Flickr: A New Hope

Sensible donkey agrees: Flickr is the place to be!

TL;DR It’s far better to pay for a service like Flickr than to be the product sold on Instagram.

Since last April’s announcement that SmugMug acquired Flickr from Yahoo!, there’s been a mixture of optimism and skepticism online about what changes it might bring. Many longtime users, including myself (I joined in 2008), are holding out hope that Flickr might see a return to its former glory. Personally, I’ve noticed an uptick in traffic, and some well-known photographers (here and here, for example) have begun using or recently returned to the platform.

Predictably, there’s also been plenty of snark to go around, couched in the usual dismissive, “Is Flickr even still a thing?” remarks. For millions of users, Flickr has never stopped being a thing.

What has some people grumbling in particular is last November’s announcement that SmugMug is imposing storage limits of 1,000 photos and videos for free Flickr accounts, while simultaneously doubling the annual pro member fee from a modest US $25 to $50. Despite, or even arguably because of, these changes, I would suggest that Flickr remains the best photo sharing site for serious amateur and professional photographers. Let me explain why these changes might be a good thing.

Let’s say you’re one of the Flickr free account users who has benefited from unlimited image uploads, and you have 98,000 photos in your image gallery. Ask yourself honestly: how many of those thousands of photos are good examples of your work? I don’t know about you, but my ratio of “keepers” to duds is lower than I’d care to admit. Even among the keepers, only a fraction of those are images that I think are interesting enough to be shared publicly.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you really have 98k stellar photos. Awesome! Now the only question is how are you going to get eyeballs on ALL of them? I hate to break it to you, but you’re not. When is the last time you browsed through someone else’s photos online (whether Flickr, Instagram, or elsewhere), and scrolled back through more than a few screens of their work? That’s right. You don’t do it often, and neither does anyone else. After a while, image fatigue sets in. Even the best photographers have to curate the content they want to share with their audience. I don’t know how many photos Sally Mann has taken in her storied career, but it’s probably safe to say she’s taken far more than you or I will ever see.

Roughly every 6-12 months, I prune my Flickr gallery. There are old photos that I’m simply tired of looking at, while others make me wince and ask, “What was I thinking?” Others are meaningful to me chiefly because of the memories associated with taking them; artistically, I later realize they’re actually not very good. As a longtime pro member, I don’t think I’ve ever had a thousand photos in my gallery at once. In fact, at this moment I have just over 500 photos sitting in my gallery. That’s only half the number of images that are now permitted on free accounts. There’s nothing stopping me from uploading 98k photos if I want to, but why would I? Who is going to ever look at them all?

When Flickr announced several years ago that all members were being granted unlimited storage for photos, did the quality of content improve? I didn’t see any beneficial impact. Of course I mainly follow people who try to post their better work, not the serial picture dumpers. One of the problems that has long plagued Flickr is that some users treat it as a junk drawer, or a glorified cloud backup plan. Nothing prevented them from doing so, but that’s never been the main purpose of the site. Nobody wants to see all 8,000 photos of your last vacation in the Bahamas. It’s great to have your most important photos “backed up” in one more location, but that’s only an ancillary benefit of a photo sharing site. (Incidentally, cloud backup services aren’t free, either. Data storage costs money.)

Flickr differs from Instagram in that it has long fostered a sense of community. It encourages lingering. Users can create groups that focus on any number of interests - whether it be a place to discuss specific cameras and lenses, or specialized topics such as vintage cars from the 1950s, or (for some of us), the joys of shooting film. Predating the now ubiquitous hash tag, Flickr lets you apply relevant tags that are separate from any descriptive text you want to include. While some groups have become virtual ghost towns, others remain quite active. You can just “like” photos if you want, but it’s also common to post comments. Each group has its own discussion area, and you can learn a lot by reading discussions or posting questions.

Part of being a community means that you don’t see the typical games played by popular “content creators” on Instagram. It’s far too common to run into Instagram users who will insincerely follow you, wait for you to follow them back, and then drop you within days or hours - all to inflate their own metrics. This may not bother other people as much, but that kind of deception doesn’t sit well with me. I enjoy sharing my work, and viewing other people’s work, and I’m not out to win a popularity contest. I value sincere interaction, and I deeply resent being used. Follow or unfollow me as you like, but please don’t do it for dishonest gain.

