What Flickr Really Needs To Copy From Instagram - And It Isn't Photo Filters

Love applying moody effects to your iPhone photos? Well, you're in luck - after this week, you can do that on just about every image app you've ever downloaded. In the latest lap of the overwrought social media arms race, Twitter and Flickr have updated their mobile apps to offer photo filters, just like good ol' Instagram. 

Filters are the supposed key ingredient in Instagram’s wildly successful recipe, but for companies like Flickr, obsessing over them is missing the other important lessons of the $1 billion app. 

Yahoo's Best-Loved Product

Flickr was perfectly poised to be the social photo sharing app when Yahoo fell asleep at the wheel back in 2005. Amazingly, in spite of its failure to evolve, Flickr has managed to hang in there, often losing users, but never hemorrhaging them. It remains Yahoo's best-loved product, one so nostalgia-inducing that a site begging Yahoo's new CEO to fix it went viral earlier this year. 

In this rare instance, Yahoo might be well-served to play up the Yahoo-ness of one of its products. The company should position its photo network as the perfect alternative for folks nervous about Instagram's ever-deepening Facebook ties. If Facebook ends up fumbling Instagram, whether through a poor branding choice or a privacy flare-up, Flickr could be right there to pick up the slack. 

Flickr's Slow Decline

Though its enthusiastic core remains, Flickr's traffic has been on a slow decline for some time now. Still, it's hard to tell exactly how poorly Flickr is doing. Yahoo reported that the site had 51 million registered members in June 2011 and hasn't publicly offered those numbers since.

The company reports that more than 8 billion photos have been uploaded to its database, after topping 7 billion in June. That metric is a little slippery, though. It obviously can't be compared to Instagram's 1 billion total photo uploads, since Flickr users often batch upload via the Web, while adding a photo to Instagram is a one-at-a-time manual/mobile process. 

The Anti-Instagram?

Flickr doesn't need to swipe Instagram's filters to assert itself as a social photo hub - it still is a social photo hub. And Flickr’s mobile strategy is way too late to stave off the other app's rise. But Flickr isn't anything like Instagram, and it doesn’t need to be. Still, Yahoo's tarnished crown jewel could learn a thing or two from the app that stole its thunder. 

 

First of all, Like Reddit or any other social site with a rabid fan base, Flickr can intimidate new users. As a member who was late to the game, joining Flickr in 2009 or so, the site's network, menus and features can seem prohibitively complicated. Its thriving, enthusiastic communities are great, but they seem so well established that I never really knew where to get started. After signing up, I felt like the new kid in the cafeteria. Sure I sat down, plunking a few hundred photos in my feed, but I never felt at home.

A Delicate Balance Of Old And New

To attract new users, Flickr needs to create an inviting environment for beginners without alienating its long-time members - no easy task. The new mobile app is a great step in that direction, with a robust set of sharing and editing features that could please old and new users alike.

The core Web experience needs its (many) cobwebs dusted off too. Unlike simple, single-purpose Instagram, Flickr is glutted with features, from EXIF data to bustling communities and tags as far as the eye can see. It can't just dump that stuff, but it should make note of the sparse elegance that makes Instagram thrive. Instagram does one thing very, very well - Flickr needs to figure out what its thing is and make that very clear to everyone. 

Less Is More

Flickr announced a preliminary redesign on Wednesday, but the site needs a lot more work than a new navigation bar. Getting around on Flickr is clunky at best: useful features are buried in labyrinthine nested menus. Last year, one of Flickr's own designers even published a scathing critique of how the site's design could be yet another nail in its coffin. In a now-removed blog post, designer Timoni West took "the most important page on Flickr" to task: 

"The page fails on a fundamental level—it’s supposed to be where you find out what’s happened on Flickr while you were away. The current design, unfortunately, encourages random clicking, not informed exploration.

The page isn’t just outdated, it’s actively hurting Flickr, as members’ social graphs on the site become increasingly out of sync with real life. Old users forget to visit the site, new sign ups are never roped in, and Flickr, who increased member sign-ups substantially in 2010, will forego months of solid work when new members don’t come back."

Not A Zero-Sum Game

As social networks obsessively imitate one another, they risk diluting the uniqueness that makes them relevant in the first place. Sure, Flickr thew photo filters into the mix to cover its bases. But if you’re Flickr, you’ve already got a community built around doing photographic things that don’t involve applying special effects to little square photos. 

If Instagram is for anyone with a smartphone camera, Flickr is for photographers. Thanks to the rise of Instagram, that distinction is blurrier than ever - and Flickr can leverage the surge of interest in social photo sharing if it plays its cards right. Instagram is the gateway drug of social photography. Now that it has an excellent mobile app at its disposal, Flickr feels like the real stuff.

Lead image courtesy of Flickr's blog.