A collection of critiques and suggestions for either improving Fotolog or designing its replacement.
[Performance] [Bugs] [Groups] [Brazilians] [Searching] [The Front Page] [Collaborative Filtering] [Flagging] [Revenue]
When I first started using Fotolog in February 2003, there were only about a thousand users. Pages displayed pretty much instantly. This meant you could surf from picture to picture effortlessly. That is the way Fotolog ought to be.
Currently, and for the past few months, Fotolog is not really usable. It takes thirty seconds to a minute to deliver each page, assuming it doesn't just fail with one of the various mysterious errors.
The performance goal should be: full page display, including the HTML, all twelve images, and the guestbook HTML, in under a second. This would still be slower than when I started using Fotolog, but should be good enough to bring back the sense of immediacy.
Note that improving performance does not necessarily mean just adding more servers. With poor architecture, adding servers can easily worsen performance, for instance if multiple database servers spend an increasing portion of their CPU cycles just trying to stay in sync with each other. Similarly, the content delivery network which has caused so many problems might not even be necessary at all if the image servers were re-worked to use an HTTP daemon specialized for efficient serving of static content.
There are numerous bugs in Fotolog, from serious to trivial. I'll list some of them here.
The current group system is an admitted stopgap, for which I bear some responsibility. The history behind it:
The Fotolog folks have said all along that they want to do a complete re-design of groups, but they have been trying to get ahead of the performance problems for many months now and have not had time to work on this. However, that doesn't mean we can't think about what it should look like.
What I would like to see is photos cross-posted to groups, rather than being posted separately. Group photos would be posted in their owners flog like any other photo, but at upload time there would be an option to also post it in, say, up to three groups in addition to the owner's page. These would not be separate copies. There would only be one copy of the photo, and in particular only one copy of the guestbook, but it would be viewable from the owner's flog and from the groups.
Note that this means your daily upload quota would now apply to your group postings. This might cut down on the overwhelming traffic in the most popular groups, by making people value their postings more highly.
There would still be a manager for each group, but since the group would no longer own the individual photos, the group manager's duties would be reduced. The group manager could still remove a photo from the group, but this would not delete it from the owner's page or from any other groups. On the other hand, if the owner deletes a photo, it does get removed from all groups. The group manager would have some control over who is allowed to post; I'm thinking maybe you have to explicitly join a group before you can post there, and the group manager can either pre-approve (moderated membership) or allow anyone to join but still kick them out and blacklist them later if necessary.
One tricky bit to this cross-posting concept - you wouldn't want to have the same photo show up two or four times in your friends/favorites list. I guess you'd show it only once, but with some indication that it also appears in other groups you have on your list.
As of late January 2004, the top nationalities represented on Fotolog are:
|158000 (56%)||18000 (6%)||11000 (4%)||3100 (1%)||2000 (0.7%)||1800 (0.6%)||1600 (0.6%)||1300 (0.5%)||1200 (0.4%)||1200 (0.4%)||280000|
Of course many of these accounts are inactive - Fotolog does not currently get rid of unused accounts. Also, a lot of people lie about what country they are from. But still, just looking at the pictures and comments being posted makes it clear that the Brazilians are a huge majority. Why? It's just a fluke, really. Some early articles on Fotolog in Brazilian magazines got the popularity curve going down there sooner than elsewhere.
So, is this a problem? Are the Brazilian users more obnoxious than average? I don't think so. I do think that the particular cultural segment of Brazilians where Fotolog caught on fastest happened to be teenagers, and teenagers all over the world are obnoxious. So, it's a problem but it's not a Brazilian problem, and any attempt at solving it should not focus on nationalities. I think the talk of 'monetizing the Brazilians' - some sort of separate Brazilian fotolog - is a mistake.
Instead, we should think about ways for many different cultures to co-exist within Fotolog without annoying each other. Some areas to work on are better search capabilities, the front page, and most importantly collaborative filtering. I'll talk about all of these ideas below.
Currently Fotolog has no search capability. It does let you browse through a variety of indexes, such as names, countries, patrons, groups. That is not the same as searching. There ought to be a page providing complex boolean search functions, including full-text searches of user descriptions and photo captions.
Fotolog's front page serves two related purposes. One, as the first thing that a new Fotolog users sees, it must catch their interest and make them want to browse further. Two, it's a place for existing Fotolog users to look for interesting stuff. Unfortunately, in its current incarnation it does not serve either of these purposes very well.
The left column of six Most Recently Updated Fotologs is useless. Pictures are now being uploaded at a rate of one per second, so each new picture would show up there for at most six seconds assuming the front page is updated continuously which in fact it is not. Most photos never show up in that column at all. It's basically random; a column of truly random selections from the past 24 hours might be better.
The right column used to be the Most Viewed Photos From The Last 24 Hours. Because some people use their flog as a chat page, they get a lot of views and tended to dominate this column. It was always the same few people with uninteresting pictures. A lot of folks complained, and just a few days ago it was changed - at first by accident, and then intentionally.
Now the right column is Recent Gold Camera Patron Photos. This seems better so far. However, this leaves the front page with no feedback-generated suggestions at all. Both columns are basically random. I think we can do a lot better with this valuable screen space. At least one of the columns should be based on user-generated feedback - just not on bad feedback like before. I suggest a series of experiments for the right column, lasting a week or two each, with a variety of different rating systems.
A good example of this is TiVo's thumbs up / thumbs down system. You tell your TiVo which programs you like or dislike by pressing thumbs up or thumbs down from one to three times. Based on that input, combined with similar ratings from all the other TiVo users, the system suggests programs that you might enjoy. It's scarily accurate.
I actually already wrote a test version of this idea for Fotolog. Back when I was running the inverted friends database, I used the friends/favorites settings to generate suggestions for new flogs a user might like. It worked quite well, and was not very expensive to compute.
I think if we added a personalized ratings & suggestions system to Fotolog, it would very quickly become the main method used to browse the system. For one thing, as soon as you have given thumbs down to a few Brazilian camgirl flogs, you won't see them any more. The camgirl problem is solved, for you, without having to evict anyone from the system. Your personalized view of Fotolog simply does not include them. And the people who like camgirls see nothing but! Everyone wins.
The ratings could also be used to make the front page more interesting, but that is secondary.
I don't necessarily agree with Fotolog's prohibition on pr0n, but if you're going to have such a restriction you really need to have a better implementation than just sending email to email@example.com. Fotolog should copy craigslist and other such sites and have a "flag" link on each image. This would feed into a semi-automated system for checking the flaggings and removing photos or de-activating accounts.
How to pay for all this? The Gold Camera voluntary subscription system is nice in theory, but few people are signing up - currently only 3200, which is 1% of the users. That is $16000/month - this sounds like a lot, but apparently it is enough to pay for the hosting and the content delivery network and not much else. I like donating - I signed up for a gold camera the first day it was available, and had also donated prior to that. But we should consider other forms of revenue, not instead of the donations but in addition to them, so that Fotolog can get enough surplus to actually hire some employees and work on some of this stuff full time.
My personal favorite revenue source is Google AdSense. Not on every page - just on the front page and on groups. This would let Google target the ads better, which is the key to getting high-value ads. I run Google ads on a few of my pages here at acme.com, including this one, and I make a couple thousand dollars per month. A high traffic site like Fotolog should make much more than that. Also, since Google ads are text-only, they are guaranteed non-obnoxious. No animated GIFs because no GIFs at all.