Flickr's new limit on free photo sharing is helpful, not hurtful, CEO says (Q&A)

Deleting photos of some members who don't pay for pro accounts will help build Flickr into a photography service that'll last decades, Don MacAskill says.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes 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

The criticisms started piling up as soon as Flickr said it would end its free terabyte of photo storage and delete all but a member's 1,000 most recent photos unless the member upgraded to a $50 annual pro subscription.

"Internet say goodbye" to "11,000 photos that were hosted on #flickr," said one tweet. "I'm sad to lose all the comments and memories." Another tweet said, "Deleting photos is deleting history," and another said, "I'm out of this sinking ship." Disgruntled Flickr users are taking their photos to Facebook or to Google Photos.

Less than 3 percent of Flickr's free members have more than 1,000 photos -- but that's still millions of people given that more than 100 million use Flickr. The internet itself seems permanent, but as the demise of Geocities, MySpace and Google+ show, there's no guarantee everything published on it will endure.

The vitriol doesn't show what's actually going on, said Don MacAskill, chief executive of SmugMug, the photography site that acquired Flickr earlier this year from Verizon's Yahoo. On the contrary, MacAskill said, the change has been an unequivocal success.

SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill

SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill leads Flickr, too.


The company is trying to move away from the Yahoo-era model, which subsidized the generous storage capacity by selling advertising . The new Flickr approach takes a more SmugMug-like approach: pay for the service, and the company will work hard to make sure you think it's worth paying for, without sharing your personal data with advertisers. The goal is to focus Flickr on a community of photographers, not on people who want a free place to back up their images.

Flickr is offering a 30 percent discount this month for pro accounts, but it's also dropping discounted Flickr pro rates that longtime users had enjoyed. Flickr will freeze uploads in January for free account users with more than 1,000 shots and start deleting photos in February. The Flickr Commons and Creative Commons freely shared photos are exempt from the new free-account limits.

MacAskill talked with CNET's Stephen Shankland. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q: Are you having any second thoughts about curtailing the free Flickr service?
MacAskill: No. We are more convinced than ever this is the right path forward. I'm fundamentally wired, personally, for not sticking with a decision if it turns out bad. We'll adjust, watch, refine, course-correct. I've been watching data like a hawk. The data is overwhelmingly supportive that this is a good decision.

As measured how? Free-tier members upgrading to pro subscriptions?
MacAskill: Yes.

Can you share any statistics?
MacAskill: I can't. We're internally thinking what level of detail is important or useful to share. Behind the scenes, we can see how many are signing up for pro accounts and how few are canceling free accounts and how many are downloading their photos [in preparation to leave Flickr instead of upgrade].

In public, we are seeing a large quantity of positive feedback. If you look at forums like Reddit or the Flickr help forum or feedback on Twitter, you can see that the tenor of conversation Thursday [when Flickr announced the restructured plans] was vastly different from Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

What are you going to do with your piles of new money?
MacAskill: [Laughs.] We don't think it's piles of money. That would be wonderful if it happened.

The reason we're doing it is to invest in Flickr's future. If we want to keep tens of billions of photos, to preserve them for decades or centuries, it has to be a sustainable, healthy business.

I can promise you we aren't going to phone this in year after year. We are going to continue to make Flickr more valuable. If you don't like it, you have the option to take your stuff and go somewhere else. At Flickr, we provide a one-click button to download your photos, metadata, comments, tags -- all that stuff. You can create a personal archive and take it to Google Photos or some other paid service.

You've said Flickr has 100 million members.
MacAskill: We have more than 100 million accounts and tens of billions of photos. The scale is pretty staggering. We have billions of page-views per month.

In 10 years, I'm convinced, Flickr will have hundreds of millions of active free accounts and millions of paying pro accounts.

Will the change to free Flickr usage cull people who could be valuable to Flickr?
MacAskill: I don't think we've solved this problem yet. I'd love to see more services adopt a choice-like model. It's customer-friendly and enables companies to invest in their different customers.

I often find myself wishing I could pay for Facebook and Instagram. I promise you my engagement would go up. I get shown tons of ads. I don't like having my data mined. I'm lucky where I could afford to pay Facebook $100 a year to not have it happen. They won't even offer me that opportunity. That's a problem.

Advertising around photos in a way that's not photography-hostile is hard.

Google has shown that search ads can be valuable to people, not just an annoyance.
MacAskill: But photography is different. I'm sure Instagram is making tons of money or will be. That's fine, but that's not a photographer-focused environment. It's hard to imagine an ad model that provides staggering amounts of revenue to match a healthy subscription business.

But that's OK. We believe free photographers are contributing to the community and to the ecosystem by sharing their best photos and engaging with other photographers and helping others learn and grow, finding out where to shoot, getting together in photo walks.

For the advertising side, how much do you track about Flickr users?
MacAskill: We do the lightest amount of data gathering possible. It would be very easy for us to mine data in the photos you've uploaded, generate a profile, target ads on that profile and maybe bundle that data and sell it. I think that's evil. We don't do it and have no plans to ever do it.

It's almost web 1.0 advertising. We aren't doing really sophisticated tracking or data mining, or highly targeting ads. We are offering up page view purchases for advertisers to interject into slideshows.

Is there a power law at Flickr where 20 percent of the members contribute 80 percent of the photos?
MacAskill: There are a couple of power law things going on. That's one reason it's important to tune up the not quite 3 percent that are outliers. Many of those 3 percent took the free terabyte offer at its face value and filled it with tons of private photos. They're not contributing to the community, they're not paying for the service. They are outside our new sweet spot.

I'm sure we'll lose some of those people. Fine. They'll use Google Photos or they'll pay us. Either is fine. They can't continue to chew up huge amounts of storage with photos that don't contribute to the community. We are no longer focused on everybody. We are focused on photographers and people who care about photography.

Will you dip below 100 million users?
MacAskill: I don't know. I'm positive we'll continue to have many tens of millions of active users.

Will you work to recruit new people?
MacAskill: We haven't focused on that yet. We felt a deep responsibility to our long-term, loyal customers to listen to them, to what they're upset about, like the Yahoo login, or what we could do to better display higher-res photos. We're focusing on those things first, and shoring up the business to make sure it's sustainable.

We have to lay the groundwork so we have a compelling offering to find the other 100 million people out there who'd really like to be engaged in Flickr. We'll tackle that probably in 2019.

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