An Open Letter to Steve Douty, Vice President, Yahoo Inc.

Hi Steve.

I read your interview yesterday over at the Business Insider and thought about commenting there, but I had a lot more to say (as usual) than just a blog comment, so I thought I’d write you an open letter instead. In the interview you talked a bit about the future of Flickr, something that is very near and dear to my heart, and I wanted to reach out the best way I could and share some thoughts about Flickr with you. As someone who has been *extremely* active on the site going on seven years now I’m pretty opinionated about what the future of Flickr ought to look like.

First, thank you for the interview. It was refreshing. Over the years there has been very, very little shared about the direction of Flickr from a Yahoo management perspective. In some ways it really felt like Yahoo had just shoved Flickr in a drawer and forgotten about it. I know that’s not true, but by doing an interview like the one you did yesterday, and speaking about Flickr as a Yahoo executive publicly, that alone is a huge confidence booster. Transparency has been lacking over the years at Flickr and hearing about where it’s headed from the guy who actually holds responsibility for it was good to see.

When Butterfield was around at Flickr there was a bit more transparency. Stewart would actually get into the groups and engage with users. He’d do interviews and stuff too. But after Stewart left to go mine tin or whatever, transparency sort of just fell off a cliff. Last year Flickr wouldn’t even tell their users who was actually in charge of Flickr itself. We had to wait for the New York Times to do a piece before we learned that it was actually Matthew Rothenberg — which was silly. A leader should be out there, public, talking about the future in big, bright, bold language that inspires confidence.

In your interview you talk about Flickr nailing the future of mobile. I agree. Flickr should. I mean, everybody agrees on that right? Whether it actually happens or not is a to be determined thing, but certainly everybody on Flickr is mobile these days and we *all* want a better mobile experience.

The current Flickr mobile experience is pretty horrible. But that’s the past. I hear the Windows 7 app is decent, but then again, how many people actually have a Windows 7 phone? Not me. I haven’t even tried it. I’m sure Microsoft probably paid for you guys to build that app, but the fact that Flickr has some cool app on a Windows phone (but not Android/iPhone) in a strange way almost makes Flickr feel sort of out of step from a hip connected Instgramish image standpoint.

My only advice for mobile would be that you think hard about the the threads that are in Flickr Groups and finding a super easy way for people to read, and respond to them from a mobile app. Group threads are the hidden gem that Yahoo/Flickr might not even realize it holds. People live inside those things (and I’m not even kidding). By allowing them easier access to their threads constantly, they post more. With threads, activity begets activity and all that. So you want that well lubed in the mobile machine.

Before you get to that point though you probably really need to grasp the potential power of groups on Flickr in general. Groups on Flickr, more generally speaking, are the closest thing that Yahoo has to a sort of ($$$)Facebook($$$) type experience. Real communication and community takes place in there. More than any other place on Flickr.

Groups can be so improved so much. The lack of innovation with Flickr groups blows me away. So many ways to improve them and blow them up big. Let people better monitor activity in groups that they are not active in. Let people better follow other people’s group posts that today they are unaware are being made elsewhere. Let people filter groups so that they can hide things they are no longer interested in.

Flickr has a section for your contact’s most recent photos. They should also have a section for your contact’s most recent group conversations or posts. You’ll need to let users opt in or out of that feature as some people might feel like that was too close to stalking, but most won’t care. If my good friend Clearlight posts in some group that I’m not aware of and I never see it, that’s lost engagement potential.

Also what about my name? If someone mentions me in a group thread, isn’t that the most irresitable click of all? Yet I’m mentioned all the time (as are other users on Flickr) and we don’t even know it. Because you can’t sit on *every* group 24/7 and the group text search tool is hopelessly broken anyways.

It boggles my mind by the way that text search has been so broken in Flickr Groups for as long as it has. It’s been that way for years. That should be fixed. Text search is so 2001ish and should be super easy for a company that actually, well, indexes text on the web for search as sort of one of the main things that you do at Yahoo.

In your interview you mention that Flickr is changing.

