Much ado about Flickr

I was shocked when I logged into Flickr last week and found an entirely new interface.

I'm staying right here at Flickr

My shock turned to disappointment and sadness that some of my contacts were super angry about the change, left strongly worded comments on their photostreams, and immediately moved their photos to other services.

I make software products for a living; I’ve seen firsthand how interface changes can alienate users. They become comfortable with a product’s features and usage, even when they’re flawed. They don’t want to learn anything new (which often masks a fear that they can’t learn something new).

At the same time, Flickr (and Facebook and any other thing you do on the Web) is a product, built by a company that is trying to make money in an ever-changing landscape.

I’ve seen it often, and it’s happened at companies where I’ve worked: A company builds a good product that takes off. Success causes the company to grow or to be sold to a larger company. And then some scrappy startup company builds a product in an overlapping market that becomes a new darling. By then, the big company is so invested in what it’s always done that it struggles to adapt to the shifting market.

From where I sit, it looks like all of this happened to Flickr. Founded in 2004, Flickr quickly became arguably the king of the hill among photo-sharing sites. Web giant Yahoo! quickly noticed and, in 2006, bought the fledgling company. Success!

But consider all that’s happened in photography and on the Web since 2006. Most people had just discarded their film cameras for digital cameras. Soon cameras in phones became good enough for casual, everyday use; many of them are now very good. Users found it easy to share their photos across any number of the social networks that had emerged – primarily Facebook, which was founded in 2004, too, but also on upstart Instagram. Today, the three cameras that take the most photos uploaded to Flickr are all iPhones.

The market has shifted. It was a matter of time before Flickr either responded or became a niche product of ever decreasing importance. This new interface is its bid to stay relevant. I’m impressed with Yahoo! for moving Flickr so boldly.

I think that if people give the new interface a chance, it will work for most of them. I’ve heard complaints about slowness; I advise patience as Yahoo! would be foolish not to address legitimate performance problems. I’ve heard complaints about how crowded the interface feels; I’m also sure Yahoo! will tweak the new interface over time for better usability.

Another source of uproar is that advertising now adorns Flickr pages. I hate Web ads too, but really, they are the major way many Web products make money.

I sympathize a little with one complaint: all of us who bought Flickr Pro accounts for unlimited photo uploads now feel kind of let down, given that everybody gets a terabyte of storage now. That much storage might as well be unlimited; you could upload one photo a day for the rest of your life and never run out of space. But Flickr is letting us cancel our Pro accounts with a pro-rated refund, or keep Pro at its rate of $25 per year and never see an ad. Anybody who doesn’t have Pro already will have to pay $50 per year for that same privilege. I think this is a reasonable trade.

Flickr’s real mistake might be in underestimating how attached its users were to the old interface. But if my experience is any indication, perhaps that mistake won’t be fatal. Of my contacts, about five percent of them have moved to other services. I’ll miss seeing their photos. I wonder if they’ll soon miss the rest of the Flickr community.

Cross-posted to my new blog, Stories from the Software Salt Mines.


21 responses to “Much ado about Flickr”

  1. traveller858 Avatar

    Clearly a blog that identifies many peoples worries. I admit that I had concerns on day one and found many irritating glitches. However, they do seem to be or have already been sorted out. “Crowded” is an apt description compared to the previous version but then on the other hand the quality of pictures is far better. Most of the “old” pages are still available if one searches the site.
    I would suggest that Flickr is still the site to be on and these changes will seem normal in just a few weeks.
    Interesting the comment regarding “Pro” and that some feel hard done by. Well if a few $’s stops me having ads then so be it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ll level with you: I’m still not crazy about the “crowded” look. But I’m shrugging my shoulders and keeping on, because I will get used to it.

      1. christopher. Avatar

        It seems they tried to make the user profile pages fall more in line with the current standard of collaging a user’s images, al a Instagram:

        I’ve never been completely sold on that interface design, but it’s not the worst. It’d just be nice to have a bit of a buffer of negative space between the photos.

