Photography

Sustaining Flickr

It’s remarkable that Flickr survived Yahoo! and Verizon. Some news reports suggest that Verizon thought it would be too much cost and trouble to find a buyer for Flickr. Had SmugMug not made an unsolicited offer, Verizon would likely have shuttered Flickr.

That would have devastated this blog. The vast majority of the photographs you see here are hosted there. It would have been a staggering job to fix the blog, a job I don’t have time for. Down the Road would have met its end.

You may have read SmugMug CEO Don McAskill’s alarming plea for help on Flickr’s blog last month. He asked for more people to become Flickr Pros, as this is how Flickr makes money. More Pros means a longer life for Flickr as it is.

Ferdy Christant is a wildlife photographer and software developer who built a photo-sharing site for wildlife photography. He wrote a compelling, although rambling, defense of SmugMug recently; read it here. He makes a strong case that SmugMug bought Flickr to return it to profitability and operate it for the long haul.

Christant paints SmugMug as a longtime business run by competent leaders who took a big risk on money-losing Flickr. He believes that SmugMug’s focus on building a sustainable business through the photography community, rather than on being a high-flying, billion-dollar tech unicorn, offers real hope.

I’m going to step out on faith and believe Christant. But a good reason bolsters my faith: SmugMug moved the entire Flickr service to Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS is Amazon’s cloud computing service. You rent servers from them, and run your software product and store its data there. It is risky, time-consuming, and expensive to move a big software product and all of its data to a new host. I work in the tech industry and have been a part of such projects — I know what I’m talking about. And AWS itself is expensive. I’ve seen the hair-raising monthly bills at some companies I’ve worked for who used a fraction of Flickr’s capacity. You don’t move to AWS casually. You don’t do it at all when you plan to wind down your service.

The free Internet is a myth. Running a software product and storing its data costs real money. The more popular the service, the bigger the money. My little blog costs me about $500 a year in costs related to running it and storing its data. Flickr probably spends that much every fifteen seconds.

Many sites have been free to use since the dawn of the Web. At first, many big, valuable sites hid their very real costs from you by burning investment capital. After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, new Internet companies focused hard on how to monetize their sites. Most of them chose an advertising model. Some of them went with a membership model. The software product I help build today had a membership model until just a couple years ago. We got by. We changed over to a targeted advertising model and the money started gushing in. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the advertising model has won on the Internet.

Flickr seems determined to keep a membership model (though they do show some ads to non-members). To use a broadcast TV metaphor, that makes them much more like PBS than NBC. PBS relies on people like you giving them money to keep going. So does Flickr. But really, what you’re doing is paying for the value you get.

If you use and like Flickr, I echo Don McAskill: become a Pro. It costs $60 a year. Click here to upgrade. If $60 is big money to you, I understand. I’ve been there. But if you can readily afford $60, do it. You’ll unlock unlimited photo storage and a bunch of other goodies. And you’ll help keep Flickr’s lights on.

Flickr’s not perfect. Its community is a shadow of what it once was. Its past owners have made some baffling and sometimes stupid decisions. Some of SmugMug’s decisions about Flickr have proved controversial. But set it all aside. Flickr remains valuable and, in some ways, a gem. It’s a place to explore photographs, a place to share your photography, a place to host your photography for use all over the Internet. It deserves to continue.

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30 thoughts on “Sustaining Flickr

  1. Jon says:

    Thank you for the overview Jim, it’s interesting to know what goes on behind the scenes. I just renewed my account even though I can barely afford it.

    • I’m glad you did, despite it being a stretch. There are so many worthwhile things on the Internet that are worth paying for, it’s hard to figure out which ones are the most valuable to us.

  2. Once again Jim. A very well considered and written post. Interestingly, it coincided with my Flickr account renewal. I actually took advantage of the offer to buy a two year subscription. My thinking being that a) I enjoy using Flickr. b) I wish to continue using it as long as possible. c) Without members it will close.
    It would be nice to think that Flickr will manage to exist throughout this difficult time. I, for one, am happy to take a chance and put my money up front.
    Take care my friend and keep posting your articles both here and photos on Flickr.

    • I think SmugMug means for Flickr to exist for the long haul. But that doesn’t mean it won’t make changes to the service if the membership model can’t sustain it. So thanks for re-upping for two more years!

  3. Good point there.

    From my point of view I stopped my Pro membership when Flickr was having some problems a few years ago and have never restarted it. I found a post I wrote in 2015 alluding to it (https://www.hairy1travels.com/flickr-explore-2/).

    As I am now trying to move my blog and such to earning a few pennies (retirement looming!) I have had to look very carefully at what I spend and what I can see a return from. Via IFTTT each post is sent to Flickr, but I see very few clicks back.

    Which raises the question of putting time and money into building my Flickr following, or do I put that time and money into potentially more profitable channels?

    At this stage Flickr is losing that argument!

    • We do all have to figure out where we put our money in terms of the return we get. If your use of Flickr doesn’t generate enough return to justify $60/year then that’s how it has to be!

    • Jerry, depends what you use Flickr for. If you want it to be a high volume source of new followers thatr you then redirect elsewhere (eg to a blog) I don’t think it’s ever going to be that again.

      I use it as a place to back up and organise my photos, and be able to easily share them in blog posts, without filling up my WordPress storage allowance.

      Plus I follow a few photographers there whose work I like.

