Why an Open API is Important to the Web 2.0 Social Contract

Update: Flickr’s Stewart Butterfield has responded to this blog post down in the comments section.

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Jean Jacques Rousseau.

A lot of charged language has been flying around over the past four days or so with regards to Flickr and what rights their users ought or ought not to have with regards to their content. It started off with a thread in Flickr Central when Google launched their new Picasa photo sharing app and has escalated from there to Digg, TechCrunch and now Slashdot.

As I’ve been involved in the recent debate since it started I wanted to offer up my thoughts on the matter at hand. It’s important to note that yesterday I joined Zooomr, a direct competitor to Flickr. I’ve kept quiet on the posts over the weekend because I wanted to announce that before offering up anything more on the subject than I already have.

As one of Flickr’s heaviest users I feel that I have a decent understanding of the situation and problem at present.

A number of months back Anil Dash wrote a post called “The Interesting Economy.” In this post Anil posed the most basic question of all from a Flickr user’s perspective, “what’s in it for me?”

From Anil: “But interestingness in Flickr doesn’t pay. At least not yet. Non-pro users are seeing ads around my photos, but Yahoo’s not sharing the wealth with me, even though I’ve created a draw. Flickr’s plenty open, they’re doing the right thing by any measure of the web as we saw it a year ago, or two years ago. Today, though, openness around value exchange is as important as openness around data exchange.”

Caterina Fake responded to Anil with the following: “Everyone needs to get paid, businesses need to thrive. I don’t begrudge blogs like Anil’s their AdSense links, or Flickr displaying ads on free accounts (I may have a bias there). But monetization strategy or no, the culture of generosity is the very backbone of the internet. It is why I have always loved it.”

At the time, and still today, I agree with Caterina Fake. I have always felt that I’ve gotten much more out of Flickr than money could ever provide and thus I’ve felt it more than a fair deal. I don’t need to be paid by Flickr. I enjoy the generosity that Caterina speaks of and love the share and share alike spirt of Flickr. And over the past year I’ve spent hours and hours and hours working away at my flickrstream. Uploading new photos every day, meticulously documenting my images with detailed tags, building friends and making contacts, enjoying and sharing with everyone I meet, and participating actively in many different groups and conversations on the site. But lately I’ve been having some second thoughts.

The central issue around the recent debate is not whether or not you can get your photographs out of Flickr. Slashdot got this really wrong when they wrote, “yet Flickr’s API only allows uploading, not exporting.” There are several tools that have already been developed to allow exporting out of Flickr. Downloadr and Slickr come to mind immediately.

You absolutely can get your photographs out of Flickr your photos are not locked up. Flickr is not the roach motel that others have been making it out to be.

What is at issue is not your photos, but the metadata associated with your photos. At present Flickr does not keep the tags that you use to name and organize your photos in the photo files themselves. Rather these tags are part of a larger Flickr database that Flickr associates with your images. And this is the real issue to focus on. How can you as a user, and should you as a user, be able to easily get all of your photos and the metadata associated with them out of flickr and on to a competitive platform.

Recently Zooomr requested a Commercial API from Flickr. This request, in part, was based on a desire to create an easy way for users to migrate their photos and metadata over to Zooomr should they want to try/use the Zooomr service. Zooomr was denied this request by Flickr. Other sites, like Tabblo, who is perhaps viewed as less of a direct competitor to Flickr than Zooomr have been given API keys and have in fact used them to create tools that easily allow a user the ability to transfer their photos and metadata over to their service. I personally used the tabblo service and tool to transfer all my flickr photos and metadata there and you can check out how complete a transfer it was at my tabblo page here.

I think that it was a mistake to deny Zooomr this request. I think it was a mistake because at the foundation of this great thing that we call Web 2.0 I believe there exists a social contract between companies and their users that trumps business interests. Perhaps I’m being naive here but I firmly believe that the user’s needs must always come first for any Web 2.0 company. As businesses profit from the free labor, goodwill and generosity that Caterina Fake writes of, I believe that while they may not be owed actual compensation, that they are owed every effort to protect their rights, privileges and control over that which they create and contribute.

