Online photo sharing as harbinger of irrelevance

I was meaning to add my bit to this post from Cole Camplese, and now I see he has even name-checked me in the comments… Cole essentially asks if it is worth it to continue on with Flickr at the paid “Pro” level. I’ll leave that question aside, and ask one of my own.

Can anyone explain why they like Instagram? I’m not even getting into its absurd billion dollar valuation. I’m asking strictly about its utility as an online photo sharing tool. Those filters? Seems to me they function as a fun one-time gimmick, that over time actually drain the images people take of any sense of spirit or originality.

But what really drives me nuts is how the “service” isolates its media (and make no mistake, it is Instagram’s media) from us. For instance, I know Bryan Jackson has posted some great photos on Instagram over the past year of some fun jam sessions. Damned if I can find them now.

Or take this recent image posted by Mara Balestrini:

I can get to a pop-up window that brings up Mara’s username, and info that tells me she has taken 219 photos. But that username is just flat text (not linked to an account home page), and that photo number doesn’t link to anything else either. Note that I am logged in to my Instagram account (who knew that I had one?), and have become a “follower” of Mara’s account. (Need I add that the number of followers on the pop-up window is flat text as well?) The URL is an indecipherable and apparently random string of text.  So this image lives in a deliberately constructed silo. It’s no accident those links don’t exist, that was a conscious decision on the part of Instagram.

For all of the missteps that Yahoo! has made since acquiring Flickr, that service embodies many principles from what I now think of as the bygone happy-hippie era of Web 2.0. All Flickr images are collected into user collections, and users have a great deal of control over what can be done with those images. URLs are clean, and follow a standard and predictable path. My images tagged with “paul lake” can all be found at Photos from all users on Flickr tagged with “paul lake” can be found at Those clean and predictable URLs all generate RSS feeds, of course. And it is trivially easy to select, manage and republish dynamic image flows on just about any keyword or place.

Wow. Having a little nostalgia rush here… Tagging. RSS. Embedding. Open APIs. The web as platform. DIY. I need to sit down… Isn’t it amazing how much “old” functionality the “new wave” of apps hasn’t bothered to support? And amazing how most professional technologists haven’t seemed to notice nor to care.

As Cole notes in his post, Flickr has probably done as much as any privately-owned company to model a reasonable and responsible approach to supporting a commons-based vision of shared imagery. As Josh Wallaert argues:

For most of the last decade, the greatest repository of freely available images has been Flickr, a privately-owned public space that hosts more than 240 million creative commons images, dwarfing the 14 million items in the Prints & Photographs Division of the U.S. Library of Congress. Pick any Wikipedia article at random; if it has an image, there’s a good chance it comes from Flickr.

But Flickr has become a ghost town in recent years, conservatively managed by its corporate parent Yahoo, which has ceded ground to photo-sharing alternatives like Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Google Plus (and Picasa and Panoramio), and Twitter services (TwitPic and Yfrog). An increasing share of the Internet’s visual resources are now locked away in private cabinets, untagged and unsearchable, shared with a public no wider than the photographer’s personal sphere. Google’s Picasa and Panoramio support creative commons licenses, but finding the settings is not easy. And Facebook, the most social place to share photos, is the least public. Hundreds of millions of people who have photographed culturally significant events, people, buildings and landscapes, and who would happily give their work to the commons if they were prompted, are locked into sites that don’t even provide the option. The Internet (and the mobile appverse) is becoming a chain of walled gardens that trap even the most civic-minded person behind the hedges, with no view of the outside world.

From what I can see, the only actual advantage Instagram had over Flickr was the ability to instantly post from a mobile device to the web, to Twitter, to Facebook… Flickr has finally addressed that with its new iPhone app. I’ve only poked at it, but my initial impression is that the app works quite well. It even supports a range of filter effects that I will undoubtedly be sick of seeing in a few months. Most people in my bubble seem to be impressed, though I am also seeing reactions like this one:

If Flickr was a fresh start-up and had just launched an app that “kicks Instagram’s ass”, it would be the new hotness. But I guess I’m not cut out to be a social media industry guru.

Now if you’ll excuse me, those damned kids are running around on my lawn again.

30 thoughts on “Online photo sharing as harbinger of irrelevance

  1. It is just like the old days — people actually leaving comments on web pages. I am in heaven diving back into the pool. End of the day what I have decided is to pay flickr again this year, if for no other reason than to support a platform rich in the notion of share and share alike — at the moment that is worth my $25.00.

    Why instagram is a totally different question. Today I followed another old timer’s advice and set up a way to instantly publish any of the photos I take and edit with instagram to my personally hosted wordpress site. To me that is the way I want to do it — shoot, edit, filter, share, and save in a place that might have some longer term meaning to those trying to remember or find something I’ve done. I do like the community aspect to instagram, but that is largely only visible from the dashboard of the app itself … and that is one of the same reasons I have taken to tumblr so much. I find good things in the dashboard from people I follow. The other thing I note here is that they are very different people than the ones I follow on twitter, friend on facebook, or subscribe to via rss. Just a different community — not better.

    I live most of the day on either my iPhone or iPad out of necessity and I like to capture stuff as I move from one side of campus to the next. Instagram is drop dead simple for that and while I no longer use my DSLR to grab (hopefully) killer photos, I do use my iphone and manipulate it in instagram to (maybe) make up for the fact I took it with a phone. As an aside, I did use the flickr app last night and I like it quite a bit and I am going to set up a recipe to allow instant and simultaneous publishing of those photos from flickr to my blog as well.

    And then next week I’ll do something totally different. BTW, sorry about running all over your lawn!

