Flickr for iPhone and the Long Road Back

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.


Step One

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.

Renewal

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.

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8 Comments

  1. I think the problem here is that the two services were optimized for different use cases. Instagram is all about sharing a single photo, and Flickr was originally (and still is, arguably) set up to display galleries. The iOS app is a big step forward, but they’ll have to rethink how people interact with the stream to really capture Instagram’s immediacy.

  2. We must be on the same upgrade cycle for pro. I actually let it slide on the basis that the last few re-ups were out of sentimental habit. But given the quality of the app turn-around, well-timed to the ig ToS debacle, I might just re-up again. With reasons this time.

  3. The square cropping on Instagram was far more interesting than the photo on Flickr. I know you said the comparison wasn’t perfect, but I think there was enough disparity between the photos to render the comparison useless.

    I agree with your conclusions though. It just seems like you’d have a stronger argument if your two photos were closer to being “apples to apples.”

  4. I agree that Flickr has a lot of ground to cover if it’s going to catch up to the mobile-social participation of Instagram. There’s no doubt there is a popularity disparity.

    Still, as Neil implies, any comparison of Flickr and Instagram is essentially apples-to-oranges . Flickr is a very different platform than Instagram, with far more diverse uses.

    Also, a couple small corrections:

    it relegates the favoriting action to an otherwise invisible double-tap gesture

    Not sure what you mean by this. Are you missing the star button on every photo page?

    my activity stream was lighting up with scores of new contacts (I guess they got rid of the term “followers”?)

    Flickr has always called your social connections “contacts”, “friends”, and “family”. They have never used the term “follow” which wasn’t really common lingo until the age of Twitter. I do think maybe it’s time for them to adopt the term because it’s certainly what most folks are familiar with these days.

  5. Those are entirely differenet crops. The Flickr photo has a lot more going on while the Instagram photo is solely focused on your daughter. That in itself makes a huge difference.

    But I must say that Flickr is for photographers and Instagram is for social (or so they say as I don’t use it). For serious enthusiast photographers Flickr is great – tons of inspiration and a real community built in. It has its place and I sure hope they don’t want to be another Instagram as I pay for Flickr and don’t want all the BS of Instagram.

    Also, i rarely share family photos via Flickr. I use Zenfolio (SmugMug is the same). That way I can control who sees my kids online. For me, Flickr is about the art of photography, not social.

  6. This is apples to oranges and really not surprising.

    Instagram is about “social” first and photos second

    Flicker is about photography and “social” second

    For better or for worse Flickr has a perceived barrier to entry. That is, people considered what they posted to Flickr before they posted it. This intimidates the casual user. Instagram is a vomitous stream of visual consciousness with no judgement. Likes are given out like candy, favorites are a little more special, or at least were, for me. I do find myself handing them out more liberally on Flickr after using instagram.

    What Instagram did was eliminate any intimidation by making everyone’s photos cool. 99% of people’s photos suck. You crop it square and cross process and suddenly everyone’s photos are palatable…

    So if you believe “social first” is the only way forward in the world, then yes, Flickr has a challenge. But I find your comment on the internet being “more fun” in the day of Flickr very interesting and revealing (and a feeling I’ve had myself).

    Have we gone over the social cliff and the internet will never be fun again?

    PS- Someone else pointed it out, but it needs to be made clear, Flickr never had followers, only contacts. Interesting digital Freudian(?) slip! :)

  7. I love Flickr and use it in a specific way – to record my drawing practice and compare with others doing similar things. It feels like a small, niche community, very different from other social networks.

  8. 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.

    Maybe because unlike Instagram, Flickr is not the place to “favorite” parental and friend’s bs photos?

    This is a blurry sugary mess, of only onterest to you. Those “favorites” are mostly “errr, ok friend, glad for you”, instead of people liking the photo as a photo.