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The Future of Flickr

G7th January 2012

C16 Comments

Tinternet, photography

Is Flickr in decline? An analytical look at the future of the photo-sharing website Flickr with some suggested priorities for improvement.

It is no secret that I love the photo-sharing website Flickr.

I have had an account on Flickr since 2007 and have uploaded more than 3,100 photographs in that time that have been viewed by more than 107,000 people.

I have made many online friends as a result of Flickr and the website has been useful in attracting customers to my own photo website Photologium. I have always believed that Flickr is the best photo-sharing website and continue to believe this. But something disturbing has been settling in the back of my mind about Flickr for quite some time.

Flickr home page
The Flickr home page

Recent posts by high-profile photographers have started to ask the haunting question: Is Flickr dead, or at least in decline?

Evidence for a decline in Flickr is scant and unreliable. But a number of anecdotal factors point to a shift within the photo-sharing community in the last 12 months. In particular, Google+ has been launched and Google has been working hard to gain a share for Google+ via Picasa in the photo-sharing market. Additionally, sites like 500px have slowly built a stronger following and even Facebook has improved its photo-handling capabilities, despite it still being an awful place to deposit photographs.

One of the more worrying indicators is the well-documented lack of innovation at Flickr.

Whilst Facebook, Google+ and Twitter are constantly tweaking their interface and making changes (with varying degrees of success), Flickr has remained relatively static for quite some time. In fact, Yahoo has been sacking staff including high-profile key staff at Flickr. This can’t be good for a company that desperately needs to be dynamic and innovative.

One of the most insightful articles came from Flickr designer Timoni West, who ratted on her employer out of frustration at the complete lack of attention paid to the “recent activity” page on Flickr. Ms. West made some salient points about the social aspects of Flickr which (I agree) are the most important part of the website, but haven’t received attention in years.

Yahoo has become so lazy and stagnant that Microsoft tried to buy it in 2010 and launched a hostile bid, only to be rebuffed by Yahoo. This would have made Microsoft the owners of Flickr. I cannot help but wonder if that would have been a good thing.

Just this week Yahoo appointed a new CEO in former PayPal boss Scott Thompson, who has already addressed the staff by saying that the company needs to get “back to innovation”. This is an encouraging development.

What’s wrong with Flickr?

Here are my main concerns with Flickr at present:

1. The front page doesn’t do its job. 

I fundamentally agree with Timoni West that the activities page is woefully deficient:

Flickr activities page
The Flickr activities page

This page should be letting me know who’s posted photos since I last logged-in, but it almost doesn’t. An awful lot of contact’s photos ‘slip by’ unless I click on the latest uploads page or each person’s photostream. With 300+ contacts, the latter option isn’t viable. All I have is a thin static strip of thumbnails at the bottom of the activities page.

If it were up to me, the Flickr blog link would go to the bottom of the page along with “people you may know” and instead have comments and uploads more prominent at the top of the page. Like the latest tweets on Twitter, these could be delivered in real-time.

Perhaps the worst feature is the absolutely useless “replies to your comments” page. I often comment on other people’s photos, yet tracking their responses a few days later is near impossible. In this realm, Facebook wins hands-down with their “notifications” tab at the top of the page. Unlike Facebook, Flickr lists as a “response” any comment that any user has added to any photo that I have commented on at any time. Think about it: That’s an appallingly low signal to noise ratio. So basically I have to remember to manually ‘chase up’ any questions or comments that I may have asked a photographer. I honestly don’t remember most of the time.

2. Geotagging is a half-finished idea

One of the best innovations to emerge from Flickr (back in 2006) was geotagging, which is where an image can be added to a map to show where it was taken. This is brilliant, because it provides a map beside each photo that users can click on to see where the image was taken.

Or so it should. Unfortunately, I live in Australia.

Flickr page with the Sydney Harbour Bridge displayed
A typical Flickr photo page with geotagging displayed to the right of the photo

The above is an image of Sydney Harbour Bridge that I shot back in 2007. As you can see, there is an unlabelled map and geographical information presented to the right. If I hover my mouse over the map and zoom in, this is what I get:

Close-up map of Sydney with no details visible

What a useless map! Yet if I do the same for this image of the Mall of Asia in Manila, Philippines, I get a detailed map with street names, which can be enlarged:

Close-up map of Manila with details visible

Similar applies for this photograph of the famous Ginza neon signs in Tokyo, Japan:

Close-up map of Ginzawith details visible

So why is it possible to provide detailed maps for Japan and the Philippines, but not Australia?

