Further Proof That Flickr Doesn’t Care About Photography (And Other Social Media Thoughts)

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Flickr's infamous "system down" message...who is the "Bad Panda" now?

Flickr’s infamous “system down” message…who is the “Bad Panda” now?

So technically, we’re on break while we work on the back-end of the site. But I feel the need to get something off my chest: Flickr – long thought of as the go-to place for photography social networking – has taken a step further away from the ideals of the photography community. About this time last year, I wrote an article on the new change of direction within Yahoo! (the parent company of Flickr) and of course their notorious CEO.  My hope was that there would be enough of a community backlash that some corrective measures would be made and things would get closer to that bygone era at Flickr’s pinnacle of community-driven existence.  Sadly, that hasn’t happened.  For months, Flickr has had an opt-in period to see their new photo display layout.  This, at least, is a departure from an earlier mistake (which again, I ranted about) where Flickr changed the front page without an opt-in/feedback period.  But it helps if they actually listen to the feedback.  If you browse their blog or the hundreds of communities created to rant about the layout, the feedback has been less than positive.  Sure…some people like it.  But most of the serious photographers don’t.  Well, earlier this week, the new layout went live.  No opt-out available.  And while it might be pretty, it isn’t useful.

Stepping Away From “Community”

At the core of any successful community, especially on the internet, is communication.  A place to display your stuff is not going to be sufficient if you don’t encourage interaction.  Encouraging interaction – promoting community – is exactly why Flickr was created.  Caterina Fake was the brains behind the community driven nature of Flickr.  One could argue that the original site was not ideal for the display of photos, but it was good enough.  Where it thrived was in the way it actively encouraged interaction.  It was easy to leave a comment, easy to read them, track them and so on.  You could favorite photos, collecting some of your best inspirations in one place.  And if you entered into the community interface, you got that tenfold.  There are simple things that have changed that ultimately impact the way we interact with the site.  Here’s my list if the “New” Flickr’s biggest failures:

  • Photo-centric interface – Wait…isn’t this a photo community?  Wouldn’t we want the photos to be the center of attention?  Well, that’s what the non-photographers might think.  But it’s really only part of the experience.  I’m not saying that things like comments should take center stage, but to jam it off to the side as an afterthought makes the interface rather difficult to use.  And what happened to adding notes to the photo?  It used to be very easy to say “I like this very specific part right here” with a nice box around it.  Not anymore.  The new interface is a departure from the community-interaction driven site to more of a photo gallery.  Oh well…we didn’t really care about feedback or constructive criticism, did we?
  • Context-Sensitive Thumbnails – It used to be that your thumbnails for sets, the photographer’s photostream or the group was context sensitive.  If you arrived at the photo through a group, the group’s thumbnails was listed at the top and your right/left keys (on your keyboard) responded accordingly.  Likewise, if you arrived through that person’s own photostream, or as part of a set, those thumbnails would appear at the top of the list and would dictate your left/right key actions.  The thumbnail section is still intact, but it loses the clarity of this essential functionality.  Now, the context is still intact, but it appears as a separate set of thumbnails listed all the way at the top of the sidebar, above the comments…with no explanation of the context or where you are.  Navigation gets very confusing.  Case and point:  Try to find that person’s photostream while viewing any one of their photos.  It could be at the top (but again, we don’t know), but you will most likely find it all the way at the bottom of the thumbnail list.  Win for beauty, a huge loss for functionality.
  • Navigation – The interface is possibly the biggest impact.  It’s now very difficult to navigate.  If you’re viewing a photo, there is no menus at the top anymore.  You’ll have to click that ‘X’, which will take you back to your home page or the set/stream you were viewing.  Assuming you actually remember where you started, that might be useful (that’s sarcasm – I’d rather have a menu).  If you want to view a person’s profile, you have to go into a separate menu (the ‘…’ on the right side of their profile).  No longer can you simply click their name.  How about the double menu at the top?  Why does the Yahoo! menu need to display all the time?  It only adds to the confusion.  Try to find your favorite group in your groups list:  It’s not filed under “Groups” (which is in the Yahoo Menu)…no, it’s filed under “Communities”.  But wait…doesn’t Flickr call them Groups?  They even call it a “Groups List” under that Communities menu.  This interchangeable terminology is misleading and completely irresponsible.
  • Getty – Many Flickr photographers also sell licensing of their works through Getty.  It used to be that you could request a photo to be sold through Getty by a little link at the lower right.  Or if it was already available through Getty, it would display a link right there in the info page.  Find your favorite Getty photos and photographers and see if you can find that link.  What?  You can’t?  I rest my case.  [Editor’s note:  It has been brought to our attention that Getty and Flickr terminated their partnership in March, so the timing is purely coincidental.  Regardless of the reason, this is a big hit to the community, in my opinion.  Thanks to Christoph Hetzmannseder, a Getty contributing photographer, for providing some insight.]
  • Auto-cropping & Auto-sizing – I want to start by acknowledging that to some degree, auto-sizing photos is a necessary evil in this day and age as people are viewing from a number of interfaces and a number of screen sizes.  But there should be limits…like there used to be.  It used to be that you could view the image that would fit, and then right click and view at whatever size you wanted – even if it didn’t actually fit on the screen.  This was great to view the quality of certain areas of the photograph (eg: checking out the bokeh, because I might be considering that lens).  Now, the default is to fit the screen, excepting only the comment/info panel on the right side.  You can click the expand button to view a photo full-screen.  But I have yet to figure out if it’s possible to view at specific sizes.  Not a problem on my 32″ screen.  But it’s awful when viewing on my 13″ laptop.  Which brings me to the next point:  Auto-cropping.  On your Flickr home, photos are displayed in the same aspect ratio as your screen.  On my tiny 13″ 16:9 laptop screen, that means I get tiny little slivers of a view of the photo as the tops and bottoms (like a good 40% of the entire photo) is cropped off.  Don’t know what I mean?  Resize your browser window to a smaller size and narrower shape, then reload (you have to reload) your Flickr home page.  A fun side-effect:  It holds that aspect ratio until you reload or go to a different page.  This is unacceptable…I’d rather a tiny thumbnail than see only 51.396% of a photo.

