BY ANDY IHNATKO
There are already way too many Web sites out there where you can upload and display your digital photos, and on the whole, watching these services develop is like watching cavemen trying to figure out fire.
They've all got the basic elements together, no trouble there. But you're pretty sure that it's going to be another thousand years before it occurs to anybody to bang the rocks together and try to make the little glowing things land on the sticks.
But the folks who've created www.Flickr.com get it. They get it, and then they went and beat up some kid on the playground and they took his stuff, too.
The goal of Flickr is obviously to turn your online photo library into a resource, not a limited set of features. And boy, are they good at it. No other photo-hosting site offers you so many ways of tossing pictures into your online library, or letting other folks take a look at 'em.
The Flickr folk succeed, essentially, by stealing damn near every single great idea that's floating around on the Internet.
Flickr can, indeed, host your photo albums. Upload them to Flickr.com either through its Web interface or via a "helper" app that runs on your Mac or PC, and presto, your photos are artfully displayed in your "photo-stream" where any Tom, Dick, or Aunt Harriet can see them.
Anyone who types your Flickr url into a browser will instantly see your most recent photos, as well as any albums you've created. If you'd rather not allow the whole world to see your Aunt Estelle doing her Josephine Baker impression, you can restrict certain photos' visibility to just the folks you've identified as Friends or Family.
But! Flickr also makes use of Shockwave animation. The Web-based software for grouping your pix into albums (Organizr) is every bit as interactive as iPhoto or Adobe Photoshop Album. In many ways, Organizr even surpasses iPhoto in simplicity.
Flickr steals from Orkut, Friendster, and other social-networking portals by allowing you to identify the relationships between you and other Flickr users. Log into Flickr, and you're instantly presented with a page containing all of the images posted by your friends, or your friends-of-friends. Did my friend Alice take pictures of her birthday party? No, but her friend Sheila did. This is actually a far more practical use of social-networking than anything the "real" portals have come up with.
Is a Flickr photo-stream a blog, too?
Sure, in the sense that you can see the public photos of thousands of strangers. Do a search for photos tagged with the word "hurricane," and you're likely to see hundreds of fresh images from Florida, all taken from intensely personal perspectives. Folks who view your pix can leave individual comments, just as in a blog. And your photo-stream actually has a newsfeed associated with it; friends and family (even folks who aren't Flickr members) can "subscribe" to your photo-stream via any newsreader app, and be alerted every time you upload something new.
It's also a community-building resource, like the thousands of message boards on the Internet. Flickr makes it easy to create social "groups:" public (or private) communities where any member can link images from their personal photostreams, or post messages. Create a group for your family wedding. Soon, it'll feature not only photos from two dozen different guests, and snaps of the couple's honeymoon in Cabo, but also a highly amusing thread about the groom's brother's continuing insistence that he was just pretending to be drunk during the reception.
How about moblogging -- posting photos from a cameraphone?
Sure. Just have your phone e-mail the snapshot to a special address. Flickr will automatically add it to your photo-stream. And because I cut-and-pasted a special Flickr Web widget into my Webpage (www.cwob.com/yellowtext/), photos I shoot from my cameraphone show up on my personal site while I'm still in Times Square fumbling to click the phone back into its holster.
Honestly, Flickr contains far too many good ideas to properly tell you about them all. And the hits just keep on coming: Flickr's creators have released a programmer's interface that allows independent developers to enhance Flickr on their own. Flickr is still technically in beta, but anyone can sign up for a free account at www.flickr.com.
Andy Ihnatko writes on technical and computer issues for Chicago's Sun-Times.