How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet

Original author: Mat Honan
  • Transfer

Web startups are made up of two components: people and code. People make code, and code makes people rich. The code is like a poem: it has to satisfy certain structural requirements, but art can appear on the basis of this structure. However, code is an art that does something useful. This is a collection of something new based on just one idea.

And here is the story of one wonderful idea. Something that no one has done before, the moment of change that made the Internet the way we know it today. This is the story of Flickr. And the fact that Yahoo bought it, killed and at the same time deprived itself of significance.

Remember the Flickr motto? “Almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing app in the world.” Boasting epic in its indiscretion, a seriously ironic statement.

Since three years ago, Flickr was of course the best photo sharing service in the world. Nothing could come close to him. If you were interested in digital photography, or you wanted to share photos with friends, you used Flickr.

However, today this motto sounds like crazy posturing. Photoservice, which once could conquer the world, has now become yesterday's news. Want to share photos on the web? There is Facebook for this. Want to see what your friends are like? Launch Instagram.

Even the idea of ​​Flickr as an archive - the place where you store all your photos just in case - is becoming more and more old-fashioned, while Dropbox, Microsoft, Google,, Amazon, Apple and a bunch of others offer gigabytes online storage for our hungry desktops.

A site where once there were the best social tools, a lively user base and the coolest storage system, is slipping into useless neglect. The once bustling community now looks like abandoned city blocks hit by a housing crisis. Weedy courtyards. Rusting bikes in front of houses. Tattered flags. House after house is empty.

This is an example to study what might go wrong when a living innovative startup is consumed by a monster that does not share its values. What happened to Flickr? The same as with many other lively innovative startups selling for money and bandwidth: Yahoo.

And here's how it went wrong.

At the beginning

Flickr is known to have started as a side service of another product. The team of development spouses Stuart Butterfield and Katerina Fake made a photo-sharing feature for the product they were working on, called Game Neverending. Butterfield and Fake were old-school web developers. Those with small id on Metafilter and accounts on WELL .

Since they were so familiar with the web, they soon realized that their real product was not a game: it was its side function, the ability to share photos online. It was 2003, and the task of sharing photos was a novelty for people. So Flickr was born.

He became a hit. He especially liked the bloggers, as he solved the oldest problem of hosting photos. This happened in the days of the hoary antiquity of the web, when data storage cost money.

Two years later, in 2005, Butterfield and Fake sold their company to Yahoo, whose deep pockets promised a great future for Flickr users. The company increased the monthly storage volume to 100 MB for free users, and removed the restriction for paid users. Everything should have been fine; at first everything seems beautiful when you hug your corporate mom for the first time.

When startups become successful

Very few people manage to create a successful startup. But, becoming a hit, he can instantly change the established order of things. Suddenly, these two basic ingredients - people and code - become very valuable to established companies that seem to have settled on the untouchable corporate Olympus. It should feel like a terrific compliment and recognition. What would you do then? If you created something beautiful and useful, what would change the status quo? Would you sell it? Would you sell?

Successful startup founders face this choice. Create something good, and you will begin to receive offers to buy. But if in other creative areas this is frowned upon, on the web it is considered a gift from heaven.

Maybe it shouldn't be. There are many scary stories on every YouTube about how great people with great products have sunk into the gaping womb of indifferent corporate mergers. Dodgeball got lost in Mountain View. Favorite bookmarking services like Delicious have been left blank.

Some young companies are on an independent path. Recall Foursquare. Or Twitter. Or Facebook. Each of them scornfully rejected the offers to buy, and now they are stronger than ever. Everyone found their business model. Or even StumbleUpon, which only got on its feet when its founder bought it back from eBay and re-launched it as an independent company.

It is no secret that for many entrepreneurs such an exit is the original goal. Selling out before the first line of code is written. But for the elite, products must become art. They must literally change the world. And for them, selling can be especially problematic.

And Flickr is one of those.

