, you'll discover a very odd-seeming list of tags in its cloud, led by antiroverally, approved, candlelight, cindysheehan, faceamerica, great, memberadded, mothers, photopetition, and vigil.

Welcome to the public Flickr account of MoveOn.org. With little notice, the giant liberal advocacy group has dipped its toes into the social networking slipstream, and so far it's quite enthralled with the experiment.

Says MoveOn CTO Patrick Michael Kane, of the firm We Also Walk Dogs, "Flickr has got to be the best $24.95 we've ever spent. We've been able to review, organize and make available over 11,000 photos to MoveOn (and Flickr!) members." In November alone, he says, the group uploaded over a gigabyte of photos, and it has been able to make photos from campaigns available in real time.

As far as I know, this is the first major use of Flickr by a political campaign. Individuals have attempted to make use of the site's free service and simple tagging feature to express a collective point; for example the writer Rob Walker has spawned a haunting series of photos that are all tagged Mlkblvd to bring together photos of the many streets and boulevards across America that have been named for Martin Luther King Jr., quietly illustrating how far the country has to go before King's vision of equality is realized. People have also spontaneously tagged their photos of political events, there are plenty of provocative photos that people have tagged "politics," and Flickr does support the formation of groups around pictorial themes. But so far these efforts are very scattered.

Sharing the work

MoveOn came to Flickr in large degree because its own internal system for receiving members' photos of events, reviewing them and posting them wasn't very functional. MoveOn has long used photos to show its members that they are part of something much larger; after the group helped spawn thousands of grass-roots candlelight vigils across America just before the invasion of Iraq, its staff put together an amazing page of photos showing how the events went worldwide. But managing the flood of photos that come in around each MoveOn event, Kane says, was complicated.

"Finding the best photos was difficult and the sheer number of photos meant that we often had to take photos offline to save disk space," he explains. "The system was also very campaign-oriented -- it provided ways to get at photos in the context of a certain campaign, but not a great way to look at all the photos that MoveOn members had taken over time."

Meanwhile, Kane says, he had been using Flickr to manage his personal photos and loved it. "So in March and April of this year, we started talking to the guys over at Flickr about the idea of building a distributed photo approval and storage application around their API." An API -- application program interface -- is a bit of software that enables different programs to talk to each other. "The goal," he says, "was to allow users to upload and view photos from any MoveOn event, while making sure that inappropriate pictures got filtered out."

The system they built has two main parts: an email based photo uploader and a distributed photo approval application. It works like this, according to Kane:
We setup an email account for a campaign. Campaigners can associate any number of tags with that email account. Folks email photos in as attachments. A script looks at each email, finds the ones that have photos and uploads them to Flickr. On the MoveOn side, we keep some metadata about the photo: when it was uploaded, whether the person who sent them in was a MoveOn user or not etc.
At this point, the photos are all private -- the public can't view them. So, MoveOn volunteers use the "photo booth" application to review uploaded photos. Each photo gets at least two votes. If it's approved, the photo is marked public and becomes part of the Flickr photostream. Volunteers can also flag photos as "great", so we can quickly cherry pick great photos to highlight to MoveOn members.
By all indications, the system is working well. Since so many people are already familiar with emailing photos to friends or family, MoveOn's email-based uploading process is a snap. And the photo approval process has turned into a great way to involve MoveOn volunteers. Kane reports that when the group was testing the review application, it asked volunteers to review 7,000 photos from previous events. "The folks that responded to the ask went through all 7,000 photos in less than 50 minutes and were disappointed when we ran out of pics for them to look at. Great stuff!"

Power to the edges?

Apart from being able to save server space and involve volunteers, MoveOn's engagement with Flickr has had some unexpected benefits that come precisely from using a platform that is designed to push power to the users. Kane recalls, "One of our campaigners wanted a slideshow of photos from a recent action and was able to put it together himself, just by selecting the tags he was interested in and using the Flickr slideshow app." He adds, "It's also made finding pictures for the MoveOn homepage and other materials a snap -- MoveOn staff can easily browse photos by campaign or time period."

And so can you. Kane says there have been more than a quarter million viewings of MoveOn's photos on Flickr, and that's without the group ever directly informing its members of the resource. MoveOn is also discovering lots of new contacts among Flickr users who have stumbled across its photos.

Though MoveOn is making only limited use of the Flickr toolset on its own homepage, where members are pointed to a simple slideshow, in the future Kane expects "to point folks towards the 'most viewed' or 'most interesting' lists for a given campaign, just like we point people to the photos that our volunteer reviewers have flagged as 'great' now." He's also thinking of adding geographic information to their photo-set, since they already know which event every photo has come from, and combining that with the Google Maps API to create instant national, state and local maps.

Where all this may lead is unclear. MoveOn members could start to use the group's Flickr pages to engage in some lateral communication with each other, for example, since Flickr encourages people to leave comments on photos and also enables group forums. But it's not likely that will happen without some instigation from the group's leadership.

The larger lesson for other organizations is this: As social networking sites like Flickr, del.icio.us (also just bought by Yahoo!), and MySpace attract millions of users, it may make sense to go where the people already are and start playing with the same tools, not only because those tools may offer all kinds of benefits to the organization, but also to see what unexpected benefits may engage people. What MoveOn is doing with Flickr is just a beginning.