Flickr, where we could live free if only we were willing to pay for it, may be on its last leg (again). On Thursday, TechCrunch reports, Flickr’s relatively new owner SmugMug has sent out an appeal to paying subscribers to tell their friends, bluntly describing Flickr as “the world’s most-beloved, money-losing business”. They’re not sugar-coating it. Cough up, people.
Flickr, which runs on ads for free users, is essentially a storage company. As SmugMug likes to emphasise, often, it pays for the blasted Amazon Web Services, and rightfully makes the case that you should too. “Unlike platforms like Facebook, we also didn’t buy it to invade your privacy and sell your data,” CEO Don MacAskill wrote in the email.
“It serves billions of photos every single day,” he wrote. “It’s huge. It’s a priceless treasure for the whole world. And it costs money to operate. Lots of money.” As of last year, Flickr claimed to host over 100 million unique users.
MacAskill admittedly had no idea what he was signing up for when SmugMug bought Flickr in 2018. At the time, he told USA Today that “it sounds silly for the CEO not to totally know what he’s going to do, but we haven’t built SmugMug on a master plan either. We try to listen to our customers and when enough of them ask for something that’s important to them or to the community, we go and build it”.
The sum was undisclosed, but Verizon subsidiary Oath seemed happy to offload it. “We’re thrilled for these two brands to come together to grow their photo sharing communities and continue to innovate for their members,” Oath told USA Today last year.
In 2004, Yahoo (before it was acquired by Verizon) bought Flickr for about $22 to $25 million (£16 to £19 million) – insanely cheap compared to Myspace’s $250 (£192) million 2007 purchase of Photobucket – and left it to languish. PetaPixel was optimistic about the acquisition; SmugMug is beloved by photographers so much that they’re willing to pay for it, and according to Crunchbase, it’s profitable. The subscription-only service allows users to sell prints via the site for a 15 per cent commission.
Months later, SmugMug announced a mass deletion of photos for Flickr users who didn’t spring for the $50 (£38) annual Flickr Pro subscription, cutting their storage limit to 1,000 photos. It was a lurching process, and not all companies provide the courtesy of a warning.
Flickr competitor Photobucket, which charges $60 (£46) a year for 50 GB of storage and hasn’t been heard from much since the 2000s, still quietly exists (though at the time of writing it’s tweeting apologies for an outage).
Nobody likes to be asked for money, but at least they’re being honest. Flickr is more than just a place for storage, it’s also an important repository for creative commons images from which we all reap benefits.
SmugMug was not available for comment at publication time. You can read the full letter below, via TechCrunch. Freedom isn’t free.
Dear Flickr Pros,
First, and above all else: thank you. Thank you for being a part of our community. Thank you for caring about Flickr. Thank you for supporting Flickr. Thank you for being a Flickr Pro.
Two years ago, Flickr was losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Our company, SmugMug, stepped in to rescue it from being shut down and to save tens of billions of your precious photos from being erased.
Why? We’ve spent 17 years lovingly building our company into a thriving, family-owned and -operated business that cares deeply about photographers. SmugMug has always been the place for photographers to showcase their photography, and we’ve long admired how Flickr has been the community where they connect with each other. We couldn’t stand by and watch Flickr vanish.
So we took a big risk, stepped in, and saved Flickr. Together, we created the world’s largest photographer-focused community: a place where photographers can stand out and fit in.
And yet, Flickr – the world’s most-beloved, money-losing business – still needs your help.
We’ve been hard at work improving Flickr. We hired an excellent, large staff of Support Heroes who now deliver support with an average customer satisfaction rating of above 90%. We got rid of Yahoo’s login. We moved the platform and every photo to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the industry leader in cloud computing, and modernized its technology along the way. As a result, pages are already 20% faster and photos load 30% more quickly. Platform outages, including Pandas, are way down. Flickr continues to get faster and more stable, and important new features are being built once again.
Our work is never done, but we’ve made tremendous progress.
Flickr still needs your help. It’s still losing money. You, and hundreds of thousands of loyal Flickr members stepped up and joined Flickr Pro, for which we are eternally grateful. It’s losing a lot less money than it was. But it’s not yet making enough.
We need more Flickr Pro members if we want to keep the Flickr dream alive, and we need your help to share the story of Flickr.
We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was a cash cow. Unlike platforms like Facebook, we also didn’t buy it to invade your privacy and sell your data. We bought it because we love photographers, we love photography, and we believe Flickr deserves not only to live on but thrive. We think the world agrees; and we think the Flickr community does, too. But we cannot continue to operate it at a loss as we’ve been doing.
Flickr is the world’s largest photographer-focused community. It’s the world’s best way to find great photography and connect with amazing photographers. Flickr hosts some of the world’s most iconic, most priceless photos, freely available to the entire world. This community is home to more than 100 million accounts and tens of billions of photos. It serves billions of photos every single day. It’s huge. It’s a priceless treasure for the whole world. And it costs money to operate. Lots of money.
As you know, Flickr is the best value in photo sharing anywhere in the world. Flickr Pro members get ad-free browsing for themselves and their visitors, advanced stats, unlimited full-quality storage for all their photos, plus premium features and access to the world’s largest photographer-focused community.
Please, help us spread the word. Help us make Flickr thrive. Help us ensure Flickr has a bright future. Every Flickr Pro subscription goes directly to keeping Flickr alive and creating great new experiences for photographers like you. We are building lots of great things for the Flickr community, but we need your help. We can do this together.
We’re launching our end-of-year Pro subscription campaign on Thursday, December 26, but I want to give you a coupon code to share with friends, family, or anyone who shares your love of photography and community so they can enjoy the same 25% discount before the campaign starts.
We’ve gone to great lengths to optimize Flickr for cost savings wherever possible, but the increasing cost of operating this enormous community and continuing to invest in its future will require a small price increase early in the new year, so this is truly the very best time to help everyone upgrade to a Pro membership.
If you value Flickr finally being independent, built for photographers and by photographers, we need your help.
Co-Founder, CEO & Chief Geek, SmugMug + Flickr