Integration is the enemy of innovation

“Yahoo was great at first,” said Flickr co-founder Katerina Fake, who left the company in 2008. “We received offers from various companies, including Google, and I honestly believed that Yahoo was a great manager. She was a great brand manager. He was allowed to bloom. In the two years following the acquisition, Flickr flourished. ”

But even at the very beginning, there were signs that this transplant - which seemed so successful at the beginning - would not take root. That they didn’t match the DNA. And by and large, this happened because of how exactly this appendage was transplanted by specialists from the corporate development department.

When a new startup arrives at an established company, it usually first encounters the Corporate Development Department (OCD): a group within the business that manages change. OCD usually entrusts the planning of a corporate strategy - whether the business will increase or decrease, which markets it will enter, and which ones to leave, which contracts and deals it can conclude with other companies. OCD often oversees acquisitions. Plans them. Approves them. And then he sets the conditions.

When a large company swallows a small one, then a small part of the money is usually paid in advance. The remainder is given out later, based on the achievement of certain goals. This is similar to how certain incentives are built into the contracts of professional athletes, only engineering indicators are used instead of counting goals scored.

OCD assigns these indicators. They reflect the reason for the acquisition and how the company - in the case of Flickr this is Yahoo - can affect them. They integrate into the transaction, and the acquisition integration team immediately begins to work to achieve them. Typically, these are engineering metrics designed to integrate a small company product into a huge corporate machine.

Since the payment schedule is based on the achievement of OCD conditions, both companies have an interest in linking these milestones to new product features. And this is like a sledgehammer at the feet of a developer who is light on his feet. Worse, these milestones often simply ignore exactly what made a small company so valuable.

Take Upcoming, the social events calendar site Yahoo bought shortly after Flickr. This was necessary in order to receive lists of future events on the ground. Such local data - especially in small cities, or related to minor events - can be very difficult to collect. As a result, everyone gets the same thing. But the data on the Upcoming website was updated by the users themselves. The project was different, unique, valuable.

All the goals of the acquisition of the project were tied to the integration of data on local events in Yahoo. At the same time, Yahoo did not give a damn about Upcoming users - the community that created this data. As a result, Yahoo’s approach turned upside down. The value of the company was determined by the base itself, and not by how it was recruited - that is, by the community.

It was an example of amazing shortsightedness, and with Flickr, much the same thing happened. Yahoo needed only a database created and marked up by users. She did not care about the community that created it, and, more importantly, the continued growth of this community, which could be spurred on by offering new opportunities.

“We spent a lot of time in meetings with OCD, where we simply defended our product and challenged our decisions,” said a former Flickr team member.

And so, when Flickr came to Yahoo, he was crushed by the requirements for both engineering and service, which he had to fulfill according to the requirements of the acquisition integration team. It was a black hole for resources, people, and finance. Although many of the resources came from Yahoo, they were debited to Flickr. This led to the emergence of a non-working cycle that was actively hampering innovation.

“Money only goes to dairy cows,” one former Flickr team member explains. If Flickr could not earn, he did not receive money (or talented people, or resources).

Because Flickr was not as profitable as some of Yahoo’s other major projects, such as Yahoo Mail or Yahoo Sports, it wasn’t given as many resources as other products. This meant that he had to spend resources on integration, and not on innovation. Because of which it was difficult for him to attract new users, because of which he could not earn so much money, because of which (full cycle) he did not receive more resources. Etc.

As a result of such a hunger strike, Flickr stopped throwing anchors that he needed in order to climb higher. He missed opportunities in the field of local resources, real-time projects, mobile applications and even social networks - although he was a pioneer there. And he did not become a video hosting service - this title has grabbed the YouTube project. It never became a project for people, which, of course, became Facebook. He remained a project for photographs. At least until Instagram appeared.

The Flickr team was forced to focus on integration rather than innovation. And this has led to developments in two key areas.

Communication problems

The best feature of Flickr is not what you think. This is not a way to share photos. Just like the function of publishing photos was hidden in the game, something even more powerful was hidden in this function: social networks. Almost ten years ago, Flickr created what would become a social web.