It is very very cool how easy it was to transfer my entire flickrstream and all of the associated metadata easily and seamlessly over to tabblo. It should be that easy for any other site I choose to use as well. And while it should not be incumbent on Flickr to build the tools to do this, they should make their API available to other companies who would like to build these import tools nonetheless. They should do this because it’s the right thing to do from their side of the user generated contract.

And I think Flickr feels this way too. In fact it should be noted that after denying Zooomr’s original request, Flickr’s Stewart Butterfield has expressed that he has had a change of heart with regards to allowing competitors access to Flickr commercial API keys and will most likely grant these requests if a competitor also agrees to allow Flickr access to their open API. I applaud this effort but in fact still think it needs to go a tad further. I do think that flickr should open up their API for building import/export tools for competitors irrespective of the status of their API. Again, I may be living in a utopia here, but I do believe that in the end doing the right thing always wins out. And if other sites want to stay closed while Flickr stays open then I think in the end users will respect Flickr all the more for this and it will create a stronger bond between them and their users. Zooomr by the way is committed to an open API and Kris is working on the finishing touches on Zooomr’s as I write this.

One final thing. I think that in this entire debate Flickr has at times been portrayed as the bad guy here. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, Flickr has probably done more for user’s rights and ability to control their content then just about any Web 2.0 company that exists today. They have popularized the Creative Commons license. They have routinely listened to and actively engaged their users. They have created broad tools to allow users to offer varying degrees of access, privacy and control over their images. They have carefully cultivated an environment of mutual respect between they and their users and have constantly fought for the rights of these users. They will likely even change their position with regards to granting competitors Commercial API keys. They have been about as fine an example of good stewardship in the user generated contract as exists today. In all of this I think it’s unfair for anyone to suggest otherwise.

15 Replies to “Why an Open API is Important to the Web 2.0 Social Contract”

  1. Extremely disappointed to see you post this Thomas. Are we supposed to believe that it *just* occured to you on the weekend that you might go work for Zooomr?

    This stunt didn’t work very well (see the comments on TechCrunch or Digg) – and I don’t think it’s going to work any better if you push it harder. Especially until you allow users to export their data from Zooomr, you shouldn’t be complaining about us. You know very well that we had “changed our position” before Kris got his stuff posted on TechCrunch.

    You’ll be successful or not based in large measure by the quality of your product and the quality of your service. We’re happy to let users export to Zooomr, but neither that nor these cheesy tactics are going to make a long term difference to your success.

  2. I have to agree with Stewart in one respect if not more – it needs to be a share and share alike model for it to be a Web 2.0 Social Contract – as I understand it, that is the most used Creative Commons license model, but I may be mistaken. Regardless, it is not a fair competition unless everyone plays by the same rules.

    Doing the right thing for the customers would be ensuring that any service the customer wants to transfer their data to should also easily let them transfer their data out of the service if that time should ever come. It is not appropriate to let some 3rd party migrate a user away into a situation where the user can not switch back easily or switch to another service.

    And yes Thomas, Flickr has been inappropriately portrayed as the bad guy – they are one of the leaders and are most responsive to customer needs. To see the media and certain competitors jump on them while in the middle of an open deliberation process and make them out as such does not seem appropriate.

    I respect you and your work immensely, but the way this debate is being framed and staged does not leave a good taste in my mouth. Especially when previously corrected facts continue to be published in a way intended to shed negative light on a competitor. I can see some good points on both sides of the argument, but I am less likely to support someone’s position when they are playing the PR game instead of keeping it real and completely above board.

  3. Stewart, you misread my comments if you feel that I am complaining about Flickr. Irrespective of Zooomr this debate is fundamentally about allowing users portability of their data. I would feel the same way whether I was working with them or not.

    And I’m not pushing anything. I’m clarifying my views on the portability of user data.

    You absolutely changed your position prior to Tech Crunch’s article and if you go back and read the comments on the Tech Crunch article you will note that the third comment in the article written by me to Mike Arrington was in fact documentation to this fact. I was the first person to point this out to the Tech Crunch crowd before the comments took off from there.

