Friday, September 02, 2005

Rate My Photograph—Fear and Loathing on RFF

The members of RFF (see previous post) had an interesting discussion this week that centered on the the online forum's gallery. Things got a little heated, but amazingly remained entirely under control. This is a credit to the membership over there, who really seem to care enough to try to make RFF different from so many other online forums. The discussion was about the quality of the images showing up and taking up space in the gallery (ownership initiated a 5 image/day upload limit because decreasing disk space and server load). The argument being proffered suggested that the membership, particularly the newer members, were not uploading their best images, and were instead sapping system resources with massive uploads of unpresentable vacation-type images.

Obviously, a discussion like this can head off into several different directions, including, in this case, a discussion on image critiquing. I'm not sure if it was coincidental or not, but just after this discussion started, the ownership of RFF initiated a numerical rating system in the gallery, which of course immediately set another two or three threads off and running. The discussion raged for a while, with some people embracing the ratings idea, others stating they didn't want their images rated on a numerical basis, others announcing that they only wanted written commentaries, and others wanting the numerical system only if it was accompanied by written commentary. And yes, some did not want any change at all. This latter group insisted that if they indeed wanted a critique they would ask for it. This last comment spun off a seperate idea that resulted in a special folder being set up specifically for image critiquing, called Rate My Photograph.

Of course, this then required a call for some critiquing guidelines, which generated suggestions such as: only those that post pictures can comment on images in the Rate My Photograph (RMP) folder, and a possible scale adjustment (from 1 to 10, to something shorter), and other ideas that the membership began bouncing around. This seemed a constructive discussion that ownership should have encouraged. Instead the discussion just sort of vaporized under uninspired moderating.

The RMP folder and numerical gallery ratings lasted for approximately 24 hours, before ownership turned off the rating function. A poll, which asked the question, "Allow ratings of pictures in gallery?," and allowed a simple yes or no choice, indicated that 55% of the voting membership disapproved of the numerical system, while 45% approved.

I voted against the rating system, based on the idea that the forum wasn't ready for it on two fronts: not enough moderators, and a member base that is inexperienced/unskilled in the critique process. RFF has come quite a ways (successfully, I add) with basically two moderators, but numerical image rating on other sites traditionally has proven to be the source of much friction and fighting. Most of the RFF membership seemed all too familiar with this and voiced concern about RFF becoming like those other places, where the bad feelings surrounding rating practices of its membership spilled into other parts of the site. I guess the thought, the fear, the loathing, of having to deal with this eventuality paralyzed ownership and moderator, whose only retort was, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Who could fault this approach. RFF is a wonderfully toned place to hang out, and IMO, to keep from having the rating system destroy RFF, the ownership would need to recruit additional moderators, and especially one whose sole responsibility would be gallery moderation, and management of the RMP folder. RFF is an international site with a couple thousand members. A single owner and a single moderator really couldn't pull this off alone. Additionally, a group of knowledgeable individuals would need to come together, work together and create a set of critique guidelines and rules that would apply to the RMP folder.

The lack of experience and skill in the critque process is evident at RFF, and a numerical rating system alone doesn't do much educate membership. I think a critiquing method that involves both a numerical rating and constructive criticism, could actually work, but not with a membership base that doesn't know how a critique works. Currently, comments given out by RFF membership is rarely constructive, and is more along the lines of either a cheery "atta-boy" or a cold silence. If you've ever been in a beginning photography class, or art class, where critiques are integral and necessary, you'll instantly recognize this pattern of praise or silence. Often the silence isn't necessarily a condemnation of an image, but a timidity, or a lack of the vocabulary, or a lack of understanding regarding the process (inexperienced and unskilled). Sometimes it is a fear of recrimmination, and most often the fear of receiving any sort of criticism in return, constructive or otherwise.

The skill goes both ways however, the critque-er has a responsibility to "speak" the correct language, and that too takes practice and experience. But the good thing here is that all of this can be very easily learned through experience, and I think that can happen in an online environment. It just requires some foresight, planning, and some willing and able individuals to work it out. So while I voted against the rating system for these reasons, I feel that RFF is missing a really great opportunity to augment what is already an excellent site. The RMP folder, with numerical ratings was actually generating some interest and things were getting to be fun again at the RFF gallery. I was back to visiting the gallery first, prior to forums. However, it was very evident that everyone that either posted an image, or supplied a commentary was going about it in their own way. So while I'll miss participating in the RMP folder, it is good that the numerical rating function was turned off.

So yes, in a sense, I am delivering some constructive criticism to my favorite site, and I hope those members who read this (if anyone ever does), will consider what I'm saying. The poll results are not a mandate, and if anything a properly worded poll would most likely clarify that membership doesn't really mind a numerical rating, but does fear losing the dynamics of a great site. The common mantra at RFF has been, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." How about this instead, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but keep in mind it might need a tune-up, because 'ain't broke' doesn't mean not working optimally." I know it's long and will never fit on a bumper sticker, but it should make the point. Good things can get better. If any site can pull this off, it is RFF.