Flickr’s identity crisis


Justin Williams, in Why Not Flickr?

Yesterday’s post on the State of Photo Sharing in 2014 seems to have been well received. Most everyone agreed with what I said, which is always nice. One common refrain I’ve heard is “Why didn’t you include Flickr?”


Even with this improvements, Flickr still suffers from an identity crisis. Is it a photo sharing site or is it a photo archiving site? Is Flickr still the destination I go to for sharing my best photos with the world, or have they given that up in favor of uploading everything and tacking an ad on it? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I’m not sure Flickr has figured it out either.

When I opened my Flickr account in 2005, the question “Is it a photo sharing site or is it a photo archiving site?” didn’t really matter. Before that, my other online community experience had been LiveJournal, and I approached Flickr with more or less the same spirit — I saw it as a place where you could both store your photographic production and interact with other like-minded people within Flickr’s community. I never felt a real distinction between the archiving part and the sharing part.

Remember, Flickr always described itself as a photo-sharing service — it’s interesting to go back in time to Flickr’s home page in March 2004 and see that the first item in the “What is Flickr?” list is Outrageously simple ‘drag ‘n’ drop’ real time photo sharing!

Then Instagram came and subtly changed the meaning of photo-sharing, emphasising the ephemerality of the captured moment over the intrinsic quality of the photograph itself. The idea of photo-sharing became more like flipping through slices of everyday life, rather than exhibiting your production as an amateur, enthusiast or professional photographer. (Of course there are exceptions, terrific photographers using Instagram as an effective tool to increase their audience and draw attention to their work.)

I don’t know if Flickr’s redesign process was initiated out of a need to make Flickr behave more like Instagram, or just because the then-current design felt outdated and uninteresting. Sometimes I think it’s been both things. I’m among those Flickr old-timers who think Flickr was just fine as it was, and that this huge facelift has brought with it some losses in functionality and usability which could be avoided (I’m still a bit disoriented by all the reshuffling of menus and controls, finding them overall less intuitive than before; and I’m still irked by the evident de-emphasising of the comment section in a photo in favour of a big photos everywhere at all costs design policy).

But I’m also thinking that Flickr could take advantage of this ongoing design shift to effectively become both a photo sharing and photo archiving site. Flickr can find a new audience by putting up a fresh ‘photo-sharing’ face while maintaining its photo-archiving heart to avoid losing long-time users. It could become the most versatile photo site by offering different interaction experiences according to which device you use to access Flickr, and a comprehensive photo experience as a whole.

So, when you’re using your iPhone or Android smartphone, the emphasis is on an Instagram-like experience: quickly snap and upload a photo, share it with your contacts/followers, take a look at their streams, fave photos, leave a quick comment, etc. When you’re using your computer to access Flickr, the emphasis can shift to an experience that’s more oriented towards photo-archiving — adding tags; editing metadata; doing some retouching; assigning photos to different albums, collections, groups; and so on and so forth. On tablets the Flickr experience could find its sweet spot between the merely social aspects of the service and the editing & organising of what’s being shared.

I wouldn’t say that Flickr is experiencing an ‘identity crisis’ — I see it more like a transitional phase, and what happens next is crucial. I still believe Flickr has a strong enough backbone to be a powerful, versatile, all-encompassing photo service, appealing to different needs by tailoring its approach according to the user’s preferred device. It has the potential to reinvent itself without necessarily losing different categories of users and without throwing away important parts of its history and identity.

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