Flickr was the poster child for Social Media back in 2005. Like, literally
Flickr loves you.
This emergent, community focused website was changing the way that people used the internet, explored ideas, met people and expressed creativity. It was not merely a photo site, it was a way of connecting with other people and their ideas, politely for the most part. I think I first heard some guy named Jeremy Zawodny talk about how it was a good way to host photos for blogs, which was a problem back in the day.
And it was indeed rooted in photos. After long struggling to become interested in photography, Flickr was the community where I was able to get feedback, find inspiration and become a more capable photographer. Here's a early photo from me, and here's one a bit later in my time. I think I discovered lighting and framing along the way, along with this desire to share my perspective with other people-- often complete strangers.
The name and concept behind the photostream evoked commitment to a new sort of personal storytelling. Their robust and liberal API suggested a new type of business. Don't tell me that Apple, with their new iOS photostream and Twitter with their on-again, off-again API openness, were there first.
And in 2007 I was going to go work there. I had been introduced to Kakul Srivastava who was by then acting-GM of the place, and we had these informal interviews where I espoused my vision for Flickr as a sort new-fangled media company. The concept that people could publicly share their views of the world, contribute to some common good and hopefully make a little money along the way with advertising and licensing. My ideas were rough, but I had a tremendous passion for the Flickr experience, the staff and the potential.
Video on Flickr
"Flickr is launching video.... soon." That was the joke going around the industry when I started, and I was lucky enough to be thrown into the deep end of this project. If you remember back to this time, people really cared about what Flickr was doing, and its central role in the emergent social media universe. Facebook was still a youth-service in 2008, and Twitter hadn't yet gone mainstream. Myspace was crass and commerical.
Oh my god.. this Video team was the best team I had ever worked with: Cal Henderson, Dunstan Orchard, Heather Champ, George Oates, Eric Costello, John Allspaw, Tara Kirchner. I was humbled, and mostly just prodded things toward launch.
The team, pretty much knew what they wanted video on Flickr to be-- they were time limited long photos. We didn't torture ourselves over the too much of the big picture, but did struggle with the Yahoo-supplied video infrastructure. After a few stops and starts, the Yahoo folks in Dallas and Sunnyvale came through, and Flickr video launched in March 2008. It was big news, and controversial in the community. So exciting!
Mobile at Flickr is Cursed
A Few of us from that Video team-- Eric, Dunstan, me plus Paul Hammond and Ross Harmes-- somehow stumbled onto thinking about Mobile immediately after that. Flickr leaders had recently secured a slightly longer leash for our team to develop our own mobile experience. Previously, the vaunted "connected life" division of Yahoo put their own homogenous sheen on things like integrated flickr experiences on Yahoo Go phones, etc. Flickr had an old WAP mobile site and that was it.
Flickr's future was in mobile, some of us believed way back then. So for a brief window, we were going to develop a superb HTML5 experience, then move on to an already-overdue iphone app, then, then.
Then we were told we had a budget to hire a iPhone developer. Then not. Then we were told that the in-house team at Yahoo! sunnyvale would develop our app to our specification. Then I remember yelling more than I have ever yelled at work before, when a Yahoo designer told me and Dunstan how we were wrong about how Flickr should work on mobile phones. The utterly mediocre, still mediocre Flickr iphone app is the result.
And Flickr has largely handicapped in mobile ever since. They launched a Windows phone app last year (I don't think anyone uses windows phones, but who knows), and launched a quite nice Flickr+Instagram experience for android a few weeks ago. They did some iPad optimization, but I would not classify them as iPad leaders.
If I had to name one massive strategic miscalculation in the modern Flickr era, it would be sitting out while consumers realized that their phone was their camera.
Flickr and Yahoo! Leaders
Surely Yahoo has much blame to bear for not knowing what to do with this once-marvelous asset. There was once a really exciting strategy in the Yahoo Search business, where Flickr once resided, about how the company would use community-data and patterns to fashion an entirely new version of search. That's why they bough delicious and upcoming. But this strategy never materialized, and the company then treated Flickr as their photo service (loss leadership), advertising property (plastering poorly targeted network ads on every page of the site), all the while trying to subsume it into a Yahoo social networking strategy that no one believed would work. And they had that arrogant centralized mobile organization. They probably also starved Flickr of resources because they didn't understand what it could have been.
I didn't really get to work much with Stewart. And the rest, I'm too close to comment too much on Flickr leadership post-Butterfield. They had a lot of stress, a fair amount of internal discord, some turnover, multiple masters and humongous shoes to fill. What they didn't do (what WE didn't do) was succeed in establishing the path to the strategic future.
We did not develop a connection for members between the contacts/photostream-- centerpiece of the Flickr experience-- and the interesting new views that the team developed: maps, people, galleries, search.
What Could Have Been
I sat in a lot of rooms in San Francisco and Sunnyvale telling anyone who would listen that Flickr *was* Yahoo's social network. Yahoo! 360, Yahoo Mash, Yahoo Mosh, Yahoo Profiles were not the future, the Future was Flickr. This is not my original idea, but one that a lot of the people at Flickr believed deep into their bones. Before Facebook and Twitter were big, Flickr had a vibrant community, social "graph," streams of compelling content, advertiser sexiness, brilliant technologists.
There was a way, we mused, where you took those special building blocks, added new capabilities beyond photos, injected a community-media mindset, brought in your most brilliant advertising strategists and made a big go of a new type of social media experience. It was risky, it was a longshot, but it leveraged Flickr in a way that respected Flickr's uniqueness as the Eyes of the World. I could see this product, and so could a few other folks.
Was pushed out. Couldn't work with the people was being asked to work with. Put in an uncomfortable position. Certainly contributed to alienation with these folks though a sometimes pushy desire to get things done. Was occasionally uncouth. Hurt to leave more than could have predicted. Still hurts, obviously.
Flickr TodayI still know a handful of folks over there at FlickrHQ, and at least the ones I know personally all care about the institution and its future. But I sense in my own photostream, and the ones of my friends that the early, exciting vibrancy of seeing what was happening on Flickr has largely moved elsewhere online. That anticipation of what had come in, what people were commenting about, what crazy tags you might stumble across, that's not there anymore for me. That's on Twitter, or Instagram, or someplace else.
I made a graph yesterday which annoyed some people -- it sought to answer my suspicion that some of the newer staffers that have joined Flickr don't use it much. At least not as the eyes of the world, to post public photos for others to see and discover. I used a truly oversimplifed metric to try and measure what I sensed about the changing mission. Here it is, don't read too much into it.
I see incremental things coming out of Flickr. A co-slideshow viewing interface. A new lightbox. An android app. Interesting ideas about geo-fencing. All good things, but not collectively moving the service into a platform of the future. I sense that the team needs to have the fear of god put in them from a profoundly strong new technical leader. That's not Yahoo. But I see that the team cares. I know that many of them love Flickr.
Have I mentioned that Yahoo appears to be for sale? That some private equity dudes might see some special spark coming from all that Flickr was and is? Do I think that Flickr has a clear path back to centrality in online identity, no probably not. But I do like to dream that maybe just maybe some strong leadership at some company in the future might make something special out of it again.
I guess that's why it still hurts.