George Oates Returns to Revitalize the Flickr Commons

Ruth St. Denis at Yosemite Valley.

Late last year, I was surprised and intrigued to get an email from Ben MacAskill, COO of SmugMug and Flickr. I knew Flickr had been acquired by SmugMug and was happy to hear it, too, because I had been quietly worried about what might happen to this unique and brilliant archive of our lives under the brutal megacorp axe. I had read various press about the acquisition and appreciated the independence and tone of the SmugMug brothers, and felt the same relief I’m sure many other ‘old skool’ members did at the news. While I’ll freely admit I haven’t used Flickr as regularly as I once did, my pride and joy for Flickr has never changed.

It turns out Ben was writing to ask me if I would like to help reinvigorate The Commons on Flickr. (That’s the program run by Flickr since 2008 designed to help the world’s cultural institutions share their photography collections.) “What does a bright future for the Commons look like,” he asked, “and how do we build something that has value to the member organizations, and the open culture ecosystem?” As I was reading his email, I thought, “Well, indeed.” I replied to Ben, “When do we start??

Turns out we’re starting now, and it feels good to be back. I used to work here, at the very beginning when we first switched Flickr on back in the naughties. I created and launched the Commons in 2008, and left at the end of that same year. What a strange, unexpected delight to be asked to return with the express goal of researching what the Commons has become and understanding how cultural institutions around the world have evolved through being a part of it. We want to design a stronger future for the program, with enduring longevity at its heart.

So, what have I missed??

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been catching up, revisiting Commons imagery, and studying how the Commons looks today just over 13 years since it launched. I could throw you some really big numbers to show you how many people have looked at or loved or described or discussed photos residing in the Commons, and these big numbers are amazing, but there are so many big numbers all over the web these days I wanted to see if we could poke at what participation of the member orgs looks like instead.

It’s small numbers that can give me a sense of how engaged orgs are. I asked the crew if we could draw a very simple list of three things: when orgs created their account, when their last upload was, and when they last logged in. I figured I could use these dates as a rough proxy to show how much attention they can give their presence here. Thank you to Carol for assembling it.

The data doesn’t say much because it’s very basic, but it does show:

  1. There are 114 orgs in the Commons now, with a good global spread, though we’d love to grow representation from Asian, African, and South American orgs,
  2. There’s been very little growth in the program, especially in recent years,
  3. We noticed a drop-off in uploading and logins in 2018. Presumably, orgs were unsettled by Flickr going into yet another acquisition, perhaps not reviewing the press where Don MacAskill (CEO) was talking about wanting to make sure Flickr can survive for decades, and
  4. About half of the Commons orgs have logged in this year, and more in 2020, which is fantastic. We can work with this! 
Pupils of Denishawn School posing for publicity photo.

It seems to me we have a few different sorts of Commons members:

  1. Cultivators: These are the folks who give their Flickr account and their community of regular researchers a lot of love. Regularly uploading new content, and responding to Flickr members who help them, and even sending updates back to their catalogues that are derived from Flickr members’ research efforts. They understand the importance of this two-way conversation, and nurture it carefully and deliberately,
  2. Distant friends: These are orgs who have imagery in the Commons but have drifted away. This may be through lack of interest, but more likely through either lack of resources to spend time with their community here, or perhaps because of a lack of support from the higher-ups who may not appreciate the now proven benefits of community interaction participating in the Commons can afford, and
  3. Machinists: Some orgs have added content to the Commons but this is largely done by and for machines. There’s no attention paid to nurturing the community around it in the Commons context. While it’s great that Flickr can service some aspects of a technical infrastructure — and we don’t want that to stop, in fact we hope it grows — it’s even better when there’s also conversation and collaboration, and in fact, the sector more broadly still needs gathering places online for this.

