Inside The Making Of Flickr’s Unexpectedly Awesome App

After being written off as irrelevant, Flickr surprised us all with a hit app. What happened? Hint: It’s all about the photos.

Flickr was on its deathbed when Markus Spiering took over its products in March 2011.

Once the online center of the photo universe, the service had failed to innovate as new players such as Instagram and Facebook redefined digital photography. It hadn’t updated its iPhone app since 2009, and its post-mortem was already being written (tech blog Gizmodo ultimately went with the title, "How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet").

So when Spiering’s team released a new iPhone app in December that, in one photo blogger’s words, was "Really, Really, Really, Really, Really Mind Blowingly Fantastic," it came as a bit of a surprise. Uploads to Flickr and engagement both increased by 25% immediately after the app’s launch, but the iOS upgrade was just the most visible piece of a revamp that has made the service as a whole look very much alive again.

Spiering kicked off 2012 with a blog post that began, "This year is going to be big at Flickr!" And, it was. Flickr reduced the visibility of features such as the "Flickr Clock" that distracted from its core product, reducing the website’s navigation options from 52 options to a little over 20. In February, it introduced a justified view that preserves the original aspect ratios of users’ photos, and in April, it launched a tool to make uploading photos easier. An update for its Android app launched in August. And then, finally, in December the new iPhone app set the cherry on top.

Flickr’s revival can partly be attributed to new support from Yahoo. Brett Wayn, who became Flickr’s vice president and general manager in May, says one of the first things he did in his new post was "clarified the level of investment we needed to make."

But much of the service’s recent success has been driven by a renewed commitment to what it has always done best: Photos. In a crowded field of photo-sharing apps, a focus on photos is what sets Flickr apart from its younger peers and holds its hope for its resurrection. "The old Flickr was kind of about thumbnails and links," Spiering tells me during a demonstration of the iPhone app at Yahoo’s San Francisco office. "The new thinking in Flickr, and I think I have been a driver of this effort, is let’s embrace photos."

Since Flickr started, it has been a social community built around an interest, photos. Instead of imitating social networks, which are built around real-life connections, it plugged its existing photo community into other social networks. It connected with Twitter and Facebook so that users could invite their existing friends and worked with social networks to make sure its photos show up perfectly on their sites. Photos still trump social in the new Flickr app. It has "contacts," not "friends," presuming that some users will connect across their interests in one of Flickr’s 1.6 million groups, and it still works more like a tool for uploading and browsing photos than a way to stay in touch with friends.

To make Flickr more relevant, Spiering is not betting on re-creating the center of the social universe, like Facebook or Twitter, but on reestablishing the center of the photo-universe, the place from which users share their photos to other sites. "We always respected the photo as an entire object," Spiering says. "I don’t think that’s new. What is new is that we actually take advantage of that in our mobile experiences."

[Image: Flickr user Nathan Callahan]

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