I have some strong feels about photo hosting online, my friends. Over the last decade, I’ve watched the landscape of photo hosting websites shift, from a time when there was nothing decent, to a time when there was something amazingly awesome (Flickr!), to a time when there were tons of options (yay!), to time when there are a few front-runners (Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram), none of which work as well as the tools we used back in 2004 (boo!).
This post is long. This post is probably overly emotional considering we’re talking about web apps and photo hosting. But man… photos are my memories, and as a publisher, photos are part of my business model. So let’s get out our hankies and our rallying fists in the air and talk this shit over.
Using Flickr for myself
It was my own wedding that got me to sign up with Flickr in 2004. I had some blogger friends who used it for their wedding photos, and I was in the market for a social photo tool that would make it easy for me and my guests to pool our photos in one place. Flickr was so small at the time that I got a personal welcome from one of the founders when I signed up, and they helped me get a group set up so that we could collect shots from guests. I was so completely sold on Flickr that, fall of 2004, I became the site’s very first Pro account holder.
Using Flickr for my publishing business
I totally remember when, at a blogging conference in 2006, I had the lightbulb moment of realizing that I could also use Flickr to help me collect reader photos to share on the new website I was going to launch to promote my book, Offbeat Bride. That website was offbeatbride.com, of course. And seven years later, the Offbeat Bride Flickr pool now has close to 25,000 wedding photo submitted to us from almost 5,000 members.
I have loved using Flickr as a photo hosting tool for readers to submit their shots to us. For starters, it’s saved me thousands of dollars on bandwidth. All of the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of photos in our six years of wedding profiles are served up from Flickr’s servers instead of my own. Relying on Flickr for photo embedding is a very real financial consideration for my business.
I also love that couples retain ownership of their images. Divorce happens, and I love that people can just quietly take their photos off Flickr without contacting us to remove the photos from Offbeat Bride. (The flip side of this is that yes, sometimes people inadvertently break our posts by removing their photos or deleting their Flickr account, but it’s a fair trade-off for me.)
Also, since Flickr was the dominant photo hosting site for so long, most of my readers were already using it, making it convenient for them to add their wedding photos to our pool.
Sure, there have been challenges. Over the years, the Offbeat Bride Flickr pool has been abused in all sorts of ways. Once there was an up ‘n’ coming wedding blogger who trawled the pool daily and would rush to publish the photos submitted to us before we could. It also became immediately clear that there were thousands of wedding photographers who would spam their shots to any group they could find with “bride” or “wedding” in the title. There were also business owners (florists, dressmakers, invitation designers) who would spam the pool with product photos. Early on, I learned to make the group moderated, so that each photo had to be approved before it would appear.
Despite these abuses, I have loved Offbeat Bride’s Flickr pool dearly. Madly. Intensely. Over the last couple years, however, I started noticing a few things:
- Reader submissions to the pool dropped (boo)
- Spammy submissions to the pool plummeted (yay!)
- Most readers who submitted the pool were using Flickr ONLY for wedding photos
- Lots more reader questions about how to use Flickr
- We got more inquiries about submitting photos posted on Facebook
Now the Offbeat Bride Flickr pool faces the biggest challenge of all: people just aren’t using Flickr any more.
What are they using instead?
Clearly, since I first launched the Offbeat Bride Flickr pool in 2007, the online photo-sharing industry has grown drastically. In 2007, Facebook was still just an up ‘n’ coming social media network mostly used by college kids. Instagram wouldn’t be invented for three years. Pinterest? HA! Not even a glimmer in the founders’ eye.
In 2013, Flickr is an atrophying platform that Yahoo is desperately trying to revive. They released a super sweet mobile app, and there was a flurry of press around “Flickr’s BACK, baby!” but there’s no denying that the site’s base of users has dropped dramatically thanks to Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. And if ANY of these three tools did what Flickr has done for me as a user and publisher, I’d probably switch over… but they don’t. They’re just NOT set up for sharing photos in the same social ways as Flickr. In fact, they’ve taken a step backwards.
Wait, can I talk about Pinterest for a second?
This point was made especially clear to me when Pinterest recently switched the way they do photo embeds. I’m a bit chagrined now about ever having embedded photos from Pinterest. The code they served up was so crappy that my old developer had to create custom CSS styles to deal with it. The issues were always murky when it came to the Empire’s attribution policies, but it was just so easy to get sucked into embedding from Pinterest.
Then last month, all those embedded Pinterest photos broke. Hundreds of embedded photos in dozens of posts across the Empire blogs: busted. No warning from Pinterest. No work-around. Just… busted. My editors are still slowly cleaning up the messes.
In seven years of embedding photos from Flickr, you know how many times they’ve broken their own code? ZERO TIMES. Because Flickr wants you to embed their photos. The tool is set up to respect sharing settings, attribution settings (WOOHOO, Creative Commons!), and embedding rules. Flickr was designed for sharing photos. Pinterest was designed for bookmarking photos, and sharing those bookmarks.
Yeah, honestly: Pinterest embeds have never been great on the Tribe, and now they’re completely unusable. Really, this is Pinterest making it clear that they’re a bookmarking tool, not a photo hosting tool.
Basically, while Pinterest does indeed let you upload photos, they’re really not set up to be used as a photo hosting tool.
Anyway, back to Flickr
In my opinion, Flickr really is the best way to share photos online. Yes, Yahoo’s management has allowed the site to atrophy, but in terms of basic functions like privacy, sharing, embedding, pooling, and gathering photos… it’s still the best. Not without its significant flaws, but still the best option we’ve got. And yet, I cannot deny that fewer and fewer people are using it.
As someone who’s been on Flickr for 9 years, I’m sad that Flickr’s community momentum has whithered. Photos I post there get almost no love… while the same photos I posted during my few months of using Instagram got tons of hearts. (I bailed on Instagram because while I loved the community, I hated what it was doing to my photos.) On a personal level, I’m sad that Flickr’s community isn’t what it once was.
But on a publishing level, I’m just mad. I watch Tribesmaids stumble around trying to use Pinterest for something it’s not built for, and I whisper “Use Flickr instead.” We now accept Offbeat Bride submissions on Instagram by asking peeps to tag @offbeatbride in their photos, and I cringe at the low-resolution, predictably over-processed results. (Insert me whispering again, “Use Flickr instead.”)
I’m not stupid enough to think I can turn the tide on which photo tools people are using online. I’ve often said that as a community manager, the only “right” tools are the ones that your members use willingly, without being taught the “right” ways. If your members are not using the tools the way you intended, then you need to reassess the tool. That said, we make it clear that wedding profile submissions can only be accepted if the photos are on Flickr. That won’t be changing. Other than that, I have to just adapt to the tools that people have decided to use… even if they’re not as good as the tools that I was using 9 years ago.