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What's next for Flickr after Yahoo's sale?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 27-07-2016 Olivia Solon in San Francisco

When Marissa Mayer took control of Yahoo in 2012, Flickr’s core users were hopeful that it might get the attention it deserved.© EPA When Marissa Mayer took control of Yahoo in 2012, Flickr’s core users were hopeful that it might get the attention it deserved. As Verizon gobbles up ailing tech company Yahoo for $4.8bn, the prognosis for photo-sharing site Flickr remains unclear.

In an age of Instagram and hipster filters, it’s easy to forget that Flickr used to be hands down the best photo sharing tool on the internet, with loads of features and a huge, vibrant community of professional and amateur photographers. It combined a social, celebratory environment with image storage in an era long before Picasa, Dropbox and iCloud.

“In the early days it was fantastic. There was a really vibrant community and every time you posted a picture there were hundreds of people responding and being very supportive,” says Sean Bonner, who has uploaded almost 13,000 pictures to the site. 

London photographer Laura Ward joined in 2005 and was heavily involved in a Brixton-based community group using the platform as a way to explore the neighbourhood. “Many of us forged really great friendships. It was the perfect platform for us,” she said.

Flickr was bought by Yahoo in 2005, and in the early days it was a happy marriage. “The founders [Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake] were still using the website and you could interact with them,” Bonner said.

That didn’t last long.

Flickr’s founder and now Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield told Wired that innovation at Flickr died as soon as it was acquired. He and his co-founders thought they’d be nurtured by the mothership, but instead found themselves fighting for resources.

The final nail in the coffin was Yahoo’s foot-dragging over launching a Flickr mobile app as smartphone photography exploded in popularity. When it did eventually launch in 2009, it was painfully slow and buggy.

When Marissa Mayer took control of Yahoo in 2012, Flickr’s core users were hopeful that it might get the attention it deserved. Bonner bought the website dearmarissamayer.com and used it to host the simple message: “Please make Flickr awesome again.”

Yahoo seemed to listen, at least fleetingly. The company finally released some functional mobile apps and started offering a terabyte of storage space to users for free, but it was too little too late.

For Ward, Yahoo was desperately trying to appeal to the Instagram generation, and in doing so started to alienate the site’s core users, many of whom were professional photographers. “We all had a lot of hope that Yahoo would be able to bring it back to life, but the changes that were introduced took away things we really loved,” she said.

“When we gave feedback it felt like no one was listening. It was a little bit insulting to people who had been using it so actively for so many years. We were clearly not the target audience any more.”

Bonner agrees. “Things would break and it would take eight to 10 months before someone would respond. These were people paying money for a service that wasn’t working, so people gave up and left,” he said.

Bonner and Ward still use Flickr, but not nearly as actively. Both are concerned about the platform’s future under Verizon’s ownership. “If it were to close down, I’d feel quite sad about it but really wouldn’t be that surprised,” Ward said.

“Flickr played a very big and important role in how we used the web and helped us understand what we want when we share photos with people, that every photo-sharing app now draws inspiration from,” added Bonner. “It will be sad to see it go.”

Anyone worrying about losing their Flickr back catalogue can bulk-download photos using third party apps such as Bulkr, Flickandshare or using Flickr’s own batch download tool.

There’s no need to panic, however. When Yahoo Photos went dark in 2007 following the acquisition of Flickr, members were given many months to download their content.

“Flickr is one of the world’s largest photo sharing communities and a platform for millions of people who have collectively uploaded more than 12.4bn photos,” said a Yahoo spokesman. “We remain focused on creating a a destination for this community of photographers and people who love photos.”

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