What’s in a Resource?

“Flickr is incredibly lucky, because the core of what we do is focused around images.”

If you’ve ever heard me talk about Internationalizing Flickr, you’ve probably heard me say those words. And it’s true – more than almost any other website, we deal primarily with content which is language-agnostic (and, to a great extent, culturally agnostic).

No matter where we live or what language we speak, our reactions to, say, fluffy kittens have a remarkably similar range (being, approximately, “aww”, “ew” or “achoo!”…)

When we first began to define what Flickr’s international incarnation would look like, our primary concern was preserving this global, cross-cultural feeling – a sense that our members’ photos and our visitors come from all over the world, but that the images on Flickr can “speak” to anyone.

It’s for that reason that Flickr isn’t divided into national silos – there’s no Flickr France, Flickr Brazil or Flickr USA. Much like Highlander, there can be only one Flickr, and it happens to be accessible in a multi-lingual interface.

All well and good, so far.

But the biggest issue I wrestled with (and occasionally still do) was what to do with the site’s URLs. The structure we planned for the site required us to take a definite position on a philosophical issue – what, in actual fact, constitutes the “Resource” defined by the Uniform Resource Locator?

There are two possible schools of thought on this – one which would argue that the photo page http://www.flickr.com/photos/hitherto/257018778/ with a French interface is materially different to the same page when presented with an English interface. The French page, we might argue, should be named http://fr.flickr.com/photos/hitherto/257018778/, http://www.flickr.com/fr-FR/photos/hitherto/257018778/ or something similar.

On the other hand (and, in fact, the hand we eventually chose), the real “resource” here is the photo (and associated metadata) which the page points to – the interface is immaterial to the content we’re presenting. The big advantage of this approach, especially in a multi-lingual world, is that everyone gets the experience best suited to them.

A Korean friend, for example, can send me a link to a photo and I will see it on Flickr with the English interface familiar to me. She, meanwhile, can happily browse Flickr in Korean.

Things perhaps get murkier if we consider other areas of the site – the FAQs at http://flickr.com/help/faq/, for example. Here, all the content is provided by Flickr, and since all of it is in a particular visitor’s chosen language, the entire resource is different.

Even here, though, the principle can be made to apply. If an English-speaking German friend asks where they can get help on Flickr, I don’t have to know which language they prefer to view the site in; I can just point them to the FAQ page, and they will have access to the resource (“help with Flickr”) which they needed.

Now, admittedly, working for a large multi-national company puts me in contact with more than my fair share of people who speak multiple languages, so maybe this matters more to me than to most people. But as our society grows more connected and more mobile, I like to think that the incidences of these kinds of cross-cultural exchanges will only grow.

The biggest downside to our current URL approach comes when search engines try to index our content. Since we don’t have language-specific URLs (and search engine crawlers aren’t in the habit of changing their language settings and retaining the necessary cookies), everything which search engines index on Flickr comes from our English-language interface.

As it happens, depending on how smart the search engines are feeling, this isn’t too much of a problem – we do try to surface photo titles and descriptions so that the abstracts make sense. Still, the results returned by Yahoo! and Google for “Buzios” (a beach resort peninsula near Rio in Brazil) give some idea of the nature of the problem.

Occasionally, when I’m hit by a case of perfectionism, such things keep me awake at night. And I’m sure that someone, somewhere is wailing and gnashing their teeth over how “Flickr are doing URLs wrong”.

All in all, though, I think we made the right decision.