Top 10 Ways to Improve Flickr

The Top 10 Ways to Improve Flickr

Recently my friend Bill Storage asked a question in DeletemeUncensored titled “What’s Wrong With Flickr.” The thread wasn’t meant to complain about Flickr but to talk about how Flickr could be improved if one were starting from scratch. I wrote a couple of long responses out to Bill in the thread, but thought that some of the ideas really belonged in a longer-form blog post.

Alot of people give me crap for criticizing Flickr. They ask me why I use Flickr if “hate” it so much. The fact of the matter is that I don’t hate Flickr at all. In fact I love Flickr (even if they don’t love me anymore). I spend more time on Flickr than any other site on the web. I think Flickr represents the best place on the web for a photographer to share photos today and I think as a whole that Flickr is one of the cultural gems of our lifetime. What’s more, a lot of the stuff on Flickr works really, really well and is really really great.

That said, I’ve always viewed criticism as a positive thing. As something that helps us improve and grow. Hopefully we learn from our critics and hopefully one can view suggestions as opportunities for improvement rather than simple mindless negativity. I blog alot about Flickr because I care about Flickr. I care about photography on the web. I care about the greater Flickr community and I want to see it get better and better. So don’t see this list as a bitch list about Flickr, rather see it as some honest ways that Flickr can improve.

1. Improve the process on how account and group deletions are handled. Flickr is increasingly becoming known as a place that deletes accounts willy nilly without warning. Flickr’s “Community Guidelines” are notoriously vague (you can be deleted without warning on Flickr for being “that guy” or if Flickr feels that you are “creepy.”)

Many of my friends have had their entire accounts deleted for pretty minor offenses that are not specifically prohibited in more specific language in the TOS. In some cases photos with historical significance have been permanently lost. A while back Flickr nuked a group that I administered killing thousands of permanent threads. Thousands of threads by a group with thousands of members. Threads about cameras, workflows, photographic techniques, etc. Institutional knowledge stricken from the web forever.

Flickr really only should nuke accounts or groups as a matter of absolute last resort. They should try to work with their members (especially their long-term and paying members) if they find content that they object to. They should give members opportunities to take self-corrective action before just pulling the plug on their account. If they object to a single thread or a single image, they should just delete that image rather than nuking a user’s entire account.

When Flickr nukes a group or an account it says to a user, “I don’t respect you or your data.” It creates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty is bad for community.

At Flickr when they nuke your account it is also permanent and irrevocable. There is no undo button. Even if Flickr staff mistakenly deletes an account or if a hacker maliciously deletes your account, there is no getting that data back. It’s gone forever.

Flickr could probably very easily create a system where deleted accounts are simply turned completely private and inaccessible from the web without actually removing all of the data. They could then give a user an opportunity to fix whatever they have a problem with in order to get their account turned back on. This would be a far better way of managing community than Flickr does at present.

2. Create a more robust blocking tool. Today at Flickr when you block someone, all it means is that they can’t fave or comment on your photos. This is a very weak blocking system. If someone really wants to harass you blocking them does nothing. They can still comment on photos after you do so that their comments show up in your recent activity. They can still follow you around in groups and post things that you’re forced to look at etc. Especially with cheap throw away troll accounts this creates unnecessary conflict on the site.

A few years back, over at FriendFeed, they developed a far more robust blocking system. When you block someone on FriendFeed they become entirely invisible to you. Not only can they not comment in your threads, anyplace else they post on the site is made invisible to you. They are wiped off the planet as far as you are concerned.

Now this would accomplish a few things at flickr. First it would give users far more control over eliminating anything that they found personally offensive or negative on the site. You don’t like my paintings of nudes from a museum and don’t like seeing them when you search for the de Young Museum? Fine. Then block me and you never see any of my content again. You don’t like someone who uses language that you find offensive in a group post? Fine, block them as well.

Second though, this sort of tool would encourage more civil interaction between users. If a user creates a troll account and starts behaving badly. They are quickly blocked and become irrelevant. This encourages them not to troll creating a more positive experience for the rest of us.

