Will SmugMug Keep Flickr Free To Use?

Class 150 Diesel Train - Birmingham, 2000

It’s a testament to Yahoo!/Oath’s running of Flickr in recent times, that it took an official email notification of SmugMug’s new acquisition to remind me that Flickr still existed. For reasons I outlined in the recent Oath/Tumblr post, businesses such as Oath do not inspire great confidence in creative people. But unlike Oath, SmugMug is not a portal-wielding bait-baron obsessed with trite, populist news and cheesily-executed ad campaigns. It’s a photo-sharing business. So, has Flickr been saved?

It’s not difficult to understand SmugMug’s interest in the ailing behemoth of Flickr. As a subscription-based service, SmugMug stands to net a tidy sum out of the cross-promotional access it’ll gain to Flickr’s vast userbase. But what about Flickr itself? Has it been acquired purely for the purpose of cross-promo, or does SmugMug actually intend to cater for free users in the long term?

One of the most obvious indications as to whether a company will take a particular path, is its history. And SmugMug has always favoured the subscription model. There was also a decidedly suspicious “…at this time.” tagged onto the end of SmugMug Director Don MacAskill’s assertion that Flickr would retain free options. Even without that important little wriggle-out-of-jail clause, MacAskill’s reassurances fell firmly into the category of “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”. Realistically, he was never going to admit: “We don’t like ad-supported services, so in time, our entire operation will be subscription-only.” This isn’t to say he sees the future that way – just that it’s not currently in his interests to say so if he does.

Ultimately, you have to assess what, in a business sense, Flickr offers to an owner in its present format. Oath wanted shot of it, Facebook instead lusted after Instagram, and given the almighty conflict between generating sufficient ad revenue and keeping the user experience tolerable, you have to ask if free Flickr users have much value to any owner – let alone one who blatantly favours subscription.

Some see it as a positive that SmugMug is focused on photography – and in most senses, it is a positive. But if a company specialises and has all its eggs in one basket, it will inevitably have a much closer eye on the little things. The precise elements that aren’t profitable, versus those that are. Amid the sigh of relief among Flickr users as Oath clears its desk, it shouldn’t be forgotten that SmugMug has to make this work. If SmugMug decides it doesn’t want Flickr, no portal-wielding bait-baron is going to be writing out a generous cheque in two or three years’ time. If it fails under SmugMug, Flickr is pretty much a dead duck.

And adding weight to the theory that SmugMug may in time scrap or much more heavily limit free usage on Flickr, is the fact it knows that charging the photographer works. The subscription model has been successful for SmugMug, so whilst the company may indeed be happy to see how the ad-supported option runs at this time, it probably wouldn’t take much adversity in that side of the business to prompt a more aggressive drive towards subscriptions.

But this is all academic for me at the moment. I last posted on Flickr in 2015, and so far I’ve heard nothing from the new operation to suggest that the horrendous tide of scraping and image theft would be tackled. True, SmugMug does pay attention to image protection, but it’s also expressed a commitment to invest in the very API which so easily facilitates the scraping of Flickr content.

I wanted to hear a strong commitment to image protection – something which was placed at the core of both Instagram and Snapchat. Neither of those services is thief-proof, but they’ve certainly taken the problem of stemming redistribution seriously. I don’t see it as a coincidence that apps which jealously guard the images posted to them – by default and not as some kind of luxury extra – have won such favour with users. Photographers are sick to the teeth of having to chase unauthorised re-posters round the Internet, and sadly, Flickr has consistently missed the boat on image protection. It doesn’t compete well as a social or viral resource today either.

Once Flickr reached the point where its scraper sites were commonly outranking the original posts on Google, it was patently in deep trouble. If anyone can dig it out of that hole, it probably is SmugMug. But I don’t see Flickr retaking the casual market. I see it living or dying at the hands of the serious photographer, who doesn’t mind spending a few quid to professionally showcase their work.