My Thoughts on Mat Honan’s Gizmodo Article on How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet

Flickr Product Chief Markus Spiering Shoots an Old Skool Polaroid Camera at Last Month's Mission District Photowalk
Flickr Product Chief Markus Spiering Shoots an Old Skool Polaroid Camera at Last Month’s Mission District Photowalk

Quote from Mat Honan’s Gizmodo article on Flickr: “Flickr wasn’t a startup anymore,” explains the engineer, “people didn’t really want to work that hard to turn the entire product around. Even if they had, Flickr [was] very techie hipster, many didn’t use or like Facebook and considered it bland, boring, evil, poorly designed, etc., and were certainly not ready to fast follow it. Emphasis was put more on how things looked, and felt, rather than on metrics and on what worked. The whole experience was very frustrating for me all around, as I slowly watched Flickr and Yahoo fade into irrelevance.”

[Warning, this is going to be a very long post by me. I’ve got a lot to say about Flickr.]

Mat Honan has a pretty detailed and in-depth story on the history of Flickr and how Yahoo strangled the once exciting and promising photo sharing site over at Gizmodo. Mat talks to a lot of insiders and former insiders and the picture he paints overall is pretty bleak. I have no idea how accurate the story is. Many of the people cited in the article are cited unnamed and anonymously, but a lot of it feels about right to me.

I joined Flickr during their first year in 2004 — pre-Yahoo. I’m what you’d call “old skool” on Flickr and have been pretty active there just about every single day since signing up except for a brief hiatus. I’ve uploaded over 71,000 photos, participated actively in groups for years, and have handed out thousands of comments and over 100,000 favorites.

After the Yahoo acquisition I became more and more and more negative on Flickr over time. This manifested itself in countless blog posts I wrote criticizing the company and its management.

For me, most of my frustration was around three key issues.

1. It felt like Flickr simply refused to innovate.

2. It felt like the people who managed Flickr and worked for Flickr simply didn’t care about the users or the product.

3. My data didn’t feel safe and I worried about the community management team irrevocably and permanently deleting accounts without warning to users.

In my frustration, primarily over these three issues, I wrote open letters to Yahoo executives. I wrote an article that got alot of attention titled Flickr is Dead. When promising competitors came on the scene like 500px or Google+ I lauded their efforts. Forcing competition on Flickr felt like a good thing to me.

Because of my criticism I felt like Flickr had retaliated against me. I was banned from the Flickr Help Forum after criticizing the company and their practices. I was blacklisted from the popular Explore section of the site (even as Flickr’s former community manager Heather Champ denied that an Explore blacklist existed).

I think I was so passionately vocal about my feelings on Flickr because I’d become so emotionally invested in it over the years. I found real community there for so long — in the groups, in the photowalks, in the photo trips and meetups, in the day to day back and forth between me and people that I met and became friends with through the site. I wanted so much more for Flickr than what it felt like it had stagnated into.

I wanted the people who ran Yahoo and who worked on Flickr to care and to give a damn. I wanted to see passion and people who wanted to change the world.

By being so vocal and negative about Flickr I made a lot of enemies. In hindsight I’m not sure my approach was the best one. Over the years Flickr has had their band of sycophantic defenders who have simply refused to accept anyone saying anything critical about the site. These people by and large hate my guts today.

Some of Flickr’s most ardent supporters over the years created a cabal on the site. They’d dominate the Flickr Help forum and talk down to users who expressed any sort of dissatisfaction over the service. They would attack me there when I was banned and unable to defend myself.

When users would complain about having their account deleted without warning, they would almost always blame and attack the user rather than admit that a system with no “undo” button on deletions was dangerous and stupid. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, even Flickr censors. This problem went ignored for years until Yahoo accidentally deleted Mirco Wilhelm’s account last year and ended up getting trashed in the mainstream media on sites like CNN over it.

It’s almost cathartic a little to read Mat’s detailed post on Flickr because so much of it resonates with me as a heavy user over the years — the forcing of everyone into Yahoo accounts for example (which we were told would have no impact on us whatsoever but which was soon used to censor photos to German and other members). Mat’s description of focus by Yahoo executives on money and short-term profits and business while they ignored the huge social significance of what Flickr could have become feels spot on. In my mind Flickr could have become Facebook if only Yahoo had tried. They could have been just as big. Flickr could have been the company completely dominating Yahoo instead of the other way around. It could have been so much more than just photosharing.

