The death of Flickr?

by Chris Bertram on May 16, 2012

Gizmodo has a piece proclaiming the death of Flickr at the hands of the hateful and incompetent Yahoo. In many ways, Flickr has been the most important site on the internet to me (after CT of course) for the past five years. There isn’t another site that allows people who are serious about photography (including film) to display and talk about their work with others who feel the same way, that also includes a social media component. True, there are other sites that are good display vehicles (zenfolio or smugmug) but that’s like opening your shop down a dusty side-street: random traffic. And there are other sites that do the social media thing and carry photos (Facebook, Google+) but where you are showing your stuff not to photographers but to your “friends” who may or may not care. No one else does the combination. The other thing about Flickr is the crossover from online social groups to real-world friendships. In Bristol we have monthly pub meets and various other events; through other Flickr projects I’ve met and hung out with photographers in other places, notably San Francisco. I’d never have met those people on Facebook. But Flickr does look tired and Yahoo has starved it of support. It is not dead yet, but it will be a tragedy if it goes, since nothing else does the same job.



Christopher M 05.16.12 at 7:57 am

Is there a precedent for a site going under that has such a huge archive of data that means so much to people? I guess Yahoo! would probably give people an opportunity (and hopefully make it easy) to get their pictures off it, before they would shut it down, but if so it’s only because Yahoo! has its own interest in good press.


Tom 05.16.12 at 8:17 am

I read that article earlier today, and though it was an interesting read, it seemed to focus on issues I feel are relatively unimportant, or even miss the point – such as Flickr’s ‘missing the boat on social’, or having been deserted for inferior or simply different photo hosts like Instagram or Facebook by the masses.

I’ve been a Flickr user for years and years, and have had a ‘pro’ account for over five. I’ve never wanted it to become Facebook-big, add Instagram-style washes, or greatly change its social features. It was one of the first sites to successfully provide an open HTTP API, which led to many other services adding a convenient ‘post to Flickr’ feature …

If Flickr dies or Yahoo! start eroding its service level dramatically, I’ll export my photos and metadata (which I have backed up anyway) and host them on a basic file-sharing service such as Amazon S3, DropBox or the new GDrive, but until that time, I don’t mind if it’s the quiet, tidy town on the internet, with mediocre (yet still effective) app support on iOS and Android phones.

Also, I want to put in a brief word to defend Yahoo!, a historically innovative company that seems to get a poorly examined kicking in tech blog circles simply for not having ‘won the Internet’, and having made some poor strategic decisions and acquisitions over time.


John Holbo 05.16.12 at 8:24 am

I read the piece, too, and felt depressed for similar reasons. On the other hand, I haven’t updated my Flickr page in a while …


Peter 05.16.12 at 10:01 am

For displaying photographs Photo.Net is pretty good site with lots of professionals and amateurs displaying really great stuff. Also has a community section.
No idea who hosts it, etc. But it is a serious site.


Ginger Yellow 05.16.12 at 10:20 am

I suppose this is as good a place as any to do my “You kids get off my lawn” thing and ask why Instagram is so big. When I take a photo, it has never occurred to me to slap on a filter before sharing it and I was rather startled to learn that apparently loads of people do.


Emma in Sydney 05.16.12 at 11:37 am

Flickr has been a wonderful source of great photos for the project I work on, and at the same time, a way for amateur photographers to show their work, so that it gets picked up. We contact Flickr users and ask them if we can use their photos on the Dictionary of Sydney and I don’t think we’ve ever had a refusal. For a cash-strapped history project that can’t afford to pay image license fees, it’s been a godsend.
Lots of institutions have put their historic collections online too — several Australian ones now do most of their image dating this way, with communities of amateur historians sleuthing out the vintage of unmarked glass negatives. It would be sad to see that go.


JBM 05.16.12 at 12:30 pm

Wow, Chris, your photographs are gorgeous.


Metatone 05.16.12 at 1:21 pm

Flickr could in principle survive well as a niche community for people who are more interested than average in producing images.

The key question that’s really hard to answer from the outside though is “Is Flickr making enough money to survive?” What killed delicious was that the answer was “no, not while Yahoo runs it” – and I fear that’s the big danger to flickr too.


Niall McAuley 05.16.12 at 1:57 pm

The National Library of Ireland has a great photostream on flickr. They publicise it on Facebook, but for the actual image work, they use Flickr.


mew 05.16.12 at 2:03 pm

” For a cash-strapped history project that can’t afford to pay image license fees, it’s been a godsend.”