Many of the personality clashes that occur on Flickr could be avoided if Flickr simply empowered the user to block more robustly.

3. SmartSets. Having to manually construct sets is an incredibly inefficient way to build and maintain your sets. That’s why I use Jeremy Brooks’ SuprSetr. It’s probably the best third-party app ever built for Flickr. Flickr should hire Jeremy in fact as he’s doing groundbreaking work here, but that’s another topic.

Flickr should consider building SuprSetr technology directly into their Organize section. Let users build sets by keywords. It makes it much easier for users to build and maintain their sets. If I build a Las Vegas set for instance. In the future every single photo of mine keyworded Las Vegas, automatically gets added to this set when I run SuprSetr. Very slick.

4. Better Group thread management. At present Flickr has a very strong and robust Groups section. Here users can create groups (and there are probably literally millions of groups at this point) and talk about whatever they want and post photos into a pool. Games have been created around groups. Businesses have set up groups. Local communities have created their own groups. There are niche groups about anything and everything — from graffiti in South Florida to a specific neon sign in San Jose. Some groups have more robust discussion threads than others, but all offer this feature.

One of the problems with group threads on Flickr though is that you are constantly losing track of conversations that you are having because you have to manually go to each and every group to check the threads. If I post something in a group, but then don’t remember to go back to that specific group and that specific thread, I have no way of knowing if someone has answered my question or commented after my thoughts or whatever.

Flickr should create a page that aggregates all of the group threads that you are participating in or have chosen to follow. This page would encompass all threads from all group in a nice aggregated section. This way if you posted a really important question in a group three months ago that someone has finally got around to answering, you will actually see it, the moment it is bumped to the top of your aggregator.

Flickr should also allow you to hide group threads. Both in your aggregator as well as in the more general group view. If I don’t care about the latest Pentax camera (because I’m a Canon 5D M2 owner) I should be able to mute that thread in the group and never see it again. This would also help decrease negative trolling and bumping of threads on the site as offensive threads could just be hidden by a user if they didn’t want to see it.

5. Kill explore and replace it with a recommendation system based on your contact’s/friends photos. Flickr blacklisted me from Explore a while back after I wrote a negative blog post about actions that someone on their community management team had taken. They capped my photos in it at 666 (cute huh?). But this isn’t why I don’t like Explore. There’s a whole thread called “So I Accidentally Clicked on Explore” in DMU devoted to crappy photos that end up in Explore. The problem with Explore is that it largely shows you photos that you are less interested in. Broad general popular photos of cliches. Sunsets and kittens as the saying goes.

If I choose to follow people on Flickr, I’m probably much more interested in their style of photography or them personally than I am images in Explore. Maybe I’m a graffiti writer and am most interested in graffiti photos. Maybe my thing is mannequins. Maybe I want to see photos of classic cars. Whatever. Instead of presenting the community what Flickr feels is the best of the whole community, show each member the best of their contacts each, day, week, month. I would be far more interested in the photos of people that I actually follow, like, know, etc. Maybe Aunt Edna’s photo of her dog will never hit Flickr’s explore. But it just might hit my own personalized explore and because I know Aunt Edna and she is my contact, it might be a much more rewarding experience for me to see than say another random dog shot from a user that I don’t even know.

Flickr does have a page that shows your contacts most recent uploads, but this page is very limited and only shows the most recent 1 or 5 photos. There is also no way to filter it so that you see the photos that are faved/commented on the most and are likely to be the more interesting photos.

Get rid of Explore and replace it with something that is focused much more on your contacts than people you don’t even know. A personalized Explore would be a far more interesting page.

6. Improve Group Search. I have no idea why Group Search sucks so badly on Flickr but it does. Frequently you will search for terms that you’ve posted in group thread conversations and Flickr will not return the thread where the word exists. I would think that Yahoo! should know a few things about search and am surprised that searching for threads in groups has been so spotty for so many years. I have no idea why this is so bad, but it shouldn’t be.

