Dropping Ballast on Flickr

Since Flickr/SmugMug has become a recurring topic of conversation recently, I thought I’d add my unsolicited two cents to the discussion.  Until recently I really haven’t given much thought to the platform as a whole, it has simply been good enough since I joined in 2006.  Other than the interval when Flickr made the terrible decision to eliminate the ‘notes’ function, I really haven’t had much to complain about in almost 13 years of use, and to their credit, they were ultimately responsive enough to their customer base to reinstate the feature recently.  Flickr may not the perfect solution where the community at large is concerned, but it has been a stabilizing force in the hobby when Brickshelf, LUGnet and MOCPages all ceased being viable options with room for growth.  So while I acknowledge that the recent decision to limit free accounts to 1000 photos is both irritating and restrictive to many users, it’s still the best option we have in this era of echo chambers and tribal splintering.  I appreciate the fact that not everybody has the money to pay for an account and that they find the principle of having to pay to post photos online to be unfair, but Smugmug is just another company trying to turn a profit and they’re under no obligation to provide us with a free community hub or place to hang photos.  As I’ve said before in the comments, if somebody comes up with a better option I’m willing to jump ship, but I’ve yet to see anything more than good intentions and declarations of good things to come.

2018 was an abysmal year for me in terms of building and by extension, posting to Flickr. I only managed one finished model at the tail end of December, in large part because the lion’s share of my Lego related free time was taken up by DA3 on MOCPages.  There were a few disastrous collaborative and solo projects that went up in flames behind the scenes but nothing I cared to share with my fellow builders at large.  So I haven’t paid all that much attention to Flickr in quite some time, but I went back to it over the weekend with relatively fresh eyes and a sense of curiosity, and that’s what I want to talk about for the bulk of this article.  To the point, I was surprised to discover that I had 768 contacts, I just don’t look at that particular statistic very often and it seemed like an absurdly unmanageable number. A high percentage of the people I follow came as a direct result of my time spent blogging for the Brother’s Brick.  Back then I had a policy of following just about anyone who showed a modicum of skill or even a vague promise of developing skill with the brick.  I was forever on the lookout for young or obscure builders who were about to break onto the larger scene.  At that point in time I also had a hard-core reciprocal policy of adding anyone as a contact who added me.  When you write for TBB, all of a sudden everyone wants to be your contact, especially when you’ve displayed a willingness to blog more than just the obvious glossy choices.

I’m sure some of you are reading this and are thinking some version of: who cares how high that number gets?  The more the merrier, everything and everyone really is awesome in our hobby!  In essence, I’m curious if there is any value in pairing down my contacts to the point that I can increase my own sense of “community” with my fellow builders by making it more likely that I’ll communicate in a meaningful way with the ones who mean most to me.  Too often it seems as though important or interesting people and models slip past my radar because they are surrounded and obscured by the never-ending shit-show of cube dudes, minifigs and perhaps worst of all, photos of unopened sets. I think with fewer contacts I’ll be able to communicate better and more frequently with the people I care about….to stop grousing and do something productive.   So I decided it was time to trim the fat, excise the necrotic tissue…drop some digital ballast.

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It was an interesting process and I was surprised how many marginal or average builders I kept, and how many high-viz and/or highly skilled builders I let go.  I cut anyone that I didn’t like personally where in the past I would follow people regardless of how much of an asshole I thought them to be.  Fortunately that ended up being a pretty small and select group of people but it was actually fun to surgically remove them like the human-shaped tumors they are.  During the procedure some interesting trends emerged pretty quickly during the great culling, although none of them were absolute of course, I would make exceptions for people I’d met before or who I find entertaining regardless of skill….but there was definitely a fast-track to the digital guillotine.

  • An excessive quantity of cube dudes.
  • An excessive quantity of Star Wars or Marvel themed models.
  • Even a single example of a “Nerdly“.
  • An excessive quantity of Minifig-photography.
  • An excessive quantity of Classic Space models or overt product nostalgia.
  • An excessive quantity of photos of unopened sets or other official product.