I do think there are some things that Mat gets wrong in his article though. Mat paints Flickr today as an abandoned ghost town. Mat writes, “The site that once had the best social tools, the most vibrant userbase, and toppest-notch storage is rapidly passing into the irrelevance of abandonment. Its once bustling community now feels like an exurban neighborhood rocked by a housing crisis. Yards gone to seed. Rusting bikes in the front yard. Tattered flags. At address, after address, after address, no one is home.”

He adds, “As I scroll down I note that friend after friend has quit posting. At the bottom of the page I am already back in mid 2010. So many of my friends have vanished. It feels like MySpace, circa 2009.”

I’m more active on Flickr today than Mat is. I still use the site daily and this doesn’t really describe my experience there. If I boot up my contacts photos there is still page after page after page of new and vibrant photos freshly added, not just this year or this month or this week, but this very day.

A lot of what your Flickr experience will be today depends on who you follow. I still have new users adding my photostream every single day. New blood is the lifeblood of every community and Flickr does indeed still get alot of new blood even as many old users have left. You have to keep up with these new people too and that takes energy. Page views on my photos were declining for a while, but they were always significant. Today I probably average about 14,000 views a day per Flickr’s stat program. That’s probably up 20% or so for me since the beginning of the year.

I think that there are tons of people who are still quite active on Flickr and will be for a very long time, even if overall traffic has been down for the site with people being pulled away by competition.

Flickr has the Getty deal which is pretty compelling even if the paltry 20% payout to photographers feels unfair. What other site out there will actually *pay* you for photo sharing?

SmugMug [who sponsors my weekly photo show Photo Talk Plus] has a similarly attractive financial engine paying photographers 85%, but other than Flickr/Getty and SmugMug, there are not really many social avenues where you can monetize your photos. I do make a lot of stock photography sales through people finding my photos on Google Image Search (which probably ties into Google+ through “Search Plus Your World”), but neither Google+ or Facebook have any direct stock photography path at present.

Flickr has a lot of people currently participating in the Getty deal. At present there are over 382,000 Flickr photographs represented on Getty. Thousands of people make from a few bucks to several hundred dollars a month through that deal. These are some of the most talented photographers on Flickr and these people are not likely to leave anytime soon unless someone can give them a better way to sell their photos as stock than Flickr does.

Mat acknowledges that Flickr is in fact trying to turn the ship around. “Despite years of neglect, Flickr’s miniscule yet highly talented team is trying desperately to right the ship,” he writes.

I think I’d emphasize the significance of this more than he has.

More specifically, I think Markus Spiering, who took over as Product Chief for Flickr after Matthew Rothenberg quit deserves a ton of credit. I was critical of Rothenberg. He had an award with a masturbating dinosaur in his office for “excellence in the field of community abuse and advocacy.” Maybe that was a joke, but it felt to me more like a big “I don’t really care about you the user” from my seat. The photo was taken by Heather Champ who was the one who’d banned me from the Help Forum and nuked a popular group I ran without warning.

I reached out to Markus when he became the new Head of Product but didn’t hear back from him initially. Eventually I did though and through him and Zack Sheppard (the current community manager) my ban from the Help Forum and blacklist from Explore were both removed.

Markus took the time to have lunch with me and shared his vision about a new and improved Flickr. After what felt to me like years of stagnation he talked with me about the big plans that he had this coming year for Flickr.

In January of this year Markus wrote a blog post promising us all a renewed sense of purpose for Flickr and I think he’s largely delivering on that. The first big push came in the form of a redesign of the “photos from your contacts” page. Markus chose Adrianne Jeffries as the journalist to first offer this story to. Adrienne is one of the best journalists covering Flickr out there today. She’s reported more deeply than others and I thought that was a great choice for him to go with for this story that got a ton of attention online.

In addition to the “photos from your contacts” page redesign, Flickr seems to be reigniting their interest in social events and photowalks. After years of limiting our photo file sizes to 20MB, last month they increased that limit to 50MB (for Pros) along with a pretty cool new photo uploader — and just today Flickr rolled out their new “liquid” photo page.

Markus feels to me like an enthusiastic, passionate leader who cares about the future of the site and one who has embraced innovation rather than the status quo which was a big part of what was bringing Flickr down.