    I also don’t believe that Flickr’s decision to allow people to export data to Zooomr has much to do with their long term success either. Like you I too agree that if Zooomr is to be succesful it will be based on the exact things you mention, quality of product, quality of service, etc.

    This conversation is not about Zooomr and Flickr. It’s about the fact that there should exist portability for users for the content that they contribute to Web 2.0 properties. And I suspect that you and I largely agree on that point.

  4. “And yes Thomas, Flickr has been inappropriately portrayed as the bad guy – they are one of the leaders and are most responsive to customer needs. To see the media and certain competitors jump on them while in the middle of an open deliberation process and make them out as such does not seem appropriate.”

    Chris. I agree with you about Flickr being inappropriately portrayed as the bad guy here which is why I wanted to make sure and clarify that I for one do *not* feel this way as I think I have done in this post.

    While I may have been critical of Flickr’s original position not to grant competitors API keys to build migration tools. I think all who read this know that Flickr has most likely changed their position here (and again I was the first one to point this out at TechCrunch). I have nothing but the best opinion and respect for Stewart and Flickr and the entire team at Flickr and for the good work that they have done.

  5. Look, Thomas, you can run things any way you want. I told you on the phone on Sunday that I thought you should be careful after you announce working for Zooomr because you lose the privilege of being a neutral third party observer.

    You made your comments on Flickr without disclosing your potential involvement with Zooomr. And I bit my tongue throughout the TechCrunch thread and didn’t say anything about it. But when you have a direct financial interest in a given conversation you have an obligation to be direct about it.

    The reason I was pretty sure you were working with Zooomr before you wrote me was the timing of your posts and the language you used (exactly the same as Kristopher, and on the same day). I’m not dumb, and neither are a lot of the people who will read this stuff.

    Couching this in “a lot of people are saying negative stuff about Flickr, but *I* for one don’t believe it” is no different than a politician saying “many have accused my opponent of being a child molester, but *I* for one don’t believe it”. It’s the same cheap rhetorical strategy.

    And I was fine with the TechCrunch and Digg threads. I think that the overwhelming majority of readers and commenters were pretty clear on what was going on.

    Re: “As one of Flickr’s heaviest users I feel that I have a decent understanding of the situation and problem at present.” Yeah? What’s the problem exactly? As I very patiently explained to you on Sunday, there are many reasons why a standards based approach for import/export is the only way you get real interoperability and what the potential downsides are to focussing on the API. But the point is moot since we’re willing to give Zooomr an API key.

    I’m bowing out of this conversation now, but I’ll say one more time that you’ll do much better focussing on the quality of the product and the services around it than playing this game.

  6. Stewart, the fact that I have an interest in Zooomr in no way changes my view that users data ought to be portable. I’ve believed this far before I’d ever heard of Zooomr.

    Are you suggesting that because I have a financial interest in Zooomr that I ought not be allowed to have an opinion on the portability of users data in Web 2.0? My views are every bit as valid as your views irrespecitve of the fact that you may work for Flickr and I may work for Zooomr.

    And my language is in no way couching at all. I sincerely believe that Flickr is a great consumer focused company. One of the best out there in fact. You’ve seen the work I’ve put into Flickr over the past year. Would I have spent all that time if I had a negative view of the company? I obviously feel very very powerfully positive about flickr. For you to somehow read my words of support for Flickr as somehow hidden missives of criticism is absurd.

    Certainly though I have been vocal when I’ve felt critically about things about flickr in the past. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    It feels as though you would suggest that because I’m working with Zooomr now that I’m incapable of having an unbiased opinion on the portibility of user data. This too is absurd. I’d have the same opinion about the portibility of data whether I worked for Zooomr or not.

    And as to your challenge, “what’s the problem.” The problem is simple. At present there is no easy way to export all of the metadata associated with my photographs on flickr out of flickr and into another platform. My tags very much are trapped at flickr. And I’m more than the casual user. I’ve got over 5,000 photos stored on flickr and flickr is the only place (other than tabblo where you allow importing the images and granted them an API key to do so) where these tags exist today. I can’t get at this data without manually re-entering it all. That is in fact a problem. But it’s a problem that you are aware of and I believe are addressing the correct way by changing your opinion on granting competitors API keys.

