September 27, 2021

Tragedy of the (Flickr) Commons?

For a while now word on the street had been that Flickr was no longer accepting participants in their "Flickr Commons" project, so I wasn’t surprised so much as dismayed when today I received confirmation of that fact. It came in the form of short statement on their page for registering to participate. It reads, in full:

Due to the current backlog of requests, we will not be accepting new registrations or requests to join the Commons through 2010.

We apologize for the inconvenience. However, please feel free to begin sharing your photos on Flickr. You don’t need to be an official Commons partner to use our service, as long as you’re abiding by the Yahoo! Terms of Service and the Flickr Community Guidelines.

Thanks for your interest in the Flickr Commons.

Best Regards,

The Flickr Commons team

The Flickr Commons team? Is this a joke? Flickr laid off George Oates over a year ago, who was at the very least the public face of the Flickr Commons. Since no one apparently replaced her in that role, the level of commitment Yahoo has for the project seems obvious.

When Ms. Oates was fired, Tom Scheinfeldt wrote: "…the news about George Oates, someone who was universally well-regarded in our business and in the web business more generally, should give all of us pause. Specifically, it should let us ask again whether the benefits in ease, reach, and community of using commercial services for presenting cultural heritage collections and educational resources really outweigh the costs in storage, systems administration, and content segregation of rolling your own."

At the time he also said that "My guess is that Flickr Commons will be just fine, and I still believe there is a lot of good in the idea." Sure, it’s a great idea, but Tom may want to revisit whether he still thinks it will be just fine, or whether the firing of Ms. Oates was simply the first step in a process to decommission what Yahoo may feel is a costly distraction.

Meanwhile, once again we are reminded what it may mean, at times, to run with the big boys. They can choose, at any time, to take their ball and go home and there is nothing we can do about it.

My thanks to my colleague Günter Waibel for brining this to my attention.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Michael Porter says:

    My thoughts exactly. As much as I love what Flickr does, it is NEVER lost on me that what they do skirts dangerously close to what I believe a modern library should be doing for patrons (and empowering patrons to do through the library). Fascinating developments in a continually fascinating area of observation, research and conversation. Glad you called it out here, Roy.

  2. Tom Scheinfeldt says:

    Thanks for this post, Roy. This news certainly lends some new urgency to my earlier concern. (And I can’t say I didn’t experience at least a brief moment of “I told you so” when I first heard it.) I guess where I still come down on the subject is that as long as folks understand the risks of using a commercial service, have spare capacity to devote to something that could easily disappear, don’t expect to draw any collections data back into their local databases, and don’t put any hopes whatsoever in Flickr as a preservation pathway, then the service can still provide a useful outlet for engaging community around collections.

    Those, of course, are HUGE caveats.

    Bottom line: Flickr Commons is not a cultural heritage “project” in the way those of us in the biz think of one (i.e. something that has had to account in advance for issues of scalability, preservation, sustainability, and other issues of special importance to collections professionals) and potential participants need to know that going in.

  3. Roy Tennant says:

    Tom, totally with you. As long as something like the Flickr Commons is an “add on” and not something you depend on, then go for it. But in the end, we can only depend on ourselves.

  4. Michael Casey says:

    Your points are well taken but the fact of the matter is, what options do libraries have if they want to get their content seen by as many people as possible? You can create and save the content locally (or in a paid cloud) but your content is going to be hidden and findable by a very small number of people. Flickr has the traffic to get your content seen by many and allows for the social interaction and global openness we want (as can, to a lesser extent, other services like Photobucket). We need to save our content (locally and using services like Backupify) but we need to get that content out there so people can easily access it. Flickr remains one of the best options and I certainly hope that they continue the Commons project.

  5. I suspect the decision was made because hosting content for libraries for free is a terrible business to be in. The storage space required is likely very large for most collections as compared to the traffic they generate. But that’s just a guess.

    On a more fundamental level, this is very much a tragedy of the commons in a less punny use of the phrase.

    A handful of players enter an online business with very deep-pocketed investors, whether spun up by an existing conglomerate or backed by venture capital. Their aim is simply market share, and profit can come later, through some undetermined means.

    If persisted for awhile, this will often destroy all the alternatives that are not able or willing to use such a business model, and it sets unrealistic expectations in the community.

    You’re left either with stranded and spoiled former users, or a single large corporate player that has formed such a large monopoly that the business can begin to profit from it. It’s ugly, and I’ve seen it recapitulated in several unique sectors in the Internet era.

  6. I have never understood why libraries and museums chose to cooperate with flickR, a commercial company with a “fun” audience, rather than Wikimedia Commons, a non-profit organization with an educational goal.

  7. Flickr cites backlog as the reason for the decision. I think the time it takes to process requests is taken for granted, especially when reading some of the commentary in the archival and library community. I don’t think its simply the “big boys taking their ball and going home,” but devoting more time to analyzing the content they have received and preparing the collection for public viewing. Processing collections, whether digital or in print, takes time and is an issue of manpower and resources available for the project. From what I can understand, the closing isn’t permanent and the article is a bit of an overreaction.

  8. Hmmm, “tragic” — really?

    Maybe not everyone agrees — see the ArchivesNext post from January 25th and the indicommons post from January 28th.

  9. BTW, Flickr Commons was not hosting for “free.” Commons participants had to buy a Flickr “Pro” account. Granted, that does not cost much. Also, I don’t know of any participant who sees the Flickr Commons as a cultural heritage solution. They see the Commons as a way to get exposure for collections they curate elsewhere. The Flickr version actually gets _seen_ and contains links back to the home museum or library. It is a way to get “in the flow.”

    I’m not sure why Flickr had such a hard time managing this project. I hope they pick up the ball again, but frankly the lethargy with which they approached it since George left does no give me much confidence in that outcome.

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