Although I never set out with a prejudice against Castle-themed builders, I ended up dumping a disproportionate number of them despite their often elevated skill level.  I have a developing theory that Castle building must be the easiest gateway into the hobby, I think it’s the easiest theme to be good at and achieve a level of notoriety the quickest.  Unlike other themes there is an easily discoverable and digestible collection of well-established building techniques that a novice can access and master in a relatively short period of time.  The result has been a homogenization of the genre where the vast majority of models end up looking like knock offs from the Luke Watkins Huchinson school of building.  It’s a fine style, Hutchinson is awesome (I kept him as a contact) and it was clearly groundbreaking and hugely influential style but I’m tired of it, there has to be more than that parts-intensive, super dense, mumblety-peg buildings with everything set at an odd angle and a very specific color palette and boilerplate terrain.   I’m tired of the boilerplate, even when it’s done well and until something changes I want to see less Castle when I go to Flickr.

I also cut anyone with a Brickarmz laden minifig as an avatar and anyone with SS bolts in their screen name.  That was a considerable number of people, as it turns out.  In general I cut a good deal of builders whose favorite theme was modern military and I think some of the criticisms I have of the current state of castle building apply to Military: the talent has never been higher, but creativity has rarely been lower.  I think Trains are more innovative these days and that’s saying something.Culling.png

In the end I cut over 500 builders, a massacre by most accounting.  Once the scale of the bloodshed was apparent, I decided to save (by favoriting) a single photo from each of the people I eliminated from the list, even though that proved challenging at times.  That way I can chop away with relative impunity, knowing I have some reference point to return to if I need it.  I’ve included a smattering of those builds here for your enjoyment.  I’m sure it’s not surprising to you well-healed constant readers but it turns out that just about anyone is capable of at least one good model, but that kind of surprised me.

By far the most irritating thing I discovered in the process of culling my Flickr contacts was the alarming number of good friends who were inexplicably no longer on my list, people who I’m certain I never dropped and would never drop.  I always suspected that builders had gone missing out of my contacts over the years, there were many instances where I would be very surprised to find out that I somehow wasn’t following a well established builder or friend. But after thoroughly examining each and every person on the list, I’m now convinced of it.  Take long time crony Brian “mondaynOOdle” Kescenovitz for example, we’ve been buddies for over ten years, we’ve collaborated on several projects and he’s stayed at my palatial estate in Vegas…and yet I didn’t find him anywhere in the ranks of my 768 contacts.  I thought he’d slipped back into a dark age for the last 2 years, only to find out I’ve missed 10 models.  Then there’s the awkwardness of adding him again, so much so that I felt the need to send him an email to explain it.  Although there is no way to know how many friends and favorite builders have fallen off my list, but I was able to identify 7 of them before I ran out of gas on the topic.  So if you see me add you in the next couple of weeks it’s not because I hate you, (although I hate some of you) , it’s because Flickr has decided we’re not a good match and I’m trying to right that wrong.  I’ve included a shot of one of Brian’s latest efforts, because it’s completely rad and maybe you missed it too.  He remains one of my favorite all timers and I think I’ve just found my subject for the next Two for Tuesday article.

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The “last upload” statistic on the contact list also proved to be an interesting if occasionally discouraging piece of information to consider.  One guy in particular left me with an uneasy feeling when I noted his lengthy absence, Worker201. Leigh has been around the hobby as long as I remember and was also one of the few valuable crontributors remaining on the Brother’s Brick roster until recently.  Even though he was never exactly a prolific builder, Leigh was a regular and valued voice in places like LUGNET, JLUG, and AFOL 16+ on Flickr.  I reached out to him just to let him know he was missed but I’ve yet to hear back so if anyone has an update on Leigh they can share, please let me know in the comments.  I’ll throw in a photo of one of his models since some of you might not be familiar with his work and I frankly need some photos to pad this rambling article.    There were other examples of this phenomenon, where people just seemed to abruptly drop out of the hobby, too many in fact, but I think that’s also a product for me being as old as dirt and knowing so many builders at this point.14482873791_f1d643a206_o.jpg

