How Flickr needs to change

Google, Flickroom, and others show just how much Yahoo's photo-sharing site needs an overhaul. Good thing Flickr is working on upgrades.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read

I use and enjoy Flickr. But with each passing month it worries me more that when I visit a photo page on the Yahoo photo-sharing site, it looks essentially identical to when I first started using it four years ago.

Flickr has typical online photo site abilities to upload, share, and print photos. What sets it apart, though, are features that make Flickr a community: discussions in comments below photos, groups for like-minded photographers to share their work, and social networking attributes that let people stay on top of their contacts' doings.

Flickr revamped members' home pages starting last September, drawing more attention to recent activity such as people who added you as a contact or who commented on your photos. The change was smart: Flickr was a socially wired site before social networking became all the rage, and photography is a great way for people to stay engaged with their friends and relations.

But now it's time for the rest of the upgrade. Here's what pains me most:

The photo page. With Flickr, you can have large photos or you can have comments and navigation, but you can't have both. Photos are best viewed larger than Flickr's default 500-pixels width. Clicking "all sizes" to see lavishly large views sends you down browser dead end: you'll have to click the back button when it's time to add comments or navigate to the next photo.

The photostream page. Flickr organizes your photos as one giant filmstrip called the photostream. But viewing somebody's most recent shots on the photostream page again forces you back into the small-monitor past. The default view for me shows 18 small photos, 10 sets, and an ocean of white space even on my laptop.

The profile page. I rarely look at people's profile pages unless I'm trying to contact them or figure out who's behind a cryptic username. But there should be a way to make the profile page the anchor of a Flickr user's online identity, the public face presented to Flickr users. People judge others by their photostreams, which in my case these days is more about family photos than works of art or moving photojournalism, so I'd like to show them an automatically updated page of my top picks instead.

Fortunately, Flickr is working on several improvements detailed below by product strategy chief Matthew Rothenberg. But he kept mum about timing: "We're planning to be progressively rolling out enhancements over time," he said.

Show 'em how it's done
"Innovation happens elsewhere" is a worn-out Silicon Valley business cliche, but there's some truth to it. It's especially appropriate for Flickr, because the site lets others built atop it using Flickr's API, or application programming interface. Tasks such as flipping through a person's photos, adding comments, looking up interesting shots, and uploading photos all can be done without having to touch Flickr directly.

The Flickroom beta software presents a new face on Yahoo's photo-sharing site.
The Flickroom beta software presents a new face on Yahoo's photo-sharing site. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The power of the Flickr API was shown most clearly to me a year and a half ago, when I tried Photophlow, a site that makes Flickr into a photo-centric chat room. Photophlow lets people collectively breeze through photos, marking photos as favorites and leaving comments as they go

Now there's a new kid in town with some other ideas, a beta application called Flickroom. It's built atop Adobe Systems' AIR foundation and presents a fashionably dark background for viewing pictures. There are plenty of icons and control panels to traverse photos, search photos, join a chat room, and see what your contacts are up to.

Flickroom has some bugs and idiosyncrasies, and fundamentally it's not shifting any Flickr paradigms beyond the user interface. But it does manage to illustrate what can be done with Flickr's raw material. I especially liked the flip through the large sizes of a user's photos.

Another good example of what can be done with Flickr's API is Darckr, which shows what Flickr (not entirely badly) believes to be your most interesting shots set off against a black background. I'm not going to be showing my photostream as my portfolio, but my interesting shots on Darckr aren't so mundane.

There are plenty more. Photoshop.com from Adobe, for example, not only gives a new interface to Flickr but lets you edit your photos, too.

Google's Picasa Web Albums is set up more for showing family pictures than for spawning a community of macro or Holga photography, but it can teach Flickr a thing or two. Google boasted in June of a revamp that makes photos load much faster, even at full-screen size, and it wasn't idle boasting. And even if Picasa photos are framed by more clutter than Flickr's photos, at least the photos can be viewed larger.

Photoshop.com offers online image editing and sharing.
Photoshop.com offers online image editing and sharing. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The good news
Flickr may not be moving fast enough for me, but happily, it's not standing still, either.

"The core photo-sharing experience on Flickr is the area we want to spend most of our time on now," Rothenberg said. He pointed toward "the photo page in particular, the photostream, photos from your contacts--all aspects of site core to the photo-sharing mission of Flickr but that haven't really been brought in line."

Also, probably not just to throw me a bone because I'm a fan of location tags in photos, he added, "Even geotagging, (we'd like) to bring it more into the core experience."

He couldn't comment on my specific gripes about wasted screen real estate, though he did mount a bit defense of white space. However, it's clear Flickr understands the issue, because he did take pains to mention Flickr's new search tool launched Tuesday. It can take advantage of available screen size.

Photophlow, though its development is dormant for now, can make it fun for groups to browse and comment on Flickr pictures.
Photophlow, though its development is dormant for now, can make it fun for groups to browse and comment on Flickr pictures. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Flickr's absolute priority is a page on which the photo looks good, but the site must also balance that with social and navigational features. "There's a large amount of information we store and display and allow people to interact with--sizes, licensing, location information, comments, favoriting," he said. "We want to make all those options as easy and efficient as possible."

Flickr also wants to improve navigation and organization, two areas that I believe the computer industry always will face. Rothenberg

Lowered expectations
Rothenberg lowered my hopes regarding a handful of other areas I could see improved.

Threaded comments: I find it hard to traverse longer discussions, in which people sometimes try to address each other with the @username convention, but Rothenberg pointed out fairly that most photos don't have such complicated discussions. "For most people it's question of whether getting any comments on the photo," he said. "We want to make that social aspect of photos matter to members more than it does today."

Beefed-up Flickrmail: Flickr isn't designed to replace Yahoo Mail or Gmail, he said, but that doesn't mean e-mail and photos don't go together (as Yahoo's acquisition of Xoopit indicates). Rothenberg hinted at future integration: "For a large percentage of people on the Internet, the way they share photos is through e-mail. For Flickr to be the most useful site for our members, it needs to work well with all the ways they share photos."

Face recognition: A Google-like approach to face recognition doesn't look likely, either. Facebook's social approach to getting people identified in photos is more in keeping with Flickr's style than Google's computer-based method. "We try to optimize toward social interactions rather than algorithms," he said.

Longer video: Flickr is happy with its 90-second video limit, which was set not because of any hardware limits at Yahoo but because of an aesthetic liking for what Rothenberg terms "moving photos."

Tags drawn from metadata: I'd love to sift images by camera, lens, shutter speed, and the like, which is information Flickr extracts from data cameras automatically embed in most photos. That's a technical matter Flickr has pondered, but "we don't have any immediate plans," Rothenberg said. "In general we want to make it easier to find the photos most important to you on Flickr. There are other areas we can improve on more immediately."

None of these are really grating issues for me, though, and I can see Rothenberg's point of view. So I'll willingly cut Flickr slack here.

As for the other fixes, I'll console myself that Rothenberg and I see eye to eye when it comes to the site's vision and priority: "Flickr needs to be the best place to be a photo if you're a photo."