Flickr's User-Generated Blackout May Be the Most Meaningful SOPA Protest

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The photo-sharing site took a unique approach to protest: It asked its community to do the protesting.

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Flickr had one of the most creative takes on yesterday's SOPA/PIPA protests. Rather than going fully dark, the normally chirpy photo-sharing site took things to a place of creepy genius by encouraging people to participate in the darkness. Flickr invited users to blacken their own photos...and to blacken the photos of others. The Lord of the Flies-meets-1984 atmosphere of controlled chaos, while not as pragmatically powerful as a day of Facts Without Wikipedia, got to the core of what censorship's really about: indignity, restriction, randomness.

Flickr initially limited the number of images each user could darken to ten. Early yesterday morning, though, the site removed that restriction. Flickr's Zack Sheppard explained, "You can darken to your dark heart's dark desire."

So how many people -- in the name of making a point, of course -- accepted Flickr's invitation to censor fellow photo-takers? Lots, it turns out. By the time the blackout protest ended this morning, Flickr told me, 323,445 of its photos had been darkened. And those blacked-out photos had received 2,117,937 views.

Granted, in the context of the many billions of photos on Flickr, that's not a huge percentage. And the numbers reflect images themselves, rather than users -- so, ostensibly, one really dedicated (and/or really bored, and/or really mean) user could have contributed a disproportionate number of black-outs.

Still, though, from the perspective of participation and impact, the numbers are pretty remarkable. Wikipedia's protest, as a political movement, was mostly passive: Wikipedia, the institution, protested. Individual users were simply asked to follow up with external political action. Flickr's protest, on the other hand, was completely user-generated: Had no users chosen to click the "Darken this photo" button, the protest would have remained merely notional. Flickr trusted its community to enact the protest on its behalf, and the community responded.

So the few hundred thousand individual blackouts, their impact spread over a couple million views, is important, even (and especially) at the scale of the Internet. Yesterday's protest had the tentative, giddy feel of newness and experimentation: It marked, among other things, the technology industry's growing awareness of itself as an agent of political action. Flickr's slice of the protest hints at the grassroots element of that political force. It suggests the latent political mobility of web communities, the energy that buzzes and hums through the routes of the web, waiting to be sparked into action.

Image: Flickr.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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