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