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Flickr’s new free offering is better than amazing: It’s sustainable

Yahoo gave Flickr users a deal that was almost too good to be true. New owner SmugMug is pulling back–in the interest of making the service stronger.

Flickr’s new free offering is better than amazing: It’s sustainable
[Photo: Flickr user Andrés Nieto Porras]

[Update, 11/8/2018: SmugMug updated its Creative Commons and non-profit policy on November 7. All media in free accounts that had a Creative Commons or public-domain declaration of any kind applied before November 1, 2018, will remain available permanently even after Flickr deletes images and videos tagged All Rights Reserved that are above the new free-tier limit of 1,000 items on Feb. 5, 2019. SmugMug also provided a straightforward way for 501(c)(3) nonprofits and international charities to apply to receive an unlimited-storage Pro account.]

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The only way to make people angrier than promising something and not delivering it is to offer something for free and then take it away. It’s true for babies. And it’s true for the users of internet services, too.

On November 1, Flickr’s new owner, SmugMug, announced changes to the photo-sharing service, which it acquired from Yahoo in April after years of neglect. Flickr Pro users, currently paying $50 a year, will receive a number of new features and upgrades, some immediately–like unlimited storage–and some coming between November and early 2019. (Flickr Pro’s price went up to $50 in 2015, but users paying an
earlier, cheaper rate were grandfathered for renewals that happened before mid-2018.)

But the company also said users who don’t pay will lose the 1TB of storage that Yahoo ill-advisedly put in place in 2013. “At the time I’m sure they looked like fantastic decisions at Yahoo,” says SmugMug’s CEO, Don MacAskill, referencing the free 1TB and other changes Yahoo rolled out at the same time.

Starting in January, SmugMug will allow new free Flickr members to store up to 1,000 photos at up to 200MB each. Existing users with more than 1,000 pictures (or videos, which Flickr supports, though poorly) will have until February 5, 2019, to download them via a recently added tool that includes all comments and Flickr-specific data added to photos. After that, Flickr will start deleting photos from oldest to newest until just 1,000 remain in the account.

Some Flickr users who view the service as essentially a giant free hard drive in the sky may be unhappy with these changes, but MacAskill is okay with that. “I view Flickr as a community, not as a cloud-backup solution,” he says.

When news of the revamp broke, a minor hue and cry arose. But strikingly, it seemed mostly on behalf of other people. On social networks, photo forums, and Flickr’s community boards, the complaints largely focused on other users losing access to old photos if they weren’t aware the change was coming. Friends and relatives might even still be viewing images originally posted by people who have since passed on.

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Many people also worried about what would happen to Creative Commons licensed photos that were taken by users who exceed the threshold and don’t pay for service. They’re a valuable source of imagery on every imaginable topic and are widely used (including here on FastCompany.com).

In the past, Flickr and other services have retained data even when a subscriber dropped out of a paid tier. Slack, for instance, offers a remarkable come-on: If you’re using its free tier, which provides access to only the most recent 10,000 messages, the company retains all the rest. That gives teams an incentive to convert from free to paid and regain all their old messages.

But a similar approach isn’t viable here. Yahoo tried to grab marketshare by offering an unsustainably large amount of storage to free users and making it up by displaying ads, and it didn’t work. (In 2013, a free terabyte seemed almost implausible; even today, it’s a head-snapper.) That was in line with the company’s history of never quite knowing what to do with Flickr, starting soon after it bought the photo-sharing phenom in 2005.

SmugMug’s goal is to move Flickr into the future, and as a small, self-funded company that states it doesn’t want to mine the habits, photos, or personal data of Flickr users to serve up contextual ads, it has a primary source of revenue: subscription fees from Pro users.

Free as in “free tier”

The internet’s freemium business model is supposed to work this way: A company has a valuable service offering that it wants people to pay for. Instead of creating a preview version with severely hobbled features or a time-limited trial period, it offers a free tier for indefinite use that’s often nearly as good as the deluxe flavor. However, it omits certain power features that serious, professional, and corporate users would gladly pay for.

A free tier may be useful enough for many people, and users at that level may even vastly outnumber paid recurring subscribers or people who pay a onetime fee. It’s a training ground for customers, who may decide to upgrade, and a tool to attract younger people–especially those still in school–who could make a personal or company decision later for paid adoption.

