Bad Flickr: No donut for you

The day before yesterday, I blogged about Flickr forcing users to switch over to using a Yahoo! ID to access their Flickr account, and the patronising email I got about it. I was not a happy camper.

Now the furore has developed, and Flickr/Yahoo look even worse. Maybe it’s just bad timing, but it seems there are three main issues running concurrently here.

1. The forced switch to a Yahoo! ID.
2. Flickr forcing graceless limits to friends and tags.
3. Yahoo! using ‘all rights reserved’ and ‘non-commercial’ Creative Commons licensed photos on their Wii page, for commercial gain.

Oh dear. What a mess.

The forced switch to Yahoo!
Flickr announced in 2005 that they were going to be shifting to the Yahoo! log-in, and in a BBC article from September 05, they reassured people that all would really be ok with this move:

“We care deeply about our community, and their worries are ours,” [Caterina] Fake told the BBC News website.

“But I think the fears are unfounded. As always, the proof is in the pudding. We’re tending to our knitting, and making sure the Flickr experience is as good as it’s always been.”

But mistrust of Yahoo! goes back a long way, and disgruntled Flickr members started the Flick Off group to protest. There are now 1533 members, counting down to the day when Flickr IDs will be turned off and some of them will quit Flickr for good. The official Flickr forum thread is currently running at 1681 responses, and still going strong. The issues people are worried about include:

  • Finding an available Yahoo! ID that doesn’t suck.
  • Hating your existing Yahoo! ID; or losing the password and being unable to retrieve it.
  • Hating the unpleasant and long-winded Yahoo! sign-up process, which includes questions some people find intrusive and objectionable. For an insight into this process, take a look at Chris Messina’s screenshots.
  • Intermittency of Yahoo! sessions – people like being permanently logged into Flickr and don’t want to have to keep logging into Yahoo! (This is supposed to have been fixed now, but not everyone is happy with the cookie-based solution.)
  • Concern that, in the UK at least, Yahoo! is wedded to British Telecom’s broadband service and that by tying Flickr to Yahoo! they are also tying Flickr to BT. This is not good – if you want to change ISP you loose your BT Internet email address, which would then invalidate your Yahoo! ID and cut you off from Flickr.
  • Yahoo!’s habit of tracking usage using cookies and other methods.
  • Fear that Yahoo! will terminate your account for reasons unclear or unreasonable, thus locking you out of Flickr.
  • Fear that your Yahoo! account will expire without you realising it, thus locking you out of Flickr.
  • The item in the official help page that says if you terminate your Yahoo! account, you will also terminate your Flickr account and delete all your photos (see below).
  • A perception that Yahoo! marketing practises are unethical and exploitative.
  • Fear that Yahoo! will screw with Flickr the same way they screwed with other sites they bought in the past.
  • Technical issues with the Yahoo! sign-in screen, such as it timing out and not allowing browsers to save the password.
  • Issues with different Terms of Service for Yahoo!
  • Confusion for people with multiple accounts of either kind.
  • A feeling that if one has signed up with and paid money to Flickr, one should not have to now sign up to Yahoo!
  • Problems with people losing photos and contacts after merging their Flickr account with their Yahoo! account.
  • Concern that people who have paid for Pro accounts, but who choose not to switch to Yahoo!, will lose their money.

I could go on – this list is just culled from the first two pages of the thread and, whilst it’s admirable to see some participation from Flickr staff, they don’t seem to be really appreciating the depth of feeling about this nor do they appear to be systematically answering questions. Are these concerns and fears legitimate? Some are minor niggles that aren’t all that big of a deal, some have already been addressed by the Flickr team, but some are deeply disturbing. For example, if you delete your Yahoo! ID, you will also be deleting your Flickr account, as the official help page says:

I’m going to delete my Yahoo! account. What happens to my Flickr photos?
If you sign in to Flickr with a Yahoo! ID and you then delete your Yahoo! account, you will not be able to sign in to your Flickr account. In the future, this will delete your Flickr account as well, including all of your photos, but currently your Flickr account must be deleted separately.

This seems like a really rather harsh policy. Are users really clear on this point?