    And your statement that a standards based approach for import/export is the only way you get real interoperability is in fact false. This is not the only way. On Sunday you suggested to me that this could be accomplished by writing the metadata back to the photo file and this could be developed down the line. This is not how it is being done with tabblo today. Tabblo instead has been granted a flickr api key and is pulling directly from the flickr database. Probably the easiest and most efficient way to get this data transferred across and probably the right way given that it is the least impactful to the user.

    For you to suggest that an interoperability solution that involves writing the tags to the image file is the *only* way is misleading and inaccurate.

    But as you say this point is in fact moot as you are willing to give Zooomr an API key and I’d argue as you should and as you should grant to any other competitor that would like to build an import tool to allow users portability of their data. The data first and foremost belongs to the users not flickr. You are paid to maintain it and to provide a great experience with it for them. And because of this you benefit and have benefited greatly.

    Bottom line today. I can get my tags to tabblo (they got an API key), but I can’t get them to Zooomr or Picasa or Webshots or even to my own damn hard drive.

    This should not be a hostile conversation. Flickr is doing the right thing by opening up their API to competitors. I agree with you that flickr is doing the right thing. As I’ve stated more than once now Flickr is in fact the type of company that consistently has and I’m confident will in the future continue doing the right thing for their cusomters. I have nothing but the highest respect for you and flickr and your entire team and a great appreciation for your roles as consumer advocates in the world of photo sharing.

    But for you to insinuate that I have nefarious reasons for wanting user portability with their data is off. And for you to suggest that my feelings on this are some kind of a game or a charade or anything but sincere is equally off.

    I do plan on spending many hours in the days ahead working on Zooomr functionality as you recommend that I do. But I also will free to speak my mind of subjects that I feel are important. Before I was ever affiliated with Zooomr I was first and foremost a blogger and a photographer. And a passionate photographer who has spent literally thousands of hours on your website building up *my* data. For you to think that I shouldn’t be allowed to have an opinion on how that data ought to now be handled and the issues surrounding it’s portability because I’m now in your words “no longer a neutral third party” is also absurd.

    And again you somehow want to indicate that I was part of some “TechCrunch Game” when you don’t address that it was I who posted the third comment on the original post defending Flickr and in fact pointing out that you had changed your opinion on this so that Mike Arrington’s readers would have a proper understanding of the situation. I also personally emailed Mike of this fact when I first saw the post. And that was the only post I made in the entire thread other than this blog entry which I’ve written today and which I still stand by.

  7. I’m not sure why you have to drag me into this debate, but I actually take pride in being a punk. You should remember though that Hot Topic is not punk rock.

  8. [Yawn]

    Hawk and his blog thrive off a bit of controversy, much like uninteresting people at parties who try to make themselves appear interesting by being opinionated and argumentative.

    This Flickr/Zooomr API controversy appears to have been created and promoted entirely by TH. And I’m sure it’ll be successful as the recent Photography is not a crime post (and it’s predecessor) at boosting his blog’s ad impressions. I wonder who’s cage he’ll rattle next…

  9. anon, re: “much like uninteresting people at parties who try to make themselves appear interesting by being opinionated and argumentative”

    – Dude, that’s a bit harsh. There’s some interesting stuff on this blog. And it’s an important discussion.

  10. If the metadata got to tabblo why can’t Spouting Thomas upload it to zoooomr from there?

  11. If the metadata got to tabblo why can’t Spouting Thomas upload it to zoooomr from there?

  12. I’m still waiting for my Zooomr api key 😉 I emailed the address listed at http://blog.zooomr.com/2006/03/27/attention-developers/ with no answer. People cannot make nice scripts and programs to help others if they can’t get an API key. (note, this is non-commercial)

    Zooomr has great product evangelists such as Mr. Hawk, but it’s time to back up the hype with some features 😉 As it stands now, I wouldn’t pay for a pro account, but I hope that will change in the upcoming year.

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