Why an Open API is Important to the Web 2.0 Social Contract
Update: Flickr’s Stewart Butterfield has responded to this blog post down in the comments section.
“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Jean Jacques Rousseau.
A lot of charged language has been flying around over the past four days or so with regards to Flickr and what rights their users ought or ought not to have with regards to their content. It started off with a thread in Flickr Central when Google launched their new Picasa photo sharing app and has escalated from there to Digg, TechCrunch and now Slashdot.
As I’ve been involved in the recent debate since it started I wanted to offer up my thoughts on the matter at hand. It’s important to note that yesterday I joined Zooomr, a direct competitor to Flickr. I’ve kept quiet on the posts over the weekend because I wanted to announce that before offering up anything more on the subject than I already have.
As one of Flickr’s heaviest users I feel that I have a decent understanding of the situation and problem at present.
A number of months back Anil Dash wrote a post called “The Interesting Economy.” In this post Anil posed the most basic question of all from a Flickr user’s perspective, “what’s in it for me?”
From Anil: “But interestingness in Flickr doesn’t pay. At least not yet. Non-pro users are seeing ads around my photos, but Yahoo’s not sharing the wealth with me, even though I’ve created a draw. Flickr’s plenty open, they’re doing the right thing by any measure of the web as we saw it a year ago, or two years ago. Today, though, openness around value exchange is as important as openness around data exchange.”
Caterina Fake responded to Anil with the following: “Everyone needs to get paid, businesses need to thrive. I don’t begrudge blogs like Anil’s their AdSense links, or Flickr displaying ads on free accounts (I may have a bias there). But monetization strategy or no, the culture of generosity is the very backbone of the internet. It is why I have always loved it.”
At the time, and still today, I agree with Caterina Fake. I have always felt that I’ve gotten much more out of Flickr than money could ever provide and thus I’ve felt it more than a fair deal. I don’t need to be paid by Flickr. I enjoy the generosity that Caterina speaks of and love the share and share alike spirt of Flickr. And over the past year I’ve spent hours and hours and hours working away at my flickrstream. Uploading new photos every day, meticulously documenting my images with detailed tags, building friends and making contacts, enjoying and sharing with everyone I meet, and participating actively in many different groups and conversations on the site. But lately I’ve been having some second thoughts.
The central issue around the recent debate is not whether or not you can get your photographs out of Flickr. Slashdot got this really wrong when they wrote, “yet Flickr’s API only allows uploading, not exporting.” There are several tools that have already been developed to allow exporting out of Flickr. Downloadr and Slickr come to mind immediately.
You absolutely can get your photographs out of Flickr your photos are not locked up. Flickr is not the roach motel that others have been making it out to be.
What is at issue is not your photos, but the metadata associated with your photos. At present Flickr does not keep the tags that you use to name and organize your photos in the photo files themselves. Rather these tags are part of a larger Flickr database that Flickr associates with your images. And this is the real issue to focus on. How can you as a user, and should you as a user, be able to easily get all of your photos and the metadata associated with them out of flickr and on to a competitive platform.
Recently Zooomr requested a Commercial API from Flickr. This request, in part, was based on a desire to create an easy way for users to migrate their photos and metadata over to Zooomr should they want to try/use the Zooomr service. Zooomr was denied this request by Flickr. Other sites, like Tabblo, who is perhaps viewed as less of a direct competitor to Flickr than Zooomr have been given API keys and have in fact used them to create tools that easily allow a user the ability to transfer their photos and metadata over to their service. I personally used the tabblo service and tool to transfer all my flickr photos and metadata there and you can check out how complete a transfer it was at my tabblo page here.
I think that it was a mistake to deny Zooomr this request. I think it was a mistake because at the foundation of this great thing that we call Web 2.0 I believe there exists a social contract between companies and their users that trumps business interests. Perhaps I’m being naive here but I firmly believe that the user’s needs must always come first for any Web 2.0 company. As businesses profit from the free labor, goodwill and generosity that Caterina Fake writes of, I believe that while they may not be owed actual compensation, that they are owed every effort to protect their rights, privileges and control over that which they create and contribute.
It is very very cool how easy it was to transfer my entire flickrstream and all of the associated metadata easily and seamlessly over to tabblo. It should be that easy for any other site I choose to use as well. And while it should not be incumbent on Flickr to build the tools to do this, they should make their API available to other companies who would like to build these import tools nonetheless. They should do this because it’s the right thing to do from their side of the user generated contract.
And I think Flickr feels this way too. In fact it should be noted that after denying Zooomr’s original request, Flickr’s Stewart Butterfield has expressed that he has had a change of heart with regards to allowing competitors access to Flickr commercial API keys and will most likely grant these requests if a competitor also agrees to allow Flickr access to their open API. I applaud this effort but in fact still think it needs to go a tad further. I do think that flickr should open up their API for building import/export tools for competitors irrespective of the status of their API. Again, I may be living in a utopia here, but I do believe that in the end doing the right thing always wins out. And if other sites want to stay closed while Flickr stays open then I think in the end users will respect Flickr all the more for this and it will create a stronger bond between them and their users. Zooomr by the way is committed to an open API and Kris is working on the finishing touches on Zooomr’s as I write this.
One final thing. I think that in this entire debate Flickr has at times been portrayed as the bad guy here. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, Flickr has probably done more for user’s rights and ability to control their content then just about any Web 2.0 company that exists today. They have popularized the Creative Commons license. They have routinely listened to and actively engaged their users. They have created broad tools to allow users to offer varying degrees of access, privacy and control over their images. They have carefully cultivated an environment of mutual respect between they and their users and have constantly fought for the rights of these users. They will likely even change their position with regards to granting competitors Commercial API keys. They have been about as fine an example of good stewardship in the user generated contract as exists today. In all of this I think it’s unfair for anyone to suggest otherwise.