The new Flickr: Goodbye customers, hello ads

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Flickr always had its share of problems. The servers used to crash. The design was simplistic, then confusing, then outdated. The first iOS app was laughable. But the one thing you could always rely on Flickr for was honesty. From back in the day when cofounder Stewart Butterfield wrote a blog post titled “Sometimes We Suck,” to its current community guidelines, one of which simply says “Don’t be creepy,” you could always trust Flickr to speak simply and truthfully to you.

On Monday, Yahoo relaunched Flickr at a swanky press event in New York. And while most coverage will be of the site’s new design, the most significant changes are to Flickr’s business model. But my takeaway is that the days of Flickr's open and honest voice are over.

About that design…

Flickr’s design has been at war with whitespace since last year’s introduction of the “justified” view. This redesign ramps up that trend. Every pixel that could be filled with a photo has been, from corner to corner, often (but inconsistently) with infinite scrolling.

Until, that is, you scroll down an individual photo’s page, or wander into a part of the site that hasn’t been updated (like settings or uploading an avatar or the help forum). Then all of a sudden you’re back in Flickr’s old design, which is a jarring change. These pages will probably get updated eventually, but launching with these kind of omissions shows where Yahoo’s priorities lie, and it’s not with the community features that made Flickr famous.

What's clickable here?

It’s now impossible to see what’s clickable/tappable on a photo page without just blindly punching at stuff. The black boxes make the whole site feel clunky and, strangely, old. The flat design ethos feels misapplied here. It’s a stab at simplicity that actually makes everything less simple.

I’m glad Flickr is updating its visual design, even if I’m not a fan of the direction. It’s long overdue. But Flickr was not just about photos. It was about the intersection of photos, people, and places. This redesign puts more emphasis on photos at the expense of everything else.

Flickr was the first photo site to add a social network, the first to allow other people to tag your photos, the first to add geolocation data. Visit a photo page today and try to find any of that. It’s hidden in the 45 pixels at the bottom of the screen.

A very different business

The far more dramatic changes are in Flickr’s core business model. Until today, Flickr had a simple proposal: You could join for free with a limit of 200 photos. If you didn’t care about the past, you could happily chug along, your most recent work front and center. But if you upgraded to Flickr Pro for $25 per year, you had unlimited photo uploads, now and forever, along with a few other features such as stats and an ad-free experience.

Now, everyone has 1TB of storage for free. That’s fantastic for people with free accounts, but there’s no longer an unlimited storage option, and 1TB is less than unlimited by, like, a lot. The new “Doublr” account adds a second terabyte worth of storage for the shockingly high price of $500 per year. (There’s also an account that costs $50 per year that does nothing but hide ads.) Compare this with the old Pro account, which provided unlimited uploads for $25 per year.

Old Pro accounts are grandfathered in, for now, but they’re not available for anyone else. And most Pro members have no real reason to renew. Why renew when 1TB is free? As a result, Flickr’s population of paying members will dwindle. Yahoo is betting that Flickr will be successful because of ad sales, not because of paying customers. And that’s a chilling turn of events for a product that’s always put its community first.

This change also takes away all of the community-centric aspects of the business. You can no longer buy paid accounts as gifts for other people, and the Pro badge that appeared by a user's name as a signifier of their participation is gone.

Another casualty of this announcement is the straightforward language Fickr used to use in communicating with its community. Pro members like me got alerted to this change with a web page that read, "Spectaculr things are happening at Flickr! Dear Derek, as a Pro member continue to enjoy the benefits of unlimited space, an ad free experience and stats."

Paying for a terabyte of storage that everyone now gets for free is not "spectaculr." Saying that I "continue to enjoy" the things I paid for while obfuscating what's changed and why is dishonest. "Sounds Good!" the page says. Not really.

Why did Flickr make these changes to storage allotments, and rejigger its pricing scheme? I can guess. Digital photos have increased in size over the years (though the cost of storage has decreased). Google and Dropbox have entered the photo-hosting game, and both have tiered limits. Unfortunately, I'm left to guess because Flickr didn't actually explain itself. It took away a core part of its original product (unlimited uploads), replaced it with a free version and an expensive and limited upgrade, and declared it "spectaculr," and hoped that we'd be too distracted by big photos and purposeful misspellings to notice.

I'm also puzzled by Yahoo's press event, in which company executives kept using the phrase "full resolution" to describe photos. Flickr has always had support for uploading and downloading your photos at any reasonable size, and displaying them on the site is only limited by the resolution of the screen and the browser. So what does that "full resolution" mean here? Or is it just another buzzword?

(Edit: As a longtime Pro member, I didn't realize that non-Pro members previously couldn't download an image larger than 2048 pixels. Now free users can download originals at any size, a feature previously limited to paying customers.)

Gambling on ads

Ad-driven companies have different priorities than member-driven ones. Facebook’s transition from a place where most content was visible to friends to a place that defaults to public content was caused by its desire to show more ads. Google’s entire business is built on showing ads on pages where they can see the content, hence its desire to build a competitor to Facebook in Google+.

Ad-driven companies prioritize public content, gobbling up as much demographic information as possible, and putting as many ads in your face as you’ll tolerate. They can’t say that, of course, so they also tend to be less honest with their members. Communities, it’s fair to say, are often at odds with these priorities.

So in the future, when the revenue coming from paying members is small enough to ignore, and the advertising numbers come in below expectations (as they often do), my fear is that Yahoo will come to an almost inevitable business decision: To kill Flickr.

When it does, it will say that Flickr was underperforming and that the company just couldn’t spend all that money anymore. But if that day comes, the truth will be that Yahoo chose to stop taking their members’ money in exchange for a product. The company instead chose to overprice its ad-free and paid memberships in order to force more people to see more ads. It chose to burn the pro members Flickr had spent years cultivating because it thought that ads would pay better.

For the sake of the Flickr community, I hope that gamble pays off.

[Full Disclosure: Derek Powazek has been a Flickr member since before it was called Flickr, is a friend of the founders, and the husband of Heather Champ, who was Flickr’s Director of Community from 2005-2010.]

This story, "The new Flickr: Goodbye customers, hello ads" was originally published by TechHive.

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