One of the things we are looking to do this year is to really dramatically improve the user experience. If you remember, years ago Flickr’s mission was to appeal to more of the prosumer photographer — and it was really about surfacing high quality photos from a niche of photos, and we’ve changed that mission.

And the mission for Flickr today is to be the premier place for sharing photos with those people who you care about the most. So we are transitioning from the former mission to a new mission. We’re learning a lot about what people want.

This is great to hear. Along those lines, kill Explore (yikes).

Explore runs entirely counter to what your new mission plan is. Don’t kill it just to kill it. Kill it to replace it with something that is so much more in line with your new mission and will result in so much more engagement. That’s valuable real estate on Flickr that you could use to really do something that would knock the cover off the ball.

Today Explore is simply just me looking at 500 photos by strangers. They lack relevance to my life. I haven’t even been to the area in years. Even before I was blacklisted.

What you *could* do instead, is simply let Flickr’s interestingness algorithm each day rank my friends photos (or contacts photos) only. This would be so much more powerful. I don’t want to see the best photos by strangers. I want to see the best photos by my friends!

While there already is a section for my friends photos, it’s poorly organized. I simply get to see either their last 1 or 5 most recent photos with no ranking input at all. As an example, let’s say my cousin posts a photo that’s pretty good. And gets say 5 favorite marks. This photo would never make explore and there’s a good chance I’d miss it entirely if I had a fair number of friends or if they uploaded 25 photos at once or something. But by letting flickr’s interestingness algorithm sort through all my contact’s photos in a given day, 2 days, week, month, etc. you could present all of the photos of my contacts to me (not just the last 1 or 5) and create a much more relevant experience. Instead of being buried, that 5 faved photo would bubble to the top of my own personalized Explore. More relevance = better user experience = more engagement.

One last point and then I’ll shut up for a bit.

The number one area where Flickr has been broken for so many years now is in Community Management. Community Managers should *not* get in the way of community. They should be very, very, very careful about the content that they censor. They should be like well experienced surgeons even though you can’t pay them that way. Is there a problem in a group? Carefully carve out that problem, don’t just nuke the whole group. Is there a problem with a photo in someone’s stream? Make it private and hide it, don’t just blast their whole account to hell permantly erasing their stupidly unbacked up photos.

Flickr has harmed their reputation over the years badly for mismanaging community. Community management is so damn hard. They will make mistakes. They will delete the wrong account, etc. Having a back up plan and a right to appeal is critical. 99% of the time deletions are made they are probably done for the right reason. Someone was harassing/threatening someone else in a very serious way. Someone was posting blatantly stolen content only. Someone is spamming flickr with real true to life commercial spam. They get deleted and that’s the end of it. You never hear about it again and community is improved.

But when you get it wrong and hit somebody in the community who should not have been hit (like a Washington State Firefighter who is posting public info about a level 3 sex offender that moved into his neighborhood or a Pro-Democracy Egyptian blogger, etc.) you have to fix that and fast.

If you are going to err on the side of censoring or not, err on the side of not censoring. Or if you must censor, do it in a way that can be undone. It’s stupid, for example, that I’ve been banned from the Flickr help forum for two years simply for being critical of Flickr sometimes. Flickr should see criticism as an opportunity. Not as something to be squashed.

By the way, you may need to break Flickr to improve it. There has been an anti-community culture there for a long time. This is hard to explain, but improving the culture of staff for the benefit of your users won’t necessarily be easy but it will tremendously improve the site for your users.

Thank you again for your interview. I hope we see many more from you in the future. I have many more ideas and ways about how Flickr can be improved and would love to share them with you publicly or privately. I’d love to do an interview with you here on my blog as well if you’d ever consider that. Best of luck!

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21 comments on “An Open Letter to Steve Douty, Vice President, Yahoo Inc.
  1. Louis Gray says:

    Thomas, as I promised you when Douty took the role, this is not an idle position. I don’t have insight into their future, but I believe the team there cares and they are working hard, not being idle. No doubt the right people will see your message. I was glad to see the BI piece, and hope it’s just a start.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Louis it was refreshing to see that interview for me too. And I’m looking forward to the potential! #INNOVATION = #WINNING!