I no longer feel like Flickr is dying. It’s got a long way to go, but I think they’ve still got a fighting chance left. I think they lost their opportunity to become Facebook, but they are improving and innovating once again and I think this will pay dividends over the next few years. Users feel like they are more respected to me. There is now an undo if Flickr deletes your account. A friend of mine even deleted his own account and was able to get them to reinstate it. This is all very positive.

I don’t know what the future of Flickr looks like, but as long as Markus and his team continue down the path of innovation, I think they are moving in the right direction. I suspect you’ll see more innovation in mobile later this year and I think other areas of the site will continue to be refreshed. Flickr’s new justified view for “your contacts photos” and for your “favorites” page is beautiful. I hope it’s rolled out to our sets page next.

It would be great to see Jeremy Brooks’ SuprSetr technology actually integrated into Flickr. Flickr still has the best album/set functionality in the business, photo organization remains their strong suit. I’ve got over 1,700 sets there and they have all been built by keywords on my photos with Jeremy’s awesome app. There is a ton of improvement that can still be made with groups and especially with mobile.

I’m more hopeful on Flickr than I’ve been in a long, long time. They still have the best image search in the business. They still have the best photo organizational tools in the business. They seem to have positive leadership.

Given the turmoil that’s going on at Yahoo and the poor fit for Flickr over the years, I actually think Flickr would make an impressive acquisition target for either Google or Facebook. With Dan Loeb running the show at Yahoo now there’s a strong case to be made for maximizing Yahoo shareholder value by breaking it up.

Google probably needs the leg up in social more than Facebook right now, but both could probably turn Flickr into a stock photography juggernaut, with it’s rich, highly organized archive. Both could also probably better optimize the rich library of photographs there into their other social properties and both could probably benefit from the relationships that Flickr has built with important institutional accounts like the White House, the Royals, or the countless number of museums, libraries and other historical and cultural institutions that now have a presence on the site.

Time will tell, I suppose, time will tell.

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25 Comments

  1. I still like Flickr, and I still visit the site daily to look at inspiring photos. While I realize that some people have abandoned their stream, I know some are still actively posting their images on Flickr. I haven’t made the complete jump to using 500px yet, as I still have a bunch of contacts from Flickr who haven’t.

    My renewal date for Flickr Pro is coming up next week. Originally, I wasn’t planning on renewing, but after the change today on Liquid, maybe I will.

  2. Owen Byrne says:

    For me, flickr is a good example of a problem that I think startups in the valley do a very poor job of – actually creating either
    a. a sustainable, profitable business
    or
    b. being acquired and actually being an asset to the company that acquires it.

    It’s easy to put all the blame on Yahoo, but Google and Facebook also routinely shutdown startups rather than make the effort to integrate them into their offerings. Quite simply, that integration is hard, much harder than people think. And you can talk all you want about “innovation” but that particular innovation seems elusive.

  3. squid says:

    You are correct, it did feel as if flickr didn’t want to move forward, very AOL. Still, how come they don’t have a facebook like button, it only draws more attention back to flickr… hello!!!

    I use flickr when I have something to share that i’m really excited about but the interaction I can get from facebook or my own page is higher. I just wish they did this stuff 5 years ago. Now they’re playing catch-up.

  4. I agree with you that Flickr became the industry standards for photo sharing. I never thought its asocial approach on the downside. I always saw it as a place where the pros meet. But now that you have pointed out the merger with Facebook or Google+ I can see the point.

    Like you I never understood why Flickr is associated with yahoo as I see yahoo as a kind of passé. I think a merger with either facebook or google+ will be a milestone in the history of social networking. But I’m afraid that that might loses flickr’s professional edge.

    I have great respect for Flickr and believe in its potential.

  5. Mike says:

    Thomas, I really do not trust your opinion (nor do others I have spoken to). You like whatever is the flavour of the month. Remember when you were going on and on about Google+? I knew we would get an “updated Thomas Hawk” opinion on Flickr when I saw that they had used one of your photos on the Flickr blog. My thoughts are: you like whatever site gives you the most attention. It’s always about you, and that’s it.

  6. Thomas Hawk says:

    “Mike” I actually LOVE Google+ and think that they have more of the soul of social photo sharing on the web than any other site these days. What from this article could possibly make you think I dislike Google+? I’m on Google+ every single day and it’s where I spend a ton of time online. I broadcast a show on Google+ every Wednesday night. You’re way off there.

