Flickr, Facebook and Instagram: pondering how and why successful products should pivot

Last night Ryan Freitas made an interesting observation on what Flickr could have been, specifically that it could have been Instagram. His tweet put the blame on the lack of vision at Flickr (and Yahoo.) Even though hindsight is always 20/20, I can understand why it didn’t happen. Since I couldn’t compress my thoughts into a 140 character reply to Ryan, and since his tweet referenced three different posts that I think are relevant, here is an entire post.

My Instagram: cars, leaves and sometimes food.

My Instagram: cars, leaves and sometimes food.

First, let’s talk a moment about Instagram’s success and reasons for that success. Yesterday, a Medium post by an anonymous college student about how teens were using the various social networks made the rounds. His view on Instagram was “Instagram is by far the most used social media outlet for my age group. Please note the verbiage there—it is the most used social media outlet. Meaning, although the most people are on Facebook, we actually post stuff on Instagram.” He goes on to say “Facebook gets all of the photos we took — the good, the bad, etc—while Instagram just gets the one that really summed up the event we went to.” Incidentally, it was also interesting to note why he prefers Instagram’s feed, tagging and social interactions to Facebook’s but that’s another post. Instagram recently announced 300 million monthly users for its app, an impressive milestone, to say the least. It has become the mobile photo sharing app of choice for many users.

Second, Flickr was indeed the place to share photos about 10 years ago. Julie Zhuo on Medium wrote a great post telling the early product story of Facebook’s photo sharing. In 2005, “Flickr was the golden standard… On Facebook, you could only upload low-res photos. They showed up small and grainy and on a page cluttered with links and text instead of on a simple, sparse black background that let the photo shine. There were no handy navigation tools like a preview strip or a thumbnail of the next photo in the set. There were no keyboard shortcuts either, and the loading performance wasn’t great. Within a year and a half, however, Facebook was the most popular sharing service in the world.” Why? She explains: “Because on Facebook, you could do something that no other service let you do: tag your friends.” It turns out that for photo sharing, users value tagging and other social interactions with the people in the photos more than photo quality, uploading experience or how the photo was displayed. Flickr didn’t see that and while it had better, higher quality photos displayed in a beautiful layout, those were not the features that users valued.

The step between photo sharing and social photo sharing was a big one and one that Yahoo/Flickr cannot easily replicate. I’ve said it before, and it’s echoed by the anonymous teen in the post referenced above, like it or not, everyone is on Facebook.

Third, going from web to mobile is not an easy step to take and companies that take a fresh, mobile-only approach to app development tend to find more success than those who adapt a successful web application to mobile. I often go back and re-read Ben Thompson’s post on PayPal’s incentive problem. In it he discusses how existing incentives make it much harder for a successful company to adapt its solution to new problems than for a startup to create a new solution from scratch. I don’t know a lot about Instagram’s early days but the end result is that they created an app that mobile users enjoy sharing photos on.

So, telling Flickr now, in 2015, that they should have been Instagram, is a bit harsh. True, there were two very important adaptations that Flickr failed to make, social and mobile. These should have been obvious not only in hindsight. Yet these pivots are extremely difficult to make in real-time, especially when you already have a successful product. A startup will almost certainly get there before you, and in Flickr’s case it was Instagram.

Correction: The “anonymous teen” mentioned as the author of the Medium post about what social networks teens really use is not anonymous at all. He’s Andrew Watts. My apologies for not noticing.

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