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Another worrying point is this:

If I lose access to my Yahoo! account or my account is deactivated, will I be able to sign in to my Flickr account?
If you use a Yahoo! ID to sign in to Flickr, you need to have access to that Yahoo! ID in order to get in to Flickr. If you lose access that account, we can help you get back in to Flickr. In the case of persistent problems with your Yahoo! ID, you may be able to switch your account to be associated with a different Yahoo! ID.

Which just makes me think, They’re anticipating persistent problems?

The discussion isn’t just happening on Flickr. Bloggers aren’t too happy either – Adriana Lukas, Ben Metcalfe, Scott Gilbertson, and Bruce Sterling are just some of the people who have written about it. Bruce says:

Look, FlickR, I completely understand your commercial reasons for doing this, but I don’t trust Yahoo. You were once a groovy little photo club while Yahoo is way, way into massive datamining. I don’t want to belong to Yahoo any more than I’d want to belong to or googlemail. Of course I’m already aware that Yahoo is combing all those tags and photos looking for something they can sell me, or sell about me — but my refusal to join Yahoo! served as one small political indicator that I rather like FlickR and don’t like invasive Web 1.0 behemoths. To have Yahoo imperially dictating these measures to me doesn’t make me like Yahoo any better. It would cost Yahoo NOTHING to allow me to sign in by another method; the fact that they insist on my reduction to yahoo-hood is a tactless indicator of their bad intent.

But isn’t this just about databases? Why is everyone so up in arms? Well, I don’t think this is just about databases. If it was, we’d all be supremely disinterested.

This is about a clash of brands, for one. Flickr is, to me, everything Yahoo! is not: warm, friendly, personal, trustworthy, reliable, fun, playful, cutting edge, exciting, and user-centred. Yahoo! is impersonal, corporate, faceless, uncommunicative, clunky, icky, killjoy, untrustworthy. And these aren’t all irrational reactions – people have real reasons for feeling like this, based on their past experiences of Yahoo!, from shoddy marketing practises to the impossibility of getting hold of Yahoo! customer services.

Of course, everyone’s experience of the brand is different, but I’m not alone in seeing these brands in these ways. So there is here a fundamental emotional problem, trying to move people away from a warm fuzzy feeling and towards a cold corporate feeling. No wonder they are resisting.

Secondly, this is about change. People hate change. A great illustration for this is the eBay story, told to me yesterday morning by Dan Dickinson: eBay used to have a yellow background to some of their pages, which they decided to remove in a redesign. Users hated it so much that eBay felt compelled to reinstate it. Over the following months, however, the shade was gradually lightened until, guess what? No yellow. No one noticed. (See slides 41 and 42 of Rose Pruyne’s presentation on incremental design.)

The guys at Flickr think they have given us 18 months to switch, because that’s the amount of time it’s been since they originally announced this. The problem is that 18 months is a long time, and most of us probably weren’t paying attention back then so either completely forgot about it or never heard the original announcement. There have been no incremental changes that ease us into the new system, so this change comes as a shock. And of course, we hate change.

Highlighting the Yahoo! log-in boxes and demoting the Flickr ones to a page buried deep in the bowels of Flickr does not constitute gradual change, because it was very easy to just ignore it. Of course, incremental change wouldn’t have solved the problem for those who dislike Yahoo!, but if they had communicated better in the run up to this ultimatum, and given us some better reasons for the change, perhaps that may have ameliorated some of the ill-will.

And finally, it’s about convenience. Ours, not theirs. So far, I have yet to see any compelling arguments as to why this change is good for me. It’s inconvenient and annoying, but I can’t see any way in which it’s going to improve my Flickr experience. Flickr should have come up with some much better reasons for doing this than ‘it’s good for us, and oh, it’ll help with some services you probably aren’t ever going to use’.

Graceless limitations
The second thing Flickr have done is to limit the number of friends you can have to 3,000, and the number of tags you can put on a picture to 75. Now, 3,000 is a lot of friends, and 75 is a lot of tags, and these limits are exceeded only by a tiny minority. On this Flickr help thread, a user states that only 0.00156% of photos on Flickr have more than 75 tags, and only 300 people have more than 3000 contacts.

