Pando

After abandoning core Tumblr users, Yahoo does the same with Flickr. So what?

By David Holmes , written on December 1, 2014

From The News Desk

Last week, while the world was preparing for a long Thanksgiving weekend, news began to spread that Yahoo had begun selling canvas prints of Flickr photos that had been uploaded by users under a Creative Commons license for free commercial use. Yahoo would charge $49 per print and keep all the cash for itself.

The instant reaction among many Flickr photographers was outrage -- and understandably so. The intent of uploading a photo for free commercial use is to give the photos away, not to sell them.

“It ticked me off that somebody else is selling them when I was giving them away,” Liz West, a photographer who's uploaded over 12,000 photos to Flickr, tells the Wall Street Journal.

It's important to note that even the Creative Commons organization itself agrees that what Yahoo's plan to sell photos is perfectly legal. But that's cold comfort to users who use Flickr specifically so their photos are available for encumbered free use.

"Cheesy, desperate, and not at all fine with me," writes designer and photographer Jeffrey Zeldman. "I pay for a Flickr Pro account, and am happy to do so. That’s how Yahoo is supposed to make money from my hobby."

Even Flickr's cofounder Stewart Butterfield questions the logic of the move, telling the Journal, “It’s hard to imagine the revenue from selling the prints will cover the cost of lost goodwill,” and calling the scheme "shortsighted."

But there's one question that begs asking in the wake of this controversy: What has "goodwill" from users ever gotten Yahoo in return?

Look at Tumblr: Yahoo bought the wildly popular blogging platform for $1.1 billion last year and made a big show of promising not to "screw it up." And for much of the next year, Yahoo kept its promise, taking a hands-off approach to the acquisition. That was good news for Tumblr's rabid user base but not for its investors, who viewed the acquisition as having a negligible impact at best on Yahoo's bottom line. And so Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced a bold but controversial plan to turn the Tumblr brand into a sort of high-end YouTube targeted at established online video stars.

Could Tumblr pull off the rebrand without alienating core users?

We found out the answer to that question last month when Yahoo instituted subtle but significant image size requirements to Tumblr posts. In line with Yahoo's new Tumblr strategy, these changes were more conducive to video posts; but they resulted in stretching and other distortions to some old image posts, particularly animated GIFs. So far over 50,000 disgruntled Tumblr users have signed a petition asking that Yahoo revert back to the old image size requirements.

But Yahoo likely won't reverse course. And if we're thinking of the company strictly from a shareholder's point-of-view, that's the right move. According to Fortune, video posts are already growing at twice the rate of image posts on Twitter -- and video ads are where much of the smart money goes in the new Internet economy. This all adds up to one important point: Yahoo's aim to make Tumblr into a significant moneymaker may not work, but if it does, it won't be because of Tumblr's existing committed user base.

To bring back Butterfield's point, that doesn't necessarily make Yahoo's abandonment of core Flickr users a smart move. The revenue potential of selling $50 prints pales in comparison to the ad revenue Tumblr could bring in if Mayer's rebrand plan works. And because the company already missed the boat on key social and mobile innovations in photo-sharing, allowing Instagram to streamroll Flickr in popularity, there's a good argument that Yahoo would be better leaving Flickr alone than to squeeze "too-little-too-late" profits out of it. Furthermore, I don't want to minimize the negative impact this decision has on the Web at large. If a significant number of Flickr users remove the "free use" option on their photos -- or remove their photos from the service altogether -- that's a loss worth lamenting.

Nevertheless, the abandonment of core constituencies within both Flickr's and Tumblr's user base reveal a very clear -- and perhaps not unwise at this stage of the game -- gambit on the part of Mayer: Loyal users are nice, but when they don't play into any clear or significant profit strategy, who needs them?

[illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]