An Open Letter to Marissa Mayer, CEO Yahoo Inc.

Happy 8th Birthday to Flickr

Dear Marissa,

Congratulations on your new position with Yahoo. I’ve been a huge fan of Google for a long time and have admired the work that you’ve done there. Google Maps, specifically, has been a big part of my life. Google Maps is the primary reason I switched from an iPhone to an Android phone in fact. The ability to add my maps as a layer on a mobile device when I go to photograph a new city is, for me, an incredibly important feature.

You’ve done so much more than look after things like maps at Google though and more than anything you understand the culture that has made Google a success and how the web works more broadly speaking.

I’ve written open letters to the last two Yahoo CEOs, Scott Thompson and Carol Bartz. The third time’s a charm, as they say back in business school, so I thought I’d take an opportunity to welcome you to your new position as well. Hopefully, Yahoo got a winner this time — I think that maybe they did.

First of all, my bias — I’m a photographer. I’m also a photographer who has deeply integrated the web into my photography and into my life. I joined Flickr the year they started in 2004, back before the Yahoo acquisition. I’m what they call “old skool” there. Since then I’ve used the site almost every day of my life. I’ve got over 73,000 photos published there now. Over the last 8 years I’ve favorited over 100,000 photos by other photographers. I’ve spent thousands of hours living in groups, forums, sets, and photostreams. I know the site really well.

Although Flickr has been successful in my opinion, it’s only lived up to about 5% of its potential. Flickr had huge, enormous potential when Yahoo bought the site back in 2005. Flickr *could* have been Facebook. I sincerely believe this. Instead it was clumsily duct taped on to the side of Yahoo. It’s founders worked out their contractual obligations of the sale and then bolted. Stewart Butterfield exited with one of the most creative resignation letters ever written in the history of tech — and after that Flickr was left to wither and almost die.

Flickr never died of course, it’s just that through a combination of Flickr management and Yahoo management it was put into deep sleep mode. The fact that for part of this time Flickr was unprofitable probably didn’t really help their chances. Even when Flickr did start to make money, they didn’t make much. Getting bean counters to invest in some grand future of the web was not something that Yahoo did well back then. The good news was that during this period of time Flickr didn’t really have any serious competition. This was also bad news too though because it created a hostile environment with users where we were abused because, well, where else could you go?

Photos are big part of the future of the web. A huge, giant, massive part of the future of the web. You might say photos were the genesis of Facebook. Why did people come to Facebook originally? To see photos.

Over the past few years web companies are finally beginning to understand the importance of photos. Instagram was a huge hit. They did mobile photos right. What Instagram understood was that people wanted to do two things on their mobile device — see photos by their friends and let their friends know that they were watching by sending a positive vibe. So they made the simpliest interface possible to do just that — you just swipe/scroll, tap/tap, scroll, tap/tap, scroll, tap/tap. This can go on for hours. They also capitalized on this new aesthetic that people have for a vintage film feel with their simple filters and the superiority of the square photo format for presentation.

Google also recognized the potential of photography and, as you know, photos are very deeply integrated into the Google+ experience. What a bunch of winners the team at Google Photos is. Google gave us huge full screen versions of photos first. They gave us great looking photostreams with big oversized thumbnails first. They promoted photographers in big ways. The executives personally reshared our work. They created a special category for photographers on their “Get Started” list. Is it a surprise that so many photographers are so well represented in the 1 million+ follower category on G+? Google understood that integrating beautiful and interesting photos, along with photos by your family and friends, was a way to make G+ more compelling and visually stimulating. Photos completely dominate the new G+ mobile app and tablet app as well.

More than this Google embraced the online photography community in ways that it hadn’t been embraced since the earliest days of Flickr. Google seized the opportunity to showcase that this community could become more than just a web thing. Google sponsored photo walks. Googlers participated in our photo trips. Google gave us broadcasted hangouts. Lotus Carroll and I just broadcasted our 30th weekly episode of Photo Talk Plus last week where photographers can hang out on live video and in a chat room that goes with the show and interact.

The success of Google+ with the photography community was not lost on Facebook. Facebook quickly mimicked Google’s presentation and layout for photos. The old photo thumbnails at Facebook were super tiny. Postage stamped size. Facebook went from just a couple of employees looking after photos to a whole team working on photos. Photos got bigger and better looking. New full screen versions were developed. Photos are featured much more prominently in the timeline feature. Facebook has given notice that they are here to compete with Google+ in photos in a big way. Google has the lead for sure, but Facebook is a serious competitor coming on strong.

So what about Flickr? Flickr represents the largest collection of quality organized photos on the web today. Facebook has more photos, but Flickr has better photos and better organized photos with quality metadata organized around the photos.

Flickr is also probably the most loved and passionately cared about service that Yahoo currently offers. It’s one of those properties whose significance should not be weighed by a profit and loss statement. It should be understood that embracing the passion of these users and harnessing that for Yahoo is the biggest social opportunity for Yahoo at present.

