What Marissa Mayer Should Do to Make Flickr Awesome (again)


It didn’t take long for the appointment of Google executive Marissa Mayer as Yahoo CEO to ignite hope in the hearts of Flickr lovers everywhere. Entrepreneur Sean Bonner bought and used the domain to appeal not for a more friendly Yahoo Mail or for a better search facility but for a better photo-sharing site. Writing in 100-point font, he pleaded as someone who loves flickr “and it breaks my heart how Yahoo! has just let it rot for all these years” for the new chief executive to “please make Flickr awesome again.” The page was signed “the internet.”

Flickr was quick with a response. The site put up a page urging the internet to come and help make Flickr “awesomer.” That page linked to the site’s jobs page as well as to its github and code pages.

The pleas from both Flickr’s number one fan and from the Yahoo-owned platform itself won a lot of play on the Web. Mashable wrote about it, as did CNN, and Flickr’s response picked up more than 2,700 tweets. But there was little said about what exactly Flickr (or the Internet) should actually be doing to make the tool as awesome and indispensable as it used to be.

Here are some ideas.

  1. Sort Out the App

There’s no reason that Instagram should exist, let alone have a $1 billion price tag. Flickr should have beaten founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger to the App Store by years and with an inventory of hundreds of millions of photos. It should have allowed photo editing, simple batch uploading from smartphones on the go as well as all the filters that Instagram’s enthusiastic snappers have been using to hide their shots’ weaknesses.

Flickr does have an iPhone app. It was introduced in 2009, a year after the App Store opened, and despite several updates since then is still terrible. Search for “photography” in the App Store and it turns up in 52nd place — 22 places behind an app that lets you put your photo in a cut-out of Justin Bieber.

Describing the fall of Flickr on Gizmodo earlier this year, Mat Honan put the app’s failure at the feet of Marco Boerries, the head of Yahoo Mobile and a man described on Quora by Kellan Elliot-McCrea, Etsy’s CTO and the chief architect of Flickr, as “without a doubt one of the most viciously political, and disliked Yahoo! execs.”

But in that same Quora answer in which Elliot-McCrea reveals the debates and lack of decisions about Flickr’s app, he ends on a positive note:

“It would actually be incredibly straightforward to build something like an Instagram on top of Flickr using the API, especially if you could convince Flickr to release an API to “Beehive” the friend finder tool, which among other things, benefits from Y! backdoor deal with Facebook.”

He wrote that back in 2010, before Instagram joined Facebook and before Facebook was the size of a continent. But Flickr does still need to sort out its app problem. Members should be able to shoot, edit, add filters and upload to their accounts from their phones. They should also be able to browse similar images taken near their location and chat, Twitter-like, with other members. Instead of checking in, like Foursquare, they should be able to take pictures to show where they are visually and beautifully.

And they should be able to browse their own and others’ images on their iPads. That’s not awesome; that’s basic.

  1. Open the Networking  

Flickr’s real benefit wasn’t that it was a place to store images. It was a place to share images, to talk about images and to like images. Top users quickly came to see the value of leaving helpful comments at the bottom of pictures and Flickr groups soon morphed into real offline Flickr Meetups and photo walks. Long before Facebook was helping college kids to stay in touch, Flickr was bringing together strangers and helping them to meet in real life. Marriages happened.

As basic social photo-sharing has leaked to Facebook, that activity seems to have died away. Mat Honan describes how browsing his friends’ Flickr streams reveals die-offs in image uploads from 2010.

But Facebook isn’t a photo site. It’s a networking site that also lets people share photos. Just as Mark Zuckerberg added Flickr’s albums and uploads to his networking, so Flickr could just easily let members send public messages directly to and from each other. If Twitter can put strangers in touch, how hard would it be to follow Facebook and Google+ and let image-lovers build lists and circles based on their relationships and photography interests?

Flickr wouldn’t replace Facebook. It can’t do that now. But a photo-sharing site without some form of networking capability feels as strange as a networking site that doesn’t allow image uploads. Even Twitter understood that. Eventually.

  1. Refine the Search

Here’s the flaw in Sean Bonner’s plea: for image users, Flickr is still awesome. At least a bit. According to Photoshelter’s buyer survey  16 percent of image buyers say that they have found new talent on Flickr. That’s much less than the number found on Facebook — as well as Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter — but the site is still the number one place for bloggers and others to go for free photos. Getty’s Flickr collection of commercial images now contains more than 120,000 photos.

But despite the ability to tag and keyword images, search on the site has never been more than basic. While stock companies allow buyers to browse by category, suggest keywords and offer attributes, Flickr searchers have to know exactly what they’re looking for — and hope that it’s been tagged properly.

Make Flickr easier for image users to find photos — and far easier than images are to find on Facebook — and they might discover more photographers. That might bring back more photographers hoping to be discovered.

  1. Free the Developers

The most important thing that Marissa Mayer can do though is to let Flickr’s people get on with it. Flickr was once innovative, fun and cool. Its APIs produced a host of neat additions and its Explore algorithm that picked the best pictures each day was simple, clever and good enough to churn up plenty of inspiring images.

Does anyone believe that had Flickr’s team been free to develop the site without needing everything to be rubberstamped by Yahoo, it wouldn’t have produced all the basic functions described here itself? Even if it hadn’t done, its users and developers would have.

Flickr needs to catch up. It needs to add the mobile functions that have allowed Instagram to beat it on the move. It needs to add the social functions that have allowed Facebook to take its photo-sharing features. And it needs to develop the search function that will bring in the image users who in turn will bring back the photographers.

And then it needs to develop the original, innovative functions that it used to do so well and which will allow it to move ahead. Then Flickr will be awesome again.

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