is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
When Flickr released a major update to its iPhone app last week, it seemed to jolt the long-neglected photo sharing network back to life. Suddenly, my activity stream was lighting up with scores of new contacts (I guess they got rid of the term “followers”?), a level of commotion that I hadn’t seen from Flickr in a long, long time.
But, over the past few days of using the app, I’ve noticed that this new activity is worryingly shallow. The vast majority of what I see is people adding me as a contact, but there seems to be little engagement beyond that. For example, Sunday night I posted this photo of my daughter at her ballet recital. As of this morning, it had received just a few dozens views, one favorite and no comments. For comparison, I posted the same image, with the requisite filtering and cropping, to Instagram this morning. Within a few hours, it already had twice as many favorites and several comments.
Comparing a single posting on these two services is not a perfect experiment, of course, if for no other reason than the social graphs I’ve built on each network are very different. Still, it’s close enough to an apples-to-apples comparison to suggest that Flickr has a significant amount of catch-up yet before it’s truly competitive with Instagram, the undisputed category leader.
While this latest update is a significant improvement, in truth it’s still fairly rough and will need continued refinement. For instance, its navigation seems strained, and I find that maintaining my sense of place within the app is difficult. And the fact that it relegates the favoriting action to an otherwise invisible double-tap gesture seems like a debilitating oversight (that decision is likely to be at the root of why I’m not seeing deeper engagement). Plus, there’s the challenge of convincing mobile users to modify their photo sharing habits — or develop entirely new ones — to accommodate what amounts to a new alternative. Flickr’s challenge is a long campaign, not a discrete battle.
The service still has considerable goodwill at its back though, and like many folks, I’m rooting for it to succeed. After using last week’s update for the first time, I felt a palpable sense of delight. Maybe it was nostalgia; I actually think the Internet was more fun, in some ways, back in the days when Flickr was at its peak.
Just as much though, I think that delight was the result of finally having a legitimate alternative to Instagram or Facebook for posting photos from my phone. I’m not alone in harboring tortured feelings about both of those services for a long time, even before the most recent furor over Instagram’s new terms of service. So seeing Flickr arise from the dead is like opening up a whole new vista on my phone. It’s not just an additional place to post photos, but a different kind of venue for different kinds of expressions and interactions. In fact, it’s a reminder that competition, when it is robust, directly translates into added functionality at the consumer’s disposal.
It was just a few weeks ago when I renewed my Flickr Pro subscription. I remember thinking at the time that I was doing so largely out of habit or sentimentality, and also perhaps out of some faith that, eventually, the executives at Yahoo would finally see fit to invest the resources necessary to pull Flickr out of its years-long rut. I’m not quite ready to say that faith was well-founded yet, but I’m optimistic that when next it comes time to renew, it’ll be a much more rational decision, one way or the other.+