Yahoo has, with Flickr, the core to launch a serious contender to both Google+ and Facebook. Flickr is not “just photos.” Within the DNA of Flickr is a highly social property with serious potential if given the right resources and attention. Flickr Groups could become a powerhouse for groups all across the web that have nothing to do with photography. Competition is fierce though and time is short. Google Events is the first step towards creating a more meaningful group experience at Google and they did Google Events really, really well. It almost feels like it was built for, yes, wait for it — photographers.

So here is where I’ll give my armchair quarterback advice on what to do with Flickr.

Option 1 — sell it to Google. Google needs it. Google is playing catch up in a big way with Facebook in the social networking space. Google sort of has to keep Picasa as it is because it’s used by a lot of people, but Picasa in its current form will never likely become a social powerhouse. Google needs something more powerful than Picasa to funnel into Google+.

Google has the commitment to social, the money, the design and engineering talent, etc. to really do something big with it. What Instagram is to Facebook as a stand alone property, Flickr could become to Google+. Google would acquire the rich archive that Flickr represents and be able to better index this library of images for image search. They could monetize this archive better than the current Flickr/Getty deal which pays photographers out a ridiculously low rate of 20% on the sale of stock photography.

Google would get many important, visible and significant Flickr streams like the Royal Family and the President Obama that they could more deeply integrate into Google+. They’d get less famous streams but equally culturally important streams by museums and governmental archives.

Yahoo and Google have been competitors in the past. You have relationships with people at Google. If your jumping ship to Yahoo isn’t seen as an act of betrayal by your Google friends, you could definitely broker this sort of a sale.

Facebook’s a potential buyer too, but Google needs it more and the users would go with Google over Facebook I think in a migration. I might be wrong but I see Facebook post-Instagram as being more interested in growing out their photo stuff organically than in buying something like Flickr.

2. Option 2 — Seriously invest in Flickr and grow it. Flickr needs a ton of work, but could have huge potential still. Why let Getty keep the bulk of stock photography sales? Renegotiate that relationship and cut out the middle man. Acquire a stock photography agency. Open up stock sales to more users and more of their photos. Stock sales at Flickr have nothing to do with the revenue that you could generate from that business and everything to do with your ability to attract the best photographers on the web today to publish their stuff through Flickr which would be a greater benefit. The money is just an easy way to get more of these types on board.

Why am I only selling 200 of my photos as stock on Getty and getting 20% payout when I could be selling all 73,000 of my photos as stock on Flickr/Yahoo and we split it 50/50? Figure out the liability issues, these can be insured against to a large degree and use this money as a magnet to funnel the best photographers in the world into Flickr.

Your current manager for Flickr Markus Spiering is a good one but he needs a lot more resources. Flickr needs to move their new justified layout to other areas of the site. They need a basic mobile app to flip through and easily fave photos. They need a thread reader for groups on the mobile. Flickr needs circles/lists/buckets to better manage our contacts. Flickr needs more robust blocking tools — when you block someone on Flickr they should be totally invisible to you everywhere on the site.

Flickr does have what some might call an amateur porn problem or an amateur porn opportunity depending on how you look at it. What this is and how it exists at Flickr should be understood from a political/revenue standpoint and figured out — or maybe not.

Flickr needs to invest more heavily in community management. Markus has started to revitalize some of this along with Zack Sheppard, who is Flickr’s community manager, but much more work is needed here. Flickr should be courting the photography community in really robust ways and leveraging community leaders as new unofficial company evangelists (like Google Photos has done so well).

Yahoo should more broadly promote their key Flickr photographers across other Yahoo properties. Image search at Yahoo should recognize Flickr’s powerful interestingness algorithm and include far more results from Flickr in both image and web search. Yahoo should figure out how to identify key Flickr community leaders and look to promote their work across other Yahoo properties.

Option 3 — keep Flickr as it is now. This is the least attractive option in my opinion. Flickr’s value will erode over time. You’ll get less for it if you sell it later as they’ll continue to lose their lead in photo social networking in the photography space. Facebook, Instagram, Google+ are all competing heavily for this business and will only continue into the future. They are allocating millions of dollars towards their social networking efforts where photos play a big role.

Without investing in Flickr to try and reclaim the title of “king of the photo networks” and in fact leveraging this into something far beyond photos in social networking, Yahoo is much better off selling it today than waiting three years down the road.

If you ever want to talk photos at Flickr/Yahoo feel free to drop me a line. I love photography on the web and can talk about ways to make Flickr better all day long if you’re interested in it.

Oh, and sign up for a Flickr account and encourage people you know to share photos on it too. It doesn’t look like you have one yet. These things may not seem like they matter, but they do. Leading by example sends a powerful message both to the troops and to the photo community more broadly speaking. By using Flickr you also hopefully can better understand the potential of what it can become in the future.