One positive thing to come out of the process was that it forced me to really take a hard look at the work of builders who I considered to borderline cases for the guillotine.  Most were either young or new people and folks who might not have the best presentation or super-polished models but have good ideas and the promise of growth.  I tried to make it a point to leave some encouragement as time permitted if they showed any hint of recent activity in the last year or two. Looking back I was much better about that kind of behavior or communication when I was an invested citizen of MOCpages and I don’t feel the same urge on Flickr to reach out to those types of builders anymore.  I’m not sure why that is, but hopefully I can change that a little bit because the only way to make the Flickr experience a better one is by putting in the same type of effort.

So long story short I’m now down to just 200 builders (and counting) on my contact list and I’m armed with a determination to leave more comments for them and focus on the stuff and people I care the most about.  Why 200 you ask? No good reason, but I’ve read a few articles that say you can’t really maintain more than a hundred friendships in real life and I figured I can double that for the online world. Look, I’m not advocating that any of you follow my lead here, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a massive, super inclusive stable of builders to flow, but I think this was a necessary step for me in my recent (last couple of years) quest to redefine the hobby to make it more enjoyable.  I will leave you with a gentle nudge of encouragement to look at your own list, you may find some surprises.

The Culling of the Flickrsphere or How SmugMug Changed a MOCer’s Refuge.

It must be a full moon because the Manifesto has new content from an old friend of the blog.  You may remember Werewolff Studios from his frequent offerings in the comment section here, or his memorable Blog or Die! essay from 2017.  Our fanged Australian correspondent has some thoughts on recent developments in our shared hobby, so without further ado, take it away Mr. Wolff!

Greetings all! Resident lycanthrope here, and I hope you’re all doing well. I won’t waste much time here, because I want to get into the meat of this post and I’ve spent too long procrastinating as per usual.

Procrastination-300x232So, for those living under a rather large pile of rocks, you’ve probably all heard of the recent shake-up over on Flickr, namely the culling of the one free terabyte of space originally offered to all free users. Following on from this, they proceeded to limit available photos on free accounts to 1000, which seems an awful lot larger than it actually is.

I’ve been wanting to write something about this for awhile, but held off for a number of reasons. One was too see how the community at large would respond, another was to wait until I could collect my thoughts fully.

Mostly though, I reckon I was waiting for someone much betterer at article writing than me to smash out a response. Ah well. I guess you’re stuck with my crock of half-baked nonsense.

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Now, first things first, I completely get the business side of this move. Storing the countless millions of photos that fill the Flickr-sphere can’t be cheap, and a push for pro accounts seems like a relatively logical step. Plus, it’s not like everyone’s being left out to dry. Pro accounts were 30% off during the month after the announcement and the actual removal of user’s data will only start to take effect on February 5 next year.

Wait…removal?

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Yep, now we come to the main part of this whole mess. Starting in February, free user’s with over a 1000 photos will have all their images deleted, from oldest to newest, until the number reaches 1000. Post any more, and away goes another photo, never to return.

Understandably, this has left quite a few users upset (including several here, I’m sure). I too have been left feeling rather dejected (despite my current photo level sitting at 108), and what’s left me feeling flatter than roadkill is the realisation that the safe haven for the Lego community that Flickr has become has started to crumble.

For me, it started with MOCpages, and through that website I began to find my little place in the online community. I met people, made friends and had discussions with others whose interests aligned with my own. For a pretty introverted kid, it was brilliant.

But over time, I began to notice the ‘Pages decline. Though I’d always said I’d stick with it until the end, I began to realise that more and more people were leaving the site. They were fleeing the sinking ship and hopping on board the HMS Flickrtastic. Eventually I bit the bullet and made a Flickr account, intent to have it as a back-up.

Then came Decisive Action 3, and everything changed.

Flag Montage

All of a sudden, the dying website of MOCpages had it’s life support kicked into gear. The activity bar started to crackle back to life, and every attack window brought a wealth of discussion and conversation that could go on for ages. And then there were the private groups, both on and off of the Pages, racking up the ideas and plans for global domination.

