"Tagging is all the rage," says Smith, noting the rising popularity of sites like Flickr and del.icio.us, which lets members attach keywords or "tags" to favorite websites, articles and even images. "I said to myself, 'I wonder how it would work if you let people put tags on adult content?'"
The answer, as Smith now knows, is it works like a charm. Smith posted the first prototype on a Sunday in May. After seeding it with a few free samples drawn from adult galleries and adding an introductory page warning minors to keep away, Smith dubbed the project "Adult Flicker" and posted notices to various blogs and developer chatrooms.
By Monday morning, tech-savvy blogs already were funneling visitors to the site. Traffic picked up steadily as did the number of submitted images and one- to three-word text summaries.
Added together, the combination of images and text led to intriguing combinations. A visitor looking up the word "tits," for example, generally encountered, by Internet porn standards, a fairly tame selection of topless women. A visitor who entered "nipples," on the other hand, encountered an entirely different selection in which the size, shape and color of the woman's aureole played a major role in the photograph's composition. Such hair-splitting offered an instructive glimpse at the "Rashomon"-like nature of Internet content. In many situations the same image fell into two groups [e.g. "anal" and "redhead"], offering visible evidence of converging (and diverging) viewer tastes.
Things finally detonated on a Tuesday when the Nick Denton-owned adult news blog Fleshbot delivered a hearty endorsement. "We might never go back to looking for porn the old-fashioned way again!" the site raved.
Looking back on the site logs, Smith says the Fleshbot link resulted in more than 14,000 visitors and 140,000 page views on the site's third day. "I had to play around with the application a little bit so it wouldn't bring down the server," he says.
But Smith admits that he was less prepared for the speed with which the first signs of abuse started to crop up. Mid-afternoon that same Tuesday, Smith's mailbox began filling up with warning messages that his site was broadcasting child pornography to the world. Later investigations revealed that the images were safe and that somebody had simply taken advantage of the open tagging feature, adding the words "kiddy porn" to images that didn't merit the categorization. Still, Smith says he decided to pull the plug on the experiment that evening and delete all submitted images just to play it safe.
"The whole thing got out of control," says Smith. He has yet to experience any legal repercussions from the experiment, but Yahoo, the company that quietly acquired both Flickr and the Flickr brand name in March of this year, has since used its corporate muscle to force a transfer of the www.adultflicker.com domain.
"I don't know where this is going to lead," he says. "The good side of what's going to happen is some people have taken notice and have shown some interest in buying the engine. The bad news is the possible law enforcement angle. I have no idea."
Yahoo's crackdown on Smith comes in the wake of a pitch the company threw at Flickr members, whose pictures, uploaded before the March acquisition, now run counter to company content standards.
On May 5, the owners of the lingerie-themed blog PantiesPantiesPanties.com revealed that they had been in talks with Yahoo representatives about taking their lingerie photos, which had been tagged "adult" under the old system, and putting them on a private page accessible only to those manually designated as friends.
"We've marked all the photos on Flickr that contain bondage, bare breasts and pubic hair 'private,' meaning that in order to view them, you have to get a flicker [account] and we have to mark you as 'Friend,' " wrote Brett, the site's semi-anonymous co-manager, a few days later.
Yahoo representatives didn't return calls requesting comment, but the company's service terms allow for adult content as long as such content is not "publicly accessible" — i.e. shielded from the general public by a login barrier. "Please be aware," the site contract reads, "Yahoo has created certain areas on the Service that contain adult or mature content. You must be at least 18 years of age to access and view such areas."
With or without Yahoo's enthusiastic endorsement, expect to see more adult content taking advantage of the tagging phenomenon that moves with the prevailing winds of Internet commerce: it's simple, it's scalable, and it works well with the web's dominant information sharing method — plain old hypertext.
"What tagging does is it introduces demand side categorization," says New York University professor and Internet sociologist Clay Shirky. "The only group that can organize everything is everybody."
As for Smith, he plans to devote the rest of the year to fine-tuning the image search feature at the heart of his short-lived Adult Flicker venture and leave the naughty content to the pros. Having seen the whirlwind from the inside, he fully believes there is a business model somewhere in the adult tagging vortex. The only question, however, is how to police both sides of the tagging content bargain — the uploaded images and the associated tags that may or may not describe them.
In cases where both sides balance, tagging can offer a revealing glimpse at audience mood. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, so whatever word shows up at the most popular tag often has beaten out many viable competitors.
"[Tagging] allows people to expose their point of view in a very vivid way," Smith says. "The fantastic thing is when you group those points of view. It becomes a really powerful form of communication."