        The worst offense is the dashboard page. Way too much going on there. It looks like a designer just learned the CSS for transparent layers.

        This is also coming from a guy who loves minimal interfaces, or just minimal design in general. But yeah, overall, it’s still an upgrade I think. I’ve not gotten too much time with it yet, but it’s nice to see Yahoo! doing *something* to try to make it better.

        1. christopher. Avatar

          Wait. Nevermind. There’s the buffer of negative space I was talking about.

          Oi. More coffee necessary…

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          The old interface treated each photo more like art, giving it plenty of space to breathe. The new interface is clearly geared toward photo dumps. That’s the way it’s going everywhere; more noise for us to sort through.

        3. christopher. Avatar

          True, though once you click a photo, it gives it that space to breathe. I think one of the major improvements of the new interface is that it actually makes it a much easier to sort through the noise.

          Browsing photos in the new interface is much easier, and being able to get back to an image you liked after scrolling through more images seems easier, as it’s simply returning to the user’s main photostream and doing a quick eye scan to find the previous image. Before, it was kind of clunky, and fewer images were visible in a user’s main photostream without scrolling scrolling scrolling.

          I’m liking it so far. (Except for that dashboard. Yeesh.)

  2. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    I haven’t been doing much on Flickr in the past year or two but I’ve kept my pro account current. Every once in a while I hop on and when I did recently I was really surprised by the change. Frankly I was happy enough what what it looked like before, but I don’t actually hate the new look. There are some things about it I actually like. It does kind of remind me of the early days of the web, before people learned aesthetics, though… back in ’95 when websites stuffed everything they could into as little space as possible and everything was on a single page that just scrolled and scrolled and scrolled… This feels like a step back, but I get the impression that what the 20-somethings of 20 years ago wanted to get away from has become what the 20-somethings of today want back. Something that plays on a smart phone.

    Like you, I’m not dumping Flickr. I wouldn’t mind a way to tame the pages a little, give the photos some elbow room again, and most of all, have it open to my photostream instead of the latest pictures of my contacts (sorry if that sounds arrogant; it’s not… I use Flickr mostly as a safe place to store my best photos and a mnemonic aid… when was that again? Oh yeah, that weekend!… kinda thing). I just need to sit down for a few minutes and work all that out.

    I think you’re right; Yahoo! keeping Flickr current is a good strategy to keep it alive and at the forefront of things. I’d be sad to see it shrivel up and die. And I haven’t found another online photo solution that’s anywhere near as good, personally.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d be dumbstruck to see Flickr die, as I was when Google Reader croaked. I rely on it to host most of the images for my blog, and have built a small following for my work. I’d hate ot have to start over again on both of those things!

  3. Mike Avatar

    Good to see some perspectives on Flickr from you and others here who seem to know what they are talking about regarding design issues.

    I like the grid display for the users’ photostreams and in the contacts display. It is a pretty clever CSS device to dynamically resize images while keeping everything contained in a uniform grid. The layout also translates well to small-screen devices.

    I’m not so happy with the same change in the Sets section. That area was formerly a useful place to combine text and images with some discretion available to the user in terms of both content and layout.

    Providing unlimited storage is nice for those who want a place to dump everything. I don’t have a need for that as I have other resources, and I’ve felt that putting a limit of 200 images on my account was a good way to discipline myself to show just what I consider to be my best work. I think the contacts list will remain a good way to limit views to things I’m interested in, but the groups are already too full of junk and they seem likely to become more unwieldy with the removal of the upload limit.

    Regarding the Flickr groups, I’m mostly interested in following film and film camera work, and many of those groups are pretty much dead. That’s got nothing to do with the site design, however. There just don’t seem to be enough film and film camera users left at this point to justify the currently very fragmented groupings.