7. Improve Data Portability. Flickr gives lipservice to data portability, but is not serious about it. As long as 99% of Flickr users can’t or won’t figure out how to move their photos easily to another site they are just fine with things. Functional lock in. The data that we put on Flickr is our data. It belongs to us. We are paying Flickr to hold it for us, but it belongs to us.

Recently my friend Adam wrote up a post on a help forum post about the language Flickr uses for encouraging people to buy Pro accounts. They said that they felt that Flickr is holding your photos hostage (beyond the 200 photo free limit) if you don’t upgrade to Pro. Only Pro accounts have access to original images on Flickr.

Flickr should let any member get their photos out of Flickr at any time. Further they should offer competitors API keys to allow them to build service to service direct transfer applications to move your photos to another service if you want. If I don’t want to renew my Pro account on Flickr and want to move my photos to Picasa, this should be as easy as me pressing a single button and having all of my photos transfer over.

Today it is very difficult and clunky to get your photos off of flickr. A few third party apps are available, but there are lots of problems with them. They fail if you have too many photos. They are only Windows based, etc. etc. Flickr has functional lock in and holds photos in a silo while talking about how they allow you to get your photos out of Flickr. Flickr should follow the lead of Google here and publicly both state and help make our data more portable. This ought to be part of being a good web citizen today.

8. Uncensor Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Germany and At present Flickr censors content to these places. It’s still mind boggling to me that a photo of a painting that I took in the Art Institute of Chicago can’t be seen by people in India. Trying to censor the world’s web is messy business. Flickr/Yahoo should take a stand for freedom and uncensor these locations. Google last year took a bold step of choosing to walk about from China rather than censor results there. Yahoo should stand for freedom and stop censoring in these places.

9. Let people sell their photos for stock photography. Flickr missed the boat by giving away stock photography to Getty Images. Stock photography is probably the single easiest way for Yahoo to dramatically increase the profitability of Flickr. Getty Images represents a tiny fraction of the images available on Flickr. The Flickr/Getty deal was probably done as a defensive move by Getty more than anything to keep Yahoo out of the multi billion dollar market that is stock photography today. What resulted is that users get a paltry 20% payout for a very small number of their images that can be sold.

Flickr could be a far more formidable competitor to Getty. Flickr has the size and market share to dramatically disrupt this market. The stock photography marketplace is *far* more complicated than this. But oversimplifying things, Flickr should offer two collections for sale (if a user chooses to offer their photos for sale). Cleared photos and uncleared photos. Uncleared photos should pay more to the photographer than cleared photos. Cleared photos would be reviewed by a team of stock photography experts (Yahoo could even buy one of the smaller stock agencies that already has experience clearing images) and result in a lower payout to the photographer. By turning Flickr into the world’s largest stock photography agency Yahoo could receive significant revenue from Flickr and Flickr photographers personally could benefit much more from posting their work there.

10. Build a better mobile app. The Yahoo built mobile app for Flickr sucks ass (sorry). As I understand it, it wasn’t even developed by the Flickr team. Over at Quora former Flickr Engineer Kellan Elliott-McCrea answers the question, “Why did Flickr miss the mobile photo opportunity that Instagram and picplz are pursuing?” There is no compelling mobile Flickr experience today.

Recently, one of my favorite Flickr photographers, Michael Wilbur, deleted his entire Flickr account and is now one of the most popular photographers on Instagram. Flickr needs to develop a more compelling mobile experience. Part of this should be a very easy way to view group threads via mobile.

There you go. Food for thought. And keep on flickering.

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  1. Rick Pali says:

    I understand that willy-nilly photo or account deletion is a bad thing. Very bad. But honestly, if people lose photos because of it, if they don’t even keep a single copy under their own control, they’re negligent.

    Leaving it to Flickr to be the sole steward of your photos is no better, and perhaps worse, than simply hoping (or assuming) that your hard drive won’t crash and take your photos with it.