Talking and listening

Another part of my splashdown back at Flickr has been interviewing a few folks: five of the Flickr team who’ve been looking after it in recent times: Ben, Carol, Cora, Leticia, and Matthew, and some Commons veterans: Michelle, Helena, and Barbara from The Library of Congress (my original launch partners!) and Effie Kapsalis at the Smithsonian Institution who led their amazing Smithsonian Open Access release of 2.8 million things online about this time last year. I hope to do many more interviews with Commons orgs and other interested folk in the coming months.

It’s still early days, but there were certainly some themes that popped out:

  1. The Commons is still alive, but its heartbeat is weak
    Everyone I talked to was sorrowful that the Commons wasn’t able to make it to the top of any company priority lists until now. Many of its features are just how I left them back in 2008. In fact, maybe all of them.
  2. Being a part of the Commons remains beneficial to the Cultivators
    I was so heartened to hear Helena from the Library of Congress tell me this in our interview. It’s that simple, and we want to revitalise this powerful aspect of the Commons – it’s still the best place on the web to have a two-way conversation between a cultural org and its admirers and researchers. 
  3. Ironically, our initial configuration of the “no known copyright” assertion has restrained some orgs from joining
    I didn’t expect this, actually, but it makes sense, given how far we’ve moved on in terms of open licensing, particular of digital surrogates of public domain works. While it was meaningfully liberating for many institutions back in 2008, there are many, many more cultural institutions around the world who now happily and regularly share their collections online with any number of open licenses, from Public Domain through the suite of Creative Commons offerings. This is an early note on my “feature ideas” scratchpad; to increase and enhance adding differently and openly licensed works into the Flickr Commons.

What’s next?

C. & N.W. R.R., Mrs. Dorothy Lucke, employed as a wiper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa  (LOC)

It’s a 4-6 month plan. The first piece is talking with Commons members about their experiences and hopes, responding with designs for improvements and goals to renew attention and expand membership. The second piece is looking outward to the global openGLAM network, reflecting on how Flickr Commons can better serve the wider digital cultural infrastructure, then figuring out how to strengthen and streamline that. 

We will be using the following questions to inform and guide this work:

  1. What do current member orgs need from us?
    As noted, we think there are a few different types of participation in Commons. We want to talk with folks in each of these groups, and find out about how they’re getting on, and what we can improve. Our current goal is to interview about a third of our existing members 1:1, if possible. What can we be doing to make sure participating is beneficial?
  2. How can we grow the Commons membership?
    The program has survived in spite of benign neglect since it launched — I am deeply grateful there have always been staff who have kept it alive. The membership is currently 114 orgs. This is great, but there are over 250 museums in London alone! In addition to figuring out how to support and recharge existing members, we want to attract new folks, especially those smaller orgs who do not have the resources we can share to increase access to their collections. It should be straightforward to improve on this, and we look forward to it. (Tell your friends!)
  3. How can Commons dovetail with the openGLAM ecosystem more deliberately?
    So much has happened to our shared online existence in the last 13 years. A proliferation of standards and collection data, more sophisticated digital practice, and a global outpouring of uncontroversial digital sharing by institutions have meant a huge shift in digital experience of culture. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Commons orgs and colleagues throughout the sector to jointly think through how we weave the Commons even more deeply into the digital cultural web, so it’s more useful to our member orgs, and the broader digital realm.

Would you like to be involved?

If you would like to talk with us or get involved somehow, we want to hear from you. For starters, Carol has opened a new thread in the Flickr Commons group to gather people initially, so please do pop in and say hi! We’ll be reaching out to you if you’re a Commons org already (and your email address is up to date), so please look out for a note from us in the coming weeks.

On a personal note, I would like to say a huge thank you to all the staff at Flickr who have kept the Commons alive through thick and thin: Fiona, Kay, Aaron, Sara, Zack, Bogan, Matthew, Leticia, Carol (and others I do not know about), the Flickr members who are regular research contributors and likers and watchers, and a very special thank you to the Library of Congress team, who have maintained their two-way conversation with their community throughout these 13 or so years, and remain a beacon for us all.

Onward, and to mischief!
– George Oates