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But a free tier has to be carefully calibrated. It can’t routinely irritate its revenue-free users so much that they just abandon it, it must require relatively few resources to deliver, and most importantly, it shouldn’t cannibalize paid offerings.

In 2013, Yahoo broke all the rules–and not in a good way–when it updated free and paid options, providing 1TB to free users. This 1TB decision leveled all users, removing any advantage to paying for a Pro account, while also attracting new members who had little interest in community–or ever paying. At that level, you could store 200,000 images at a reasonable photo file size of the day (about 5MB on average), or even 5,000 at the maximum supported (200MB). The company did offer an additional terabyte for $499 a year, and eventually restored a Pro tier for about $25 a year with minor benefits.

SmugMug’s own photo-sharing service, by contrast, has never offered a free tier since its founding in 2002–which made some veteran Flickr users a little nervous when the acquisition was announced in April. Would the company shut down free users? MacAskill didn’t know at the time exactly what the final plan would be. But he has consistently said that the community at Flickr is his focus, and users who don’t pay for a subscription are part of it.

SmugMug didn’t make its Flickr account changes on gut feeling alone. MacAskill says that the SmugMug crunched numbers to come up with a threshold. He said that the 1,000 images shook out from the data: 97% of free-tier Flickr users have fewer than 1,000 images, while the vast majority of paid users have more than 1,000. There wasn’t a better sweet spot to pick.

MacAskill also pointed out that because modern smartphones and cameras can generate images that run into the tens of megabytes, 1,000 images and videos could represent tens of gigabytes of storage. That’s a lot to give away by industry standards, though Google Photos offers unlimited storage if you’re willing to let the service compress your images.

I asked MacAskill if he wasn’t at risk of excluding people who couldn’t pay $50 a year for a Pro account, and whether the benefit they received from and gave to Flickr’s community should be a factor. He had some data for this, too: Nearly everyone with more than 1,000 images, free and paid accounts alike, are shooting on pricey high-end smartphones–or mirrorless and DSLR cameras that start at $2,000 to $3,000. Such members should be able to pony up 50 bucks if they see value in Flickr.

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But MacAskill is aware that for some people–especially in certain countries–the price of a Pro account may still be a hardship and might remove voices. He’s open to further tweaks to the new plan to accommodate such members of the community.

Images for the public good

MacAskill also expresses a commitment to work out Flickr’s role as a source of public domain and Creative Commons images. Nothing will change with the Commons, a collection of public-domain imagery from the Library of Congress and other institutions, started in 2008. MacAskill calls it a “national treasure.”

But he’s still exploring the broader questions relating to Flickr images licensed under various Creative Commons terms. These licenses allow individuals to choose terms for published items, such as allowing only non-commercial, unmodified use or permitting something close to free-rein public domain use.

Creative Commons images have been an important part of Flickr from the early days. The service hosts 400 million images marked with a CC license, but MacAskill didn’t provide a count of how many are in free accounts and at risk once the 1,000-photo limit kicks in. Because Flickr added web-based photo embedding a few years ago, photo deletion could have ripples across the internet.

“We’re very passionate about Creative Commons and the good that it has done for the world,” said MacAskill. In a recent post, Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley said the group was working closely with SmugMug to sort this issue out and has high hopes it can be resolved. Depending on the license, a third party could copy all CC-licensed images that would otherwise be deleted, and maintain them in a Pro account or, with SmugMug’s support, within the Commons.

When an issue came up on Nov. 1 about the state of the Internet Archive’s Flickr account, which isn’t marked as institutional, but holds 5.2 million images extracted from public-domain and other freely available titles, MacAskill moved to resolve it quickly. While he said it should be included in its general exemption for institutions for public good, he also donated $5,000–the cost of 100 years of Flickr Pro–directly to the Archive. (He also confirmed later that it was already in the exempt category.)

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“We’re not trying to delete millions of photos,” said MacAskill, who has replied on forums and Twitter to people concerned on their own behalf and on that of others. The last thing he wants is people’s photos to disappear.

But, as he tweeted to Cory Doctorow, an editor at Boing Boing and a fierce defender of freely available work, “Given an unsustainable model or a sustainable model, which would you choose?”

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About the author

Glenn Fleishman is a veteran technology reporter based in Seattle, who covers security, privacy, and the intersection of technology with culture. Since the mid-1990s, Glenn has written for a host of publications, including the Economist, Macworld, the New York Times, and Wired

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