  2. Sam says:

    The bottom line is that Yahoo has let Flickr flounder and they don’t EVER appear to be interested in reversing that.

    Selling off Flickr to Yahoo, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook or any other ‘big name’ would be even worse.

    And now Yahoo has integrated all the crappy Yahoo backending into it with Yahoo accounts that killed Flickr accounts and it’s probably not possible to remove flickr from Yahoo even if they wanted to.

    The only thing we can hope for is that a 3rd party eventually gets established enough and dedicates itself to the idea of community that is at the heart of Flickr to beat it at its own game. I had hoped that Smugmug would go down this path but so far SM’s community can’t hold a candle to the Flickr one, even while Flickr is cught behind enemy lines in Yahooville.

    It’s all so very frustrating. The spirit that guided Flickr is long gone. And Dead Man Walking Yahoo continues to drag Flickr down. And yet it remains so much further ahead than anyone else is absolutely amazing.

  3. Gary Denness says:

    All good ideas Thomas. For me two of them are keys issues. Data portability being number one. Even if they charge a user for a complete download of their content, that would be fine by me. Technically I believe there is a company who’ll send you CDs/DVDs of your Flickr content, but it should be cheaper and easier than that.

    They also need to implement a ‘Suspend’ feature instead of killing accounts. That is such a no-brainer that I find it hard to believe it hasn’t yet been implemented. It’s appalling, in fact.

    I have one wish for Flickr that I hope will bring about several improvements that I would value. That is, for Yahoo to sell Flickr to Microsoft.I appreciate that Microsoft isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is logic behind my reasoning.

    Yahoo clearly haven’t developed Flickr over the last five years anywhere near as much as they should have. There’s no sign that that is going to change. So I’d prefer Flickr to be in new hands, who will treat the site with some TLC and invest in it.

    I wouldn’t like Google to take over. They tend to produce ugly sites and have a very patchy record with their acquisitions. They also already have Picasa etc of course.

    Microsoft has really pumped serious investment into its online offerings in the last couple of years and the results are bearing fruit. They know photography (unlike Facebook, who are another candidate for buying Flickr, I imagine) and have a range of excellent photography tools which they could integrate with Flickr.

    Yahoo Maps are absolute crud, and although Google maps are still the best in most parts of the world for sheer detail, Microsoft has caught up an awful lot and Bing Maps are more functional, easier on the eye and in continual development. Bing search, also still second to Google, is at least improving and works just fine. If they could take some of that functionality to Flickr, then that would be great.

    Microsoft already have their Photos section of Windows Live, but I bet it’s massively underused. Buying Flickr would make sense for them on so many levels. I do think if they look to integrate Flickr into their Live portal, they need to give users an option – integration into their profile, or as a stand alone site. Also, and this part should appeal to you Thomas, Microsoft allows 50mb file size limits…!

    I did write a post about this not so long ago incidentally –

  4. Gary Denness says:

    Oh and I still wish that you had a “Subscribe to comments by email” button! Por favor…

  5. Daniel says:

    Nice list. I especially agree with #9. Wish it was even similar to sites like SmugMug since SmugMug is probably Flickr’s closest competition in their market now.

  6. Eric Spiegel says:

    Great write up. I feel like I’ve been living under a shroud and wasn’t even aware of some of these issues (like censoring and blocking). Re-tweeted!

  7. A good list. Implementing an account suspension feature would be a great move, and cutting Getty out of the loop would be brilliant.

    Thanks for the mention of SuprSetr!

  8. Thomas Hawk says:

    Hey Gary, I thought I turned the subscribe to comments on with a plug in, but it doesn’t seem to be working I guess. I currently have this plug in installed and activated.

    Does anyone know of a better WP one or how I can get a comment notification system turned on for my blog?

  9. Thomas Hawk says:

    A Microsoft buy would be interesting. I asked a Senior Microsoft exec a question a few years back asking if they thought they made a mistake by not buying Flickr and got sort of a convoluted answer that left me thinking that they didn’t really think much of Flickr.