  2. Never been much of a photo sharer, but I share your reaction to these newer platforms. Things are wedded to single predefined uses, the Steve Jobs school of design. Why would you want a URL when we have a *feature*?

    What’s to be done is the question.

    I’m currently obsessed with the closed nature of xMOOCs, which repeat this error, that only the designer can imagine uses. I’m tying to build my Patently Boring Psych xMOOC (TM) to show how much better life is if you preserve true openness. But I sense there is something inherently uninteresting in that story:

    “What cool stuff does your xMOOC do?”
    “Oh, well, whatever you want it to — you decide!”
    “Oh.” [eyes glaze over]

    Flickr is kind of the same, isn’t it? Its genius is hidden in all the different ways that people use it, not in the one true way that goes out in a press release. Udell recently wrote a post on loosely coupled design, and how it solved what used to be a month long problem in the space of minutes (several months back on Wired’s website). There’s no press release for that solution though, because it’s not a feature….

  3. Excellent points about the value of structured urls and RSS feeds from flickr. Add to that:

    * It’s powerful API and associated code libraries (phpFlickr, the json code) that have allowed me to built my own web-based tools and

    * Notes- I’ve not seen any other service that allows one to turn an image into a hyperlnked map or labeled with callouts

    * Like the urls and rss the javascript widget si tweakable; I have re-arranged, added random, torn apart the formatting just by tinkering the URL

    * full implementation of creative commons licensing. No one flexes like that

    * post by email (allows me to run workshops where participants share photos by email, including adding tags/captions

    * machine tags- a way to create any meta data structure one might need

    * useful stats

    * advanced search (wow, instagram allows me to search on user names and hash tags only. And I cannot DO anything with the results except stroke them with my thunb)

    I laugh whenever some pundit tosses off about flickr being a “ghost town” or how it has been “ravaged by yahoo” – first off all it tells me they have never actually *seen* a ghost town. I’m glad when the gadflies leave flickr for the next thing who needs ’em around? (and no D’Arcy, you are an exception, put down your defenses).

    For a ravaged ghost town I see flickr as vibrant evolving, but crikie, I am coming up on my 9th year of flickr use. That says something.

  4. No tag search, no ability to download, being owned by Mark Zuckerburg, and other reasons outlined above all run against Instagram. It’s just easier (or, was, anyway), and cheaper, than Flickr. Which I should really just pony up and pay for already…

    Feel free to screenshot and steal any of these though:

    Casa Jams

    @draggin on the skins

    Mr. Potter at the Sanctuary


    Soundhouse 2

    Soundhouse 3


    The Best Sanctuary Jam Photo

    NV12 Jam

    Boat Jam

    Gardner and the Beautiful Rucus

  5. The advantages of Instagram over Flickr stem from Instagram being “quick social” (likes, Twitter-style comments) vs. Flickr being “long social” (groups, blog-style comments).

    I can scan my Instagram feed and double-tap a picture to let the person know I think it’s a cool picture. It’s the same way I scan my Twitter feed.

    Personally, I don’t see myself using Flickr the way I use Instagram. Flickr isn’t meant for filtered, smartphone pictures. That’s just me.

  6. Why Instagram…
    I answer as a photo newbie, barely out of picture-taking kindergarten. Because Instagram makes it dead easy to publish, is why. I don’t use the filters (maybe that’s in 2nd grade), don’t check other photos on my phone. It’s just a quick way to pipe images to (some portion of) the world.

    That said, I’m a long-time FlickrPro payer. Though critical of pre-Mayer Yahoo, I still keep paying. I copy my little (600 or so px) Instagram photos there every time; I rarely upload photos directly. Maybe I should do more of that.

    I will try the new Flickr app when they port it over to the world’s most widely used smartphone platform, Android.

  7. I pretty much agree with all the points demonstrating why Flickr is superior to Instagram. But…

    Instagram is fun for many people, it gets them taking pictures, and the vast majority of pictures aren’t meant to be works of art in the first place. Who am I to pee on their Cheerios?

    My real quibble is with the notion that Instagram is somehow the asthetically lesser because it has filters for users to play with. Throwing a filter on an image doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it doesn’t make it necessarily worse. Browsing through the flickr streams of many people I admire demonstrates a different kind of sameness, wave upon wave of snapshots that weren’t composed (not that they have to be), edited, or in any way manipulated to improve them. Use of filters can improve some photos in the same way cafeful composition can create a better photo or post-editing can improve even on that wasn’t that great to begin with. Filters don’t need to go away, tjthey just need to be used judiciously.

    But then, so does everything. I loves me some bacon, but eating it at every meal gets old. That doesn’t mean bacon is bad nor that I should “make it go away.”

  8. Flickr meets all my online photo needs – life is too short to explore some service I didn’t know I needed. The creative commons licensing and search feature is most important as the CC collection usually covers any needed topic. CC on Flickr was also an easy example to use in explaining copyright and creative commons to my kids when they started doing school reports. They, in turn, showed their teachers how to use it.

  9. When I got on Instagram and started using it, it was the first time since Flickr that I truly experienced community. Yep, bounded within the walls of an iOS app, but the attention to detail of the experience of browsing and connecting, the double-tap that brings hearts, plus the immediacy of a mobile experience.

    And, tags, geolocation, and a pretty good API!

    It was great. And I’m sorry for people that never “got it”. I wrote a post back in April 2011 about how I used it:

    What would it have become if not Facebook’d? Not sure.

    I’m glad Flickr is still alive. I like paying for it. I like paying for things in general. Here’s to more of this in 2013.

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