January 12, 2011

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[2 February update... A new case has come up, of accidental deletion. More details here and here. The company has also updated its community guidelines. It's still not clear why the company does not save deleted accounts. My provisional assuption is that the reason is legal rather than technical. But I'd love to hear somebody from Flickr (or somebody familiar with their systems) tell me that's wrong. In any case, deleted accounts should be kept, somewhere, somehow, one would think.]

As of last October, hosted 5,000,000,000 images. I’m approaching 50,000 images on Flickr right now. Sooo… if I lop off a bunch of zeros that comes to… .001% of the total. Not much, but maybe enough to show on their radar.

Here is what I hope they see: some heavy Flickr users are getting worried. Those with the most cause for worry are at the ‘pro’ level, meaning we pay for the service. (In my case, I pay for two of the four at links above). One cause for worry is reports of sudden and unexplained account deletions. The other is the possibility that Flickr might fail for the same reason that, say, is now failing. That is, by declining use, disinterest or mismanagement by the parent corporation, or a decline in advertising revenues.

Of particular interest right now is a report by of Deepa Praveen’s Flickr Pro account deletion. She claims she lost 600 photos, 6,000 emails, 600 contacts, 20,000 favorites, 35,000 comments, 250,000 views and more. “Don’t I deserve a reason before they pressed the DEL key?” she writes.

Of course we only have her side on this thing, so far, so bear that in mind.

Meanwhile the closest thing I can find to an explanation in Flickr’s Help Forum is this thread, which leads me to think the most likely reason for the deletion is that Deepa voilated some term of service. But, I dunno. Maybe somebody from Flickr can explain in the comments below.

Still, even if blame for the deletion ends up falling at least partly on Deepa (which I hope it does not, and have no reason yet to think it should), one’s exposure on Flickr goes up with the sum of photos one puts there. And the greater risk is not of Flickr’s deletion of customers, but of the market’s deletion of Flickr. Because, after all, Flickr is a business and no business lasts forever. Least of all in the tech world.

Right now that world looks to advertising for paying many big Web companies’ bills, and for driving those companies’ valuations on Wall Street and in pre-IPO private markets. Some numbers… The online advertising business right now totals about $63 billion, close to half of which goes to Google. In fact the whole advertising business, worldwide, only comes to $463 billiion. (Sources: and Google Investor Relations.) That’s a lot of scratch, but does that alone justify the kinds of valuations that and are getting these days? A case can be made, but that case is a lot weaker if Facebook and Google remain mostly in the advertising business. Which, so far, it looks like they will.

Wall Street is less enthusiastic about , but still a little upbeat, perhaps because advertising is still hot, and Yahoo still makes most of its money from “marketing services.” Flickr is part of Yahoo. I can’t find out how much Flickr brings in, but I’m curious to know what percentage comes from Pro account subscriptions, versus advertising placed on non-pro account pages.

There are cracks in the edifice of the online advertising. This comScore report, for example, and an earlier one, both show that ‘natural born clickers’ (that is, people who like to click on ads, versus the rest of us) account for a huge percentage of all the clicks on advertising, which pays based on “click-throughs”. Chas Edwards says, “these ‘natural born clickers’ are not the most desirable demographic for most advertisers: They skew toward Internet users with household incomes below $40,000 who spend more time than average at gambling sites and career advice sites.”

Among all the revenue diets a company might have, advertising equates best with candy. Its nutritive value is easily-burned carbohydrates. A nice energy boost, but not the protien-rich stuff comprised of products and services that provide direct benefits or persistent assets. (I can hear ad folk’s blood begin to boil here. “Advertising is nutritive! It delivers lots of positive public and private good!” Please, bear in mind that I made my bones for many years in the advertising business. I co-founded and served as creative director for one of Silicon Valley’s top agencies for many years. My name was on a building in Palo Alto when I did that. I know what the candy is, how it’s made, how easily most companies who use it can get along without it, and how it differs from stuff they can’t get along without.*)

Regardless of whether or not you think the online advertising business is a bubble (which I do right now, but I’m a voice in the wilderness), we should face the fact that we are seriously exposed when we place our businesses and online lives in the hands of companies that make most of their money from advertising, and that aren’t diversifying into other businesses that aren’t based on guesswork.

I just got off the phone (actually Skype) with folks working on a project that examines Facebook. Many questions were asked. Rather than repeat what you’ll hear me say when that show is produced, I’d rather point to one example that should prove at least some of my points: MySpace.

