The Feed vs. the Archive

The longstanding photo sharing site Flickr recently was acquired from Yahoo by the much-smaller professional photo site SmugMug. As a 14+ year user of Flickr, I saw this as a good thing, since the service seemed to endure benign neglect under Yahoo’s unsteady stewardship. But, under the pressure of keeping the service economically sustainable SumgMug announced at the beginning of November that free accounts would be limited to 1,000 photos and videos. As part of some kind of growth strategy Yahoo had offered a full terabyte of storage to free users a number of years ago – an offer that turned Flickr into more of a online photo locker than vibrant photo sharing community. Plus, it must be crazy expensive to maintain.

As a paid ‘pro’ subscriber I didn’t immediately think much of the change, since it wouldn’t affect the status of my account (currently home to a little more than 4,100 photos). But then some astute observers like Ernie Smith made me aware that this would threaten an enormous archive of Creative Commons images uploaded by free users or attached to dormant accounts. One of Flickr’s early innovations was the ability to apply articulate CC licenses to photos so that they could be shared and reused across the web. The potential loss of such an important open culture resource caused me to rethink my paid membership to Flickr.

As it turns out, the folks at SmugMug heard the concerns and announced just a few days later that they would maintain all Creative Commons licensed photos currently housed on Flickr, even for free accounts that are over the 1,000 image limit. Moreover, they pledged to continue supporting the free Flickr Commons accounts used by libraries, archives and other non-profits.

This minor controversy caused me to think about Flickr again. I’d barely used the service for a long time since it appeared that much of the activity and community had fallen off over the years, with Instagram becoming the social image sharing platform of choice. But that’s because I hadn’t really consider Flickr’s value as a public archive.

In a lot of ways Flickr is like a blog, and as a result offers some advantages over the social media feed. While Flickr and blogs also have a reverse chronological format like social media (mostly) does, highlighting what’s new first, they are also designed around browsing. I find it much easier to browse backwards through a blog’s or Flickr user’s archive than to do so through someone’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram feed. Now, of course that is possible on social media, but the short-form nature, arcane link structure and other factors seem to discourage it, at the very least. Moreover, searching for a particular past post never seems straightforward on any of these social platforms – I often have to resort to Google (as I did for this post) and even that doesn’t work so well.

Flickr’s rich tagging system – another early innovation – and robust search feature make it easy to find what you’re looking for. Most blogs have pretty good search, too, especially ones using WordPress or Blogger. I use the search feature on Radio Survivor, a site I co-author, all the time, and it works pretty well.

I think the worst search experience I’ve had is trying to find old posts on Tumblr. There’s a prominent search bar, but the results seem heavily biased to what’s new and trending rather than the old and forgotten. And there’s a lot of value in finding the old and forgotten.

Now, this is not anti-social media rant. I use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram regularly and find value in them. With specific regard to images, Instagram and Facebook definitely foster more immediate interaction and feedback. However, neither is as suited to the more serious photographer as Flickr, which supports the ability to store photos in high resolution and aspect ratios, and which also records metadata about the technical details, including the camera and lens used (if you want it to). Plus, Flickr lets you directly download a photo if its owner wants to let you. Though there are ways to download or re-share an Instagram photo, it’s not natively supported by the platform, and therefore that ability could be confounded at any moment.

My point is that it’s important to have multiple platforms for creating and sharing content on the web. To only use Facebook or Instagram means locking stuff up in certain ways that a blog, Flickr or other (older) platform doesn’t force on you. There are trade-offs with a blog or Flickr, too. With regard to social features, Flickr’s community seems to need revitalizing. On a blog, comment-spam and trolling can be very difficult to keep up with and manage, leading many bloggers to simply turn off commenting (like I have), rather than spend most of their time moderating rather than creating.

Some platforms – especially ones that aren’t ‘free’ – may be in a better position to stand the test of time. Of course, there are no guarantees. But I feel better about paying for a Flickr pro subscription now that I know I’m helping to subsidize a tremendous Creative Commons image repository, rather than the platform having to either litter itself with ads, or just go away.