By Request: Flickr and the Instagram That Wasn’t

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I recently asked on Tumblr whether there were any topics that people would like me to write about, and I received a number of interesting suggestions. Here’s the first:

highleverageinning said:

Flickr next. No joke. How to fix etc.

I’m taking this one on first both because it’s timely and because it’s relatively easy for me to address:

I’m the wrong person to ask.

Despite being a longtime Flickr Pro user, and (probably) holding the distinction of having the oldest unopened Flickr welcome message in existence [see below, unopened since December 16, 2004], I’m not really much of a Flickr user. I’m not a photographer, and I basically use Flickr as a convenient dumping ground that lets me visually scan my own pictures easily. While community is key to many people’s experience of Flickr, I’ve never felt part of a community there.

I genuinely have no idea what Flickr should do.

See? Short, easy answer.

But the catch, of course, is that I have some thoughts on what Flickr shouldn’t do. Or to be more precise, I have one thought on what Flickr shouldn’t do: Flickr shouldn’t try to build a better Instagram.

Yes, Flickr probably should have built Instagram before Instagram built Instagram. But it didn’t happen. Don’t try to play catch up. Flickr needs to  focus on fixing the problems that kept them from building the last Instagram before they have a shot at building the next one.

I note this because I read Mat Honan’s Flickr’s Engagement Problem May Be Too Big for Even Marissa Mayer. Which you should go read now, especially if you want to be able to judge whether I’m accurately representing Honan’s post. Which you should.

It an excellent piece and I’m nitpicking here, but I was bothered by this sentence regarding Honan’s test of the activity levels around Flickr vs. other services: “Perhaps more damning than the poor showing in terms of up votes was how ignored it was in real-time. It was only even viewed a total of five times on Flickr in that first hour.”

While I don’t think Honan is suggesting that Flickr build a better Instagram, exactly, it does feel like he’s suggesting that a viable Flickr is one that’s focused on a real-time, mobile, social photo experience as soon as possible, and that sounds to me a bit like trying to take Instagram head on rather than building a better Flickr.

It’s odd to say in these mobile-first, social-always days, but maybe Flickr would be better off building from their strengths. As Honan points out, Flickr “has great privacy controls, excellent display and sharing tools, makes a wonderful archive, and, despite years of neglect, enjoys tremendous good will.” What if Flickr stays focused on the web for a little while, and accepts (or embraces) a “slow photo” mindset against Instagram’s stream of consciousness, and Facebooks stream of…well, every-fucking-thing?

Could work. As I said: I really don’t know.

But I do know that Flickr shouldn’t try to build a better Instagram.

Foursquare’s Path

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A few days ago I twittered as follows:

Then today I came across two blog posts.

The first was written by Bryce Roberts on his personal blog. It briefly addresses his return to using social media after a short hiatus, and includes this snippet:

 After light usage over the last few weeks, I’m also keenly aware that Twitter is really not a social network for me anymore- it’s an RSS reader. And it’s become a bit unwieldy for me.

My real friend based social stuff is mainly on Foursquare and Instagram these days.

While I was a little more cryptic in my phrasing, Bryce gets at what I’m starting to feel about Foursquare.

The second post was written by Brenden Mulligan on TechCrunch, and covered why he is finding Path to be different from — and more enjoyable than — many other social networks:

Path. The personal moments of friends experiencing life.

  • A friend going for a run
  • A friend checking into the Google Shuttle stop with his girlfriend
  • A friend arriving in Cambridge, MA
  • A co-worker checking into our new office
  • A friend taking her pets to the vet
  • A friend checking into breakfast (with a comment  from his girlfriend attached)
  • A photo of a friend on a farm in Virginia
  • A friend waking up in the Mount Tam area

Although the content in Path might seem more monotonous, what makes it really unique is the content is so consistent. It’s all friends sharing experiences. It’s not them sharing what they’ve read, or some photo they found in a magazine, or an article about their company. It’s personal moments.

Mulligan’s list of moments captured on Path, which he describes as having a “consistency of tone” that’s lacking on other services, really struck me. Of the eight listed, seven are definitively tied to location, and the eighth (“a friend going for a run”) could easily have been expressed in terms of location.

I’ve long maintained that data is key for Foursquare, and when they released the “explore” feature earlier this year it was the fulfillment of a feature request I’ve been begging for, for as long as I can remember: when I’m stranded in midtown, I can find a meal or cup of coffee based on where people I trust have visited. This is huge. Individual checkins are tiny and ephemeral —  but a few years of checkins from food, coffee, and beer geeks? That’s a bigass coral reef of useful data, built through slow accretion.

But the latest release of the foursquare app does something a little different. The pictures, notes, and comments associated with each checkin are much more prominent — and (in my experience, at least) that means that more people are adding these elements. The experience is distinctly richer, in a way I didn’t expect and didn’t think I’d care about…but I do.

What Mulligan enjoys about Path is what I an starting to enjoy about Foursquare. Pictures from a friend’s trip through his childhood haunts on the Jersey shore, comments on the current menu at a favorite restaurant…my Foursquare dashboard is becoming something of substance.

And in my view, Foursquare comes with two meaningful bonus features. The first is obvious: I still get all that tasty, tasty data, packaged up all nice and neat.

The second is a little more abstract, but no less important in these social-app-filled days. Path asks me to decide who my 50 “important” people are. It’s a list that I have to actively manage based on criteria that can be both fluid and uncomfortably personal. For me that’s simply a headache. With Foursquare, I’ve got a simple decision: am I comfortable with this person knowing where I am? Would I be annoyed/upset/afraid if they showed up at this bar? Minimal cognitive friction.

Foursquare may not be limited to my “most important” people, but I see that as a benefit. I’m getting a wonderful little peek into the lives of people whose company I enjoy even if we’re not — or not yet — close friends.

I think that Foursquare has done a better job of fulfilling its potential that most other recent companies I can think of, and in this case it was potential I didn’t even realize they had.

The Foursquare crew has tricked us into giving them a massive and fascinating data set once before, by making it seem all “fun” and “engaging” to do so. Fair warning: it seems entirely possible that they’re doing it again.