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