    As far as Flickr goes, I’ve been blogging about the positive changes Flickr has been making all year actually. Go back and actually read some of what I’ve been blogging. This article has absolutely *nothing* to do with the fact that Flickr blogged one of my photos this morning. This just goes to show how little you pay attention.

    Personally speaking I think it’s FANTASTIC that Google, Facebook AND yes, now Flickr, seem to be firing on all cylinders right now. Because when companies compete in this space, we the users benefit. I’m happy right now using Google+, Facebook and Flickr all three. I’m a hyper engaged user and love the different social aspects of all three. I’m also btw pretty active on Instagram right now and have begun selling my photos on SmugMug. I still even check in at 500px every now and again and upload a photo.

    The fact that I get excited when companies innovate has nothing to do with the flavour of the month. I was down on Flickr before because their ideas of innovation were stupid things like a little photo chat app where you doodled on photos with another user (thank GOD they killed that). They are more seriously focused now than they’ve been in a long time and I think that’s a great thing — whether they blog any of my photos or not.

  7. What he said.

    I agree with a lot of what you had to say about Flickr Thomas. I have a Flickr account, and accounts at 500px and SmugMug.

    I am not a native to SmugMug though and I wish I could figure out my way around it better so i could make it my main site and point my website to it. Who could I connect with that might be able to help me make my SmugMug site more functional To-Mas?

  8. Tobias W. says:

    I never get when Flickr gets compared to Facebook for photo sharing. Do people read the small print at Facebook before they upload pictures there? Once you upload anything to Facebook, they reserve the right to use it for basically whatever. You effectively surrender your image rights to Facebook when you upload there. How can anybody seriously compare Facebook as a serious photo sharing site to Flickr?

    Sure, for sharing irrelevant, non-valuable, private moments on Facebook, all those crappy cell phone images of people showing off how cool they are and so on, this might not be relevant. But should we as a Flickr community be sad that Flickr is missing out on that crap?!

    Look at 500px. They have chosen a niche with quality photography and photographers. Even though they suck at mobile have little features and so on, they manage to draw that crowd.

    Flickr is somewhat in between and personally, I am glad that Flickr didn’t become the current Facebook. I give a shit about social networking, face recognition in pictures, person tagging and such. I care about showing my photography and enjoying other people’s great photography. For that, Flickr is still the main platform on the web with no competition from Facebook and some competition from 500px and Google+.

  9. qlakk says:

    Thanks for all these valuable inputs!

    I am not so much convinced of any added value coming from a divestment to Google or FB. First and foremost, because like said Mat Honan, that will disturb again innovation in favor of integration like during any acquisition. Further more, because Flickr does not really need them. Actually, Flickr just needs some stability in order to do its job. I agree, or maybe I hope as I am using Flickr so often, this may work given Flickr’s existing assets and team. Competition is fierce, but that’s business and a good team with (so) strong assets (like Flickr have) in a growing market like photo sharing, is usually quite successful, or at least can be for sure.

    So yes there is room for being optimistic, even if the endless turmoils of Yahoo! is not helping, even if the past months have been tough for Flickr and even if right now, there is so much work to be done at their UI (front page, like you wrote sets and collections, but also, omho, explore, search, groups and more generally the whole sharing experience).

    On a side note, I would not rely too much on a divestment, not only because it looks so challenging making any forecast right now about Yahoo!. If you read the Dan Loeb manifesto (valueyahoo.com) and the comments from analysts (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/the-future-of-yahoo-what-daniel-loeb-really-wants.php), he and his clan want to keep the most valuable assets of Yahoo!. And Flickr looks to me to be one of these, given the hype of photo sharing. But should it happen, as long as the Yahoo! messy board let the operations of Flickr running smoothly, again, that could work. And frankly, I am wondering if this is not a good thing. The other option, which could work too, would be to divest Flickr to a private investor with a long term strategy. That’s my preferred option as Flickr can grow and improve its services without belonging to any other internet giant. But I am dreaming here…

  10. Good post. I’ve been on Flickr since June 2005, and while I haven’t been as active as you on the site (who is?) I have thought your comments are spot on about the needs for Flickr to grow. I have been very excited about the changes that have been happening this year. Not simply for the changes per se, but as much for the fact that there is change and innovation at all. For your role in this I am grateful.

