Five years of Flickr Commons – a personal review

Unidentified soldier of the First AIF from Australian War Memorial on Flickr Commons

Unidentified soldier of the First AIF from Australian War Memorial on Flickr Commons. 75,000 views, 2,600 favourites, 491 comments

16 January 2013 marks the five year anniversary of the launch of Flickr Commons. At that time I was already an avid Flickr user and had started to share vintage photos from my own personal collection. So the promise of such names as the Library of Congress, George Eastman House and Powerhouse Museum sharing parts of their often hitherto hidden collections was a cause of great excitement.

I’ve been following The Commons ever since, commenting on images where I had something to contribute, eagerly watching as new institutes joined up, and more recently spreading the word via my @PhotosOfThePast twitter account. As a closet hacker I’ve also had a lot of fun playing with the images, and especially the data behind them (more on that in the links section below).

Simply put, Flickr Commons has been amazing.

But it seems a suitable time to reflect on whether it has lived up to that promise, and perhaps more importantly given that the world of sharing photos online has changed so drastically in that five years, ask questions of whether it has fulfilled its potential, and what the future might hold.

The Highlights

Wow, where do I start? Perhaps firstly with some statistics. A few months back I put together a little tool that summarises key statistics across Flickr Commons. As I write this blog post, on the eve of the 5-year anniversary, I can see:

In five years 56 Flickr Commons Institutes have uploaded 243,006 images. That’s a staggering number, an average of over 4,300 from each institute, and over 130 images for each day since the launch.

28,831 of these have been geotagged, and 53,555 have had a ‘date taken’ set. Ok, that probably sounds a bit geeky, but along with all the tags and other metadata this shows just what a rich repository Flickr Commons has become (and also means that it has the potential to make a rather nice map, a fascinating timeline, and the ability to see what images were taken ‘on this day in history’).

Hundreds of thousand of comments and tags have been added by users1 and as a further indication of popularity, 20,173 images have been added to a Flickr gallery.

All the wonderful things that have been done on and with Flickr Commons are too long to list here, but if you want to check out some examples have a look at a couple of my recent favourites – Brooklyn Museum’s geotag Brooklyn project, and the Imperial War Museums’ Faces of the First World War. There’s also been a spin-off Indicommons blog and even an iPhone/iPad app specifically developed to display Commons images.

Keep your finger on the pulse by checking the Flickr Commons group discussions.

A few questions

It has to be said that all of this has been achieved against a rather uncertain backdrop. With Flickr’s acquisition by Yahoo (and some notable departures) there seemed a sense that The Commons was something of an unknown to them. This was then reflected both in a freeze in organisations able to join (thankfully something that finally ended with a new swathe of members in 2011, though worryingly no-one new now since November 2011) but also in the number of images uploaded – the stats show that after 13,547 uploads in 2008, 22,164 in 2009, and a whopping 117,775 in 2010, this fell to 27,001 in 2011. Thankfully 2012 saw a marked reversal, with 61,052 images added. But within this there are marked differences – some institutions appear to have taken a long break, and I sense that not all remain committed and are having understandable doubts over whether to continue, no doubt facing resourcing pressures and issues of prioritising all digital activities. But I hope that I am proved wrong there, and examples like National Library of Ireland, posting images nearly every day and attracting immediate reaction from a band of loyal followers, are leading the way.

But has anything changed n five years, and is Flickr Commons moving with teh times and ready to face the next five? It’s interesting to see the same issues arising today as had been raised right at the beginning. Whilst adding comments and tags is easy for users, translating that quickly and easily into accurate metadata such as geotags remains elusive. Likewise most institutes will have their own collections management systems and even with Flickr’s comprehensive API it seems people are finding it hard to integrate crowdsourced data back into their own systems.

These issues don’t mean that there’s a fatal flaw, it just suggests that it’s not working as well as it could.

The future

I think Flickr Commons is due a second lease of life. I sense that Flickr itself is escaping a little from the suffocation that arose from becoming part of a multinational and it’s finding its feet again. But in an ever changing digital space it still has a long way to catch up against the Instagrams of the world.

But Flickr has some wonderful communities and a loyal group of highly engaged users, and Flickr Commons epitomises this.

Flickr Commons is simply too good to throw away. At least I think so, and I hope Marissa Mayer does too!



My ‘hacks’

5th anniversary articles (please submit any other suggestions in comments)

Older reviews of Flickr Commons


1. It is not possible to get a figure for total comments from the API unless you are the account holder. But just to cite one example, National Library of Ireland recently reported that their 1,071 photos had had an astonishing 14,871 comments!

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