      For these reasons it’s well worth the Pro investment, for me.

      • I absolutely agree. I prefer Google Photos and my home storage for backup and workflow into my blog.

        I do like to follow some photographers, so I keep my free membership and allow the possibility that I may see future value in Flickr and go Pro.

        • If you’re not uploading much yourself to Flickr then it makes little sense to have the Pro account. You can still follow others and gather favourites of theirs etc.

  4. Andy Karlson says:

    I’ve been really enjoying Flickr (despite a password/email address snafu that’s had me locked out for a few weeks). It’s a little sad saying goodbye to the myth of the free internet (and really, Flickr’s old model of a free TERABYTE of storage–how did we ever think that would be sustainable?!?) but there’s a freedom in paying for what you value. At least I know with Flickr, unlike Facebook, that I am using a product and not the other way around.

    • The TB storage thing they tried was ridiculous on the face of it. They were making a bid to be a dumping ground for every photo you’ve ever taken, which is more a job for one of the online backup sites. I’m glad that’s gone.

      Agreed: with Flickr, you are using a product, not being a product that gets used.

  5. My blogger blog is not threatened by the possible demise of Flickr, but I hope Flickr does find a way to keep its head above water. The sinking of Photobucket broke links all over the Internet even though that service did not completely disappear. The failure of Flickr would be a lot worse for the Internet photo community. About half the pictures on Rangefinder Forum and probably most other forums are Flickr links. I guess the same could be said of all the WordPress blogs.

    I don’t mind Flickr making an effort to stay financially viable. However, I think the details of how they go about it are important. They are currently putting ads between just about every click. They are also pushing the “like” culture in which counting clicks is the ultimate objective, and that is directly undermining sustaining the community building in the discussion groups. People are permitted to post their photos in dozens of groups, often inappropriately, just to drive up their click totals.

    Photonet has a similar business model relying on both subscriptions and ads, but they don’t flood their site with ads. I stopped most forum posting including Photonet some time ago, partly because of the trolls. However, the classic camera forum there has gotten past that and I enjoy looking in on that group almost daily.

    • I sort of regret using Flickr to host my blog’s images now. I did it from early on as it was less expensive to be a Flickr Pro than to pay for the next tier of WordPress, which would have given me a comfortable amount of image storage. But now after 13 years this blog is incredibly dependent on Flickr, which is a risk.

      Because I’m a Pro I haven’t seen how Flickr’s ads are delivered. I checked out Flickr while logged out and see that there is one ad on every photo page above the map, and that as you click through photos sometimes you get an interstitial ad. Not great, but it could be far worse.

      I hope Flickr gets enough Pros that it can rely less on ads and reduce the number that they show to non-Pros.

  6. Hear hear Jim, and well done for continuing to promote a service you enjoy and that you believe in, I’ve been trying to do the same with my blog.

    I nearly choked on my lunch reading that your blog costs $500 a year. How is that possible? My WP blog is something like £3 a month I think, and Flickr is about the same. I have a couple of domain names that redirect (inc one to my Flickr), but I think they’re only about £20 a year to renew. How do you get up to $500?

    • It’s in that ballpark. I pay for the domain on jimgrey.net, hosting for the jimgrey.net site, Flickr Pro, and WordPress.com Business. The last one is the biggest part of that at $300/year. That unlocks a bunch of great tools that I’m using to boost SEO and do some other customizations. I could cut costs by moving to self-hosted WordPress but I don’t know that I want to be my own sys admin.

      • That sounds about right.
        I’m self hosted on Siteground.com. That’s a personal preference as I come with a few decades of IT career and a lot of programming. Though, these days, I have to get very frustrated to resort to coding :).
        5 years ago I’d have said you would be better off self hosted. I recently did an evaluation of WordPress.com’s offerings and I don’t believe that you would get any benefit from a self hosted site.
        The only real advantage I have at present is that Siteground have an excellent free optimiser which delivers both graphic optimisation and lazy loading. No problem dumping a 5Mb photo at the site – it will be optimised!
        But I suspect that will be in the WP core soon, if it’s not already there!

        • Right there with you Jerry – I’m in my 31st year in the software industry. 22 years in management. Like you, I have to be mighty frustrated to resort to writing code!

          I don’t really want to do any admin on my blog, I just want to write in it. I could save money switching to self hosted but I can afford WP.com Business and it avoids 100% of sys admin on my blog.

  7. SilverFox says:

    Well said Jim, I went Pro at the start of this year, not that I need the extra space yet but I heard Don McAskill’s plea and as I want Flickr to be something more than it is going forward decided to make the investment (well actually I got my wife to make the investment as a Christmas gift) :)

  8. Good post Jim! Even though I don’t use Flickr at all these days I think losing it would definitely be a big loss for the photo community. Just like YouTube I find it a tremendous resource for finding pics from different lenses and cameras.

  9. peggy says:

    Thank you for this well reasoned and written post. I’ve been a Flickr user off and on for a number of years (free and Pro), though never very active in groups or discussions. I read the CEOs blog post and, along with your writing, was inspired to re-activate my Pro account.

    A goal for the new year is to use Flickr groups as a an incentive to be more engaged with my photography.

      • peggy says:

        After a short exploration of the groups and discussions on Flickr I was left disappointed and a bit confused in their setup. The structure of the discussions doesn’t make sense to me so, for now, I’ll stick to commenting on individual images on photographers pages.

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