A whole new app
The other day, Flickr published an update to its official iPhone app and I must say it’s a remarkable improvement over version 1.x., to the point that it really feels like a whole different app. The previous version wasn’t particularly bad, but UI-wise it didn’t look all that different from the mobile version of Flickr’s website. Flickr 2.0’s redesign was made to further emphasise the ‘social’ aspect of the venerable photo-sharing service. Many observers were quick to point out how much ‘Instagram-inspired’ the new version looks, but it’s not bad at all, and the approach doesn’t lack originality. I especially like the Contacts timeline navigation: you scroll down and see the most recent photo of each contact, but if you start swiping to the left, you can explore each contact’s photostream right on the spot. It’s a clever, simple, well-executed idea. The whole app feels smoother, more polished, and generally more useful. I like how the Flickr team has removed a lot of friction in finding and adding new contacts, and the Activity section is really well laid out.
Flickr is dead. No wait, it’s alive!
For months, on the Web and on Twitter, I’ve been reading of how ‘Flickr as a community is dead’, of how ‘Flickr is a desert’, of how ‘Flickr is not social enough’, of how ‘Flickr is not mobile enough’, of how ‘Instagram killed Flickr’, and so on and so forth. And now it seems there’s some sort of Flickr renaissance simply because the new version of the official iPhone app has removed a little bit of friction. On Twitter I couldn’t resist quipping: The fact that people were waiting for a better iPhone app to ‘go back enjoying Flickr’ says a lot about their laziness… Let me elaborate on this a bit.
Flickr, as a photo-sharing service, was born in the pre-iPhone era, when sharing photos meant photos you took with a proper camera, and when uploading, tagging, exploring other people’s photography, interacting with other members, and participating in forum discussions were all things you did from a computer. Then came the iPhone and the revolution it brought, especially starting from the 3GS, when you could take nicer photos with the 3-megapixel built-in camera. Taking snaps and sharing them instantly was getting easier and easier and with the advent of Instagram we all could see how it was possible to build an entire social network on that simple sharing model, with a touch of vintage stylish filters and, more importantly, around a single platform and a single device — iOS and the iPhone.
With the constant improving of the iPhone’s camera, first with the iPhone 4, then the 4S and now with the 5, an increasing number of people have taken to use the iPhone as their only digital camera (or at least the camera they use the most). The combination of iPhone and Instagram has created a powerful point-and-shoot-and-share phenomenon which is so ‘viral’ that every other photo-sharing model looks painfully slow and awkward in comparison. This, I think, is what made a lot of people neglect Flickr.
(Brief aside: let me tell you, that kind of defection wasn’t all that bad: lots of casual users who uploaded dozen of crappy shots at a time — mostly taken with terrible point-and-shoot cameras or cameraphones — had finally found easier to upload those crappy shots on Instagram, and make them just a little less crappy by using Instagram filters. So, from this point of view, Flickr members like me who have always been in for the quality could utter a sigh of relief.)
As I have said more than once, convenience and quality haven’t always been a successful marriage when it comes to photography. A lot of people have embraced the Instagram way of sharing simply because it’s perceived as faster and more convenient than the ‘old’ way of taking a memory card out of a camera, transferring the photos on a computer, choosing the keepers and uploading them to a place like Flickr. And yes, it’s faster and more convenient, I’m not denying that, but in my opinion it also sacrifices quality for the sake of speed and convenience. And speed and convenience are just what (lazy) people want from today’s technology. So, make the experience more Instagrammatic, and people are more than happy to rediscover you and your service.
So what if it’s not like Instagram?
When pundits were deep in their ‘Flickr is doomed’ phase, some of them suggested that Flickr should follow more closely in Instagram’s footsteps, because Instagram got the mobile, social and sharing parts right, and if Flickr didn’t do something of that kind, the risk was a stagnant, withering community. At that time I was too busy to express my point of view with a proper post, but I jotted down some infuriated notes, like “So what if it’s not like Instagram?” and “Community’s very much alive from where I stand”.
What I mean is that, first of all, as a long-time Flickr member, and as someone who has never stopped using Flickr, I haven’t really noticed a stagnant community around me. Sure, some contacts have gone quiet, but new ones have appeared, and a lot of groups I follow (especially those revolving around film photography) have maintained a very healthy activity over the years, seemingly unaffected by the Instagram-mania.
At a certain point I also thought: even if the Flickr community has indeed shrunk and now who’s left are those who really care about the quality of the photos they upload and share, well… so be it. I was starting to think that Flickr’s disregard for a proper standalone mobile application was intentional, a move to drive snap-happy smartphone shooters towards more suitable services and transform Flickr into a distinguished community of pro and semi-pro members, of people whose idea of good photography goes a little beyond the application of faux vintage filters. And whose idea of feedback and discussion goes a little beyond a ‘Like’ button and a quick appreciation shorthanded with emoji icons.
Snobbish? Perhaps. Why not? I was even ready to pay more per year, if the shrinking of Flickr’s general community demanded a higher cost for existing ‘pro’ members to help sustain the service.
Instagram and Flickr, as I see it, represent two very different ways and models of sharing photos, and I can’t resist making the fast food/slow food analogy. Why can’t both be prominent? Each has its strengths and I believe it could be interesting if their differences were to be emphasised rather than blurred. That’s why I never agreed with those who claimed that Flickr should ‘freshen up’ by following Instagram’s model. Flickr and Instagram are two different, very distinct methods of expression through the use of images. At least for me: most of my Instagram shots have a fundamental diaristic element. They are a collection of almost-daily fragments, glimpses, impressions, sketches. They catch ephemeral moods, passing feelings, they’re the graphical equivalent of tweets. On the other hand, the photos I post on Flickr, at a much slower pace, are the result of a careful selection process aimed at delivering something more permanent and ‘artistic’. The interface is different. The language is different: Sets and Collections for me are terms that inspire the creation of photographic projects, or small geeky series like The setup, Of Macs and men, The return of the 5.25″ or IBM WorkPad. The few Instagram shots that I also upload to my Flickr account are themselves a result of an accurate selection, not just mere, automatic crossposting.
So, on one hand I’m glad that the new Flickr 2.0 app has revived Flickr a bit in the eyes of pundits and snappers out there, and I myself have registered quite a spike in activity around my photos and contacts. On the other hand, I hope these differences in models and languages will remain and that Flickr won’t become just another Instagram lookalike, both in language and contents.