    Robert Scoble told Microsoft to buy Flickr when he was working there before Yahoo purchased them. I’m not sure that Microsoft really understands social media enough to really grow Flickr. I was very unimpressed with their Live social network a few years back.

    You never know though.

  10. Thomas Hawk says:

    Leaving it to Flickr to be the sole steward of your photos is no better, and perhaps worse, than simply hoping (or assuming) that your hard drive won’t crash and take your photos with it.

    Rick, I would agree with that sentiment. And it is bad when users get deleted and lose photos. Part of the blame definitely rests with the user for not having those photos backed up.

    That said, all of my photos are backed up and I’d still be devastated if my Flickr account were deleted. For me (and for many others) it’s not the photos as much as it is the rich social metadata and community around the photo and account. I have literally thousands of comments on my photos. I have long meaningful discussions, important threads that I think should be preserved forever online. More, my stream is a living ongoing conversation on many of these. The rich social metadata around my photos is what I’d miss far more than my photos themselves. I’d never be so stupid to upload unbacked up photos to flickr. Nor should anyone.

  11. Ingrid says:

    Bring back the chat! Flickr chat was most awesome.

  12. Thomas Hawk says:

    Ingrid, have you tried Photophlow?

  13. Nick says:

    Spot on!

    The only one of your ten that I’m not 100% in agreement with is #5 – Killing Explore.

    Don’t get me wrong – I think the idea of a personalised “best of your contacts” page is great. But I also wonder how do you find new contacts and people you like without something similar to explore?

    Obviously you can review your contacts contacts. And of course there’s always the possibility of searching for images on a particular theme you’re interested in. But having an area like explore – as much as 99% of the shot there are clichéd/naff – does allow you the chance to find a new gem every now and then.

  14. Ivan Makarov says:

    The plugin I use for comments is called “Subscribe to Comments.”

  15. Thomas Hawk says:

    hmmmm.. ok, I think I have manage subscriptions enabled now. Hopefully this will work. 🙂

  16. Gary Denness says:

    That works fine. Thanks Thomas.

    Regards Microsoft. You things you mentioned were all ‘a few years back’. Was that before they invested heavily in Facebook? I think that showed they’ve woken up to ‘social’, although in truth I’m surprised they haven’t increased their investment. They have integrated their Live products pretty heavily with Facebook since then. I am sure they would do the same with Flickr. I know you favor Google and Buzz rather than Facebook, but I think it’s fair to say if you’re looking to go social with a product, you’re probably going to be looking at how you can fit in with Facebook.

  17. Olly says:

    One thing I can’t get my head around is that new flickr makes it easier for people to download your photos if you’ve set your permissions to disallow it. Right clicking on the large or original size of a photo that the owner has forbidden downloads of simply allows a download of the the complete webpage as a folder. All somebody needs to do is sort through that folder to find the photo.

  18. Richtpt says:

    Great ideas! I too love Flickr and criticize only because I want them to get even better. The other thing I find hard with groups is searching for photos by a user. The only way I know to do this is to get the Flickr ID of that user and add it to the URL for the group. There should be an easy way to do this.

    AND I totally agree about deleting users!! Maybe some people out there are serious whack jobs that DO need to be deleted and possibly banned from Flickr. But most people are simply trying to post photos they have taken. If I have done something they don’t like, just tell me what it is so I can correct it and not do it again!!

    I’d also like to see them up the size limit. Maybe they need some different levels of pro accounts depending on the size you want to upload. Having a way to sell them right there (like Smugmug) would also be cool. I’m not trying to sell any of mine, but if someone wanted to buy one, I wouldn’t say no! 😉

    One thing I do love is how easy it is to use, navigate, create groups/collections, share and browse photos. It’s a really good website, was pretty cutting edge when it started, but now needs some help.

  19. Eric in SF says:

    Olly – because that’s how Flick has ALWAYS worked. Flickr made the (correct) choice to not use security through obscurity any longer.