  3. Clearlight says:

    Thomas Hawk for admin!

  4. Lou Dallara says:

    thanks great job. agree with u 100%

  5. William Beem says:

    Very nice letter! I agree on many points, but have different concepts for Explore. Before I get to that, though, I’d like to once again advise Flickr to LET THOMAS HAWK BACK IN THE HELP FORUM! It is inconceivable to me that an active, paying member could be prohibited from seeking help for that service – indefinitely! It’s more than bad business – it’s sheer stupidity. Let’s put an end to that kind of practice at Flickr.

    As for Explore, I agree – kill it. Don’t let it fade away, but club it like a baby seal. Get it over quick and walk far away from it. Many of the photos I see there are not interesting to me at all.

    That said, I would like a way to find photos that are relevant and interesting to me. The suggestion Thomas made about a way to know about cool photos from his friends is a great one. Perhaps Flickr could put the power of its search engine in the hands of its users. I don’t want to see another photo with flare or kittens, but I am interested in portraits, landscapes, or some geographical areas. There’s a ton of metadata on Flickr. Let me use it to customize my own daily delivery of Interesting photos.

    Finally, there is no need to delete a person’s account when you could simply disable it. Such a decision should be taken with great care, but at least a disabled account retains the photos and social interactions a user made over the course of his or her time on Flickr. Even kids running a blog know that you disable instead of delete. Flickr’s operations staff needs to learn this lesson, also. There’s value in customer data, but not if you kill it.

  6. Clearlight says:

    Woah… WB doesn’t like flares, kittens, or baby seals. Whats up with that?

  7. Eric in SF says:

    I have to disagree that Thomas’ open letter will be read. It was simply too long. I gave up after the halfway point and I have a long attention span. Executives and their assistants have even shorter ones.

    All the good info in the world is useless if it’s presented in a way the reader doesn’t want to consume information.

  8. The Seneschal says:

    Flickr’s Explore should be custom per each user. If I spend my time looking at photos of Volkswagens, then Flickr’s algorithm should display the best VW photos for me to explore*. Websites should know me (Facebook and Google know me better than I know myself, and it shoes in the ads they put in front of me).

    I’ll tell you what… if Flickr showed me the best and most popular VW photos, I’d spend more time there… the current Explore does not hold my interest (I’m just not a cat person that’s all).

    Love,
    Mike Seneschal (who is not a cat person just sayin)

  9. The Seneschal says:

    PS – autoCorrect gets me every time. Shoes? I sound like the goddamned Water Boy for goddamned sake. Damn autoCorrect and damn Flickr. Where’s my coffee!!??

  10. Rob says:

    Great letter. I hope someone at Flickr reads it and ACTS on it. If I could add:

    – as you said before, buy flickery and give it away with pro accounts.

    – please fix the lightroom plugin so it doesnt try to update your pictures just because you opened them in LR

    – fix Organiser so you can change the order by drag and drop

    - buy Pummelvision and license a bunch of music so people can make slide shows that are on flickr instead of YouTube

    – What ever Getty is paying its not enough. Build a way for photographers to sell/license their images almost directly and take a small % for facilitating the transaction (Just like Yahoo Small Business)

    – buy Image Rights or a simular service and monazite protecting flickr users from unauthorized use of their images

    Thank you for continuing to speak up about the serious issues regarding account termination.

  11. Thomas Hawk says:

    Eric, you might be surprised. I’ve known executives to read entire books sometimes. And I’ve seen some pretty long articles in the Wall Street Journal too and tons of executives read that.

    Seneschal, you are a god damn water boy and quit lying about your cats.

  12. Eric in SF says:

    Thomas – that’s because they’re motivated to read those things. Feedback such as yours falls into the “complaints” category. Just sayin’ – brevity opens doors.

  13. Thomas Hawk says:

    I once knew an executive who used to read all of those John Grisham books and those are wayyyy longer than my letter.