According to Flickr staff member Miles Grant, this limit has been imposed for performance issues, but it seems from the discussion that some of the people who would be affected by this are those posting pictures that feature nudity which, because of Flickr’s policy on revealing images, they have to keep private. The only way for people to access those images is to be a friend of the person posting them. There is a workaround for this, but you can see why people might end up with lots of contacts.

Others, well, they simply do have a lot of contacts, and they’re not happy. And who can blame them? If you have 5000 friends, and you have to delete 2001 of them before you can add another, you probably wouldn’t be happy either.

The performance problems – that having too many contacts degrades page loading times for those with large contacts lists and everyone else – has been questioned by people who’ve got lots of contacts but haven’t noticed degradation. But either way, again, it’s not really what you do, it’s how you do it.

Flickr have not implemented this with any grace. Reports are that if you do have more than 3,000 friends, then you have to go through and delete the excess by hand, which is a tedious process to say the least. Some people have up to 19,000 friends, and Flickr isn’t helping them to manage that problem. To me, the issue here isn’t about the limits, but about imposing limits without thinking about how this will affect people on a practical level.

Yahoo! using ‘All Rights Reserved’ Flickr images to promote their Wii page
And finally, the jaw dropper.

When you upload images to Flickr, you can add a Creative Commons licence to them, including licences which specify that your work cannot be used commercially. The default copyright – all rights reserved – equally prohibits the use of a work without permission.

Yahoo!, though, decided that this didn’t really apply to them, and decided to use photos in Flickr with the ‘Wii’ tag on their own Wii page, regardless of the licence those images were uploaded under. There is no doubt at all that this Yahoo! Wii page is commercial – it has adverts on it for Yahoo! properties, and acts to promote Yahoo!’s coverage of the Wii. It is, in fact, a new venture by Yahoo!, part of their new ‘Brand Universes’ project which aims to create “vertical content portals that aim to attract large communities for a specific brand”, as Ars Technica reports.

wii yahoo flickr.jpg

And here’s a screenshot I took earlier…

TechCrunch says:

Yahoo’s brand-centric sites, announced in November 2006 and dubbed “Brand Universe”, have started to go live. These sites each revolve around a single popular brand – like this one on the Nintendo Wii – and have almost no original content. Instead, Yahoo is taking content from Flickr,, Yahoo Answers and other Yahoo properties, along with some slick graphics, and hoping for page views.

Which doesn’t seem too bad until you read further down in the Ars Technical article:

Yahoo is not asking for input from marketers nor seeking licenses for the content, however, Broady told reporters. “We’re doing what makes sense for the users,” he said. “Yahoo has loved to work with brand owners, but we’ve shown we don’t need them to promote the content. We don’t pay a license, we’re tapping a community within Yahoo.”


It seems fairly clear why people would be pissed off about this. It’s a clear violation of copyright and Creative Commons licences, and there can be no argument that this is wrong. Again, there’s a thread about this on the Flickr forums, and a short one on the Yahoo! Wii site feedback forums. It’s also really distasteful – it smacks of exploitation and corporate arrogance.

After the matter had been brought up on Flickr, a staff member did take action:

Update! I have spoken with the team working on and they are going to be changing the site to only use images with appropriately licensed Creative Commons photos effective very soon.

But Flickr users hit back with astonishing speed. In a nice example of mass Flickr disobedience, thousands of non-Wii photos have been labelled with the Wii tag, polluting the Flickrstream with pictures of cats and mushrooms and suitably snarky graphics.

wii yahoo flickr 2.jpg

Is this appropriation of people’s photos for commercial gain not exactly the kind of behaviour that people were worried about? The sort of arrogant disregard for users’ rights (and feelings) that people were worried about? Not a good sign.

Flickr and Yahoo! have dealt with these three issues clumsily, and they need to learn not to make mistakes like this again. It is difficult to get it right all the time, obviously, but I don’t think they’re dealing with the fallout very gracefully either. And that’s a shame, given that all the people I know who work at Flickr or Yahoo! are lovely folk who’d bend over backwards to help you.

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