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Interview: Flickr co-founder gets ambitious

'A concrete vision to be the eyes of the world'

Flickr, the lauded photo management and sharing site, recently celebrated its third anniversary. IDG had an opportunity to chat with co-founder and general manager Stewart Butterfield about Flickr's growth in size and quality, its status as a Yahoo company and short- and long-term plans. As well as peanut butter.

An edited version of the conversation follows.

IDG: Flickr just turned three years old. How do you think it will look and operate three years from now?

Stewart Butterfield: We have a concrete vision to be the eyes of the world, the primary source for sharing and discovering what people see all around the world. I don't see that changing any time soon. The challenge is how we make it bigger while still maintaining the same quality and sense of intimacy with now 7.2 million registered users and 23 million monthly unique visitors. It comes down to urban planning in a way that a massive city like London has all kinds of cozy little neighborhoods. Making something like that happen is a huge and challenging thing.

We also tie very well into Yahoo's newly articulated mission, which is to connect people to their passions, their communities and the world's knowledge. Flickr has a really interesting role to play in that. We have a lot of people who are passionate about photography but there are literally thousands of groups on Flickr about gardening and knitting and all kinds of other passions people have. Flickr is a great medium for those interactions as well.

IDG: If you're the eyes of the world, do you foresee Flickr getting a news component?

Butterfield: Yes, we already allow for that and it already happens but it's not surfaced nor packaged up very well. But almost every day, Flickr is used as a source for photos that either don't exist anywhere else or that there's just a bigger variety on Flickr.

A good example is when the New York Yankee player's plane crashed into a [Manhattan] building. A text bulletin went out on the wires but there weren't photos available, so the Yahoo front page team did a search for "NYC crash" on Flickr and found the first couple of photos that had been posted and weren't available from any other source at that time. By the time photos started coming out of the wire services, there were dozens and dozens of images from different people on Flickr, and that's where the Yahoo front page pointed to, linking to the Flickr photos. Expanding that capability and making it easier so it's not a manual process is definitely something we're interested in.

The flip side is that it doesn't have to be big, breaking international news for it to be significant to people... We did a big round of geotagging features in the second half of last year and are always looking to improve those as well. We have more than 12.6 million geotagged photos. It's easy to imagine a future where you can say: "Show me photos taken within the last 15 minutes within a kilometer of me." That gets very interesting, obviously.

IDG: Are you planning anything to help your community of photographers to sell or commercially syndicate their photos?

Butterfield: It's something we're evaluating and looking at different approaches. The interesting thing about the New York crash case is that there wasn't any time to negotiate rights to use those photos on the Yahoo front page, so they linked to the photos on Flickr. If you're a photo editor in any kind of news environment you can't negotiate one-off licences with a bunch of different people because it's just too time consuming.

IDG: Will you at some point have a mechanism where photographers have previously stated how their photos might be used if someone's interested?

Butterfield: We have nothing to announce in that regard, but it's certainly in the realm of my imagination.

IDG: Who do you see as Flickr's main competition?

Butterfield: That's a very interesting question because we talk about this all the time. When we first got to Yahoo, a lot of people on the business side wanted to know how big was the market and what percentage we had. I'd always say, much to their frustration, that the market is Flickr users and we have 100 percent of it. I still think we don't have any real direct competition. I'm sure one day we will.

In a sense, we compete with other photo-sharing sites, but we're offering something very different. Flickr really created a new class of application, a new product category and a new kind of use. In another sense, if people spend a lot of time with Flickr and are deeply engaged with it, we compete indirectly with sites where people go to hang out, like Facebook, MySpace. But I definitely don't see us in direct competition with them.

IDG: You told me that Yahoo has been good for Flickr. How has Flickr been good for Yahoo?

Butterfield: It's a bit unfair to think that there weren't all kinds of hyper-talented and progressive people with innovative ideas around Yahoo [prior to the Flickr acquisition]. But over the last couple of years, Yahoo has gotten a lot better at realizing some of the innovative potential and I'd like to think we've contributed to the way new products are developed and how innovation happens. In fact, Caterina Fake, my wife and Flickr co-founder, went to a team called the Technology Development Group that is responsible for a lot of that stuff.

IDG: The Peanut Butter Manifesto memo got a lot of attention last year. It said Yahoo was spread out too thin, and wasn't going deep enough into some areas. How do the arguments in that memo apply to Flickr, if at all?

Butterfield: There's a couple of things. Flickr was explicitly mentioned in the memo, as an area in which we're investing in two similar areas, the other one Yahoo Photos. But I'm not sure the memo applies very directly to Flickr. We're very focused on one core mission. Internally Flickr is making a number of larger bets and it's a fairly discreet unit inside of Yahoo, both on the operational and the product level. To the extent that the criticisms in the memo are things Yahoo should take action on, then they don't apply so much to Flickr... I don't think Flickr and Yahoo Photos were the key point of the memo.

IDG: Do you see Yahoo Photos serving a different type of audience than Flickr?

Butterfield: That's the easiest way to put it, but both audiences are evolving and it's not a straightforward demographic split. It's not like young people use Flickr and old people use Yahoo Photos. The age range is actually pretty similar. It's more about how people feel about sharing their lives online and even more simply about how into the internet people are. The Flickr user is more interested in interacting, in the community aspects.

IDG: Yahoo has a lot of sites and services and some people feel they could be better integrated so it's easier for users to move among them. What is being done with Flickr in that respect, if anything?

Butterfield: There's a constant balancing act between making each product or property great in its own right and making integration for the whole network work really well. There has been [Flickr] integration with other Yahoo properties that makes sense. They tend to be fairly smaller scale but each of them is important in its own right and we're always looking for opportunities to do more. An example: when you're reviewing a hotel or a destination in Yahoo Travel you can bring in photos from Flickr. There are lots of little examples like that.

IDG: Flickr is considered a pioneer in tagging and categorisation of content by users. How do you see tagging evolving? I'm starting to sense some dissatisfaction with it.

Butterfield: At Flickr, tagging is always evolving. It can certainly be true that people are less abuzz about the revolutionary nature of tagging. On the other hand, many people may not know tagging is why the search results tend to be good on Flickr. It's why you can make a real-time search of the 400 million-plus photos on Flickr.

IDG: How is the monetisation of Flickr going? Are Yahoo executives satisfied with it?

Butterfield: We don't break down revenues by property but I can definitely say we're happy with it. The core of the business is the premium subscription service, and we do much better in that than we expected in the early days. We're gradually starting to experiment more with branded advertising and there's contextual advertising in the search. Over time, advertising will become a bigger component of the revenue picture. So people are definitely happy at Yahoo. There's never been any worries about Flickr's revenue and the long-term potential is excellent.


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