Worse still, Flickr actually fabricates Australian locations. For instance, if I try to add something to the northern part of Melbourne’s CBD, Flickr will call it “Melbourne Heliport”, of which there is no such location. This image of Mill Park library is actually in the fictional location of “Nillumbik” rather than “Mill Park”. Whilst Flickr has added a facility to choose a location should they get it wrong, it’s not much use if the correct suburb name isn’t even on the list!

Flickr have been hearing complaints about this for years and done nothing.

3. Flickr needs ‘Circles’

One of the common criticisms of Facebook was that there was no way to segregate your content. Everyone from ones’ mother to a preschool classmate or a neighbour had to be a “friend” and therefore saw all the same content.

When Google+ launched, they introduced “circles”. A user can have as many circles as they like consisting of whomever they wish. They can then serve content selectively to their various circles.

In Flickr’s case, we are stuck with “Contact”, “Friend” or “Family”. Back in the day, this made Flickr look a whole lot more innovative than Facebook but now it is Flickr who is lagging behind. I would desperately like to divide my “Friends” up into sub-groups, but can’t. This means that I have to make some tough choices when uploading private photos, the sort of choices that Google+ users don’t need to think about.

Is Flickr in decline?

This is a hotly-debated topic.

According to Alexa, Flickr is losing a lot of traffic and even anecdotally, I sense the same thing. People who used to be active on Flickr are dropping-off. Comments on my photos have been in a steady decline for ages now and images that would have easily gained me 20+ comments a couple of years ago are now earning me less.

Photographer Thomas Hawk, who has written extensively about Flickr, seems to believe that people are leaving Flickr in droves for Google+. I am less convinced. I do agree that people are leaving but it seems to me that Facebook is winning the ‘social photography’ battle, despite it’s appalling treatment of photos. Whether Google+ will overtake Facebook as the first choice for ‘social photographers’, time will tell.

My view is that there is an effective ‘schism’ emerging in the vast world of online photography.

Back in 2006/7, Facebook was in its infancy as a social medium, although growing. MySpace was still dominant but really didn’t handle photos well. Both Flickr and digital photography were mature and so for most people, Flickr was the obvious place to upload and share photos. This applied as much to serious photographers (who enjoy the art) as the ‘social photographers’ who were just interested in documenting their weekend parties and the like.

Fast forward to 2012 and the landscape is vastly altered. Facebook is in the ascendency and continues to evolve rapidly. Google has launched Google+ to compete and is rapidly growing. Both social media websites make the sharing of private photos very easy, because users have a network of friends who will log-on to these networks regardless of whether they are sharing photos of themselves or not. They are there to share news and gossip and the photography is merely an add-on.

From my experience, if I want to share my private ‘social’ photos on Flickr, I have to prompt people because for the most part, my friends will not log onto Flickr unless they want to upload some of their own pictures or inspect mine. They are not interested in photography per se.

I think what might be happening is that the social photographers are probably leaving Flickr and taking up residence at Facebook or Google+.

The people who remain are the serious photographers who enjoy the art of photography and occasionally have some ‘social’ photos to share privately with family or friends. Under this scenario, it would seem logical to believe that Flickr will continue to decline until the majority of its users are the people who enjoy photographic art.

The future of Flickr

It doesn’t help that the aforementioned problems aren’t addressed by Yahoo.

Facebook and Google+ are working tirelessly to innovate and make sharing easier, whilst Flickr stagnates. One could say that the loss of ‘social photographers’ from Flickr is inevitable simply because Flickr is a photo-sharing site and Facebook and Google+ are all-encompassing social media. Perhaps YouTube will suffer a similar fate in coming years when videography becomes cheaper and video-hosting on Facebook and Google+ improves?

A bigger problem is faced by Flickr if the photographic enthusiasts leave the site.

Thomas Hawk claims that this is what is happening and cites the departure of Ingo Meckmann as an example. I don’t know either of these people and cannot say what agendas they may have or how influential they really are. I hope Hawk is wrong, but it’s possible that he’d know more than I.

For professionals and photographic enthusiasts like myself, Flickr is still the better service. There are plenty more features that Flickr has that Google+ doesn’t, but I am sure that won’t last forever unless something changes at Yahoo.

Historically, Flickr has always had a good community. This community is shrinking and it’s time that Flickr does something to stop the decline. It’s not too late but Flickr (like Yahoo) has to get back into the business of innovation. Yahoo needs to make Flickr as dynamic and interactive and easy-to-used as the technology of 2012 will allow.

Flickr will also probably need to look at their pricing structure as Google+ grows and expands. For now, I still believe US$25 per annum is a good price to pay for unlimited uploads, but I suspect that Google will eventually try to undercut Flickr.