The first goal of Flickr’s dual mission is to help people share their photos with people who matter to them. Flickr had - and still has - great tools for this. Flickr was one of the first sites where it was possible to define relationships very accurately - for example, a person could be noted as a relative, but not a friend - instead of a simple binary choice of “friend / not friend”. You can mark the photo as “private,” and no one else will see them at all, or identify a couple of trusted friends who can open it. Or you can just share photos with friends, or relatives. These precise settings encouraged dissemination, commenting, and interaction. We describe, of course, a social network.

Few people remember, but in 2005, it seemed like Yahoo was doing something. Having lost a dominant position in Google search, the company took over a bunch of small but interesting socially oriented companies such as Flickr (social photos), Delicious (social bookmarks) and Upcoming (social calendar of events). There was a feeling that Yahoo was doing something as it should. This, to some extent, anticipated the advent of Web 2.0: the Internet with the active participation of users.

However, the social success of Yahoo in those years was accidental. This company did not (and does not) have its own special strategy. What was the great contribution of its founders, David Filo and Jerry Young, to the Internet? They put together a catalog of links and sold ads on these pages.

It was a banal portal. It was not innovative or technically challenging. There is no need to write algorithms for the portal. Yahoo was not much more complicated than the electronic version of the Yellow Pages.

The influence of the founders on the company's culture is enormous, and Young and Filo were worried about business, not products and innovations. They did not cultivate the culture of programmers, like the founders of Google, and did not cultivate hackers like Facebook. They grew a business culture. And for many years this worked well - until Google came along. And suddenly, directories ceased to be interesting to everyone. Why climb the hierarchy if you can immediately jump to what you were looking for by a simple query?

Yahoo Director Terry Semel failedbuy Google in 2001 when he had a chance. And now Yahoo is so concentrated on winning in the search that it abandoned the social network. In 2004, Flickr had significantly better tools for social interaction and search than anyone else on the Internet. Then Facebook was still an inactive service where you couldn’t upload any pictures, except for avatars. And Yahoo already had internal social products like the Address Book and Messenger. Social media was clearly the future of the Internet. But Yahoo did not need a future. She needed to revive the battle from the past and defeat Google.

“When we looked at Flickr, Google kicked Yahoo’s ass. We struggled to find other areas of search where we could take the lead, ”said one of Yahoo's top managers, familiar with the details of the deal.

Flickr had a way to do this. Flickr photos were equipped with tags and tags, and so well categorized by users of the service, that it was very easy to search.

“That's why we bought Flickr - not because of the community. We didn't give a shit about him. The idea of ​​the purchase was not to increase social connections, but to monetize the image database. And there was no talk of any social communities or networks. It was not related to users. ”

That was the problem. The web was rapidly becoming socialized at that time, and Flickr was at the forefront of this movement. Everything revolved around groups, comments, identifying people as acquaintances, friends, or relatives. And for Yahoo it was just some kind of fucking database.

The community’s first problems became apparent when Yahoo decided that all existing Flickr users would need Yahoo accounts to sign in. This transition occurred in 2007 and was part of the OCD integration process. Flickr launched this process in mid-March.

From Yahoo’s point of view, there was no other choice but to change the way of entry. Firstly, Flickr went international, and he needed to localize to comply with local laws. Yahoo already had the necessary tools for this, since the service has already entered other countries. He offered a turnkey solution.

But in general, Yahoo needed to take advantage of the new acquisition. The company wanted to make sure that each of its registered users could immediately use Flickr, without having to register on it separately. She wanted Flickr to work seamlessly with Yahoo Mail. She wanted all her services to harmoniously sing, and not give out a cacophony of isolation. The first step was to create a universal login. For Yahoo, this was great, but for Flickr it didn’t give anything, and even more so, it didn’t give anything for very active users of Flickr.

Yahoo's solution, RegID, has become a nightmare for the existing community. You could no longer use your existing Flickr login to receive photos - you had to use a login with Yahoo. If you didn’t have an account there, you had to create it. And you didn’t enter the service from the Flickr page - upon arrival, you were immediately transferred to the Yahoo login.

Although Flickr has grown dramatically thanks to an infusion of Yahoo users, the existing community of influential service veterans has been furious. The transition was made clumsily, and ignored the needs of the community (the ability to enter the service without having to create an account on Yahoo). This was the opposite of people's expectations from Flickr. It was an antisocial move.

