The internets are abuzz with an article on Gizmodo entitled How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet. It’s worth a read; as someone who has been on Flickr for 8 years now and was there before it was purchased by Yahoo, I can certainly say that it’s not the site that it used to be.
But I wouldn’t describe Flickr as ‘dead’ – at least, not yet. Metaphorically speaking it’s almost certainly on a life support machine in intensive care, but there’s a potential for it to make a recovery. For example, this week has seen the roll-out of a new layout, which shows larger sized images on big widescreen monitors, and will automatically shrink the image down to a smaller size when the window is resized. It’s features like this that, back in the middle of the last decade when Flickr was at peak popularity, that set it apart from its rivals.
Flickr was one of the first sites to make good use of AJAX, the now omnipresent technology which allows parts of pages to dynamically update without the whole page being requested again from the server, thus making for a faster experience that doesn’t affect server load. Most big sites use it now, but Flickr pioneered it.
Flickr was also one of the first social networking sites. It wasn’t just another place to dump photos, like the now defunct Fotopic – you could join groups and share pictures, comment or favourite others’ photos for example. There was a community – or rather, hundreds or even thousands of interlinked communities. This was before even MySpace had taken off, never mind Facebook.
And Flickr was one of the first places to use ‘tags’ to describe photos, giving users a free-form taxonomy rather than fixed categories. As well as describing the picture, like metadata, tags could be used to group pictures, so that, for example, pictures taken at the same event by multiple people could be grouped under one tag, like Twitter hashtags nowadays.
So what went wrong? Under Yahoo, Flickr stagnated – there were few new features, and precious little integration with other social networks. Last week, I posted about how to tweet a picture and upload it to Flickr, because Flickr’s integration with Twitter is, at present, poor. Back in 2007, when Twitter was first becoming popular, Flickr wasn’t interested, and consequently we’re now using sites like TwitPic and yFrog to host images.
And it didn’t get mobile. As the Gizmodo article points out, Flickr was late to the game with their iOS app, and it launched to very poor reviews. Even now, though I have it installed, I don’t use it very often – most of the pictures I take on my phone are uploaded to Flickr via Instagram. Early versions of the iOS app stripped out EXIF data (bizarre, because Flickr lets users view the EXIF data on photos) and often didn’t include the picture’s location despite maps being a key part of Flickr. Improvements are promised, but the app itself is currently 5 months without an update, and it doesn’t work on an iPad.
I mentioned Instagram – though you can export Instagram pictures to Flickr, it’s a form of cross-posting. I’m finding that any pictures I upload to both Instagram and Flickr get more attention – comments and favourites – on Instagram. In fact, pretty much the only person who comments or favourites my pictures on Flickr is Kevin Spencer.
If you read the comments on the Gizmodo article there are plenty of people who defend Flickr, and that’s encouraging. There aren’t many places that, for $25 per year, will host an essentially unlimited number of photos at full resolution, with licensing – and fewer still with Flickr’s community features, even if they’re not as well used as before. So no, Flickr is not dead. But it’s not well either – and it needs to make itself more relevant, and quickly.
It’s a big task but not an impossible one. Services can re-invent themselves – though I personally don’t use it, I gather that since becoming independent from eBay, StumbleUpon has seen a resurgence in users. Maybe Yahoo needs to give Flickr more resources and more autonomy to do its own thing – or let it go and flourish in independence. Either way, something has to change.
Addendum (May 2013): A year after this was posted, Flickr unveiled its biggest ever redesign, following the launch of new mobile apps that address many of the problems identified here.