Flickr is an online photo sharing service and web community hub dedicated to the online storage and display of digital images. According to its website, its main objectives are to improve communcation using photographic techology and to allow for better means of data organization in terms of digital images. Its organizational system is different from most other photo blog sites, as it allows users to determine which images can be viewed publicly or by select groups, enables the creation of "photo sets" (or digital albums), and provides the opporunity to add "tag" links to photos; these make searching far easier. It also allows users to join groups based on every imaginable subject or technique, and it is common for members to belong to dozens or even hundreds of groups and "cross-post" photos between as many of those groups as are applicable.


Flickr was founded by Ludicorp, a Canadian web company, in 2004. In the spring of 2005, both Ludicorp and Flickr were bought by Yahoo, and the beta version of Flickr rose to a new kind of prominence. Its initial service primarily offered free memberships so that users could test the proverbial waters and decide whether or not the product would be worth using. Once its popularity increased, Flickr introduced a paid membership (they call them "pro memberships") that provide more features such as unlimited data transfer, storage space, and an ad-free environment.

Many of Flickr's various features were added after its initial launch, including the option that allows users to upload images directly from camera phones and by e-mail. The March 2005 purchase of Ludicorp and Flickr by Yahoo indicates that changes could possibly be on the way, though the management has vowed, on several parts of the site, that a free version will always be available.

Flickr's staff worked to create a community vibe since the site was created. This started through the use of user groups, which allow users to "bond together" with other users with similar interests, geographical locations, photographic techniques and equipment, and so on. It later emphasized the contact list system and encouraged users to invite others to the site to further enhance the "photo sharing experience."


The photo service's structure is easy enough to understand and yet complex enough to deliver powerful results. Any registered user may upload copyright-compliant images. They have a certain amount of allowable monthly bandwidth and storage space depending on their account type. Pro users, as mentioned, have both unlimited bandwidth and storage space. A user's upload capacity is measured in bandwidth, not storage space; in other words, how much of the upload quota is used depends on the toll the image takes on the server, not how much space it uses. A photo that is uploaded and then deleted will also still count towards that month's upload limit, if the user has one.

Once a photo (or several photos) has been uploaded, the user is given the option of placing them in photo sets that are unique to him or her, as well as the option of adding tags. Tags are essentially keywords that enable other users to find photos easily. Flickr provides a list of the most popular tags in use; these usually include identifiers such as years and place names. Depending on a photo's security level (we're getting to that), other users may be able to add tags to photos that are not their own. Photo sets function like digital photo albums; they are intended to group similarly themed and timed photos together. Photo sets can also be given tags. As time went on, batch uploading and editing capabilities were added. Users are able to add tags to an entire set of images, saving them the trouble of manually tagging each of their 800+ vacation photos with words such as "trip" and "Europe."

The security and privacy level of any given photo is entirely up to the user who posts it. Any photo may be classified as public (meaning it can be viewed by anyone viewing the site, regardless of whether or not they have an account), private (they can only be viewed by the user) or viewable to members of certain contact groups (I'm getting to that, too).

Structure: Contacts and community

The community element of Flickr is one of its driving forces. Users are encouraged to develop networks by adding other users to their contact lists. They can also create contact groups and are under no obligation to add every or any member of their contact list to it. This feature allows users to decide which photos can be viewed by which contacts; the most frequently used system involves the creation of groups for family members, friends, and sometimes work colleagues and strangers from the Internet. Any user can add comments to photos to which he or she has access. Users can view lists of their most "popular" photos arranged by how many views each one receives (yes, they keep track of that) or how many comments have been affixed to each one.

The "favourite" function enables users to "bookmark" photos posted by other members for easier access. There's no notification option for this feature, as Flickr doesn't have the equivalent of Cool Man Eddie. "Badges" that enable members to post Flickr materials on their blogs and personal websites are also available. Information as to which photos have been designated "favourites" of other users is available underneath the photo on the user's "photo stream" page. This is one of the most interesting of Flickr's features, as it allows users to get a feel for each other's tastes and helps build a rapport among them. At the same time, it can be kind of creepy to find that someone has a picture of you and your friends before your prom in his or her favourites section.

Members can also create user groups, to which any member of the group can add photos. This can work in two remarkably different ways: first, users can use this function to "meet" other users with similar interests. They can also create groups with the help of friends and family so that they may collectively build more comprehensive photo sets. This is especially helpful for events such as weddings, when several people may benefit from finding as many pictures as possible in one spot.

Structure: Technological benefits

Flickr, unlike various other photo hosting/sharing services, actively encourages the use of the photos hosted on its server. It even provides users with the necessary HTML code. The code given does link back to the site, but still works if the link is removed. With the user's 'permission' (or, rather, unless the user specifies otherwise), registered users may view different sizes of whichever photos he or she can access (as Flickr will resize larger photos for display on the photo stream) and can download them to his or her own computer. Both of these functions can be turned off in the user's preferences.

Each user is given a profile (through which people can learn as much or as little about the user as he or she chooses to reveal) and a "photo stream." The photo stream (which is often called the 'photostream') is a comprehensive database of every photo he or she has uploaded, broken up into several pages. The photos appear in reverse chronological order, with the most recently uploaded photos at the top. Links to any photo sets the user may have created also appear on the photo stream page. Registered members can see various informational elements provided by the user, including the privacy level of the photo. On their own streams, members can see how many times each photo has been viewed (not including any views by themselves). All users, registered or unregistered, can see how many times a photo has been viewed by clicking on it and viewing the larger version. Registered members can only see how many times their own photo stream has been viewed.