    I think you are right that Flickr is making changes to stay viable in response to technical and social changes and that they are mostly getting it right. It has got me thinking that I really need to do some of the same with my own web sites. I’ve avoided CSS for the most part up to now because my sites are small and don’t change much, but they could certainly be improved in regard to small-screen displays.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I sort of regret now not curating my Flickr space. I dump stuff there — everything that turned out from my road trips and from my old-camera tests. It was just a way of feeding my blog at first, and then to my surprise I started attracting followers. Through that I came to enjoy the social aspect of Flickr. I think I’d attract more followers and get more meaningful feedback if I didn’t dump 20, 50, 100 photos at a time, and uploaded instead just my good work. I’m not sure how to undo what I’ve done without starting a separate account, and I don’t want to expend that effort.

      I, too, am interested in following others who still do work with film cameras. I agree that the Flickr groups aren’t very good for that anymore. I’ve tried Filmwasters but found the effort necessary to be recognized (and therefore responded to) there is greater than I have time for. I’ve had the best luck connecting with other film shooters by finding their blogs and commenting on them.

      I have zero desire to learn the CSS necessary to make my main site ( friendly to mobile devices. There was a day when I’d’ve eaten that work for lunch, but in my middle age I’ve lost interest. I get so much more attention from this blog that I’ve even quit writing my long-form trip reports for my site — they get a tiny, tiny fraction of the hits of anything I write for this blog. Honestly, if I hadn’t hitched this blog to the domain, I might let the domain lapse.

      1. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        What about creating a “Best of” set on your current Flickr account? It’s not quite the same thing as channelling people, but you could use it as a direct link whenever you’re referring people to your work moving forward, instead of just to the top level of your photostream.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I kind of have one of those! It’s a compilation of my favorite shots. (Favorite isn’t always best, and best isn’t always favorite, but the two sets have a big enough intersection.) I don’t do a very good job of keeping it up to date though.

  4. christopher. Avatar

    In other interesting Flickr news, I feel like you’d greatly appreciate this, Jim. :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s cool.

  5. pesoto74 Avatar

    I haven’t had much of a chance to look at the new Flickr so I guess I will reserve judgement. It does seem like over the years that every time there is some change at Flickr that there are people who leave. I’m not sure what their status is among the photo sharing sites these days. I know when I first encountered it I was pretty amazed to be able to share my photos with people all over the world and was very active there. It was pretty unique back then. I have read that Flickr seems to have rested on its early lead, but now it looks like maybe they are trying update because of competition. Somehow I don’t think that anyone has come up with a really good social media site. Something that feels like natural human interaction. At least not to me. I too have been more interested in film lately and have had the same experience with finding active groups. Lately I have been looking at the Google group for film photography and it is very active. Also the interface makes it easy to keep up with what people are posting.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Flickr did stand still for too long. They were too slow to follow where photography and online sharing were going.

      I don’t think we’re going to see any site mimic natural human interaction well.

  6. Roadtrip62 - Don Milne Avatar

    Good review. Though I don’t care for the big black area around the picture I’m viewing, or the crowded look of the photostream, the rest of the new site doesn’t seem that different. Speed seems slow, but as you note, they will probably improve that. So far, only one of my contacts picked up her marbles and moved, so I’m not going anywhere.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      For years a leading request to Flickr was to make it possible to view photos against a black background, and they kept resisting it. Now it’s the only way to do it!

  7. N.S. Palmer Avatar
    N.S. Palmer

    Great post, though since I don’t use Flickr and have only seen it two or three times, I didn’t know anything about the changes to which you referred. Like you, however, I’ve seen the same reaction among users when other software products changed familiar features.

    I confess that I don’t have much confidence in Yahoo. I’ve been a paying customer of Yahoo since 1996, and I’m looking around for an alternative to host my Web sites. I don’t use my Yahoo email accounts much anymore. Yahoo seems to have caught a case of “Verizon-itis:” treating customers like cr*p, as if they’re simply a nuisance who must take whatever they’re given.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I host my sites through, a small, private company. I register my domains through Simple Online Solutions, also small/private. I recommend both.

      1. N.S. Palmer Avatar
        N.S. Palmer

        Thanks, Jim! I’ll check those out.

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