Depending on who you were, it seemed that Flickr’s drastic re-orientation towards free users last month was either a dawn of sense at long last, or a sell-out, taking the business paid for in large part by ‘serious’ photographers, and handing it to happy snappers on a plate. The scrapping of ‘Pro’ accounts, coupled with a vast increase in the amount of free storage space from just 300MB per month to a straight-off maximum of 1 terabyte, could fairly be viewed as both wising up and selling out, but most of the commentary has interpreted it either one way or the other.
The new Flickr combines elements of the old with some design revisions - almost like someone started but didn't finish.
WHY SELLING OUT?
Some of the former or existing ‘Pro’ users are affronted by Flickr’s move, and you can see why. They’ve served as paying customers of Flickr – many for a number of years – but now it appears their preferences no longer matter, and Flickr wants to ‘dumb down’. Novices, who care little about technical quality and artistry, and who’d never pay a single penny to post photos, now get exactly the same upload capacity as the serious photographer. The design of the site has been changed radically too, with a clear shift away from the ‘serious’, towards a more trend-derivative appearance. To sum up, as I write, there are thirty-odd thousand posts of complaint sitting on the Flickr forum, all of which have been made in the period of less than two weeks since the changes were implemented. The overwhelming majority of the complaints, if not all, seem to be from ‘Pro’ users. The revisions have really, really angered many of the people whose money has helped Flickr immensely in recent years.
WHY WISING UP?
But Flickr has been a slowly sinking ship through the course of that recent past. Its purpose as a photographically-driven social networking site has been steadily eroded by offerings from the bigger players in social networking. Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus are all paying more and more attention to image sharing, and for the average person, for whom a picture is a picture, these more vibrant and bustling platforms have made more sense than Flickr, with its rather stilted atmosphere.
On Flickr, you had this kind of: “Ah, you’ve posted a photograph – oh that’s good isn’t it?” vibe going on. The conversations often didn’t really need to happen. They were just there because it was the accepted protocol. Someone posts a photo, so someone has to comment. But the ‘real’ networking sites, including forums and message boards, don’t work like that. The conversations and relationships are already there and ongoing. The photos are just part of the conversations – not the be-all-and-end-all of them. That difference really matters, and it’s why sites incorporating photos into chat (like Facebook) have made a lot more progress than sites trying to incorporate chat into photos. Whilst Flickr did start out as a chat room, and the strict photo focus followed, it's fair to say that for the user in recent times, the site has been creatively-, rather than socially-based.
So a big part of Flickr’s business strategy had been to focus on photographers, or people who see themselves as photographers, and monetise the site accordingly. The social side of the site was grim, but hey, photographers are not bothered as long as people are massaging their egos with praise.
Monetising creatively-based sites can be very difficult. No one will pay for the ‘product’ (in Flickr’s case the photos), because the Internet is saturated with free ‘product’. So you then start looking at advertising as a means to monetise. But even that can be incompatible in some environments. Traditional online advertising doesn’t integrate well into social networking, because people aren’t there to buy stuff – they’re there to show off.
It’s quite widely acknowledged among bloggers and Internet marketers that people coming to a site on referral from Facebook or Twitter don’t click ads – unless they’re ads about how to get famous, climb the social ladder or source more virtual followers/friends. The users are not thinking about products; they’re thinking about themselves. The only reason it works for the likes of Facebook and Twitter is that they're staggeringly big, with an unimaginably vast userbase who virtually never log out. With the user info those social sites have at their disposal they can also target ads pretty effectively, but advertising to social networkers is still no match for the targeted web search model, a la Google.
So Flickr was this creatively (rather than socially) driven site, simultaneously trying to function as a social network. There was no saleable product, and the potential for ad revenue was relatively poor. The only remaining option was to cool off on traditional advertising, severely limit site usage for free users, and finance a big chunk of Flickr by charging the creatives themselves, for upgrades. It’s a bizarre ploy – charging creatives for the privilege of supplying content, whilst the consumer gets the content for free. It’s a bit like the grocer paying you to eat his tomatoes, provided you thank him a lot and keep telling him how nice they are.
But with creative matter, online, it does work, provided you can persuade the creatives that there’s lots of interest in their content. If the creatives can get their money’s worth in praise (albeit not necessarily genuine praise), many will not hesitate to pay the upgrade fees.
So what went wrong? Well, apart from Flickr’s gross inadequacy when it came to protecting photographers from content theft (indeed, Flickr encouraged content theft), the reality was that the bulk of the ‘pro’ photographers paying for ‘Pro’ accounts weren’t really professionals at all. Professional photographers make money from photography. That is, THEY charge YOU. What they definitely don’t do, is pay money to a website which makes it a near certainty that their content will be stolen, re-posted, and often, monetised by someone else.
There were and of course still are some fantastic photographers on Flickr, but paying to have your photos looked at and stolen for third party gain is not professional photography. Over time, Flickr’s behaviour and the constant drip, drip of unauthorised ‘redistribution’ has made apparent to these ‘Pro’ Flickr photographers the fact that actually, what they’re doing is the opposite of professional photography, and that in reality many are just having the piss taken out of them. With that in mind, why not just go and share on a standard networking site? You’ll still get patronised and re-posted without permission, but at least you’re not paying for it.