Back on 13 April 2006 when I joined Flickr, it was like a revelation. As Flickr developed through 2007 and 2008, it only became more exciting. It won’t be hard for Yahoo to rejuvenate Flickr, but the resources and the will need to be there.

With the hiring of Scott Thompson as CEO, let’s hope there’s some positive change in the air for Flickr in 2012.

Update:

11:10am, 14 January 2012: Flickr have published a blog post pledging that the company is “starting 2012 with a renewed sense of focus” and that users can expect “significant updates to Flickr’s user experience, new features and offerings across devices”. You can read more on the Flickr Blog.

   

Comments:

16 responses to “The Future of Flickr”

  • Written by h.linton on 8 January 2012:

    Funny. I just decided to “upgrade” my Flickr account to take advantages of being a “pro” and now this. Go figure. I’ve never liked the interface with Flickr which is why it took me this long. But Google+ & FB? Gimme a break. Their formats are real dreck when it comes to sharing images in anything but a half-ass way – at least for my tastes. It will be interesting to see where this goes. I’ll give it a year. Who knows? There will most likely be a whole other option out there by then . . .

  • Written by Dan on 8 January 2012:

    Just joined 500px and it’s really great. Presents the photos in a much better way than Flickr. It’s not as good in some ways but I’m definitely going to use 500px more than flickr from now now on. Flickr need to up their game definitely

  • Written by Anoop Negi on 8 January 2012:

    I have been on Flickr from the early days.

    I like the fact that you have addressed most of the issues that seem to plague Flickr today.

    There is one huge difference that still continues to be in favor of Flickr. The search facility for the photographs based on tagging. Photo editors and others in need of photos have just got to feed in the the appropriate key words for a photograph.

    If Google+ and Facebook started that… people would just shift lock stock and barrel from Flickr.

    Google+ has a preponderance of HDR photographers as a genre and that is not actually its strength but its greatest weakness. Too much of HDR noise is killing it.

    Let us see how this works out.

  • Written by Cafrine on 8 January 2012:

    I was REALLY active on Flickr for years back when. It was inspiring and basically taught me any photog skills I have, I made good friends and contacts and had a number of business opportunities come up. There wasn’t a day where I didn’t recieve fewer than 10 flickrmails about what I was shooting or countless comments on my photos.

    But I’ve found it increasingly difficult to track friends and family and getting content that was what I was after rather than what was deemed Interestingness was practically impossible. Meaningless group badges became the bane of my life.The highlight of the whole site was the connection of photographers, amateur and professional, who wanted to learn and see. But it’s not that anymore. It’s just people sending photos out into the ether.

    I’m still on Flickr, but I don’t know how much longer worth staying.

  • Written by Fen on 8 January 2012:

    Great post. I think Flickr is in decline, a lot of people that were once really active (including myself) post sporadically or have shut their accounts down completely.

    They really need to move with the times. I mean you choose to pay for an account, why can’t they spend some of those dollars improving things?

  • Written by woowoowoo on 8 January 2012:

    heh – just renewed my Flickr Pro account for another 2 years – showing the faith I have in what was a great service and still has advantages over the others.

    I do agree that it is stagnant though, bloody shame it all comes down to money, but it must cost a hell of a lot to run and I can’t believe that the pro accounts cover it. Picasa and FB have the advertising revenue to help things along. Any new service really can’t be compared until it’s got 5 years under its belt – lets see which ones survive!

    As for the maps – that’s a real disappointment – again probably due to contractual obligations, it seems that in Australia, Flickr have switched back from OpenStreetMap (as used in the Philippines) to the vastly inferior Navteq maps.

    Good article anyway – adds to the growing unrest about the direction the service is taking.

  • Written by Donna on 8 January 2012:

    I think Flickr was the pioneer with the social media aspect of photo sharing, with their ability to tag other people, groups, discussion boards etc. It just hasn’t moved with the times.

    These days, the immediacy of photo sharing with Twitter pics and Instagram, plus the popularity of Tumblr photo blogs (that seem to just rip photos from flickr, but that’s another story) means you can upload a photo from a decent phone camera and with Instagram, apply some quick retro processing that seems all the rage.

    I find Flickr a bit spammy these days and not really a community – the ‘Fantastic photo! Please take a look at my latest photo!’ comment makes me cringe. These days I just upload photos for people who have been contacts for ages and genuinely have an interest in my goings-on.

    And I agree, FB’s compression of photos is atrocious!

