The decline of Flickr shows how the web has lost its open spirit

Photographer in a city

The slow and painful death of Flickr is the most cautionary tale of social media. The photo-sharing service was so pioneering that we didn’t even talk about social media at the time. Instead, we called it web 2.0.

If you took photographs, Flickr was the place to share it. Personal websites didn’t stand a chance. Because Flickr offered something additional that seems trivial now, but was revolutionary at the time. It offered a community of like-minded people who wanted to take and share great photographs.

Share is a word we hear a lot these days. But back then it really meant something. Because to Flickr, share didn’t mean ‘publish to this particular silo’, which is what it means today. “Share to Facebook” really means, “Lock away in Facebook”. But sharing on Flickr really meant sharing — with the world.

Flickr pioneered the use of Creative Commons licenses — it was the default option. This meant that most Flickr users were offering to enable people to share their work as widely as they wanted to.

In the words of Ben Cerveny, in a series of tweets:

…when building the very first bits of flickr, we opted for cc license be default and a folksonomically tagged searchable archive to enable a generous cultural record.

It was a great few years while it lasted. But then Flickr was acquired by Yahoo. This was a time when Yahoo could be seen as a credible peer to Google. But very quickly the reality emerged: that Yahoo didn’t know what it was doing.

Then came Facebook. It didn’t give a generous cultural record through a folksonomically tagged searchable archive. But if offere people a really brilliant and simple way to publish their baby photos for their friends to see really easily.

Then came Instagram. It didn’t have UIs that empowered curation of sets of images by anyone. But it did have a great UI that empowered people to choose from a wonderful range of filters that made themselves look their best selves, just in time for the selfie boom.

Then came Snapchat. It didn’t result in a network of deep shared pools of cultural resource, from which every user could build expressions. But it did allow the younger generation to quickly build expressions of themselves in some new way that this old guy doesn’t really understand.

(Incidentally, the photo I used for this blog post’s header didn’t come from Flickr — it came from Unsplashed.)

Flickr stagnated, and the community slowly evaporated.

When I relaunched this blog in October, I namechecked Flickr as one of the reasons I felt silly for slowly abandoning my personal blog in favour of siloed platforms.

I already feel bad that entrusted Flickr with my photos. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

I perservered with Flickr for longer than I might have. On logging in, I see that the last photo I published there was less than two years ago. Between 2005 and 2016, I published 2,981 photos to Flickr.

At one point, I thought of Flickr as my canonical photo archive. If I wanted to keep a photo for good, it went onto Flickr. In doing so, using Creative Commons licenses, I shared my photos with the world.

(One of my photos once got used in a Channel 4 drama after being found on Flickr.)

Now I publish photos to this website. But by its nature I feel that I have to be more selective about what I upload. And it is not nearly as searchable as the Flickr database. Not that I guess many so people attempt to search Flickr these days.

Now SmugMug has bought Flickr. We will wait and see what comes of it.

I doubt I will begin using Flickr again. And that’s not just because I’ve had my fingers burnt by relying on external silos too much in the past.

Flickr was a website of the digital SLR era. Photography geeks will still find a use for websites like SmugMug and Flickr. For a while, I thought I might become a photography geek.

Then I discovered that the camera built into my smartphone actually takes better photos than the bulky digital camera I bought just a few years ago. I never carry my camera around with me now. All my photos are taken with my phone.

Even the act of taking a photo on your phone changes the mindset. A phone is fundamentally a communication device. As soon as you take your photo, a share icon appears — and you can publish it instantly, wherever you want.

I do still save many photos to build little collections later. But those collections now go on my website — not an external silo.

But my mediocre photos are not the great loss of the decline of Flickr. What makes Flickr’s slow and painful death so sad for many people is that it represents the loss of a spirit of the early web.

Flickr’s cofounder Caterina Fake recently talked about the community spirit they wanted to embed in Flickr:

These products have come to be called ‘social media,’ but that’s not what Flickr was. Flickr was an online community. The reason they started calling it social media is because you can sell media. You can sell column inches, you can sell broadcast hours, you can advertise against it. But Flickr was not social media. Flickr was an online community. The people there were not marketing; they were having conversations. They were known to each other, and they were being part of the community. And so, that is the spirit under which Flickr had been conceived.

Facebook talks the talk empowering people and building communities. But their actions — of building a walled garden, so that they gather as much valuable data about us as possible — tell a different story.

Flickr was a hopeful and positive place to be. And most importantly, it was open. No-one would dream of inventing open media publishing platform today. You can’t monetise that.

But that is exactly what the web has lost, and why we need to bring it back.

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