From the outside, it looked like Flickr was rapidly turning into an ever-decreasing bunch of bitter serious amateurs, permanently in a strop because, without mincing words, they were being exploited and the realisation was dawning upon them. Flickr’s re-orientation towards the free user finally acknowledges that the continued exploitation of the faux ‘pro’ is a lost cause. The change is not just an increase in storage space for basic users. It’s a complete re-monetisation of the site. Rather than that hefty chunk of income being generated through upgrade fees, it will now come from advertising. For that to work, Flickr must upsize. It must re-take the ground it’s been steadily losing to technically inferior sharing platforms (largely through its own short-sightedness and apathy). That's where the draw of the 1 terabyte comes in.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Flickr re-orientation comes alongside the parent company (Yahoo)’s acquisition of Tumblr. Not only should Tumblr benefit Yahoo in its own right – it should also complement Flickr, and vice versa. It’s no secret that Tumblr users have for long been taking much of their content from Flickr. Tumblr is, afterall, most typically used as a photo site for those who re-post rather than actually make images. But until now, the Flickr users whose content has been re-posted on Tumblr have frequently been resentful ‘Pro’s, who kick up a stink every time a pic gets re-used without permission. If, however, Flickr can rebuild the platform with a userbase more orientated towards sharing, it could mean more content for Tumblr, with less hassle.
With a more visible kinship between Tumblr and Flickr, it may be that a new breed of Flickr users emerges, recognising that rather than being a mere den of content thieves, Tumblr can be seen as a useful promotional tool for the Flickr photographer. If you post a photo on Flickr, and it goes viral on Tumblr, suddenly your 50 Flickr visits a day could be an audience of thousands. Of course, with Flickr 'dumbed down', there's also likely to be a much larger proportion of users simply unaware that their photos are being grabbed and re-posted elsewhere, and that'll suit both Flickr and Tumblr.
With each service promoting the benefits of the other, Flickr and Tumblr could prove more of a threat to the big networking sites than may be apparent at present. But what Flickr now needs most of all is shareable content. An inexhaustible supply of shareable content. It’s been apparent for ages that shareable content is where Flickr’s real market lies (it’s been a crap networking site for as long as I've known it). And yet Flickr has been limiting its own access to shareable content by placing heavy restrictions on uploads. The 1 terabyte invitation looks set to change the state of play, and pull in a mass of newbies in the process. As the restriction in usage disappears, so does the restriction in user type. Ideally for Flickr, I'm sure, the faux ‘pro’ becomes an inconsequential facet of the overall picture, and the ordinary people, who just want to share what they’ve seen, move into the driving seat.
A PLUNGE IN QUALITY?
Some suggest that the quality of content on Flickr will decrease as a result of all this, but I’m not so sure it will. There’s already a hell of a lot of unmitigated crap on Flickr, and plenty of it is produced by users who’ve paid for ‘Pro’ accounts. I look at people’s Twitter feeds, with images they’ve produced on mobile phones, and whilst the material is clearly not as well-defined as the work of some SLR-wielding beardo with a ‘Pro’ Flickr account and a wardrobe purchased through Millets, it’s often a lot more interesting and a lot more viewable. I’m not saying Flickr’s primary content type is now set to come from mobile phones – just that with technology as it now stands, any idiot can take a photo, and what it’s really about is finding good subject matter. The evidence is that today, creating pictures of real interest is more about having a life than having an understanding of cameras and photographic technique.
So is there to be a catch with this 1 terabyte revision? Well, whether it’ll last indefinitely is a point of debate, certainly. Image hosts (and hosts of other media) have, in the past, reduced their upload limit and then essentially forced users either to delete or pay for any storage above the threshold. I see no reason why Flickr couldn't do that, once masses of users were tied in and dependent on the space they'd already used. Whilst virtually no one will realistically use anything like a whole terabyte for storing images, some people will undoubtedly upload to excess just because they can.
So beware. You can’t really trust any of these big online businesses. I wouldn’t get over-excited about the current upload limit, which in the long term is impractical, as Flickr must know better than anyone. You only need look at what they’re charging for an extra terabyte to see what it would mean financially for Yahoo if really large numbers of people genuinely used up the first one. So this is an offer Yahoo are hoping very, very few users will get anywhere close to taking up in full, and I believe they're banking heavily on that. If ever they were overwhelmed with users approaching the 1 terabyte capacity they’d have to do something about it. I can't see how you could have a situation in which most of Flickr’s free users were commandeering almost 1 terabyte of storage each.
But really, the whole issue of whether or not the 1 terabyte limit can work in practice blows mist across the true problem with Flickr, which hasn’t changed at all. Flickr is still the best resource on the Internet for those who want to nick your photos and make money off the back of them. If anything, uploading more photos at larger sizes exacerbates this problem, and just gives greater potential still for copyright abuse. I doubt Flickr is overly concerned about that, though.