Search for “ape” on Flickr and you’ll witness an endlessly scrolling cavalcade of primate photography, from monkeys glimpsed on safari to those held in captivity at the zoo. Until recently, you’d also see a portrait of a middle-aged black man named William. Flickr thought William was an ape, too.
The accidental racism came via Flickr’s new auto-tagging system, which aimed to be helpful in appending broad labels to users’ photographs without asking them first. Previously, if you took a picture of your new Harley but didn’t tag it with “motorcycle,” other users might not find it when performing a search for pictures of two-wheelers. Auto-tags are meant to rectify a situation that didn’t need rectifying in the first place. (Maybe you didn’t tag a picture of your newborn because you didn’t want him turning up in someone else’s search for generic baby pics.)
In a comment to the Guardian about the snafu, which was pointed out by a user, Flickr touted the “advanced image recognition technology” behind the auto-tagging feature. That technology, it turns out, possesses the discerning eye of a shar-pei with cataracts. In addition to labeling Corey Deshon’s portrait of William with “ape” and “animal,” Flickr did the same for this photo of a white woman with multicolored paint on her face—the software’s intentions apparently aren’t racist, even if the results sometimes are—and tagged photos of the Dachau and Auschwitz concentrations with “sport.”
All of the offending examples listed here have since been corrected, though the two portraits are still labeled with “animal,” which is I suppose technically accurate. And users can manually remove bad auto-tags from their pictures. As the Guardian notes, Flickr appears to have wisely removed “ape” entirely from its auto-tagger’s list of choices. Maybe leave this stuff to humans with eyes next time.