Flickr allows for several kinds of uploading, including e-mail and direct uploads from camera phones. There is speculation that many of the more "advanced" types of uploads will be restricted to pro members in the future. The "standard" uploading form seems to suit a lot of people just fine, but convenience and so forth may increase the allure of other techniques. Flickr also allows for the syndication of photo streams using both Atom and RSS. The site is also readily usable by Macintosh users, which many believe to have been a key factor in its reasonable popularity. Apparently, most other image sharing programs are geared towards PC users, whereas Flickr can be used by people using any platform and any OS.

Structure: Economical vs. performance issues

As mentioned, the majority of Flickr's snazzy features are more readily available to those who shell out money for pro accounts. During the beta phase , Flickr offered sale prices on these accounts and even handed out the occasional free trial (which expired quickly). Paid users' photo streams don't feature ads (though the management has pointed out that it reserves the right to place ads on any member page during times of extremely high traffic); the users are also exempt from bandwidth and storage space limits. They may also create an unlimited number of photo sets, whereas free users are limited to three. Every photo taken by a pro user appears on his or her photo stream; free users' photo streams only show the 200 most recent images. Finally, pro users can also change the layout of their Flickr streams: they can opt to arrange their sets into collections (think sets for sets) and display icons for those rather than the sets. They can also have their photo stream's main page show larger images and dictate the layout of those images.

In summary...

Flickr, as a photo sharing tool, is both powerful and simple to use. Some of the work posted by its members is awe inspiring, and it seems to have done a fair job of bringing people together. It makes for interesting browsing. Speaking of "interesting," the site uses a number of different factors, including how many views a picture has received as well as the number of users who have marked it as a favourite, to single out some of the more "interesting" (their word) photos. Readers can check out a sampling of the week's most "interesting" photos based on these criteria in a special area of the site.

The site also allows users to upload non-copyrighted videos. Communities and user groups have the option to disallow members from posting videos, however, should they wish to remain photocentric.

Flickr: Help April 24, 2005
I've also been using it for a few months, so I've gotten a decent feel for it.

Why I no longer use Flickr

Flickr is a photo sharing website created by Ludicorp, which allows users to upload images, tag them with metadata and arrange them in albums for public or private access, provided that the users are willing to risk having their work used for profit by Yahoo! and third parties without their consent.

Since Flickr was acquired by Yahoo! in March 2005, the site has lurched from one public relations disaster to another.

Yahoo! decided to force all existing users of the site to register for a Yahoo! ID to continue to access their accounts on March 20th 2007. This obviously involves signing up to Yahoo!'s terms of service, the reasons for which will become apparent. Astonishingly, it is impossible for 'old skool' users to remove their photos or close their accounts without a Yahoo! ID.

Yahoo! then decided that it would be a cool idea to scrape photographs from Flickr to use in their ad-driven 'Brand Universe' initiative, a plan to create corporate-sponsored portal sites aimed at the users of specific brands or products (examples so far have included Pontiac and Nintendo's Wii). The photos were selected by their keyword tags, ignoring any license restrictions that the users may have specified. Flickr later fixed this problem and issued a grovelling apology for getting caught. Their plan going forward seems to be to exploit content generated by users who don't know/care enough about the licensing options available to block them from doing this.

Quite a few of the controversies that have dogged Flickr haven't originated from Yahoo!'s policies. This month, Flickr's admins tried to censor the comments of a user whose photos were stolen and sold as prints by a UK gallery. Again, this resulted in profuse apologies and more protestations by Flickr management that they only have their users' best interests at heart.

Flickr also have (or had) a policy to punish users who included what they considered to be a 'disproportionate' ratio of non-photographic images on their accounts, marking offending accounts and tags as 'NIPSA', preventing them being returned in searches.

The level of advertising on the site has become increasingly intrusive, and the limitations placed on the accounts of non-paying members have become more onerous.

The problem with Flickr isn't that it has been swallowed by a large corporation. There are many examples of sites being acquired by other companies and managing to maintain or even improve their services. The real problem is that neither Flickr's operators nor Yahoo! seem to have any buy-in to the idea of respecting the interests of their user community. They want to have it both ways: using the language of a community-oriented site to promote the social aspects of the service, while at the same time doing everything they can within the law to inappropriately exploit the user generated content. It's a shame, as Flickr was and still is a fun, feature-rich tool - just one that can't be relied on to act responsibly.

I personally no longer use Flickr and have migrated my images to Google's Picasa Web Albums service. There are a number of other (free and subscription-based) photo management sites such as Zooomr, Fotki and 23hq which are frequently cited as being viable alternatives to Flickr.

Many of these sites have the added advantages of not having a horribly designed interface, and not filling their website copy with twee, affected baby talk:

"We'd also like to take an opportunity to remind you that one query is sufficient and multiple queries regarding the same issue make the Magic Donkey cry."

- email from Flickr's automated help system

Brand universe controversy:
Image theft censorship: ,
NIPSA controversy:,

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