Heck, the private group for the Host of Immeasurable Destruction, Dooming Enemies Nationally (*wink wink*) racked up over 3547 comments, with over 29 conversation threads by the end, and it wasn’t even the main group! And it all happened over four months.

The proof was in the numbers. Builders were coming back, and there was fresh blood at every turn. MOCer’s who’d only heard of MOCpages in passing suddenly had accounts and were posting regularly. The main page actually had rotating posts, to the point where you had to plan exactly when was the optimal time to upload, to ensure that your nation got the most MILPO possible. It was intense and it was brilliant.

Note that word ‘was’.

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Yes, dear readers. I’m sure those that were playing, or even those spectating , remember those days of pure frustration. Despite giving the absolute best possible staging ground, the old site refused to meet the demands it’s occupants put forth. For some unexplained reason, the servers decided to change. Then the classic ‘Bonk Smash Thud’ message became as common as missed attack windows.

Carefully laid tactics and time-based attacks were abruptly ruined by downtimes, builds disappeared off the homepage after being there for mere minutes, trolls dragging them down into the abyss. Were we hacked? I’m pretty sure we were hacked at some point.

And then, near the end, our valiant Overlord Goldman contacted Mr. Sean Kenny directly, using the website that Sean was the most active on; Twitter. After receiving nothing back, our Overlord tried again, a little more forcefully, trying to get something, anything, out of the captain of the leaky site.

Welp, he certainly got something.

He got blocked.

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No response, no acknowledgement, no answers; just blocked. That was it. Keith and the DAS decided to end DA3 shortly after. It just wasn’t sustainable and nobody was enjoying the experience to the level that they should’ve been. Was it disappointing? Of course it was. I personally had a whole plan laid out to backstab my team, than backstab the backstabbers. I had builds in the pipeline, ready to go for the sudden MILPO boost I needed.

However, the real question was this; was it justified? Yes, it was. For me, this was the last straw. The Pages were crumbling too fast. The story-telling group I was a part of had dropped in it’s activity as well, and there just wasn’t any real reason to stay. I had to try going somewhere else, refocus my time on a website that mattered. So, with that I packed my bags and leapt onto the still floating life raft that Flickr had extended.

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Flickr was my refuge. Though I was (and still am) admittedly more involved with the art community there, I had friends to talk with again. I had activity, I had more followers, I had room to grow. That shift in thinking really helped me at the time, despite only being a few months ago.

And then SmugMug came along and decided to switch everything up.

That room to grow was suddenly stifled. I had had plans to migrate my 43 episodes strong Insurgency story over to Flickr, but now I couldn’t. Doing so would bump me up over the 1000 photo limit, and any future episodes would demolish past ones. If I truly wanted to migrate everything over, the Pro account was the only option. It was a strongarm grip to pay up or stay quiet.

True, it wasn’t as bad as the MP crash. I still had people to talk to, and there was, and is, little wrong with Flickr’s software when compared to the Pages. But still, I could feel the first gentle rocks against the ship, not dissimilar to those I’d felt before.

How long will SmugMug be satisfied with this push for Pro Users? Will they decide in a few months to drop the photo limit to 800, or 500, or 50? Will they ban photo-posting from free accounts? Will they stay quiet as the community cries out for changes? I’m not sure, and that’s a scary thing.

I think, in the end, it seems like an uncertain time for those in this Online Lego Community. There doesn’t seem to be an entirely reliable place to turn to, a website that meets the needs of this little internet niche. Instagram is an option, but for a more story-focused builder like myself, it’s not ideal. Our good friend LukeClarenceVan had started building a website that shows an awful lot of promise (seriously, go check out the MOCshare discussion page here), but he’s understandably busy, and it’ll be awhile before it’s fully up and running.

The MP refuge is starting to shift, the Flickrsphere is adapting. The future of this community sits on somewhat loose ground, without a space to set its foundation. Who rightly knows how it’ll all turn out?

Thanks for reading all.

Wolff.