For cash-strapped photographers who are actually trying to eke out a living, this is one of the primary reasons that so many will say, good riddance to flickr. The other being the atmosphere of unconditional (and largely uncritical) peer support that allows everyone with a camera to think of themselves as a serious photographer.


Chris E 05.16.12 at 2:08 pm

“But Flickr does look tired”

What does this actually mean? Other than shorthand for ‘adding useless features that achieve nothing other than slowing the experience down’


Tom West 05.16.12 at 2:27 pm

The business dynamics of the internet are not particularly kind to niche players. After all, with the business failure rate so high, it’s nigh impossible to get funding unless the company’s projected end-state is “we own the world”.

The one exception is that micro-niches can do well. There’s any number of hobbyists sites that flower, grow, and then once they reach a certain size, shut down because supporting a niche that size isn’t fun, yet it also isn’t profitable.


Chris Bertram 05.16.12 at 2:52 pm

@JBM – thanks!


nick s 05.16.12 at 3:50 pm

What does this actually mean? Other than shorthand for ‘adding useless features that achieve nothing other than slowing the experience down’

It means, as the piece notes, that people stop updating, and useful features don’t get added. Comments to popular photos are more likely to be silly ‘badges’ than from engaged users. It means that the natural lifecycle of mailing lists is kicking in; but unlike a once-popular forum that can keep running happily on a single server with costs underwritten by users, Flickr has to carry the weight and bear the cost of its entire archive. That’s not sustainable.

(For what it’s worth, Instagram isn’t concerned with sharing photos, so much as sharing presence, which makes it a lot more like Facebook.)

The National Library of Ireland has a great photostream on flickr.

That’s George Oates’ legacy: the Commons project, encouraging public archives to use Flickr, was basically her doing, and is a great thing. She got laid off by Yahoo in 2008.


Bill Benzon 05.16.12 at 3:58 pm

I’m pretty happy with Flickr as it is and would hate to see it scrapped. I joined several years ago when I’d started photographing local graffiti. I wanted to find out about the guys (mostly) whose work I was photographing and, knowing graffiti had a substantial online presence, decided post photos to Flickr. I figured that, sooner or later, word of my photos would get out and people would fall by and help me with identification. And that’s what happened. I’d hate to have to rebuild that elsewhere.


The Raven 05.16.12 at 4:28 pm

It’s also probably the largest photo site that respects the intellectual property rights of photographers. :-(


vacuumslayer 05.16.12 at 5:31 pm

I’ve been using Flickr to store all the pictures I’ve taken of my infant son. I’m not sure what I’ll do if it goes under.

For serious photographers? I recommend uploading your stuff to deviantArt.


actio 05.16.12 at 6:07 pm

Excellent photos Chris! I like how you let reflections and shadows come to the fore in many photos.

I see the current state of Flickr as indicative of some serious limitati0ns in capitalist structuring for massive sites with users generated content and strong interactivity. The profit goals now impede functioning and evolution of the site. Crucial internet hubs (Flickr, Facebook, Gmail, …) should be transformed from capitalist structures to community driven non-profit modes of organization.


Happydog 05.16.12 at 6:14 pm

I too have been using Flickr since 2005. At first sporadically and then as I became more interested in photography again more regularly. I do really like the site a lot and especially the ease and simplest of it all. And the social media stuff was a pleasent surprise…when you commented on a photo people actually commented back. Yes, there is a culture of positive comments but as a beginning photographer I found this refreshing at best and benign at worst. Professional criticism can be had on other sites or by taking a fine arts photography course.


Bill Benzon 05.16.12 at 6:25 pm

“Crucial internet hubs (Flickr, Facebook, Gmail, …) should be transformed from capitalist structures to community driven non-profit modes of organization.”

Like Wikipedia?


D 05.16.12 at 7:19 pm

I stopped flickring when I realized it too was not really ‘about’ content (though it can be) but mostly a network of contacts, like facebook. I still use it mainly to find out about snow conditions in the local mountains through the stream of a contact who’s SAR. I can show my photos to my friends and family on picasa or google+. Serious photography sites are not for me since I shoot mostly nature.


Chris Bertram 05.16.12 at 7:55 pm

@actio thanks!


Substance McGravitas 05.16.12 at 8:45 pm

A friend of mine has abandoned Flickr for 500px for what he says are “quality issues”. Both sites look about the same to me, but I don’t use either. If Flickr goes away, people know there are millions of users to grab and what those users like.


Barry Freed 05.16.12 at 9:54 pm

BTW, it was your photo of the High Line that gave me the impetus make sure to see it when I was in the neighborhood the other week.