And it clearly brought to the attention of users and the Flickr team the following thought: now you are part of Yahoo.

This message was intended for members of the Flickr team. The service was proud of its user support, considering it a key part of creating a community. But Yahoo wanted to manage all this with the help of existing departments. One of Yahoo’s goals was to change the system for posting photos, and instead of deleting images after complaints, pre-moderate all content before it appears online. Flickr believed that this task would take a lot of time and violate the privacy of service members, especially when it came to private photos. The Flickr team made an appointment and went to the corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale for an hour-long presentation to defend their opinions. In the middle of the meeting, the vice president, who oversaw Yahoo's user support, looked at his watch, announced that he would have another meeting soon, and left. They were sent out in the open.

Heather Champ, the head of community management for Flickr, then decided that this was the beginning of the end. “I left this meeting, realizing that I can’t continue to work. I didn’t want to stay and watch how they destroy everything that we worked so hard to create. ”

By mid-2008, a year after the RegID debacle, it became clear to almost everyone that Facebook was becoming a large social network that would conquer the market. Toys of college students and high school students suddenly turned into a social network, from which your mom, your dad, your coach, and all your friends sent invitations to your friends. Microsoft pumped money into it, and the number of its users was approaching 100 million.

At Yahoo, which had its own huge user base and several social products, some people already warned that they would soon be overtaken in social networks just as they had overtaken in the search.

“For years at Yahoo, I’ve been alarmed that Facebook will conquer the adult market if we don’t intervene and use our existing social networks to fight back,” says a former Yahoo engineer working on products for both Yahoo and Flickr . “Obviously, this has not happened for many reasons.”

Yahoo already tried to buy Facebook in 2006, for a damn billion. And she couldn’t. Two years later, Facebook became too big to buy. The only way to defeat her was to attack from the other side with a better product. And Yahoo's best hope was Flickr. But then it was already too late.

“Flickr was no longer a startup,” the engineer explains, “people didn’t want to work hard to change the whole product. And even if this happened, Flickr was a project for techno hipsters, many of them did not use Facebook, they did not like it, they considered it banal, boring, evil, poorly done, etc., and definitely did not want to follow on her heels. More attention was paid to appearance, feeling, and not to metrics and working decisions. The feeling of what was happening was always unpleasant for me, and I watched Flickr and Yahoo slowly become useless. ”

Force Majeure and Immovable Object

There is a difference between a missed opportunity and a fakap. When Yahoo was unable to harness the social potential of Flickr, it was a missed opportunity. But if you want to see where the company really went around, where it stabbed Flickr with blunt knives and even blunt brains, turn on the phone and launch the mobile application for Flickr. What do you say - you don’t have it? That's it.

Flickr had a reliable mobile website back in 2006 - even before the iPhone. It could be used with your shitty Symbian phone or a tiny screen on Sony Ericsson T68i. But, in fact, it was just a browser. If you wanted to send a photo from your phone to your account, you had to send it by email.

And then in 2008 something happened that pushed the entire mobile web into the background: applications. The App Store has opened a new era that has changed the way we interact. People didn’t want a mobile web that made them switch from a camera application to an editing application, then back to the web, and then to an email to upload a picture. They wanted an application that does all this at once. Flickr team members understood this. Unfortunately, they could not do anything.

“Flickr did not have the opportunity to make its own application for iOs - or any other,” one former Flickr director laments. “There was an external team that had an opinion on what the application should do.”

According to insider information, it was here that the missions of the two companies clashed. The Flickr app was a top-down decision led by Yahoo Mobile and its leader, Marco Burris. The Flickr team shut up.

Burris had a grand idea called Connected Life. It was supposed to be a single mobile service, connecting all the parts of Yahoo together, right in the palm of your hand, and connecting all this with a desktop computer. This was what Apple, Google and Microsoft are trying to do with their cloud strategies today.

