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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