A question from someone without a Flickr account but with a Yahoo ID. Can you tell who’s been looking at your photos when someone’s logged in to Yahoo?


maidhc 05.16.12 at 10:48 pm

The kind of user that Flickr has been losing is the kind of person that takes a picture of their lunch with their phone, slaps on a filter so that it looks like a Polaroid from 1972 and uploads it instantly to Facebook. I don’t think this kind of user represents the core mission of Flickr, although the author of the article seems to.

Flickr is used by a lot of major archives to make their collections available to the public. Flickr is used by collectors of posters, postcards, vintage advertising, etc. Flickr is also used by amateur photographers — those people who have an interest in taking pictures for artistic reasons of one sort or another, but are not trying to make a living at it.

There are a lot of photo hobbyists with a bewildering number of specialized interests, and the Flickr groups allow them to share photos with their fellows worldwide. This is one of the strengths of Flickr.

Facebook is not even remotely a rival to Flickr for any of these users because you can only post 200 photos.

Yahoo needs to realize who the core users of Flickr are and not worry about people who only want to post photos of their child’s birthday party. They seem to be chasing fads like Instagram instead of taking care of business.

I think Flickr was pretty solidly designed at the start, and more important than adding new features is just not messing up what they have.

The current problem is that they were using a photo editor called Picnik which was owned by Google. Google decided to shut down Picnik (to force users over to Google+, it seems). That left Flickr with no editor. They brought in an editor called Aviary which apparently was designed to edit photos on a phone, which is not what most Flickr users wanted. Supposedly Aviary is being updated with the features Flickr users want (i.e., the capabilities they already had with Picnik).

Of course you can always edit your photos before uploading, but being able to do a quick tweak online was very convenient.

If Flickr can solve the photo editor problem within a reasonable time (and this is a type of product that has been widely available for at least twenty years), it would be a sign to me that they have a future. If this relatively simple problem ends up stumping them, it would be a sign that they are on the decline.

However, I hope that if Yahoo cannot manage Flickr, it would sell it to someone who can. I have more than 10,000 photos posted. Moving them would be a major chore. And currently I don’t know any site that offers everything that Flickr offers.

I don’t think that the author of the article has any interest in photography, so he misses the whole point of Flickr.


Bruce Baugh 05.16.12 at 11:11 pm

Maidhe wrote everything I would have and then some. Good work.


bill benzon 05.17.12 at 12:27 am

I agree with Maidhc’s assessment, and underline the remark about major archives making their work available through Flickr. I happen to have a special interest in all the graffiti users who use Flickr, but there are thousands of specialized interest groups active on the the site.


Carl Weetabix 05.17.12 at 1:27 am

He’s not wrong about a number of points, but it seems to me if he got what he wants, then Flickr while being financially viable, wouldn’t be Flickr anymore. In short, destroying the village to save it.

There’s a lot to fix about Flickr, but its not like we need another place to share grainy cell phone photos. It’s a photo site for actual photos. If we want to see crappy narcissistic photos, we head to Facebook or the 50 other sites du jour he drooled over.


Witt 05.17.12 at 1:48 am

Emma in Sydney gets is right. Being able to search Flickr by Creative Commons license and find content that a small nonprofit can legitimately use is absolutely invaluable. I don’t know what we’d do without that ability (use more ugly clip art, I guess). I buy a handful of credits from iStockPhoto from time to time, but most of our funders don’t allow money to be spent on anything as frivolous as photo illustrations, so without CC we’d be sunk.


Salient 05.17.12 at 3:28 am

Yahoo needs to realize who the core users of Flickr are and not worry about people who only want to post photos of their child’s birthday party. They seem to be chasing fads like Instagram instead of taking care of business.

Linking to something JW Mason said on a Gmail thread seems apropos here:

Seems like a nice teachable moment to to point to the difference between markets and capitalism. In a market, it’s a sufficient basis for an enterprise’s continued existence that it produces a product that people want to buy, at a cost lower than what people will pay for it. Under capitalism there’s an imperative to maximize profits and growth, even if at the risk of destroying your core business. There’s a reason why Google is willing to cannibalize search to build up its social network.

Some blessed soul already thought to swap vulture capitalists for ‘venture capitalists’ who do this kind of gutting from afar, but that doesn’t sweep up the cases where a company self-inflicts the wound; maybe it’s time to finish the job and start calling this kind of thing the behavior of ‘vulture cannibalists.’


Meredith 05.17.12 at 5:24 am

Just to say that I create Flickr links all the time for students, if they want to explore the places we’re reading about in ancient Greece, Italy, that whole world. I love exploring Flickr to create these links and then encouraging my students to explore on their own.

