Flickr Reinvents itself with a new Nonprofit Photo History Archive

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Flickr, a former Yahoo property acquired by SmugMug in 2018, has reinvented itself with a social purpose. The website is doing this by launching a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of humanity’s photographic history.

The new organization is called the Flickr Foundation and its mission is to preserve and keep “billions of historic and culturally significant photographs safe, sound, and accessible for future generations.”

This certainly sounds ambitious, but it’s not something entirely recent either. Instead, the initiative has a surprising amount of history backing it up.

According to SmugMug, the legacy of the new foundation can be traced back to 2008 when a designer at Flickr named George Oates decided to create a digital solution for the vast collections of historical photographs owned or managed by cultural institutions.

As a result, Oates created something called the Flickr Commons program, which worked with the Library of Congress and Flickr to begin archiving massive troves of these historical images.

historical photo of martin luther king Jr.

According to Oates, there were two main goals to this original program. The first of these was to expand people’s exposure to “the amazing content currently held in the public collections of civic institutions around the world”.

The second goal was to “facilitate the collection of knowledge about these collections, with the hope that this information would feed back into the catalogs, making them richer and easier to reach.”

Oates later went on to work as the director of the Open Library project at the Internet Archive and while there, she also designed new interfaces for the Book Reader, the Wayback Machine and the 9/11 Archive. Later she moved on to other projects with a data visualization studio called Stamen Design in San Francisco.

It was only in 2021 that Oates returned to Flicker Commons with plans for the revitalization of her original program. This is now bearing fruit with its newest version.

As Executive Director, Oates and the board of directors of the Flickr Foundation are working to concrete a “100-year plan” for photo collection and preservation.

The weight behind of intellectual and practical experience behind this project is quite heavy too: Its board of directors not is not only supported by the extensive technical experience of Oates but also includes executives from both the nonprofit Creative Commons Organization and the Wikimedia Foundation.

According to the company behind the project, the Flickr Foundation is a continuation of Oates’s original plan for preserving historical documents at scale while also making them easily available to the public.

As the Foundation itself states, its goal is to “make sure Flickr will be preserved for future generations,” along with its expanding trove of historical and newer photos.

In other words, by committing to a project for the public good, Flick as a corporate entity is also working to keep itself relevant for generations to come. Hopefully, this intersection of business PR and public interest works well for as long as Oates hopes it will with her renewed effort.

The newly reborn organization has clarified that it focuses on four main cultural conservation areas. These consist of Flickr Commons, content mobility, creative archiving and also supporting new creators that will presumably have future historical relevance.

The foundation describes Flickr Commons, the current core of the nonprofit, as:

“a unique collection of historical photography from over 100 cultural institutions from all around the world, all with no known copyright restrictions.”

For content mobility, the Flickr Foundation is “Investigating the life of a photo before it comes to Flickr, what happens while it’s on the platform, and where it might travel once it moves to its next destination.”

The New Curators component of the project hopes to expand on Flickr’s existing curation with explorations of social tagging and the possibility of machine curation.

SmugMug’s investment in this is indeed an interesting reinvention of Flickr as an ongoing project. The original website was acquired by the company from its creator, Yahoo, after amassing enormous losses and nearing a total shutdown in 2018.

Flickr logo

The COO of both Flickr and SmugMug, Ben MacAskill has said that the parent company, SmugMug, decided to buy Flick because its directors realized that “tens of billions of photos” would simply vanish if it were to have been shut down by its flagging previous owner.

In his own words:

“We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was an amazing business opportunity—it was losing staggering amounts of money, and nobody else seemed interested in the potential.  Instead, we bought Flickr because we’ve built our company around a love for photography, and we couldn’t imagine an internet without Flickr.”

The former CEO of Creative Commons, Ryan Merkley, who is also a current board member at the Flickr Foundation also weighed in with a collective justification for the new organization:

“Sharing is in our nature, and it has compounding benefits for everyone involved. The more people who see these photos from the world’s most important institutions, the better we understand our history. The better we understand our history, and the more we work together to preserve it, the brighter our future becomes.”

Because so many of the photos that will be preserved by the Flickr Foundation are being handed over by cultural institutions that already hold rights to their distribution and use, the foundation should be able to build quite a large collection quickly.

How the Flickr Foundations manages future additions from new archives and living creators is something we’ll have to watch for. Hopefully, the cost of the project doesn’t cause SmugMug to eventually dump or neglect it if its PR value wears off.

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Shotkit Journalist, Writer & Reviewer

Stephan Jukic is a technology and photography journalist and experimental photographer who spends his time living in both Canada and Mexico. He loves cross-cultural street photo exploration and creating fine art photo compositions.

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