The bottom line:  Flickr wants you to load as many pages as absolutely possible.  This gets them advertising revenue, unless you have an ad-free account (and good luck getting rid of that if you don’t want it).  So the focus of Flickr is now advertising.  They’ve forgotten about you.  Or rather, they think of you as the product.  Flickr is selling you as goods to potential advertisers.  So they don’t care about community.  They probably love it when the new iPhones come out because the more iPhone users, the more people who are posting – to Flickr – photos of their food, their bowel movements and their legs spread out in front of them at the beach.  Flickr is no longer about the art and its community.  Flickr has moved on, like a friend that is too good for you now; my wise mother once told me that it’s actually the other way around:  You have held on to your ideals, so you are the most true and you are, therefore, above them.  We’re above Flickr…they just forgot that.

An Aside:  The Sad Truth About Social Media

Of course my frustration with Flickr is prevalent in today’s discussion, but they aren’t the only ones at fault.  As photographers, we always need to stay up with the most current policies in the world of social media.  Today, Facebook remains on top as a whole.  But it’s acceptance within the photography community is dwindling.  The reason is simple:  Their end user license agreement (EULA) has gotten more and more restrictive about their rights to your photographs (or whatever you upload/share with Facebook).  Every time Facebook updates their EULA, there is a buzz in the community about it, and some people ultimately leave the service.  You may have noticed that Shutter Photo is no longer part of Facebook (likewise, my personal account has been deleted).  This is one of the reasons why.  Instagram used to be a photographer favorite as well.  But now that it’s owned by Facebook, their rules and policies have changed and there has been a mass exodus from the service.

Sometimes, it’s not policy that turns photographers off.  Sometimes it’s just the interface.  My rant above about Flickr is mirrored by thousands of photographers that have either made similar statements, or have simply cast their opinions by leaving.  Tumblr is another service that seems to have lost a lot of photographers as of late.  The reason isn’t because of policy, but because of how easy it is to steal and recirculate photos without keeping permissions or source intact.  It’s so easy to “steal” photos in that way that many users are doing it without any knowledge (ignorance isn’t an excuse, but it’s a harsh reality).

Of course no one is infallible – not even our favorite outlets at the moment.  Currently, I like Google+ and 500px.  But both have their flaws.  Google+ is excellent at supporting the photography community (which is arguably one of their largest groups using the service).  But it isn’t necessarily the best place to display your photos, or browse someone else’s photos.  Especially since all of that will get mixed in with the social snapshots of food and kids doing goofy things.  500px is, on the other hand, a beautiful interface that is very photo-centric (and always has been).  It lacks a bit in the social aspects.  You can comment on a photo, you can like or favorite a photo, photos get ratings based on all of that.  So there are some small contributions to the community feel.  But it lacks a group infrastructure and some of the other incentives to truly interact.  Then there are places like Twitter wish is a great way to share information and links to photos, but not an end-all-be-all resource (nor is intended as such).  Tumblr and Instagram is more of a stream of consciousness, not ideal for display or social, but great ways to get your work out there to be seen.  And so on.

My point is that the world of social media is always evolving.  Today, Facebook might be king, but tomorrow it might be Google+, or some other service that doesn’t yet exist.  And long gone are the one-stop ideal places for your needs (an example back in the day was Flickr).  So you really serve yourself well to participate and contribute to a number of social media outlets.  Doing so will increase your audience in the short term.  But in the long term, it will buffer you from the complete failure of one service.  If Yahoo were to pull the plug on Flickr today, there’d be a lot of people floundering because they aren’t part of any other community or service.  It shouldn’t be that way…the loss of one service (or complete disgust and your voluntary leave) should result in only a percentage of your overall exposure.

So cover yourself and get involved in more than one social media outlet.  But always be skeptical and continue to evaluate how your values align with that of your services.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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