Then, there are the Flickr links via WordPress and such.

I wish we’d stop “improving” everything so fast. No opportunities left for savoring. Always on to the next, supposedly best, next thing. (Shall I wear my trousers rolled?)


Alex 05.17.12 at 11:06 am

Flickr is just a good product, and one that has *actual paying users*. Terribly old fashioned, what, compared to outing gay teens to their abusive parents via funky ad-targeting algorithms?


daelm 05.17.12 at 12:06 pm


“The kind of user that Flickr has been losing is the kind of person that takes a picture of their lunch with their phone, slaps on a filter so that it looks like a Polaroid from 1972 and uploads it instantly to Facebook. I don’t think this kind of user represents the core mission of Flickr, although the author of the article seems to.”

the point of the article was that Yahoo’s generic mission was to target those kinds of users, and that the conflict between that mission and the demographic you approve of was making Flickr less and less coherent, and that such goal-incoherence was risky going forward.



laura 05.17.12 at 12:17 pm

Chris, I love your pictures! You should have put a link to them in this post.

This is a great post. I hope that you give us a review of the Flickr-replacement websites that other commenters mentioned.


tomslee 05.17.12 at 1:35 pm

There are strong parallels between the talk here about Flickr and a question on Quora: “Why do people still work at Yahoo?” In particular, Gil Yehuda’s answer (Yehuda was part of the Netflix prize-winning team) contains some lucid reflections on the tension between “your company is no longer cool according to silicon valley bloggers” and real problems at Yahoo! Inc.


tomslee 05.17.12 at 1:50 pm

…and I share in the general admiration for Chris’s pictures.


nick s 05.17.12 at 4:55 pm

I’m not sure I agree entirely with maidhc about the “core mission”: while a large chunk of the Flickr userbase embraced it as a “social portfolio”, the explicitly playful element was baked in from the start — as seen from the presentation that accompanied Flickr’s launch in 2004 — and there’s been a certain amount of tension on the user side between the two, before even considering the attempts of Yahoo to integrate it into their other services.

The intersection of non-snapshotty photography and social interaction was driven by a community management team headed by Heather Champ; the embrace of archival collections was driven by George Oates. Neither are there now.


Chris Bertram 05.18.12 at 8:40 am

@laura and @tomslee thanks also.

I’ve opened at 500px a/c as of yesterday. Not done anything with it yet as my home internet (the notorious Virgin Media) is down, and I can’t even get through to their tech support on the phone to submit a complaint. One thing I’ll say about Yahoo, they aren’t as bad as Virgin.


Brendan Taylor 05.19.12 at 3:31 pm

Some excellent analyses of the economics of niche sites on the Web above.

I’m optimistic about the possibility of a hybrid model, i.e. a federated network of niche sites. Each piece of the network can be small enough that it can exist indefinitely without needing significant capital, but as a whole the network gets the benefits that come with scale.

The Flickr/DeviantArt equivalent in this space is MediaGoblin.


Eszter 05.20.12 at 9:04 pm

This is a nice thread. I agree with a lot of what Chris and others have said about why Flickr is special in its own way and doesn’t need to be the pic-sharing site for everyone while still maintaining a huge user base and devoted community, and also an important function. But it is the case that they slowed down in making it easy to share even in ways that are helpful to the communities they serve, which is a bummer and may have led to some declines in use although I don’t know the data on this. (Yes, I like to use it for sharing with those who are also avid photographers, but some of my photos I also want to be able to share with others in my networks and this has often been more tedious than would be ideal.)

As for “death of” articles, people have been writing about the death of Yahoo! for over five years. (I thought it was mainly in 2006-07 that people started writing about the death of Yahoo!, but look, here’s an article from 1995 (!) about the death of Yahoo!) They also wrote about how no one was using MySpace when hundreds of millions of people were still using it. And apparently no one is using Draw Something anymore either (I won’t even link to the stories as they’re based on such bad empirical evidence). I guess the assumption is that writing about the “death of” whatever online service will lead to lots of readers and it’s probably not a bad assumption. But the empirical bases for a lot of assertions are often nonexistent other than that the author or his/her friends are no longer using said service.

As for trying out 500px, it looks intriguing and I signed up after reading about it here, but the reality is that one has established networks on Flickr that are not that easy to port over to another site. It’s just like with Facebook, it’s not just about where you hang out, but where your contacts whose opinions are of interest hang out that matters so just because you start using another service doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to recreate your experiences there even if after some time it may be a viable alternative. It requires a lot of time and effort that you have already invested elsewhere.

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