An Open Letter to Carol Bartz, CEO Yahoo Inc.

Dear Ms. Bartz:

It’s been a few months since I last posted a letter to you. I wanted to take this moment though to check back in with you on Flickr. In my last letter I suggested that Yahoo was not giving Flickr the attention that it deserved. Since that last letter there were a couple of nicely orchestrated shout outs to Flickr. Blake Irving did his Hell yes we love Flickr tweet. He made a stop by the FlickrHQ offices complete with a silly “milking margarita’s” photo op, etc.

Blake’s a pretty senior guy at Yahoo and so at least it *feels* like Flickr’s not being totally and completely ignored anymore, at least a little bit.

Also since my last letter to you, Flickr “accidently” deleted a guy’s account. Flickr was able to restore his account in the end (after a lot of bad press at places like CNN) but even more importantly announced that they are actually working on a tool to undelete bad account deletions in the future (finally! yeah!).

These are both really positive things, even if they came about the hard way.

However, what is really blowing my mind this morning is seeing how badly Flickr handled the censorship of these Egyptian secret police photos over the weekend. Granted, not everyone is probably working on Flickr on the weekend, but really Carol, they screwed the pooch this time.

You have a reputation as a savvy well regarded businessperson Ms. Bartz. Business is your thing. You’re all business. So as a businessperson let me ask you this. What is the value of the photo above that went viral for your competitor Facebook?

I mean this photo was seen all over the internet. You couldn’t miss it if you were online. It was EVERYWHERE. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in PR value? Maybe millions? You guys reportedly spent $100 million last year on your “the internet is under new management yours” campaign right? You understand the value of PR I think. I think we can both agree with the statement that the viral photograph above (and others like it) were worth a hella lot of money in PR value for Facebook.

Aligning a social media business like flickr with popular pro-democracy bloggers to me is an absolute no brainer from a business perspective. It is just the smart thing to do if you are trying to attract one of the most active viral groups of people on the web today.

So while your competitor Google actually has one of their employees on the ground in the fight for democracy in Egypt (another PR win), what is Flickr doing? They are CENSORING photos by a popular Egyptian blogger, Hossam Hamalawy, aka Arabawy — a young rising leader in the Egyptian revolution.

This man is a hero Carol. He is on the ground in one of the hottest spots for news on the planet — he has a huge following on Twitter, and is very well regarded. And what are the photos that flickr is censoring of his? Photos of Egyptian Secret police officers suspected of TORTURE.

So Flickr has an opportunity to try and embrace social media and what is going on with revolution in the Middle East or they can support a dying regime’s alleged torturers.

And what side does Flickr choose?

Let’s forget about what is right or wrong here for a second. Yahoo took it pretty hard on the chin a few years back when you turned over a Chinese dissident’s email to the Chinese Govt resulting in his imprisonment. Jerry Yang was called before Congress and browbeaten (another bad PR moment for Yahoo). Surely Yahoo can see that siding with the bad guys here is just simply a bad business decision from a PR perspective. Right?

It gets worse Carol. In order to justify censoring these photos, Flickr did it by citing a frequently ignored provision in their community guidelines. The provision that says the work in your flickrstream has to be “your own work.” They bounced his secret police photos on a stupid technicality of a rule that is largely ignored by everyone on Flickr anyways.

Everybody on Flickr knows that Flickr is *chock full* of photos that are not a user’s “own work.” Even your own Flickr staffers photostreams are full of images that are not technically “their own work.”

For example — Matthew Rothenberg, who runs flickr for you, has this photo of a masturbating dinosaur in his photostream that was taken by your former Flickr Community Manager Heather Champ (according to the tags on his photo). This is not “his own work,” the exact same provision that flickr used to censor Arabawy.

Forget for a second that from a customer service perspective an “award” like this might be insulting (apparently it’s given for “excellence in the field of community abuse and advocacy”) the photo clearly is not Rothenberg’s “own work.” Trust me Ms. Bartz, hypocrisy is never a good thing when justifying something like this.

There are other images in Rothenberg’s photostream that are not “his own work,” too and he’s not alone. Other flickr staffers have posted photos in their photostreams that are not “their own work.” I’m not picking on Rothenberg here, he just happens to be the guy who runs the place so he’s the best example.

From a PR and business perspective, your competitors are gaining incredible PR value from the revolution in the Middle East. Google, Facebook, Twitter, all of them. Flickr should be included in that list. They are a natural fit. Instead Flickr makes an incredibly stupid public statement retweeted all over the world by influential folks like NPR’s Andy Carvin or Clay Shirky.

This just makes no possible rational sense. Any thinking rational businessperson should see the value of being positively associated with young pro-democracy forces in Egypt in social media today.

I hope you read this letter. I also hope you go back to Flickr and have them undo this mistake and repost Arabawy’s photos. It’s sort of too late now as Anonymous has already helped him (and the Egyptian people) out and reposted all of the photos in an uncensorable location here (the right thing and a no-brainer positive PR act for Anonymous) — but at least Flickr would be making a statement that they made a mistake here. It is in both Yahoo and Flickr’s interest to look like an active engaged social media company, not some tired old asleep at the switch has been.

I also hope that you would also take a hard look at the institutional culture at Flickr. A culture that thinks publicly posting a photo of a masturbating dinosaur award for community abuse is funny, yet blows a major PR opportunity by abusing totally the wrong customer is not the right culture for an engaged social media company going forward.

Yahoo and Flickr can and should do better than this.

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8 Comments

  1. linda says:

    An excellent letter.
    Yahoo, Carol & Flickr need to wake up. Hundreds of people not as well known as NPR’s Andy Carvin or Clay Shirky also RTed Flickr’s ridiculous statement. I did.
    I looked at Matthew Rothenberg’s Flickr stream and was amazed he can get away with seemingly breaking his own rules.
    It seems screenshots are acceptable.
    So one can go to any internet site, for example another where these photos might be, take a screenshot, follow Matthew Rothenberg’s example and upload it.
    Then one would be quite within Flickr’s rules which actually need a complete overhaul. I’ve had my own silliness with Flickr over rules which can be broken by some people, acceptably, and the same rules broken by others and not accepted.

  2. cathode says:

    Can’t wait to see what, if any, response this gets. Somehow I feel it will fall into the tomb of indifference that seems to be Flickr HQ.

  3. Amando says:

    Better yet, Ms Bartz: Just sell Flickr to Google.
    It’s easier, and you’ll be giving us all a present.

  4. Mary says:

    Darn, I was just thinking about trying a photo service like flicker. Guess I’ll just move along…

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  6. Faisal says:

    Let’s hope they take heed. Well-written!

  7. gc says:

    this waqs a really Interesting find, I have thought about open letters to Yahoo, seeing that they just cannot find their way anymore. This one sort of got my interest but its wholly different from what I think about their needing to get focused on communities and hobbyists (like sports, investors, music) where they can actually make a dent. FlickR could fit into that too, but they badly lack a strategy

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