It’s a truism that if you don’t pay for an online service then you are the product. Flickr may be somewhat unique in that they don’t take as much from even their free users as does much social media. The fact that you can opt to pay for a premium service means that you are a real customer, and you can hold Flickr accountable for the service you’ve contracted with them to provide. That’s simply not true with many sites and apps today. There is currently no amount of money you can pay to have ad-free, premium features on most social media platforms. Why do you think that is? In the big picture, what Flickr offers (without intrusive ads, or selling my data to to third parties), is well worth paying $50 a year to have.

There are a couple of other considerations to note about Instagram in particular, as it relates to Flickr. For starters, to share photos you are required to use their app (notwithstanding plugins or other unofficial workarounds). Flickr has an app, but you don’t have to use it to post photos (I never have). For people who do most everything on their mobile devices, this may not matter much. As a professional photographer, however, most of my serious editing happens on an actual computer. I like having the option to interact with a service using a standard web-browser. Further, there’s good reason not to trust an app owned by the Facebook Juggernaut (more on that in a moment). Unlike Instagram, Flickr gives you the freedom to display your images at any size or ratio you deem appropriate.

Another concern about Instagram relates to their terms of service (TOS), which essentially states that they reserve the right to modify or sell your photos to any third party without any compensation to you. Moreover, it’s not just your images that can be bought and sold. Using a firewall app to monitor traffic on your phone, it’s readily apparent that the app actively tries to phone home to a Facebook-owned server. Unless you block it, as I have, there’s a nearly constant stream of information it collects about you that has nothing to do with adding a location to your photos. This happens even when the app is not running on your screen. You really are their product.

As it stands, Flickr’s terms of service are more limited in scope. While they assert a similar right to use your content (presumably for promotion of their services), there’s no stated provision for redistributing your photos to third parties. While the TOS for any online platform are subject to change, the fact that SmugMug is now in charge makes it unlikely that Flickr is going to introduce policies that sell photographers down the river. Such a move would seriously compromise their reputation. Significantly, my firewall app seldom, if ever, shows any background communication attempted by the Flickr app. That fact alone speaks volumes to me.

One final reason to keep at least one foot in the Flickr-verse is the very recent announcement that Mark Zuckerberg intends to tie his products more closely together under the hood. The details are vague, but the idea is to somehow integrate both Instagram and WhatsApp tightly with the Facebook app, so that they all share the same messaging platform. Ostensibly this is being done to heighten user security, but many tech-savvy people have pointed out that this may have serious repercussions for people who prefer to keep their online accounts separate for privacy. These changes will greatly benefit Facebook’s advertising model in that they can more readily assemble detailed profiles of users based on aggregating data from the now mostly separate products.

It seems probable that in making these changes, Facebook will create some type of unified login across all three apps. I have continued to use Instagram with a degree of reluctance, since they are owned by Facebook - a company that has proven itself to have little regard for the privacy of its users. (If you need a link as documentation, you’ve not been watching the news for the past few years.) It’s been more than two years since I deleted my personal Facebook account for good. Even before that, I refused to use the Facebook Messenger app based on privacy concerns. If my ongoing use of Instagram is contingent on the use of some incarnation of the Messenger app, I won’t hesitate to delete my account.

If you’re fine letting Facebook have even more unrestricted access to your contacts, data, and communications, this may not be a concern to you. As a techie with a slightly better than average understanding of what’s going on than the general public, I find this development deeply troubling. As I’ve said before on Twitter, it should give people serious pause that the biggest critics of the creeping loss of privacy today are not tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists or out-of-touch politicians; rather, they are people who work in the IT sector and who know whereof they speak.

Is Flickr the best platform (aside from a personal website you pay for), for hosting your photos online? I believe it is. Even if you disagree, I encourage you to think about why entrusting your data to any of Facebook’s apps is a poor solution.