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Flickr is trying to change its image

With photo-sharing sites and storage giants like Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox and Amazon, the once-dominant Flickr has lost its place. So what is Flickr now? Its chief says we'll know in about a year.

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Flickr users begged Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to improve the photo service after she took over the company in 2012. Getty Images

In May 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was in New York City, standing in front of a sign that was really more of a plea:

Dear Marissa Mayer,
Please make Flickr awesome again.

the internet

The slide was from dearmarissamayer.com, a website set up by a disaffected user lamenting Flickr, the photo sharing site Yahoo bought almost a decade earlier that has since largely lost its way. Flickr had deteriorated under Yahoo's watch, much to the chagrin of its once-dominant user base.

So Mayer gathered press, employees and guests to a hotel in Times Square to acknowledge the site's fading position on the Web, and tell them what she was doing about it.

"Flickr was awesome once," she said. "It languished."

"We want to make Flickr awesome again." Her answer? A slick redesign and a terabyte of photo storage for every user, enough to hold more than 500,000 photos.

The effort marked the beginning of Flickr's attempts at a turnaround since Mayer became CEO in 2012. Not long after the announcement, Mayer put Bernardo Hernandez, a 43 year old former Googler and native of Spain, in charge of the site.

The new redesign drew much-needed praise, but Yahoo still realizes Flickr still has a long way to go. "How do we make Flickr relevant again?" said Hernandez, Flickr's vice president, during an interview at Yahoo offices in San Francisco. The answer will be "obvious," he said, in about a year, after a string of product updates.

A different world

When the site -- which lets people store photos and share them online -- launched in 2004, it was a harbinger for things to come: people would soon become obsessed with social networking and photo-sharing.

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Flickr Vice President Bernardo Hernandez says product updates are coming over the next year or so that will make Flickr relevant again. Getty Images

Flickr's attempt at a rebirth underscores how much the world has changed in the last decade. Facebook is the world's juggernaut social network, with more than a billion users. It's also the world's most popular photo sharing website. Instagram has also become a de facto photo-sharing service, while Dropbox, Google and Amazon have positioned themselves as the places to actually store your photos, as well as other files.

Flickr, like the social network MySpace before it, has struggled to find its place in the new world.

Hernandez has vowed to overhaul the site over the next year or so, though he declined to share specific details of the plan. Changes will come in the form of gradual updates over the next 10 to 15 months, he said.

His goal is to turn Flickr into a place where people can upload photos from all their devices. He also wanted to create a business model that helps photographers make money, like the iTunes of photography.

"It's going to be very clear to all those people who think we're just second players, and we're a photo-sharing site that totally missed the boat," he said. "They are going to understand perfectly our new position."

Flickring out

Flickr was awesome once, which is why people were begging Mayer to make it awesome again.

The site was a go-to online photo service. Founded in 2004 in Vancouver by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, it grew exponentially. From its first to second year, it went from hosting 7,445 photos to 7.9 million.

A year after it was founded, Yahoo bought the site for a reported $25 million.

At Yahoo, the team felt neglected. Butterfield, who stayed on as the site's general manager until 2008, said the biggest obstacle was a lack of resources. "The number of people marshaled to work on it was just so much lower than what it could have been if it were an independent company," he said.

He said another part of the problem was the instability at Yahoo in general. There were constant reorganizations, he said, and a revolving door of five CEOs before Mayer took over.

As people started to migrate to smartphones and tablets away from desktop computers, Yahoo and Flickr were caught flat-footed. Despite being one of the first photo sites to jump onto mobile devices, Flickr's brand had already lost its lustre. As the mobile revolution took hold, and millions more people had a camera in their pockets, Flickr continued to struggle.

The redesign hasn't fixed the problem, of course. Analysts still say Flickr has a lot of work to rebuild its image.

"They are a yesterday brand that desperately needs to get a foothold on today," said Dean Crutchfield, a branding consultant at DCA Growth Advisors.

The iTunes or Spotify of photography?

For all its woes, Flickr is growing. The site has 100 million users, up from 89 million when Mayer announced the redesign. It also had 39.9 million unique visitors in the United States in October, up 29 percent from a year ago. Flickr itself doesn't release data on monthly users. Ten billion photos have uploaded to the site, Hernandez said.

To make sure Flickr finds its right place, Hernandez also wants to focus on professional photographers. In July, it introduced a licensing program that allows photographers to partner with brands like Reuters or the New York Times. Competing sites, like 500px, do the same kind of thing.

Hernandez said he wants to help photographers transition to a digital landscape, "similar to what happened to the music industry" with Spotify and iTunes. That means allowing photographers to make money, while still respecting intellectual property.

But as Flickr tries to forge ahead with its new plans for making money, not everyone is on board. Some photographers are reportedly upset with Flickr's decision to sell prints of photos contributed to Creative Commons -- a collection of photos and writing that creators have deemed free to use, with various restrictions. For some Creative Commons photos, Yahoo will sell canvas prints and keep all the profits. But for prints of other photos not on Creative Commons, photographers will get a 51 percent cut. Those photographers take issue with Yahoo's profiting on photos that were meant to be given away for free.

Hernandez said the path won't be easy. In fact, parts of it have been "painful," like redoing much of the site's behind-the-scenes infrastructure. "We're dealing with 10 years of legacy," he said. "We're rebuilding the ship while sailing -- and that's a challenge."