I joined the photo sharing site Flickr in the early 2000s and closed my account this week, nearly two decades later. I’d have closed it a couple of years ago but I’d forgotten all about it: the only reason I still had an account was to share photos with my mum, who at the time could still use a tablet computer, and to easily share byline photos with publishers and publicists. What used to be a social network had become little more than file storage and I’ve long since moved to better options.
If you’re as old as I am you’ll remember the days when Flickr was talked about in the same sentences as MySpace and Blogger: it was part of the Web 2.0 boom when what became known as user generated content began to populate the online world. We’d been sharing stuff before, of course: my first experiences online were on USENET and CompuServe, which relied on content provided by service users. But Web 2.0 felt different, because the sites that enabled sharing (and hoped to profit from it by selling ads around it) made it incredibly easy and friction-free. Posting a photo to Twitter or a blog to Blogger was the beginning of a conversation. These were the days when Friends Reunited was a UK phenomenon and nobody had heard of Facebook.
What went wrong at Flickr is pretty much what went wrong with many social media hits: owner Yahoo!, which acquired the service in 2007, neglected it and took its users for granted. It either didn’t see Facebook and Instagram coming or just suffered from Not Invented Here Syndrome, which is when a firm refuses to see the iceberg that’s about to sink it. Blackberry famously had Not Invented Here Syndrome when Apple showed off the very first iPhone.
Where the original Flickr led the pack, the Yahoo-owned version lagged behind. It didn’t even have an app until 2009, by which point Facebook wasn’t so much eating its lunch as sneaking into its kitchen and clearing out the fridge. The app was terrible, and remained so through 2010 when Instagram turned photo sharing into an extremely big hit. Yahoo took another two years to make a similarly decent app but updates to the service were few and far between; it increasingly felt abandoned by its owners, its forums full of complaints from unhappy early adopters.
Eventually Yahoo, which itself had been bought by Verizon, sold Flickr to SmugMug, who clearly didn’t have a clue what made the site work in the first place and didn’t have much money to throw at it either. Without Yahoo’s deep pockets the new Flickr removed the unlimited storage for free users and hiked the price of Pro accounts. Users fled in their millions.
Of course the whole story is a bit bigger than that, and includes Meta (formerly Facebook) being very aggressive in its “if it’s a competitor, buy it or bury it” strategy; it bought Instagram and chucked serious money at it, and it’s doing the same with its Instagram spin-off Threads now. But many – most – of Flickr’s wounds were self-inflicted.
Today, like Blogger, Flickr is still going – but it’s limping rather than sprinting. It still has its loyal users, mostly the keen photographers who loved it from the start. But most of us share on Google Photos, or iCloud Photos, or Instagram, or Facebook. At its peak Flickr had around 90 million monthly users; it’s believed to have around 7.6 million now, of which roughly 30% are in the US – so just over 2 million, with a further 87,000 in Europe according to Flickr’s own EU reporting. By comparison, Instagram has 2.35 billion.
It’s interesting to compare Flickr to Twitter, or X as only Elon Musk and his sycophants call it. Because what we’re seeing with Flickr, and what I think we’re seeing with Twitter, is very much like Mike The Chicken of Fruita, Colorado. Mike became famous in the late 1940s because he managed to run around quite happily despite having been decapitated. The killer blow happened in late 1945, but Mike didn’t actually keel over until early 1947 – and he might have lived even longer if he hadn’t suffered the accident that finally killed him. I think the fatal blow for Flickr was the Yahoo takeover, and the Twitter one was the Musk purchase. Both networks are dying, but they’ve still got a little bit of running around to do.