Lessons from the Flickr Disaster

You have been flickred!
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

OK, here’s an update on Flickr. My last post summarized pretty much the situation, and provided some pointers to stories and sites with all the details and some opinions.

Now, three days after I have become aware of the Flickr censorship in Singapore, Germany, Hong Kong, and Korea, I want to evaluate where Flickr is heading and what everyone can actually learn from the Flickr experience.

1. A business is a business is a business…

The headline says it all. It’s a business. Everyone is in it for the money (at least the guys from Flickr and Yahoo! are). Flickr had expertise in creating a photo community. They were acquired by Yahoo! who are in the Internet business but were clearly lacking this expertise. It was a perfect match, making the founders of Flickr rich and richer, and giving Yahoo! what they wanted. Easy.

That this business actually involved users, and that these users got emotionally captured by the service, this is merely a side-effect. A nice one, because people who are addicted to a service are more likely to buy more services and less likely to cancel their subscriptions. So in a nutshell, it’s all about the money, really.

2. A business is not a democracy.

Now that we know that Flickr is just a business, please also rest assured that this business -just as any other business- is not a democracy. Even if you are a paying subscriber, you do not have any say in the development of the service. The owners of the business do not have to ask you about changes to the service. They can basically do as they wish.

Having said that, I recommend to any business to do detailed market studies prior to major changes (something that any marketeer learns during his first year at university) and really make the right decisions from these studies. Otherwise you might end up like Flickr, caught in the fire between the headquarter and your paying customer base. Also, as you might have noticed, the damage to the brand can be quite impressive. As I write this, mainstream media are picking up on this, and subscribers from all around the world are supporting the German protesters. I guess that nobody at Flickr/Yahoo! actually envisioned this development. They probably thought it was a local problem. But it isn’t.

3. Users are sheep; the service operator is the farmer.

Flickr is the perfect example for a successful Web 2.0 service. It has been growing only from user generated content. That’s why Flickr could run the company with surprisingly few employees. Unfortunately, users (sheep) do have completely different interests than the service operator (farmer). The farmer just puts the sheep on the farmland, allowing the herd to develop from there. At some point in time, it’s time to harvest, and then the (hopefully larger group of) sheep pays off for the farmer. The more the merrier. It would be naive to think that the Flickr guys wanted to save the world with their company.

4. It has happened before, and it will happen again.

Do you remember Geocities? That was one of the first community driven services on the Net. They basically offered free, easy-to-use webspace for everyone, neatly arranged in “city districts” and “house numbers”. There were different city districts for various topics, and you could sign up for a house number in order to “move in”. This metaphor, and its easiness, made Geocities very popular. In fact, Geocities became so popular that Yahoo! acquired them in 1999 for a whopping $3,600,000,000. Today, while still part of the Yahoo! family, the service is forgotten. I guess the investment never paid off. (For those who wonder: At just $40 million, Flickr was rather cheap compared to Geocities. By the way, a good review of all Yahoo! acquisitions from 1997 to 2006 can be found at pulse2.com.)

Or take CompuServe. What an impressive, great, and unique service. Not just an ISP, but the first global online community, dating back to before the Internet. In 1998, a company named America Online acquired CompuServe and basically alienated the CompuServe community so much that today basically just the CompuServe brand still exists. Alexa today says that CompuServe.com is the 4,418th popular site on the Net. Bravo. Well done, AOL. From #1 to #4,418 within 10 years.

So, I am convinced that Flickr is not the only bad acquisition/merger that has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last bad acquisition. Please also read Don Dodge’s excellent article on The worst Billion dollar Internet acquisitions.

5. Entrepreneurs, beware!

If you are running a startup or thinking to do so, I recommend to not get too emotionally attached to your company. The second you sell it to someone else, you better let go and prepare yourself to really get caught up in the mess. This is even more true if you are running a community service where you add little more than a framework for others to use. If you ever find yourself emotionally attached to your user base, basically agreeing with their demands, but have to follow the gag orders from the headquarter (even if you are a millionaire by then), then you know how the Flickr folks probably feel today.

Another good tip: get top-notch PR guys. If you are launching new features, do a communication plan, and think about all possible scenarios. If you start to restrict access to certain service features, better prepare for the riots that may (or may not) arise from this. Even more so, if this could be seen as “censorship” by some. Good PR people will be able to avoid a potential disaster right from the start.

6. What can YOU do to stop all this nonsense?

Get out! Now! It’s as simple as that.

This is what I am doing. Despite having a free account, I am pulling most of my photos from Flickr and moving them over here. Many shots were duplicates anyway, just with fresh, better scans. Sure, I will miss the great comments and some of the groups, but hey, I got along without Flickr before, and if I may say, I did so for a very long time. :-)

If you are a paying subscriber, cancel your account. Right now! As outlined above, Flickr is a business. They are in for the money. Only if you withdraw your money, there is a potential that they will start to think. If you do nothing (or just whining), then they might get a feeling of being able to get away with this. The next change might be even worse. (Just think: if they got away with the censorship stuff, they can get away with pretty much anything.)

There are several web services that offer a similar feature set; my favorites right now are: ipernity, smugmug, PBase, photo.net, 23hq, and the German View and fotocommunity. I will take a deeper look at these services (and their TOS) and let you know what I think over the next few weeks. In any case – I do expect new services to pop up shortly, seeing a business opportunity by taking the recent problems at Flickr much more serious. Yes, it will hurt to let go of Flickr, but that’s a lesson to be learned. If you are lucky, it hits you at an early stage, when you are not yet too emotionally attached to the service. Then it will be less painful for you.

But the only really hard rule is: if you do not agree with this censorship stuff, then cancel your account. Even if you are not personally affected, just imagine that the next time it could be your account or your country that is affected. Out of the blue. Remove the photos, and cancel your “pro” subscription. Then, once you’ve found a suitable alternative, cancel your account.

Move on, life goes on. Flickr is not everything. Really.

2 Responses to “Lessons from the Flickr Disaster”

  1. probek says:

    Well said. I agree, but I’d like to give them at least some time to undo their mistake. What if Flickr finds a way to remove the now obligatory “safe search”-mode for German users, in, say ten days? Would you come back?

    I think the main asset of Flickr is its community, not its features, and I would miss that. I think the community of flickr as of 2007 is unmatched and building a new one with similar depth takes time. If I had a real alternative, I’d be out of flickr in a second.

  2. admin says:

    probek, thank you very much for your comment.

    Would I come back? Almost certainly not. I have lost trust in these people. They have rolled out new “features” in a completely unacceptable fashion, i.e. either not thinking about the potential problems members might have (stupid), or ignoring these problems (evil). While I still agree that people can make mistakes, they better do not make mistakes of this size. In this case, stronger names have to be found for “mistake”.

    Can anyone promise that they won’t screw things up again? Maybe next time just with other folks, like China (after all, Flickr would like to access that market, too, but the Chinese government was faster)? I don’t think so. If you let them get away with this, they can do pretty much everything they want to. Hell, they can even do that, but only without my support.