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  1. Interesting insights but, Marissa, please don’t sell out to Google. The world’s photography community needs a diverse range of opportunities; it does not need a concentration of power into one or two beasts. Far better to go with option 2 and invest. I think you’re sitting on a gold mine that will impact the reputation of the bigger Yahoo business. At the moment the impact is negative but you have the opportunity and power to change that for the better. Oh, and get a decent iPad app, please 😉

  2. John Kramer says:

    Thanks Thomas for saying what we Flickr lovers feel. Great letter.

  3. Clearlight says:

    Looks like Heather Kelly has been reading your blog…

  4. Well stated Thomas. As a concrete example of Yahoo’s neglect, our community of ~400 local California Central Coast photographers finds that we need to have both a Flickr Group and a Yahoo! Group to integrate our interests in photography discussion, social organization, and photo sharing, as the discussions associated with Flickr Groups are so weak (no notifications, etc.) that they are worthless and laughable.

  5. Thanks Thomas for the comprehensive and thoughtful analysis that provides positive criticism and great ideas. Yahoo ought to hire you as a consultant (what do you think Marissa?). I agree with Tom. We don’t need further consolidation in the industry. We need more competition, not less.

  6. John E Adams says:

    Thomas – some great thoughts and I hope the next open letter will be to yourself when after Marissa hires you as the Flickr Division VP. If they do not I think Google would do well picking you up as well -;0)

    Flickr must be making some money, they have been very content for a several years now, Yahoo as a whole on the other hand is dying in the money making area and I suspect that is where her primary focus be.

  7. Ed Cox says:

    Thank you Thomas for your powerful plea for help for what used to be my favorite photo website.

  8. Mike Woodhouse says:

    Love this – great points made with passion and eloquence. Love your work. Hate “alot” a lot ( Just sayin’ 😉

  9. Thomas Hawk says:

    Thanks Mike and sorry about “alot.” Fixed that, thanks. 🙂

  10. Ian Stewart says:

    Thank you for writing this, Flickr is in grave need of some TLC – if not many of the newer sites will overrun it!

  11. Hear hear! (Pro member of Flickr since 2007 <– – yet I struggle to integrate Flickr to my WordPress blog and Facebook etc. It could be the best resource around (it feels like it once was – and perhaps it could be again!)

  12. InvisibleCirkus says:

    I feel like we’ve been talking for years about how flickrs community management needs to be more visible/interactive and learn how to extend the brand offline…. exactly what g+ did not too long ago and look at what happened. an explosion of trips, meetups and memories.

    you will always know how i feel about flickr…. <3

    much love. i appreciate you so much!

  13. Brian Eden says:

    Really well said Thomas. Thanks for putting into words what so many of us Flickr lovers would love to see.

  14. Thomas, I smiled. I knew that was coming….and it’s beautifully done. Thank you for that!!! You are awesome. Can’t wait for the response 🙂

  15. anthonydpaul says:

    Unsolicited feedback from a mentor this was forwarded to:


    Thanks for sending. Very interesting.
    Mr. Hawk is a good writer, makes good points, but needs a lesson (or 50) in brevity.

    The open letter (to Marissa Mayer)…probably a waste of time. The CEO of a 100-person company couldn’t make it through the whole thing. The CEO of Yahoo probably has a bit less time.

    HOWEVER — — perfect. More with less is the way to go. Everything Thomas Hawk said in his open letter/tomb was nailed in the 10 words on this page, with the exception of his encouragement for Mayer to get a flickr account. That was a nice touch. 🙂

    May we all learn to do more with less.

  16. Thomas Hawk says:

    Anthony, yes, brevity has never been my strong suite — but I felt the topic at hand went beyond a simple “please make flickr awesome again,” although I think that was a great and perhaps more effective campaign.

    My letter is for Marissa Mayer of course and I do hope she reads it. From what I’ve heard she works 24/7 so maybe they’ll be time to squeeze it in at some point, or at least she might skim it — but the letter is not for her alone, which is why it is open. Hopefully there are others with influence at Yahoo that will take the time to read it, who have access to her and convey some of the thoughts in their own way.

  17. btezra says:

    man, I have lost touch, not only w/ Flickr but also w/ your photography, Thomas…I am glad I stumbled across this post and your passionate letter

    as someone who started on Flickr back in 2004, left, came back, left again and came back once again I have lost interest in Flickr all together, mainly because the community that once existed and thrived is gone (imho) but also because Google and Facebook and moved forward so quickly and enriched their photography offerings in far more ways than Flickr ever has in terms of their websites and mobile versions

    I can only hope that Marissa Mayer takes notice of your poignant suggestions and moves forward with reinvigorating Flickr and expanding Flickr as their competition quickly passes them by, to lose what was such a rewarding experience would surely be a great loss

    thanks for this letter and sharing it, your words remind of the passion that once existed on Flickr, perhaps it will return once again

  18. heloisa wolff says:

    the best!…Thomas Hawk