When in April of last year, the photo hosting service SmugMug acquired the photo-hosting service Flickr from Verizon’s digital media subsidiary, SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill said he was committed to breathing new life into the service, calling it “core to the entire fabric of the Internet.”
MacAskill didn’t reveal at the time how much SmugMug — which is itself an independent, family-owned operation — paid for Flickr. But it seems now that SmugMug may have underestimated its carrying costs. In an email tonight to users of Flickr who pay roughly $50 annually for the service, MacAskill has basically asked them if they know anyone else who might be interested in a yearly subscription to Flickr, explaining that it “still needs your help. It’s still losing money.”
Adds MacAskill, in terms that Flickr fans will surely interpret as acutely worrying, SmugMug “cannot cannot continue to operate it at a loss as we’ve been doing.” (To sweeten the deal for new subscribers, SmugMug is offering 25% off a Flickr Pro account for those who visit this link and input the code 25in2019.)
This editor happens to be a Flickr Pro user and shudders to think how many photos I’d have to move if the service shuts down. At the same time, no one who uses the service can be terribly surprised by the development. Just months after SmugMug acquired Flickr, it curbed free use of the platform to 1,000 pictures per account holder. In fact, it threatened to actively delete the photos of users who did not sign up for a subscription if they exceeded that number.
Beyond its operating costs, SmugMug, like so many other companies, also found itself engulfed in controversy recently when the New York Times reported that millions of Flickr images dating back to its 2005 founding had been sucked into a facial-recognition database called MegaFace to “train a new generation of face-identification algorithms,” “track protesters, surveil terrorists, spot problem gamblers and spy on the public at large.”
Ben MacAskill, Don’s brother and the company’s COO, said at the time that the flaw “potentially impacts a very small number of our members today, and we are actively working to deploy an update as quickly as possible.” He also noted that the images that had been accessed pre-dated SmugMug’s involvement with Flickr by several years.
Either way, it sounds like the future of Flickr — founded by entrepreneurs Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield in 2004, sold to Yahoo the following year, and later swept into Verizon as part of its 2016 acquisition by Yahoo — is again up in the air. Either more people subscribe to the service, or someone — or some outfit — swoops in to save the day with the capital required to keep it up and running.
In the worst case scenario, it disappears, along with a whole lot of pictures.
Here’s the full text of Don MacAskill’s note to its customers:
Dear Flickr Pros,
First, and above all else: thank you. Thank you for being a part of our community. Thank you for caring about Flickr. Thank you for supporting Flickr. Thank you for being a Flickr Pro.
Two years ago, Flickr was losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Our company, SmugMug, stepped in to rescue it from being shut down and to save tens of billions of your precious photos from being erased.
Why? We’ve spent 17 years lovingly building our company into a thriving, family-owned and -operated business that cares deeply about photographers. SmugMug has always been the place for photographers to showcase their photography, and we’ve long admired how Flickr has been the community where they connect with each other. We couldn’t stand by and watch Flickr vanish.
So we took a big risk, stepped in, and saved Flickr. Together, we created the world’s largest photographer-focused community: a place where photographers can stand out and fit in.
And yet, Flickr—the world’s most-beloved, money-losing business—still needs your help.
We’ve been hard at work improving Flickr. We hired an excellent, large staff of Support Heroes who now deliver support with an average customer satisfaction rating of above 90%. We got rid of Yahoo’s login. We moved the platform and every photo to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the industry leader in cloud computing, and modernized its technology along the way. As a result, pages are already 20% faster and photos load 30% more quickly. Platform outages, including Pandas, are way down. Flickr continues to get faster and more stable, and important new features are being built once again.
Our work is never done, but we’ve made tremendous progress.
Flickr still needs your help. It’s still losing money. You, and hundreds of thousands of loyal Flickr members stepped up and joined Flickr Pro, for which we are eternally grateful. It’s losing a lot less money than it was. But it’s not yet making enough.
We need more Flickr Pro members if we want to keep the Flickr dream alive, and we need your help to share the story of Flickr.
We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was a cash cow. Unlike platforms like Facebook, we also didn’t buy it to invade your privacy and sell your data. We bought it because we love photographers, we love photography, and we believe Flickr deserves not only to live on but thrive. We think the world agrees; and we think the Flickr community does, too. But we cannot continue to operate it at a loss as we’ve been doing.
Flickr is the world’s largest photographer-focused community. It’s the world’s best way to find great photography and connect with amazing photographers. Flickr hosts some of the world’s most iconic, most priceless photos, freely available to the entire world. This community is home to more than 100 million accounts and tens of billions of photos. It serves billions of photos every single day. It’s huge. It’s a priceless treasure for the whole world. And it costs money to operate. Lots of money.
As you know, Flickr is the best value in photo sharing anywhere in the world. Flickr Pro members get ad-free browsing for themselves and their visitors, advanced stats, unlimited full-quality storage for all their photos, plus premium features and access to the world’s largest photographer-focused community.
Please, help us spread the word. Help us make Flickr thrive. Help us ensure Flickr has a bright future. Every Flickr Pro subscription goes directly to keeping Flickr alive and creating great new experiences for photographers like you. We are building lots of great things for the Flickr community, but we need your help. We can do this together.
We’re launching our end-of-year Pro subscription campaign on Thursday, December 26, but I want to give you a coupon code to share with friends, family, or anyone who shares your love of photography and community so they can enjoy the same 25% discount before the campaign starts.
We’ve gone to great lengths to optimize Flickr for cost savings wherever possible, but the increasing cost of operating this enormous community and continuing to invest in its future will require a small price increase early in the new year, so this is truly the very best time to help everyone upgrade to a Pro membership.
If you value Flickr finally being independent, built for photographers and by photographers, we need your help.
Co-Founder, CEO & Chief Geek SmugMug + Flickr