    I read in the business section of the Guardian that analysts are now saying that Yahoo is in a dead spiral (cutting costs, leading to lower revenues, leading to further cost cutting, and so on), which makes me worry for the future of Flickr (I couldn’t care less for Yahoo).

    I don’t buy the idea that Google would be great though (I would leave if FB went near it). At your suggestion I tried out G+ for some time, got up to about 10000 followers, and found it depressing for photography, and eventually left. The community there not geared around photography like Flickr, and never will be. It’s a social network of lots of different people. Selling Flickr to Google would just create a whole lot of other pain for the company.

  11. Thomas Hawk says:

    Tobias W. Nobody cares about the small print anymore. Serious photographers are posting their best work to Facebook every day. Art Wolfe is probably about as serious a working Pro as there gets and he posts his stuff there like many others.

    People have moved on past the alarmist argument that social networks are bad for image rights. Serious photographers understand that social networks are part of any good marketing strategy for their work going forward and to ignore Facebook over something dumb like “surrendering your image rights” is just foolish.

    Check out my curated Photographers list to see just some of the amazing work serious photographers are putting out on Facebook now: http://goo.gl/chmC8

  12. BdgBill says:

    I have had an an alarming number of my contacts abandon their stream in the last six months. Many more contacts seem to be automatically syncing their photos from their phone to Flickr but are no longer making any comments or participating in the site in any way.

    The recent improvements have been decent but solved problems that are small potatoes compared to their biggest issue (for me) – the shackles of the photostream. I can’t believe we are in 2012 and we are still stuck with 2 or 3 different views for our home page, all of which prioritize photos by the date they were added.

  13. Clearlight says:

    Any discussion about flickr that overlooks it’s vast repository of amateur porn can hardly be taken seriously.

  14. Thomas Hawk says:

    Clearlight. I think Yahoo would just as soon people didn’t focus on that, but yes, it’s massive and significant. They do a pretty good job of keeping it under wraps, but I’m sure it’s responsible for a significant amount of traffic overall. I’m just not sure that’s the sort of traffic they really want as publicizing that fact probably hurts their overall image with other many people who object to that sort of content. it is a distinction between Flickr and other sites though.

  15. Jim Nix says:

    great read Thomas, always appreciate your insights!

  16. Jordan Oram says:

    Great write up Thomas :) I really enjoyed reading it and I’m going to be keeping an eye on flickr with a renewed interest. It would be interesting to see it bought by G+ or FB with better integration. I like G+ in many regards but some of the photo handling nuance is definitely much clunkier than the Flickr experience.

    Now if only Google would get set up in the stock photography market.. ;)

  17. Great blog Thomas, fascinating to read about your tussles with Flickr. It is good that sites like these are made to be accountable in some ways (like reinstating deleted accounts). If there were no positive criticism and the competition from g+ and fb, they would see no need to change. And i like the changes Flickr have made, it is reinvigorating and stimulating my interest again in them.

  18. Paul says:

    As long as those disgusting sycophants you talk about in your post are present on Flickr, I won’t return.

  19. Lots of great points in your article and Mat’s. I must say that if it wasn’t for Flickr, I may not be the photographer I am today. I did spend years perfecting my technique just to get awards in groups, or later to get into Explore. Now that the Explore algorithm has become so nebulous that a Korean tween can get a camphone pic in front of a mirror into Explore over a quality photograph, it’s become quite a joke. But I digress, it’s not a popularity contest, or at least that’s what Flickr staff says.

    Really the main use for me now is increasing my catalog with Getty. If it wasn’t for Getty, I probably may have moved fully on to something else and stopped paying for a pro account. I still comment on my Flickr contacts’ photos, but even some of them are still gamifying how they support their contacts as if it will get them into Explore. I have also seen many really good contacts abandon Flickr for different reasons. You can’t help but feel that the staff and/or Yahoo doesn’t really care that much. Now it looks as if they are trying to update a few things, but is it too little too late?

  20. Major Dody says:

    You made certain good points there. I did a search on the matter and found a good number of people will go along with with your blog.

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  25. Stefano says:

    Flickr could have built Instagram, in a snap. They didn’t. They lost the social thing, they could have been THE social photo site. That’s the worst damage the bad Yahoo management did, the rest is nothing.
    I still am an active Flickr user and agree – groups are really key to Flickr. Their app is still very primordial and this is again something showing that they still don’t get the power of the social stuff.
    But they will learn, eventually.