In 2007, Flickr was the most popular dedicated photo-sharing site on the web, and growing exponentially in terms of new images uploaded. There was no Instagram or Unsplash around, and essentially that's what Flickr could have become. A decade later, in 2018, Flickr was sold to the relatively unknown company SmugMug.
What could Yahoo!, the site's former owner, have done so poorly in the years in between? How could Instagram have taken the lead so quickly after its launch in 2010? Is Flickr headed toward a virtual grave, or is it still a compelling service for some people?
A Promising Start
In 2004, the most popular sites on the web were Yahoo!, MSN, AOL and other sites that offered news stories and indexes of recommended websites. User participation was usually limited to comments on news stories and online forums. Flickr was considered a pioneer of the Web 2.0 era, alongside the likes of MySpace, Facebook, Blogger and YouTube, whose content was generated mostly by their users.
Flickr was launched in 2004, just like Facebook, by Ludicorp, founded by the married couple, Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake. The image hosting service became an instant hit for its effective use of features that are considered obvious today, such as tags, favorites, comments, groups, sets (i.e. albums), the ability to list another user as a friend (or "family" for selective sharing), and the ability to embed photos in a "weblog."
Flickr had two account types: free accounts, limited to 20MB of uploads per month, and Pro accounts, with up to 2GB of monthly uploads for $25 per year.
Yahoo! purchased Ludicorp in 2005, for a sum estimated to be around $25 million. Compared to the $1 billion that Facebook paid for Instagram in 2012 (to the amazement of many), it now looks ridiculous.
At first, it looked like Yahoo!'s resources would help Flickr become one of the largest sites on the web: in 2006, the upload limit was raised to 100MB per month for free accounts, and lifted altogether for Pro accounts. In 2007, Flickr was ranked as the 19th-largest site on the web by Alexa.
Years of Neglect
In January 2007, Yahoo! announced that all Flickr users would have to associate their accounts with Yahoo! accounts, which required them to provide more personal information to keep using Flickr. While annoying the community isn't a recommended tactic, Flickr's real problem started later that same year.
In September 2007, the iPhone was announced, and companies such as Facebook immediately started working on mobile apps for their sites, which would become available to the public in 2008.
Whether it was the result or the cause of Yahoo!'s indifference, Fake and Butterfield left the company in 2008. Yahoo! only launched an official Flickr app in late 2009, giving Facebook and potentially many others plenty of time to become the go-to choice for sharing photos among mobile users.
When the app finally launched, it lacked most of the features that made desktop users choose Flickr over Facebook in the first place: it could only show images in resolutions up to 600 pixels wide, it didn't include the "interesting" section, it couldn't edit images, and it removed the EXIF data from photos when uploading.
Besides relying on Yahoo!'s website for logging in, the app couldn't create a new account, send push notifications, upload several images at once, download images to the iPhone, delete images, or edit their properties.
Devastating punishment for Yahoo!'s neglect came in 2010 with the launch of Instagram. At first, Instagram didn't even have hashtags or a desktop version. Except for filters, all it did was make the sharing of images from iPhones easy. With Instagram around, the improvements to Flickr's app over time didn't look exciting.
The fact that Flickr's app had an Android version before Instagram didn't matter much either. By 2012, Instagram had added an Android version, Facebook's financial backing, and 50 million monthly active users.
A Late Comeback
In late 2012, Yahoo! finally launched Flickr 2.0 – the iPhone app that Flickr users had wanted for years. The "interesting/nearby" section displayed images side by side, keeping their distinct aspect ratios, similarly to the "justified view" that Flickr's site had offered for almost a year.
The "contacts" section let you scroll horizontally for more images from the same author, or vertically for images from other contacts. When you pinched to zoom in on an image, the app would load a higher-resolution version of it. The app's built-in camera had editing options, including filters.
The new app arrived alongside an Android version, and a new plan of 1TB of storage for both Pro and free users in 2013. While the price of an ad-free Pro account was doubled to $50 per year, the improvements helped make Flickr more popular than ever before. It only had one problem: everyone's friends were already on Instagram.
In 2014, Flickr launched an official iPad app. In 2015, once Google Photos became independent of the infamous Google+ social network, Flickr quickly fell out of favor, despite a quick response with its Uploadr app.
Noah's Ark of Photos
In 2017, Verizon purchased Yahoo!, and reorganized it under the name Oath (now Verizon Media). Less than a year later, Flickr was sold to SmugMug. The new owner, with its more limited resources, announced that free accounts would become limited to 1,000 images, regardless of file size, and ended the policy of keeping the Pro account fee at $25 per year for legacy Pro users.
In 2019, SmugMug started deleting Flickr images of free users, except for the newest 1,000 and Creative Commons images.
User Frank Michel estimated that the site had lost 63% of its images as a result. In 2020, SmugMug increased the fee for a Pro account to $60 per year, saying that the site was still losing money.
Despite all of those concerning changes, Flickr isn't quite as unpopular as you may think: it's constantly ranked by Alexa among the top 500 sites globally, and among the top 300 in the U.S.
It would appear that an old community of professional photographers is keeping the site alive. Unless SmugMug can sell Flickr to a bigger company or come up with a new and revolutionary feature, however, the site's remaining years may be few...
Today, the most popular image sharing service is Google Photos, known for its ability to recognize people and places in photos and create albums of photos containing them. For years, it provided unlimited free storage of images up to 16MP, and videos up to 1080p. This, combined with Google's resources and integration with Android phones, drove user adoption to the masses, however as of 2021 it now only provides 15 GB of storage for free.
Instagram remains the most popular social network based around images. Professional photographers tend to prefer Unsplash, now owned by Getty Images. DeviantArt is basically Unsplash for graphical artists.
Those who want to embed images on sites that don't store them (like Reddit was until 2016) use services like Imgur, which doesn't even require a user account. The leading source for GIF-style images is Giphy, purchased by Facebook for $400 million in 2020.
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Masthead credit: Evgeny Ptr.