Inside Photophlow: an interview with Neil Berkman


I knew when we started talking about Code.Flickr I wanted to have interviews with third party developers, and I knew that I wanted my first interview to be with Neil Berkman, one of the engineers behind the amazing Photophlow

1. Can you say a bit about what Photophlow is for people who don’t know?

Photophlow is a web application for real-time group Flickr browsing. As you search and share photos the group you’re browsing with sees the same things you are instantly. You can comment on photos, fave them, tag them and more, and all of this is shared with the group in real-time. Photophlow is meant to be used for all types of interactions around photos – organized activities such as group critiques and tutorials, as well as just plain hanging out and sharing.

We also integrate with some other services like Twitter and Tumblr. For example you can send out a Twitter message with a link to your Photophlow room to invite your followers to a real-time conversation over photos. We also integrate with the major IM networks to notify you instantly when things happen in Photophlow, like someone commenting on one of your photos.

If you’d like to a quick tour of Photophlow I’d recommend this screencast.

(editor note: Also checkout the photophlow group!)

2. How are you integrating with Flickr? What services or API methods do you use?

We use quite a bit of the API. Your identity on Photophlow is your Flickr identity, so of course we take advantage of authentication. We currently have two types of rooms – “personal rooms” tied to a user and rooms based on Flickr groups. We use the contacts and groups API’s to give control over privacy.

We take advantage of almost all of the API methods for browsing or searching for photos. And of course tagging, commenting and faving all go through the API.

One of my favorite features makes use of machine tags. We let you specify custom “photo emotes” – for example if you type /smile as a chat message we’ll show a photo you’ve tagged as phlow:emote=smile. Another makes use of the Yahoo Term Extraction API. We use this to determine interesting words and phrases in chat messages and we turn these into Flickr search links. Keying off of the conversation like this works really nicely for discovering areas of Flickrspace that you might not discover otherwise, and the results you get from clicking on a random phrase are often very funny and unexpected.

3. What if you favorite part of working with the Flickr APIs?

The nicest thing about it is the completeness. So far we’ve found that almost everything we’ve wanted to do has been possible.

4. What (if any) where the challenges?

The major challenges we face are due to the unique real-time group nature of our application. We’d like to be responsible consumers of the API so we set some restrictions for ourselves, such as never making a separate API call for each person in the room. For example when we display a photo we don’t indicate whether it’s already a fave because we’d need to make this call multiple times. We turned this into a feature – if you “re-fave” a photo we delete your previous fave and add it again, moving it to the top of your list.

5. What else should I have asked you? (I’m new at this!)

How about “what would you like to see added to the API?”

One is “invite photo to group”. Some group admins are using Photophlow to review photos to invite to their pool. It would be great if we could allow them to actually issue the invitations from within Photophlow.

Another, much larger one would be the ability to invite your Flickr contacts to use a Flickr-based application. This would take a lot of work to ensure that it could be done in a non-spammy way. Even I have mixed feelings about it but as an app developer it would be nice to allow people to use their existing connections on Flickr to be able spread the word about an application more easily.

6. Are you using any open source components in Photophlow, especially any that relate to Flickr? Are you planning to release any?

Like everybody these days we make heavy use of open source. The part of Photophlow that interacts with Flickr is developed using Ruby on Rails, and we use the Ruby API for Flickr. We’ve hacked this up a bit and may either clean it up and contribute back or take another look at the current Ruby Flickr interfaces and see if we might want to switch.

7. What is next? Are you planning to build more with Flickr? Enhance your current app, or build something new? Is there an application you’re hoping someone else would build?

We plan on improving Photophlow in a number of ways. A big one is to provide more explicit support for events such as critiques and competitions. There are a number of fun features we’d love to build, for example the ability to add notes to photos and share these in real-time.

We’re also building a new web application called Videophlow, which allows for group synchronous video viewing with a “shared remote control”. Initially this will support Youtube but we’re planning to support other services and would love to include Flickr video as well.

Thanks so much Neil and good luck at Launchpad today!

Have you got a neat Flickr project folks should know about? Let us know in recommendations for the DevBlog thread!

Photo: “photophlow” by d.j. paine

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About Kay Kremerskothen

Kay is a Community Manager for Flickr and passionate about extraordinary photography. As an editor on Flickr Blog he loves to showcase the beauty and diversity of Flickr in his posts. When he's not blogging or making Flickr more awesome (in front of and behind the scenes), you can find him taking pictures with his beloved Nikon and iPhone, listening to Hans Zimmer's music or playing board games. | On Flickr you can find him at