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Interview with Flickr

Open Culture

Flickr is a new photo management application that lets you annotate photos, share them with friends and family, and now, apply Creative Commons licenses to your shared photos. Flickr’s co-founder, Stewart Butterfield, talked to Creative Commons about this interesting application.

Creative Commons: Can you tell us how flickr came to be?

Stewart Butterfield, Flickr: That’s a long and twisted story! In many ways, Flickr is still coming to be. We decided to begin development on a photo sharing application on December 8th, 2003, and the first preview release went live on February 10th.

featured Flickr work
Stef Noble’s Photos
Share Alike 2.0

Since then it has changed a lot, and the emphasis has shifted from a real time photosharing and instant messaging application with a heavy social networking component (which was based off of technology we had in development anyway) to a more complete way of sharing and managing photos. We’re still a little way from version 1.0, but it has been quite a ride. And the chance to develop both the code and product concept itself with tens of thousands of testers has been really gratifying (if harrowing at times).

CC: Flickr has many interesting features surrounding the idea of putting photos on the web. Can you talk about what sorts of goals you have for Flickr, and where the application might be headed?

SB: There are main things we’re setting out to do. The first is helping people make their photos available to the people who matter to them. That might mean they want to keep a blog of moments captured on their cameraphone, or it might mean that they want to show off their best pictures to the whole world in a gallery or they might want to securely and privately share photos of their kids with their family across the country.

To fulfill this, we want to get photos into and out of the system in as many ways as we can: from the web, from mobile devices, from the users’ home PCs and whatever software they are using to manage their photos. And we want to be able to push them out in as many ways as possible: on the Flickr website, in RSS feeds, via email, by posting to outside blogs or ways we haven’t thought of yet. Making it easier to get photos from one person to another in whatever way they want is a big part of what we do.

Our second big goal is to enable new ways of organizing photos. Once you make the switch to digital, it is all too easy to get overwhelmed with the number of photos you take. Albums, which are the principle way people go about organizing photos today are great — until you get to 20 or 30 or 50 of them. They worked in the days of getting rolls of film developed, but the metaphor stretches to the point of breaking in the digital age.

Part of the solution is to make the process of organizing photos collaborative. In Flickr, you can give your friends, family, and other contacts permission to organize your photos — not just to add comments, but also notes and tags. By capturing the conversations people have about photos anyway, we can safely give up on structured metadata and still have a rich index to search on, so you can still find just the right photo years from now. In a way it’s like the difference between Google and Yahoo, back when Yahoo’s approach was still focused on getting human beings to do the upfront organization of the web into a hierarchy.

CC: How does Flickr use Creative Commons licenses? Do you see Creative Commons licenses solving problems for Flickr creators and visitors?

SB: We allow members to select a default Creative Commons license for all photos they upload and the ability to control licensing on a photo-by-photo basis. This gives people the most flexibility. And I think it does solve a real problem for some people: they want to be able to post their photos on the web and still express their preference as to how their work gets used.

This was an important step for us; as individuals and as a company we believe in and want to support free culture. Creative Commons licensing is great because it just sort of “snaps in” — the hard thinking has already been done, and even some of the technical work. In the longer term we’ll be adding a lot of features which will help viewers find Creative Commons-licensed photos: by license type, by subject, by photographer, and so on. With a powerful search interface we hope that this will become a valuable resource. The best case is really that the creativity that goes into people’s contributions to Flickr goes on to spark yet more creative work by more people around the world. And then they tell two friends …

Posted 01 October 2005