    It’s a catch-22. They were getting slammed hard by folks when people discovered that the Large size was available through the API or just by URL hacking. So they change things to make it clear Large is always available, they get slammed again.

  20. Gary Denness says:

    And here’s some Flickr Microsoft love that will be coming soon, if not a complete buy out 🙂

  21. Neil Turpin says:

    ♥ flickr but flickr doesn’t ♥ me

    is a great slogan/sound bite
    can I suggest a retweet campaign

  22. Anonymous says:

    Eric. I understand thats how Flickr has always worked, they seem to have made it easier for people to take peoples images against their will. I think they are right to get slammed for offering users a perceived level of security over their images and then not enabling that security. If users do not want their images to be downloaded then surely their wishes should be respected.

    Where’s the catch 22? I want my images to be available to everyone to see, I just don’t want people to be able to take high res versions of those pictures away without my permission. I’m well aware that the majority of people in the creative industries see flickr as a more plentiful version of google images, free and ripe for the picking.

  23. Olly says:

    Apologies, that wasn’t meant to be anonymous, I just forgot to put my name to the above post.


  24. […] Thomas Hawk Digital Connection » Blog Archive » Top 10 Ways to Improve Flickr […]

  25. Quora says:

    Is Flickr’s popularity fading?…

    As we all know, the future is mobile, and Flickr has really blown it in this space as Thomas and others have written about extensively. This is one major example of where Flickr really lost initiative, and as a result mindshare and marketshare. The wri…

  26. Hub says:

    Flickr tells me “the group isn’t available to you”. Is it just me or did they nuke it again?

  27. Thomas Hawk says:

    Hub, you have to have safe search turned off in your settings. Then you should be able to access the group.

  28. One of your best blog posts that I’ve read. I would literally donate my time to help make flickr a more user-friendly and up-to-date photo sharing site. I can also see the strategic benefits of capitalizing on the immense social network within flickr. To their great detriment, Yahoo has ignored or overlooked this facet of the service. I’d be glad to work with any team that understands flickr’s potential and begins making changes to help the site realize it.

  29. Rob says:

    I too love flickr but I hate how the fear of being nuked has caused me to self censor. I fully agree that as a business they have the right to protect themselves against objectionable content but it is the randomness and finality of their actions that I fear.

    Like others, I have all my images backed up but I cannot back up the words that go with them. flickr is the closest thing I have to a personal blog yet I have no way to ensure that I can preserve my thoughts and the thoughts of others.

    I dont want a different service, I want better flickr. If only #1 and #2 could be implemented I would be happy. I have NO IDEA why flickr missed the stock image boat. Even after taking out the kittens and sunsets (except mine of course!) flickr would have a collection that dwarfed competitors. Build world class search (hello, your Yahoo!), eComerce (your YAHOO!) and copyright protection and you have a killer revenue stream with almost no additional investments. Heck, buy up Image rights ( and make money off enforcement too.

    To me the crazy part is that many of these issues would be solved if yahoo/flickr concentrated on making money of flickr. Sounds backwards but when you think of flcikr as a money making venture, you dont try to instill fear in your paying customers. You want more users paying so you build incentives and protections for that $25 a year. You build a better mobile App because cell pics are much smaller and cheaper to store. Focus on the $$$ and flickr is better.

    Thanks for taking the risk of speaking out.

  30. lenelg says:

    I´d never even consider storing highrez versions of my images on Flickr. If someone can see your image on screen they can save it, even if it is cumbersome. Hint: Photoshop´s panorama tool is great for stitching screenshots of various parts of a highrez image..

  31. […] This represents a distinct contrast to the steady stream of iterative improvements you see in such Google Web apps as its mapping service and software–and in how Apple has built on each new advance in Mac OS X, its computers and its mobile devices. Apple’s inattention to MobileMe reminds me a lot more of how Yahoo has squandered the potential of its Flickr photo-sharing service. […]