What’s to stop another company from doing to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace? More to my point, what’s to stop some new owned-by-nobody technology or collection of protocols and free code from doing to Facebook what SMTP, POP3 and IMAP (the protocols of free and open email) did to MCI Mail, Compuserve mail, AOL mail, and the rest of the closed mail systems that competed with each other as commercial offerings? Not much, frankly.

So I think we need to do two things here.

First is to pay more for what’s now free stuff. This is the public radio model, but with much less friction (and therefore higher contribution percentages) on the customers’ side. In  (at the ) we’re working on that with . Here’s a way EmanciPay will help newspapers. And here’s our Knight News Challenge application for doing the same with all media sources. You can help by voting for it.

Second is to develop self-hosted versions of Flickr, or the equivalent. Self-hosting is the future we’ll have after commercial hosting services like Flickr start to fail. Fortunately, self-hosting is what the Web was meant to support in the first place, and the architecture is still there. We’ll have our own Flickrs and Zoomrs and Picassas, either on servers at home (ISP restrictions permitting) or in a server rack at the likes of RackSpace. But somebody needs to develop the software. has been working in this direction for years. Flickr Fan being one example. The end point of his work’s vector is Silo-free everything on the open web. We are going to get there.

Fortunately Flickr has a generous API Garden that does allow the copying off of most (or all) data that goes with your photographs. I’m interested in being able to copy all my photos and metadata off into my own self-hosted system. How much they would welcome that, I don’t know. But their API is certainly encouraging. And I do want them to stay in business. They’ve been a terrific help for me, and many other photographers, and we do appreciate what they’ve done and still do. And I think they can succeed. In fact, I’d be glad to help with that.

But mainly I want them, and every other silo out there, to realize that the pendulum has now swung full distance in the silo’d direction — and that it’s going to swing back in the direction of open and distributed everything. And there’s plenty of money to be made there too.

I think they might also consider going all-pro or mostly-pro. I say that because I’m willing to pay more than I do now, for a serious pro account — meaning one in which I have more of a relationship with the company. When the average price of first-rate cameras and lenses each run well into four figures, paying, say, $100+ per year for hosting of photos and other value-adds isn’t a bad deal. Hell, I used to pay that much, easy, per month, for film processing, back in the last millennium. And I did most of that at Costco.

So here’s hoping we can talk, that Deepa can recover what she’s lost (or at least see a path toward something better than the relationship she had with Flickr), and that the entrepreneurs and VCs out there will start seeing value in new open-Web start-ups, rather than the ad-funded and silo’d ones that are still fashionable today.

[Later (28 January)...] Thomas Hawk reports,

…after getting three previous non-answer emails from them over the past few weeks, this morning they seem to have finally given her an official answer on why her account was deleted.

From Flickr:

Hi there,

Like I said before, we saw behavior in your account that
went against our guidelines and required us to take action -
which was to delete your account. Our guidelines apply to
any and all content you post on Flickr – photos you upload,
comments you make, group discussions you participate in,
etc.

I am afraid I cannot give you any more specific information
than this.

Thank you for your understanding,
Cathryn”

The only problem is though, according to Deepa she said she hasn’t participated in any discussions or group threads in Flickr for over a year. And she felt that her content very much adhered to the Flickr Guidelines.

I assume that Cathryn had no answer, and that this was the best Flickr could do.

I would like to say this is unacceptable, except that it is acceptable. We accept it when we click “accept” to Flickr’s terms of service when we take out an account with them. And Flickr is no exception here. ALL websites and services like Flickr’s have similar terms.

And we can’t expect the sites to fix them. We have to do that, by proffering our own terms.

Which we’re working on. Stay tuned.

*I actually have hopes for advertising — not as the super-targeted, quant-driven, “personalized” stuff that’s all the rage these days; but as a new communications mechanism on the corporate side of real conversational marketing, in which the customer has full status as a sovereign individual, and takes initiative, expresses intentions, and engages through mechanisms he or she controls (and preferably also owns).

I’m sure all of us with mobile phones do the same thing. When we go into a meeting, a movie, chruch or whatever, we silence our phones. And then forget to un-silence them when we’re done. Then, after too much time has passed, we remember — or are reminded by means other than the phone, such as a spouse saying “Why didn’t you answer when I called? — that we’d turned it off.

So I suggest an un-silencer option. You would set the silencer to snooze for one, two, three or some other number of hours, and then return to normal.

Maybe some phones have this already.

Yes, I know that on some phones, such as the i, the silencer is a physical slider. But it can still be done in software on phones that allow it.

And yes, I know this is a trivial issue, but it’s how I’m dealing now with three missed calls.