Echoing the optimism of early Nineties web culture, Flickr sprung onto the scene in 2004 and became the defining Web 2.0 app. Christian Hall caught up with co-founder Caterina Fake and discovered what the future holds for Flickr
Whenever Flickr is mentioned people aren’t talking so much about a website, or even a web app, they’re talking about an institution – a Web 2.0 institution. In just over two years Flickr has grown to a user base of four million and propelled 37-year-old Caterina Fake into Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ list – not bad considering Flickr was nearly an online game rather than the photosharing phenomenon it has become.
Alongside husband Steward Butterfield and developers such as Cal Henderson and Eric Costello, Caterina Fake formed Ludicorp in 2002. The company created Game Neverending (GNE), an innovative massively multiplayer online game based on social interaction and object manipulation. “We wanted to build a web-based game that would take the social web to the next level. When we realised it was the communication that was so important we changed direction,” recalls Caterina. GNE followers were gutted when the game was scrapped in 2004, but from the snippets of GNE code left over Flickr was born.
Seemingly, photosharing has little to do with online gaming, but the very sense of community that GNE was supposed to generate was eventually the foundation for Flickr’s success. “Community is essential. In the early days we didn’t have any money, so we had to be really clever about marketing, and what we considered to be a good direction was to make it really simple for bloggers to use, as they distribute all over the place and pick up stuff like this really quickly,” Caterina explains.
“We did a survey of users and found about 80 per cent had heard about Flickr through blogs.” In many ways Caterina believes that the web has come full circle with the advent of Web 2.0’s collaborative elements, and that we’re now on the path to a more productive and fulfilling experience. “The real nature of the web is as a connecting force. This is the web coming of age, it’s returning to what it was originally intended to be,” she enthuses.
Sowing the seeds
The advance of the social web has thrust Flickr into the limelight, but the notion of sharing, discussing and commenting on pictures was far from original, which begs the question: Why has Flickr succeeded where similar sites have not?. “About 80 per cent of photos on Flickr are public: that level of social freedom wasn’t foreseen,” says Caterina Fake. “When we started the company, there were dozens of other photosharing companies such as Shutterfly, but on those sites there was no such thing as a public photograph – it didn’t even exist as a concept – so the idea of something ‘public’ changed the whole idea of Flickr. By sharing images via tags, users are able to see stuff that’s going on all over the world – pictures of the London bombings and the Lebanese evacuation were up in minutes after the events.”
Tagging has enabled the social web to float to the surface for the average web user, and Caterina believes that the development of the web, wherever it’s headed, has social interaction right at its centre. “If you’re building a web app these days it would be foolish not to have social aspects to it,” says Caterina. “When you talk about social aspects it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have people who post comments or communicate with each other, it can be something as simple as the number of people who like a particular movie, or how many people looked at a particular document. It’s the secondary thing of ‘these people liked this’ and ‘those people liked that’, which enhances the app, no matter what its purpose.”
Flickr has now become mainstream, but it’s what we would call iPod mainstream rather than Coca-Cola mainstream
Web 2.0 apps tend to feed off themselves. Flickr’s premise is about sharing and communicating, and that’s also what perpetuates its growth as a service, yet there’s still a way to go for Flickr’s founders. “Flickr has now become mainstream, but it’s what we would call iPod mainstream rather than Coca-Cola mainstream,” says Caterina. “There are the people who are interested in fashion and the people who are comfortable sharing things online. Only two or three years ago people felt that blogging was something weird, they thought ‘who are these people who put pages up about themselves?’ But the familiarity people have with the internet has increased; now it’s no longer something strange to have a photo of yourself online and have a profile on a social networking site – this psychology of users has changed the web immeasurably.”
Community building is also what got Yahoo! so interested in Ludicorp’s creation and although Yahoo! has got some of the best technical resources behind it, Caterina believes that skills and money don’t guarantee users. “The interesting thing about acquisitions of this kind is that you can’t just suddenly build a community. You can’t just go out and replicate all of the features and functionality of something you’ve seen, it doesn’t really work that way."
According to Caterina Fake: “The most difficult part is not the technology but actually getting the people to behave well.” When first starting the community the Flickr team were spending nearly 24 hours online greeting each individual user, introducing them to each other and cultivating the community. “After a certain point you can let go and the community will start to maintain itself, explains Caterina. “People will greet each other and introduce their own practices into the social software. It’s always underestimated, but early on you need someone in there everyday who is kind of like the host of the party, who introduces everybody and takes their coat.”
The next level
There’s a glut of new people and web companies right now, and there’s a new bubble building
Despite Flickr’s massive community growing in such a short time, Caterina thinks now isn’t a great time to launch a web company: “There’s a glut of new people and web companies right now, and there’s a new bubble building,” she explains. Many of the companies that are seeing a lot of success right now were founded back in 2001 and 2002, as there was a lot of talent looking for new projects following the dotcom bust. “What was significant is that you had to be incredibly creative – nobody would give you money anymore, nobody believed in you, and people were fleeing the industry. Tech stocks were down, so it was a great time to start a company because talent was plentiful with people out of work,” she says. Although Flickr has already been established, and has stolen the march over the growing number of competitors, some major challenges still lie ahead. The growing trend in mobile web development adds a completely new dimension to Flickr’s capabilities, and might even catapult the company into what Caterina calls the ‘Web 3.0 space’.
“More cameras are now distributed by Nokia than by any other camera manufacturer in the world. We have a partnership with Nokia, and one of the most important things driving us forward is that very mobility,” she explains. “We won’t be stuck looking at our little screens on our desk – Web 3.0 will be out in the world and mobile. But, it’s like the haiku of design – a big challenge for such a tiny screen.”