  • Written by Cedrus on 9 January 2012:

    My main two problems with Flickr are ones you mentioned. Lack of notifications when getting replies, and tracking my contacts latest upload in an easy way.

    I do hope there will be a reinvention of the site sometime soon, keeping what makes it great, and facelifting the rest, hoping that, along the way, there would be new innovations.

    As far as the competition goes, there are two types. Those interested in sharing their casual photos from vacations or family dinners already have facebook, and it’s a much better site given the other facilities not related to picture sharing.

    But when it comes to photo enthusiasts and professionals, there is hardly any competition now. I’m not even going to mention Facebook and Google+ in that aspect as they’re not even comparable. The one alternative that you mentioned though, 500px, could be viable, if and only if they revamp the whole site. First, they have no groups yet, and I don’t need to explain how important these are in Flickr. Second, they need to get rid of that ridiculous voting system that means nothing. Third, they’d need to add circle-like features.

    So basically, yes Flickr will eventually be dropped out for the snapshooters; it’s inevitable. For the other photographers, they definitely need to get their act together, but there’s nothing looming on the horizon yet.

  • Written by Jesse on 9 January 2012:

    Good analysis. The fact that Getty editors find my images on Flickr is keeping me there for now. Otherwise, I hardly upload any photos anymore…

  • Written by Stephen Rowley on 16 January 2012:

    You’re spot on, though I don’t think Google+ is a serious rival to anything, and Facebook will only ever get social photo sharing, which was never the point of Flickr.

    They could obviously benefit from fixing the issues you’ve identified, and streamlining things so that it can accommodate the Twitter / Instagram style stream-of-consciousness and instant gratification. It’s not very approachable now.

    What it does better than anything, still, is act as a serious online photo album (for display, sharing, and a secondary backup) and I can’t see myself moving on from that.

    A last thought: part of its decline is surely because they’ve put the user first when it comes to privacy. Things like Facebook and Instagram spill your data into the internet as a form of promotion; I’ve always admired Flickr for the transparency and robustness of its privacy controls. I really respect their guestpass system and the geofences feature as example of ways of giving people who want to maintain some privacy the best of both worlds.

    Those two features feel very alien to the philosophy of most of their rivals.

  • Written by Alan Smith on 31 January 2012:

    I found this page whilst researching if I should change my Flickr Pro account to a smugmug basic or power account – I have pretty well made my mind up to change. I agree with the point about the potential Flickr decline in photographers more interested in the social sharing side … but I also think Flickr is in very serious danger of also losing the more serious photographers who are more driven by presentation options and presentation quality than sharing.

    Several times over the past year now I have looked at the smugmug offering with jealousy … even if it is twice the cost (for power user).

    Flickr need to move fast as I think they are now looking very tired and stale to all classes of users.

  • Written by Colin Purrington on 7 March 2012:

    I’ve been using Flickr since 2005 and have noted the decline, too.

    A big part of it is that it seems that the active people on flickr are those who are actively trying to get more views, or more members to the groups they’ve started…all in an endless quest to get on Explore page.

    Bad photographs were being added to 50+ groups all at once, so the value of looking over group sets became minimal, since most of the photographs didn’t fit, and often sucked. And animated gif invitations to groups made the experience feel like a bad MySpace experience — I have NO idea why they don’t ban them. Aside from little pockets of sanity and interesting friends, Flickr is now just a big narciporn factory…sure wish I was a thin female who looked good in a swimsuit!

    I’ve moved to smugmug…

  • Written by Gareth Edwards on 28 March 2012:

    Excellent post.

    I think Flickr is in decline because it has become disconnected from the other big social communities.

    Facebook may not have good photo features but for the average user the ability to upload pics and tag people is enough when some many of their friends are there already.

    With the social features that Adam mentions Flickr will lose its broad community status (if it hasn’t already)and become a specialist photo site.

    Gareth

  • Written by Steve on 26 April 2012:

    I decided not to renew my Flickr account. I wanted online sharing AND archiving/backup and I have not found a free automatic tool that works reliably.

    With Picasa/Google+ I can easily share and archive (and sync) – for free, with a 2048 resolution, which is perfect for any video monitor. An occasional backup to an inexpensive portable hard drive (kept at work) takes care of the rest.

    With the Picasa PC program its almost seamless to get photos from my camera to the computer and online. With syncing, any edits I make are also carried over.

    Internet connected TV’s and BluRay players are much more likely to have Google support than Flickr, again giving me convenience.

    With almost no effort, and no cost, as I write this my photos are uploading to Google. Sorry Flickr :-(

  • Written by gene on 29 March 2013:

    Good article, and lovely stream.

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