Flickr’s Secret Weapon In The Photo-Sharing Wars? The Future

Just try blowing up Instagram’s tiny square thumbnails on a big screen.

Flickr’s new iPhone app could, at first glance, be mistaken for an Instagram clone. It has the requisite filters, the friend feed, and a double-tap-to-favorite feature that works a lot like an Instagram “Like.”


But look closer, and you’ll see Flickr’s app isn’t even in the same category as Instagram. If Flickr had created a sharing app, it would have made compromises that favor social, like chopping photos into blocks to easily fit a layout, downsizing them for quick uploading and permanently altering their quality with filters. Instead, its app uploads an original full-size photo, with all the metadata intact, regardless of where you share it. It may have social features, but it’s a photo app.

The distinction isn’t trivial. “As a future-proofing for your memories, it’s really important,” Brett Wayn, Flickr’s VP and general manager says. He describes Flickr as a photo hub from which users can share their content on any platform, whether that platform has been invented yet or not. If the next big thing is high-resolution, flat-panel displays everywhere, Flickr photos will still look good. Photos taken with photo services that focus on sharing? “It will look like, well I shouldn’t say the word because you’ll quote me, but it won’t look perfect…they’ll look awful.”

Flickr’s core advantage, in other words, is as an archive–an unlimited archive, if you opt for the pro option. The app update simply plugs Flickr’s archive into a modern context. Connecting to Facebook and Twitter for the first time makes it easy to invite wider social networks into the photo service, and the product team worked with Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to make sure Flickr photos display perfectly on their platforms. As a result of putting the Flickr experience into a modern social context, it didn’t become a social network app, it became a better archive. After the app’s launch, Flickr users increased the number of photos they uploaded by 25%.

As an archive, Flickr maintained its browsing capabilities in its new app. Instead of focusing on photos of the moment, its interface allows users to easily flip through photo sets, interest groups, and interesting photos nearby. “I have more than 6,000 photos on Flickr,” says Markus Spiering, Flickr’s head of product. “Yes, people look more at photos that you recently took. But all of the other photos are actually available on Flickr in the highest quality. This whole notion of archive, if you think about discovery, is actually quite important.”

Building a photo app with social features instead of a photo-sharing app has another advantage. Social networks built around real-world connections rather than, like Flickr, the interest of photos, don’t see Flickr as a threat. While Twitter and Facebook, for instance, are blocking access to each other’s apps, Wayn refers to other photo-sharing apps as friends. “We don’t really mind where the photos come from,” Wayn says. “And to some extent, we don’t really care who the photos go to, either. It’s a really great place where they can actually keep their photo collection.”

Until recently, Flickr sat on the bench as other apps redefined photos on social networks and mobile phones. Rather than jumping into the game as a competitor, it has now entered as a sort of neutral referee. Its updated app allows it to fit into the same environment as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, but its role is still one of keeping all the content that’s flying around safe for the future. It’s a role that, as the online space grows up and the filters we’re slapping onto our snapshots cease to be trendy, we may increasingly appreciate.


[Polaroid Image: Flickr user Der Point, App Images Courtesy of Flickr]

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.