How do you create the future of Web apps? By accident. Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield (above) are the husband-and-wife team behind Flickr, the photo-sharing site that launched in February 2004 and quickly got so popular that Yahoo acquired it a year later. Flickr wasn't born as a fully realized idea—in fact, it wasn't even originally for photo sharing. But its building blocks make up a successful Web 2.0 application. Here's how it evolved.
The Birth of Flickr
The original idea: a multiplayer game
Butterfield and Fake were originally trying to create a Web-based, massively multiplayer game. "It was different from most other Web games," says Butterfield. "It wasn't postapocalyptic sci-fi, and it wasn't men in tights fighting dragons."
While sweating out a nasty bout of food poisoning during a 2003 conference in New York (ah, the glamorous world of new media), Butterfield had an epiphany: "We had this game where people were sharing things. What if we added the ability to share photographs?"
Flickr's first version: game on
The original Flickr had many remnants of the game technology. You could share photos only with other people live on the site. And a ranking of your friends decided who got to see your pictures. "Your mom should be your best friend," says Fake, "but you don't necessarily want to share all your photos with her."
The Building Blocks of a Web 2.0 Application
Butterfield and Fake originally met when they were both writing blogs. "We understand their needs," says Fake, "so we started adding blog-friendly features. We were essentially paying for other people's image hosting, and you can blog any photo from the site." Despite no marketing budget, Flickr soon became the talk of the blogosphere.
Another key to Flickr's growth was its open architecture. This allowed the site's users—many of whom are, as Fake calls them, "alpha geeks"—to build new features on top of the service, which they then tell other people about, further spreading the word and bringing new ideas into Flickr's bloodstream. Mappr, for example, is a third-party program that maps the locations of any set of photos you choose.
Strong relationship with user community
Flickr's responsiveness to user needs has earned it a passionate following. "One time we rolled out a new design for the main photo page," says Fake, "and within less than a minute, the feedback forums were all buzzing: 'Oh no, we need the navigation on the right, not the left!' " They were right, so the navigation flipped back.
Tagging: Flickr's secret sauce
Tagging lets users apply a descriptive label or tag to any photo (their own or other people's), so people can use the site's search engine to locate like-tagged images. The seed for this idea had been planted 10 years earlier, when Butterfield's family had gathered around photo albums during his grandmother's birthday party. "If you're looking at a slide show, it's drudgery," he says. "But if you get people sharing thoughts and ideas about the images, it becomes interactive."
Flickr + Yahoo!
The new challenge for Butterfield and Fake is to maintain that sense of intimate community now that they're part of Yahoo. "People might be worried about Flickr getting Yahoo-ized," says Butterfield. "But we have a tremendous amount of influence, and I think a lot of Yahoo is actually getting Flickrized." For example, Yahoo's news stories are now tagged—keywords in articles lead to a list of related search results. "A lot of what you'll see coming from Yahoo has been heavily influenced by the philosophy called Web 2.0," says Fake. "Acquiring us was part of that." Sounds like a much bigger game than the one they initially set out to design.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.