Has Yahoo’s relaunch of Flickr revitalized the photo service — or ruined it?

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Even as Yahoo was closing in on its ambitious $1-billion acquisition of Tumblr last week, the web giant was busy on a number of other fronts as well — including a relaunch of its classic photo-sharing service Flickr. But just as some sceptics (including us) have raised red flags about Yahoo’s ability to capitalize on the purchase of Tumblr without ruining it, the Flickr redesign has plenty of vocal critics as well. Are these the usual die-hard users who are simply resistant to change of any kind, or has Yahoo altered Flickr to the point where it has made the service worse rather than better?

As my colleague Laura Owen has described, the new Flickr includes a number of fairly dramatic changes — not the least of which is a full terabyte of storage for all users. Now, instead of a Pro level where members paid for extra storage, Flickr users can pay a monthly charge to have advertising removed from their feed, or they can pay an even larger annual fee to double the amount of space. The user interface of the service has also been completely redesigned to focus on showing large-format photos.

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Changing the look also changes the focus

Not surprisingly, the relaunch caused a storm of controversy on Flickr forums and elsewhere, with many veteran users complaining that it was difficult to find things or that favorite features were missing. As many Yahoo fans have since pointed out, this kind of response occurs virtually every time a service or website launches a new design — and as a result, many supporters have argued that the backlash is just noise and will eventually subside. The redesign also has some prominent fans, including Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield:

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A blogger by the name Newton Gimmick, however, argues in a post at Infinite Hollywood that the backlash to Flickr’s relaunch is more than just the typical knee-jerk response: in his view, the redesign has fundamentally changed some aspects of the service in important ways — ways that make it less likely Flickr will succeed or thrive, rather than more likely. In an attempt to be “cool” or compete with other services like Instagram, he says, Yahoo has ruined what made Flickr different, which was the element of shared community.

“Yahoo’s new vision of Flickr is to try and be a cool site like Tumblr and Instagram. Yahoo is furious that Instagram has so much of the market share. What Yahoo failed to realize is that Flickr doesn’t share the same market with Instagram. Flickr wasn’t ever about posting the latest photos from your iPhone.”

Gimmick argues that because the new layout is aimed at creating an Instagram or Tumblr-style stream of large-format photos, many of the other features that Flickr users relied on to connect with fellow photography enthusiasts and exchange information about their photos are either missing or almost impossibly hard to find. For example, he says, Flickr used to make the “EXIF” data about a photo — the type of camera, aperture size, frame rate, etc. — obvious, but now users have to hunt for it.

Has Flickr lost its core value?

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Yahoo’s CEO set off a minor firestorm following the Flickr relaunch when she said that “there’s no such thing as professional photographers any more,” which many took as a denigration of the industry. Mayer quickly explained that her comments were intended to refer just to the abolishing of the “Pro” tier of Flickr service. But Gimmick argues that the real impact of her comment is to make it clear that Yahoo no longer cares about even hobby photographers: instead, it simply wants to accumulate as many photos as possible.

“They want teenage kids posting up all the stupid duck face photos that they litter Instagram and Facebook with. Because those teen kids, are ad revenue. If you’re hip, people will pay big bucks to advertise on your site. And if you offer tons of free space for kids to post duck face photos, you’ll draw in lots of users and that means lots of ad revenue.”

It’s easy to see Gimmick’s rant as just another lament for the passing of the “good old days” by someone who has been a fan of a service for a long time. But as a long-time Flickr user, I think he might be on to something with his criticisms: I have used the site mostly as a way to backup my photos — but there are plenty of places that make it easy to do that. The real killer feature of Flickr has always been the community aspects, and the redesign diminishes or hides those in many ways.

That may be the kind of tradeoff that Yahoo and Mayer see as worthwhile — perhaps even necessary. But for me and Gimmick, and potentially other users as well, downplaying those features removes the main rationale for our loyalty to the site. If Flickr looks and feels just like every other photo-stream or sharing service, why wouldn’t we just go and use one of those instead?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Getty / Chris Jackson

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