  14. Just read your article, Thomas Hawk (I like to say your name as if it was American Indian). I come from the old GeoCities.com days before Yahoo. We had a community that could not be beat at that time. GeoCities was bought out by Yahoo and they ran roughshod over it. It was a really active place with sharing going on like crazy. People taught each other how to do just about everything regarding web-design using code and building from scratch. Bulletin boards were hot with activity and html code was spoken by all. Websites were kept, but the community was bulldozed over as “cookie-cutter” websites were the new thing and provided without any knowledge of webdesign or code necessary. Many wonderful connections and friends were lost. Yahoo could not possibly have known what its demise meant to all the rest of us. This is the beauty of the Internet. But someone, somewhere will make a decision based upon some reconnaissance study, and that will be that. The Flickr community is very special in a way that those not “living it” could know. The groups are important, as it now stands, to being a part of that. Changes should not be made without regards to this delicate e-cosystem, I will coin a new term.
    Drop by sometime:
    Pat
    at “Pat’s Swigart’s GONE TO LOOK FOR AMERICA”
    and gonetolookforamerica.com

  15. Rob-L says:

    I agree about Flickr Groups. To me, the groups are the only thing that really separates Flickr from the other photo hosting/sharing sites.

  16. As one of Douty’s soldiers I can assure we read this stuff and care deeply about Flickr.

    I am digesting some of this as I comment and contemplating some of the finer points.

    Nice article!

    smitty

  17. Great letter.

    I think Explore should be about personalized recommendations (a la Netflix or Amazon etc). That would make it far far more powerful. Show me the greatest photographs based on my prior history of favs/comments etc. I have already in effect told Flickr what I find interesting, they should show me more.

  18. Eric says:

    I wouldn’t kill Explore. It desperately needs refinement and algorithm tweaks to expose a larger variety of subjects and styles and genres and prevent gaming, but there’s nothing wrong with the idea of it. I would suggest they offer a personalized version of it for Flickr users. Flickr knows enough about what I like that it ought to be able to suggest more photos and photographers that I like, which would be a lot more useful than the lowest common denominator general explore they have now.

    And seriously, they need fix the contacts stream – the choice of 1 or 5 with no regard to what’s new since you last looked or what you may have viewed already is just insane and borderline useless.

    As a general thing, the one feature they desperately need are @replies. If someone says @name *anywhere* on the sight, that user should get notified. Conversations on Flickr itself are all but impossible right now because you never know when/if someone replied to something you wrote, short of keeping a tab open to your comment and constantly refreshing.

    But that’s a digression. Those are long standing common sense feature requests that I can’t imagine will materialize any time soon. They’re too busy shuffling buttons on the UI to put any work into actually making the site better.

    So more on topic, I regard this as a troubling sign:

    If you remember, years ago Flickr’s mission was to appeal to more of the prosumer photographer — and it was really about surfacing high quality photos from a niche of photos, and we’ve changed that mission.

    And the mission for Flickr today is to be the premier place for sharing photos with those people who you care about the most. So we are transitioning from the former mission to a new mission. We’re learning a lot about what people want.

    This is what Facebook is for. Facebook is a repository of crappy snapshots of parties and peoples kids and pets. And the way I read that is that Flickr wants to compete with Facebook to become that kind of photodump. Not only will Flickr fail spectacularly if it tries to compete on that level, it’ll ruin Flickr for the rest of us.

    Flickr’s value proposition has always been a place to share actual photography with a community of people who care about photography. If Flickr abandons that – well, that leaves the market wide open for someone to come and fill that niche. Which I hope someone does sooner than later, because I’m really getting sick of waiting for Flickr to improve, and interviews like this just cement my belief that no improvement is actually coming.

  19. Hi Thomas,

    This is the most thoughtful piece I have read about Flickr EVER. And I bet that thousands of Flickr users feel the same way.

    Cheers,

    Patrick

  20. Paul Morriss says:

    I agree about Flickr groups too. I spend much more time reading and replying than I do looking at photos. Yet there’s no easy way to see what you’ve replied to. If they put some effort in improving the groups then I’m sure Flickr would be more popular.