Burris was a maniac. At age 16, he wrote the StarWriter word processor, raised it to StarOffice, and sold it to Sun for $ 74 million in 1999. By 2004, he was running around Silicon Valley and showing everyone a demo that literally made them open their mouths in surprise.

He went into a room full of investors, took out his little folding phone and took a picture of the room. Then he put it in his pocket, opened his laptop and updated the program launched there. Suddenly, visitors saw their skeptical faces on the screen. All this worked automatically. He then explained that he could do the same with any other data - emails, phone numbers, mp3, and anything else. Everything that you did on the phone is automatically reflected on the desktop computer, and vice versa. Essentially, it was iCloud.

Yahoo bought his company in 2005 for about $ 16 million, mostly just to buy Burris. A month later, she bought Flickr.

Burris was a genius, and in all respects a nightmare colleague. One of the most honest descriptions was made by Kellan Elliot-McCree, CTO of Etsy, who used to be the chief architect of Flickr. He wrote on Quora :
Marco Burris was, without a doubt, one of Yahoo’s most terrible, politic, and hated directors, and for 4 years he led the Connected Life project team, which had full control over all of Yahoo’s internal mobile projects. Several attempts by Flickr to make and release their mobile application, which began in 2006, were ruthlessly crushed.

The Yahoo Mobile team has worked terribly slowly on releasing a mobile app. Although the iTunes App Store launched in July 2008, Yahoo Mobile waited a full year before releasing the official Flickr app. And when she finally revealed this belated beast in September 2009, the result was disastrous. Early reviews on the App Store looked like pre-alpha notes for the worst program in the world.

“Not enough functionality to be useful”

“Very slow, and over time it seems to slow down even more”

“I was in a joyful anticipation of this application, only to be very disappointed”

“Slow, buggy, terrible navigation”

“Everything is terribly slow”

Among other problems, the application did not allow downloading several photos at once, it was necessary to manually send them in turn. It compressed the pictures to a resolution of 450 x 600, killing quality. Users had to log into the account through Safari, and not through the application itself. It removed EXIF ​​from files during upload - exactly what the Flickr nerds wanted to see.

People just hated him.

The application resembled a dirty stain on a wedding dress. As one of the users who wrote the review wrote, “this is the worst application for uploading photos to Flickr of all that I tried; in this sense, it’s easier to send pictures by email. ”

And somehow it managed to use Flickr’s two main strengths, the exchange of photos and their storage, completely incorrectly.

Worst of all - at least from a business point of view - you couldn’t log into your Flickr account from within the application. (And this is still the case. It sends you to the web to access via Yahoo if you want to register as a new user). If other applications dragged users into their web services (Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, and especially Instagram), then the Flickr application released by Yahoo Mobile did not have such a mechanism. This was not a tool for recruiting new users, it was needed only by existing ones.

“It's a big oversight,” says Fake. And that is to say the least. This is directly the mother of all the fakaps.

In the meantime, all sorts of new applications appeared that could not only take photos, but also process them. Best Camera and Camera Bag introduced users to the idea of ​​applying automatic filters to mobile photos. A little over a year after the advent of the Flickr application, another photo application appeared, which worked much faster. It was called Instagram.

It's too late today. iPhone is the most popular camera on Flickr, but this feeling is not mutual. Flickr is not even among the 50 most popular free photo apps on iTunes. It is in 64th place, immediately after the Instagram clone. To make you understand: an application that adds cats with lasers from the eyes in the photo is in 23rd place.

If you can't beat laser cats, you probably deserve to die.

What's next

Flickr’s mobile and social failures are symptoms of one problem: a large company is trying to reinvent itself by absorbing small ones, and then letting go of what they had. The history of Flickr is not so different from the Google purchase of the Dodgeball project, or from the way AOL bought Brizzly. Favorite Internet services with loyal communities crashed into the stones of clumsy companies captured by vice presidents.

As a result, Flickr today is no longer the site it was five years ago. This is an Internet backwater. He is not socially attractive.

Flickr recently introduced a photo alignment called justified, where all your friends' photos are arranged like puzzle pieces. This is similar to how Pinterest builds photos. An interesting and wonderful way to look at photographs, with the help of which it is especially clearly visible how rarely people began to update their accounts in the project.

