Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Flickr: Domini Domini Domini, You’re All Christians Now

There’s an old Firesign Theater sketch called “Temporarily Humboldt County.” Some Native Americans are sitting around enjoying nature when the Spanish conquistadors show up with a priest. The conquistadors claim the land for Spain and Father Corona adds, “Oh! By the way, Domini Domini Domini, you’re all Catholics now.”

I was reminded of this sketch on Tuesday when Flickr decided I was a Christian.

Since Tuesday, if you visit any Flickr member’s photos with a modern browser, you’ll see three little snowflakes beside the Flickr logo. Click them and you’ll be treated to a cascade of snowflakes over the page and all its photos, as well as a row of blinking Christmas lights at the top of the page. For an added treat, you can roll over the lights with your mouse and they’ll pop, complete with sound effects. Click the little “[x]” beside the logo and it all goes away … at least until the next page load when the three little snowflakes show up again.

It’s a cute little diversion, created without Flash, which is pretty clever. Flickr engineer Scott Schiller, who I contacted about this but did not reply, recorded the audio himself. This is obviously a long-running project of his.

Flickr is the community website that’s closest to my heart. The site’s founders are friends of mine and my wife worked there for five years. But more important than that, it’s a community that I love. I’ve uploaded gigabytes of photos there. My photostream has become a virtual home for me. Our virtual homes are just as important to us as our brick and mortar ones, if not more. I’ve lived in my real house for a few years, but I’ve lived on Flickr since 2004.

So it’s distressing when someone puts Christmas lights on my virtual home. I’m not a Christian. I don’t care how secular the holiday is nowadays. I know about the holiday’s Pagan roots. None of that matters. The fact is, Christmas lights on a home are a signifier that the occupant is a Christian, the same way a mezuzah is a signifier of a Jewish occupant. These symbols have power, which is why we use them.

It’s not just that Flickr is smearing Christmas “cheer” all over itself. As a non-Christian in a Christian country, I’m grudgingly used to that. (Though it would be nice if clicking that “[x]” set a cookie that prevented it from loading on the next pageview.) It’s that my Flickr stream is my personal identity in the Flickr community. That’s my face there at the top. Flickr has added a Christian signifier to my virtual home and I have no way to remove it. In the eyes of the rest of the community, Flickr has turned me into a Christian.

Flickr has done other Christmassy things in the past. For a while, you could add a string to a URL to make it snow on the page. Other years, if you put a note on a photo with a special phrase (“ho ho ho hat”), a Santa hat would appear. But these were all secret easter eggs. (Easter! We can’t even talk about this without more Christian holidays coming up.) And in the case of the notes, I could easily remove them and control who has the power to leave notes on my photos. But this year’s festivities are unavoidable. Don’t like people seeing Christmas lights on your virtual home? Too bad.

When you begin a virtual community, you’re building for yourself. You can safely assume that most of the community is a lot like you. But as it grows, the community becomes more diverse. If you’re extremely lucky, some of your members will invest themselves so much, they’ll come to view the site as a kind of home. This, by the way, is the success case. It’s what you want to happen.

Flickr is now a truly global community. A huge set of their members don’t celebrate Christmas. Heck, it’s summer in half the world right now, so I’m not sure what they’ll make of the snowflakes. Flickr should know this better than anyone.

The decision to put Christmas lights on all of their members’ virtual homes shows a profound lack of understanding for who their users are and what those symbols mean. It’s the kind of decision you make when you assume the rest of the world is just like you, or you’re so enamored with a technology you forget to think through the social ramifications of its implementation. Making your members feel unwelcome in their own homes is the first step in the decline of a community.

The lights and snowflakes will go away after Christmas, but I’ll still be incredibly disappointed in one of my all-time favorite sites.

What Flickr Should Have Done

It’s undeniable that the snowflakes and Christmas lights thing is a cute technology demo. So what should they have done with it? Here are my top five suggestions.

  1. Don’t. Not all your members celebrate Christmas.
  2. If you must, limit it to pages with multiple voices, like the Flickr blog, search results, tags, and the homepage. That way you’re not accidentally converting individual members.
  3. Really, don’t. People see their pages as their homes. Would you put Christmas lights on someone else’s house?
  4. If you must, make it an easter egg. Trigger it with a search, like Google’s “do a barrel roll” or other hidden behavior. Let people discover it and pass it along on Twitter and Facebook. It’ll be seen as cool and special by those that find it, and it won’t annoy the others.
  5. And for Christ’s sake, give those of us that don’t celebrate Christmas a way to turn it off and never see it again.

A version of this story also appeared in Gizmodo.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.