Photo: Flickr / Poolie
BABBAGE’S inbox was swamped one recent morning with hundreds of e-mail notifications. Various friends and acquaintances wanted to add him as a contact on Flickr, a photo-sharing service which once set the world ablaze but which had been all but extinguished for years. The reason for the sudden flurry, Babbage soon discovered, was that Flickr had just updated its iPhone app to let users match their Flickr contacts against Twitter followers, Facebook friends, Google pals and Yahoo! e-mail addressbooks and share photos across the different social networks with a single tap.The previous version of the app was fusty at launch in 2009. It became positively antediluvian with the advent of Instagram, Hipstamatic and Camera+. These made it easy to touch up or apply a false patina of age to images taken with ever more powerful smartphone cameras and upload them directly to Facebook and Twitter, bypassing dedicated photo-sharing sites. Flickr’s arms-length integration—more links than direct posts—was clunky by comparison and its app lacked any image-processing tools. As a consequence, Facebook (which acquired Instagram earlier this year for $1 billion) now adds more than Flickr’s overall tally of 6 billion images each month, for a total of more than 220 billion.
Flickr’s detachment worked in social media’s earlier, more fragmented days. When it was launched in 2004 it allowed users to post pictures, create photo pools and exchange points of view in ways that its less image-sensitive rivals could not match. And where earlier photo-sharing services charged fees, targeting professional photographers, or limited the size and number of uploads, Flickr set fewer limits and offered decent web-based tools for free. Flickr Pro, a subscription-based premium service, allowed even higher-resolution uploads and unlimited storage. Some photographers with a large following used Flickr as a springboard for a successful career.
Subsequently, however, Flickr fell victim to its own success. By underscoring the importance of photo-sharing it attracted powerful rivals like Facebook. Had it been snapped up by someone other than Yahoo!, a lumbering online giant which paid $35m for it in 2005, Flickr might have thrived. Instead, it began to lose its sparkle. Speculation swirled two years ago that Yahoo! would sell it as part of an effort to revive its own flagging fortunes by focusing on a narrower range of services. Under its new boss, Marissa Mayer, that seems less likely. The revised app hints that Ms Mayer will probably keep it close for now, either to demonstrate her firm’s relevance in the image-mad world of social media, or to make it more attractive to prospective buyers.
Now that Flickr has at last caught up with rivals in tapping mobile social media and in image manipulation—it offers an array of Instagram-like filters—users once fond of its other nifty features might just flock back. For example, like SmugMug and other sites oriented towards professionals but unlike generalist social networks, Flickr makes it easy to manage and exchange metadata (information about how and where a photo was taken, among other things) and accommodates truly enormous images (up to 50MB), which can be uploaded without loss of resolution. This endears it to the swelling ranks of serious amateur photographers.
Propitious timing also meant that the app appeared a day after a spat broke out between Instagram and Twitter. This was followed by a firestorm over Instagram’s proposed new terms of service, which could be read as reserving the right to employ users’ images in advertising without their permission. Instagram reverted to its old terms on December 20th, but the kerfuffle highlighted an important difference between Flickr, whose premium service is a source of revenue, and many of its rivals, which depend on increasingly intrusive online ads. All this, it seems, has rekindled more than just a flicker of interest in what used to be one of the hottest online properties around.