Flickr is the internet's biggest photographer-centric social media website. Hobbyist and professional photographers go there to share photos and talk about how they made them. "Explore" is the official Flickr daily magazine, where the 500 most "interesting" photos are sorted and featured. For the user, a photo being selected for Explore is the best way to get their work seen. And so, the Flickr community places huge value on being listing in Explore, as if being featured equates to being validated as a photographer. But Explore isn't about photography at all, it's a trick to keep people engaged.

who cares?

To understand how much being listed in Explore matters to Flickr users, just search the internet for articles about techniques to get listed. The results are in the thousands. And tricks abound of all sorts. Groups exist on the website with the express goal of simulating "interest" in order to get listed. There's countless threads of tips on when to post, how to post, what to post, how to tag it, how to add it to groups, how to do anything, all just to get your photos listed. But if clever tactics aren't enough for you, there's of course shady websites which offer to sell fake engagement.

And if your photo does hit Explore? Prepare for comments saying, "Congrats on Explore!" It doesn't matter to these people that your photo is newsworthy, provocative, compelling, sublime, nuanced, or any other artistic achievement. No, to these people, your photo's only worth is that you've cracked Flickr's algorithms and have reaching Explore. The photo itself is irrelevant, it's being listed that has become the achievement.

But the truth is, nobody who really knows how photos are picked for Explore is talking. The Flickr algorithm that determines Explore is called "interestingness" and staff toss hints and jokes about how it judges photos, but to the average Flickr Joe, the key to Explore has been a state secret since forever.

wherefore art thou Flickr?

Flickr masquerades as a website for professional photographers. Buy access to unlock the site's full features, and you get rewarded by a little decoration calling you a "Pro". They use this word, but there's nothing 'professional' about Flickr. A professional photographer runs a business based on creating photos, and nothing about Flickr is a part of that business. You can't sell photos to clients on Flickr, you can't arrange your page to match your branding, you can't meaningfully create a portfolio or collection, you can't even use it for marketing since all the other users are also photographers – no part of running a photography business involves Flickr. All Flickr's talk about being "professional" is just internet cosplay.

So then, what is Flickr? Objectively, underneath the misdirection, it's social media. It's not the dumpster fire social media of Instagram and Facebook and Reddit. Garbage social media sites fry your brain like drugs, and Flickr's not that. But it is still social media.

primary interaction is social

The primary interaction on Flickr is social – interacting with other people. You fave and comment on others' photos, and they fave and comment back on yours. You chat in discussion threads. You contribute your photos towards group pools. These things you do on Flickr, they are social actions.

Half of you are bored because you already know this, and the other half are bored because you think I'm completely wrong. (And another half are still mad I called Reddit a dumpster fire even though it so clearly is.)

But the point is, Explore only makes sense if Flickr is a social media website.

No legitimate professional photography website that helps people run a business would use some automated algorithm to rank its top 500 contributions each day, and no legitimate professional photographer would want the product of their business subjected to such casually arbitrary judgement.

The truth is, Explore is a trick to keep people using Flickr.

the trick

Social media's successful grip over our collective psyche comes from stabbing us with the fear of missing out while simultaneously boosting us with the thrill of someone paying attention to us. We see other people doing awesome things and creating awesome artworks and leading awesome lives, and we want to do those things, be as creative as them, lead their lives. But wait – there's a glowing red "1" on our notifications icon – quick, someone noticed me, let's check it now!

We have an animal need to be accepted by the herd, and seeing our social media post get attention, maybe even go "viral," fills that need with alarming precision. Our society has immersed itself in worshipping "influencers" – those people who have cracked the secret algorithms of "interestingness." Us normies will go to great length for our 15 zeptoseconds of fame, a single post of ours hitting dank meme status, being seen by the world.

And that's what Explore is.

no such thing as "best"

Flickr doesn't pick the best photos for Explore. That's impossible, it doesn't even make sense. I've been a regular Flickr user for years, I've seen Explore pull its tricks on me, tug at my validation strings. But I've also seen it feature some of my turds (not literally).

I have no secret insight into Explore. When my photos hit Explore, it's not for any reason I can tell. The featured photo gets a steady trickle of Faves from people who won't comment anything meaningful, who won't look at my photos beyond the single one featured, and who will never engage with me on Flickr ever again. This has made me numb to its effects.

What I do know is that Explore is the carrot dangling from a stick. Flickr teases Explore, keeping it just beyond the reach of us users, giving us a nibble whenever our attention starts to drift.

how to get Explored

Go a while without using the site, then break your fast and post a new photo? It'll likely reach Explore, your free dose to remind you how sweet that Flickr validation is. Engage a whole bunch more than normal on others' photos? Oh yeah, here comes that Explore goodness. Chatting on a bunch of threads? Oh yeah, you bet you're getting some Explore. Interact socially in any way that fires off some validation hits towards other users? Oh yeah, get rewarded with a big ole smack of Explore.

Post an excellent photo, with exemplary craftsmanship and groundbreaking new motifs that change the paradigm of photography as we know it? Well, I've never done that, but I guarantee you, Explore don't care about that.

The times when my best work coincide with Explore are purely random. My "About" page shows this in the section "most popular photos". I've sprinkled those photos through this article. Every single one got popular from hitting Explore, and you can see how ridiculous it is. Asinine gear shots? Check. Middling shots pulled out of the context of their albums? Check. Generic vacation snapshots identical to every other tourists'? Check. A few photos that I truly believe people paying attention might consider to be my best work? Yeah, those are there, too.

reminder that I actually like Flickr

I put serious effort into constantly improving my photography, and I use Flickr as a tool towards achieving that goal. By curating and sharing my photos into pools where they sit side-by-side with the amazing, inspirational, captivating work of others, seeing their notes, and talking about technique, I have made immense strides in finding my own style, developing my skills, and learning to make photos that work, photos that I'm proud of.

It's just that Explore plays no part of that process.

divorce yourself from Explore

So, I say, divorce yourself from Explore. Ignore it. Don't click that tab. When your photo does hit Explore, politely thank the commenters and their stupid awards and glittery badges, and then move on. Get back with your peeps, the ones who you meaningfully engage with, the ones that weren't chosen by the gods on high for being listed in Explore. Those are the truly "interesting" interactions, the ones that you'll actually benefit from.