/ 1 April 2005

Flickr stands firm for the future

Stewart Butterfield launched Flickr, the online photo-sharing system, somewhat quietly at last year’s Emerging Technology (ETech) conference in San Diego, California. One year later, at the same show, Flickr is running on almost everybody’s laptop, Butterfield has become a star and, we suspect, a multimillionaire.

The word — confirmed the following week — is that Flickr is being taken over by Yahoo, but Butterfield can’t talk about it, and has threatened anyone who asks with cartoon violence.

It’s fitting that the chief executive of a company called Ludicorp should use a joke to make a serious point.

I became a Butterfield fan five years ago, when Online featured one of his earlier ventures: a competition to design web pages using only 5kB of code. This jokingly made the serious point that too many web pages were bloated, and also gave designers the chance to show just how clever they could be.

After that, he spent a couple of years working on the development of Game Neverending, a massively huge multiplayer online game, which sadly closed in November after Ludicorp decided it didn’t have the resources to develop both that and Flickr.

Still, while Flickr didn’t fit the Ludicorp name, at least it fitted the corporate strategy, which says: ”The goal is to kick ass.” It is admirably direct for a former Wittgenstein fan who got a first in philosophy at Cambridge, and now lives in very laid back Vancouver, Canada.

During ETech, we sat and chatted on one of the wooden benches outside the Westin Hotel, and I asked him why Flickr has been so successful. ”I ask myself that all the time,” he grins. ”Part of it is being in the right place at the right time. There are a few larger trends that converged nicely for us: the spread of the network, Wi-Fi, GPRS, things like that. Another is that a good deal of people now have a capture device with them all the time — a digital camera, a camera phone. The third one is that people are becoming more comfortable interacting with one another online. It no longer seems weird, which it did at one point. The time was ripe for something that would not just allow you to store images but to share them and capture the conversations that go on around them.”

Flickr is also much better now than when it was launched. The extra features include tagging, inspired by the Delicious link-sharing website, and notes. These have made it much easier to find, sort and group photos.

Butterfield also argues that the applications programming interface (API) has been a factor, ”particularly with this [ETech] audience”. Ludicorp provided ways to blog photos, for example, but the API allows other people to write programs that add functionality. ”There are dozens of those. Someone did a screensaver, someone did a wallpaper generator, and a new one is Flickr Postcard,” he says. ”There’s one that takes photos tagged with different colours and arranges them into the shape of a rainbow. The sexy ones get linked around the web the way cool things do, but they all point back to Flickr. If we did a survey, I doubt that many people would say, ‘I joined because of the API’, but they did, indirectly.”

There is as yet no name for add-on apps, so I have coined Flickros, from Flickr and macros — but I don’t expect it to catch on.

Flickr’s co-founder, Caterina Fake, former Salon art director and Butterfield’s wife, joins us to add that Flickr has grown in the wake of the web becoming much more of a social medium, through things such as online dating, Friendster and similar sites. ”Blogging has had a big impact, and people are a lot less frightened of being themselves online,” she says.

Fake points to Flickr’s liberal policy on hotlinking, which allows people to post images on their blogs. It costs Flickr from 5% to 15% of its bandwidth to support offsite uses, Butterfield adds, ”but almost all of them are great for us. The benefits are greater than the cost of bandwidth.”

What about the other kind of abuse common with photo sites: using them to host pornography?

”We haven’t had much of a problem with that,” says Butterfield, ”partly because we were very vigilant in the beginning.” Some moblogging sites — on which people blog from their cellphones — have become almost porn sites because they didn’t stamp it out immediately. ”What people see there, they will post there,” adds Fake.

Flickr is still in beta and has a long way to go to achieve world domination, so what’s next?

”We do need at least versions available in other languages, and billing systems that will allow people in most of the world to buy accounts. Right now we’re using PayPal,” says Butterfield.

”We have quite a large proportion of the Japanese tech-geek community, and a lot of people in the United Arab Emirates taking pictures of their cars and Starbucks in Dubai,” he said ”There’s obviously a much bigger opportunity for us. One of the things we’re waiting for is for the interface to stabilise, and I’m sure there are a lot of culture-specific alterations we’ll have to make.”

Also on the way is the ability to print photos — usually a staple of photo sites.

”There’s a start-up called Qoop, which does print on demand, and last week, a stack of books turned up at our office, of my photos, Caterina’s photos. Maybe you could get photos of your hometown, or midnight in Tokyo, or 11.15pm in Leicester Square,” says Butterfield.

After one year, Flickr has more than 3,5-million photos, with an amazing 82% publicly available. It is turning into a huge global resource. We have barely started to exploit it. — Guardian Unlimited Â