Scrolling through the page, I note how, one after another, my friends stopped posting photos. Having finished up to the bottom of the page, I already hit the middle of 2010. So many friends have disappeared. Very similar to the situation with MySpace in the 2009 area.

These, of course, are not systematic observations, but I follow the actions of many of these people in other social networks (Path, Facebook, Instagram), where they behave very actively. I see pictures of the same people with the same children and dogs - and they are all a year or two older than on Flickr.

Justified-style photo sorting also shows how much of my friends’s photos are formatted as perfect squares — a sure sign of a Instagram photo that was then exported elsewhere. Many of my friends' photo streams consist entirely of Instagram photos. That is, these are just copies of the content streams - with fewer comments and other activity - the main version of which exists elsewhere. The only reason they still have Flickr is to automatically export photos.

There are other signs. On, which tracks what people post on Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, and Flickr blogs, Flickr link information is not even updated daily. And, of course, there is this damn traffic graph with Quantcast:

Despite years of ignoring, the tiny, but very talented Flickr team is desperately trying to level the ship.

Flickr started the year by abandoning a bunch of features that didn't make much sense - such as Photo Sessions, a strange feature that allowed you to show real-time other people your automatically replacing photos in which Yahoo was written in large numbers in real time. Also, the team is in a hurry to roll out new features, such as the same justified viewing or uploading photos running on HTML5. They replaced the photo editor (which used to belong to Google, and now to the late Picnik) with an HTML5-powered tool called Aviary, which allows people to change photos without leaving the page and works well with tablets. To users with the pro plan, he shows photos in the amount of 1600 by 2048 to take advantage of Retina displays.

Flickr's product manager, Marcus Spiring, notes that now his team is getting everything they need from Yahoo. (Of course, one has to assume that he is obliged to say that. But anyway.)

“We have a lot of resources, also within the framework of the main company. The people whose portraits are on the About page represent the core team from San Francisco, but they share with us many horizontal developments. ”

As for the hated login through Yahoo, it is no longer there.

“It’s not so important for us what your passport is - Google ID, Facebook,” he says. - At the same time, we allow sharing photos on other sites. We have many well-functioning and understandable privacy settings, and we consider ourselves a central service. It is in this direction that we lead Flickr - to an excellent central service for photographs. And whatever you use, your photos will get there. ”

Mobile use of the service is still a nightmare. The iOS app, although improved since its release in 2009, is still terrible. For example, it still requires you to log in to your Yahoo account through Safari. And it does not even offer the basic photo editing features or filters available, it seems, in all other photography applications.

“I think I can honestly say that especially for iOS we need to ensure the best quality of our service, but we are working very hard on this,” says Spiring.

Let's say Flickr does it all. Let's say a project can fix its mobile application, re-inspire the community, and, finally, take the same path. The question is: is it too late for this?

It is being attacked not only by Facebook, Instagram, and even, hell, TwitPic and Imgur (Imgur, your mother!), But also by services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Skydrive and Not to mention Apple iCloud and PhotoStream, Google Picasa and, yes, even Google+, which can automatically upload photos from Android in excellent full resolution, saving geotags and EXIF ​​data.

So a return seems unlikely.

Flickr still has its value. He has a huge database of photographs with geographical marks, Creative Commons and Getty licenses, and with captions. But unfortunately, Yahoo's unchanging path of incompetence does not combine with these valuable features. If the Internet was a set of pipes, then Yahoo would be a leaking sewer, shit covering everything that comes into contact.

The main hope of Flickr is that Yahoo will understand its value and decide to earn a couple of bucks on it before they go into a tailspin together. But even so, Flickr will wait a long way. People usually do not return to abandoned homes.

Flickr is still a pretty good service. But he is cute in the same sense as a box with old photographs slid under a bed. This is an archive of your beloved nostalgia that you occasionally stumble upon. You pull them out, bring them to the light and remember the time when you were younger, and the web was a more optimistic place, and it really was definitely the best service in the world for managing and sharing photos online.

And then you close the box. And click on the Facebook icon to see what's new there.

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