Future Tense

You Should Never Have Trusted Flickr to Protect Your Cherished Photos

The logo of the Flickr website  is displayed on a tablet on January 2, 2014 in Paris.   AFP PHOTO / LIONEL BONAVENTURE        (Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)
By changing its business model, Flickr has turned a lot of its users’ worlds upside down. Lionel Bonaventure/Getty Images

Flickr is flickering out. Tuesday was the last day to retrieve your snaps from the 15-year-old photo-sharing platform before it begins a process of mass deletion. Smug Mug, the company that purchased the site from Yahoo last year, is ditching a model that gave users 1 terabyte of free online storage for a $50-a-year service that gives them unlimited storage. Now users will get just 1,000 photos for free; anything over that number is about to disappear.

A lot of us rely on free, cloud-based photo storage—if you’ve ever filled up or replaced a smartphone, lost a memory card, broken a hard drive, or run out of shelf space for your albums, then of course you would. For many, Facebook and Instagram are now de facto family photo albums. Others have relied on legacy sites like Flickr or Photobucket for years, sticking around out of inertia or convenience. Then there are services from the operating systems of our devices themselves, like Apple and Google’s cloud storage, which enable us to take more pictures because they can collect 10 photos of the same sunset on our phones without any hassle.

While no one can question the convenience of pulling up an old photo on demand, Flickr’s ultimatum—pay up or go—serves as a useful reminder that the free platforms we’ve entrusted to save our memories aren’t made for us. They’re made for the people who profit off our usage. These platforms can be sold. They can erase what we’ve saved. They can charge us later for access to our own photos, or to store more of them. They can change their terms of service and hand all of our precious memories to the police, use facial recognition to map our relationships, or use the photos for ads—as Instagram opened up its terms of service to be able to do in 2012, ditto Yahoo in 2014. Yahoo actually sold users’ Creative Commons–licensed photos as wall art without giving the photographers any of the profits.

At the same time, these companies have kept us inside their ecosystems by synonymizing photo storage and memories: For many, one of the great anxieties of quitting a social media site is that you’d have to download all the old pics and photos you’re tagged in before saying goodbye, lest our cherished moments be lost to us for good. It was so much easier to stick around the place where our digital stuff lived.

The convenience of photo archives like Flickr and Facebook has surely cost us some of our autonomy. We no longer hold the artifacts of our memories ourselves, but rather trust companies to do it for us. It’s a mistake, because when these sites go, they take our photos with them. The platforms trained us to trust them with our history. In exchange, we got not only likes and comments on our photos in real time but a vast, free archive of photos and likes and comments, scenes from our lives layered with insta-commentary. If we weren’t bothered by the fact that these archives often informed ad-targeting systems or other monetization schemes, then we should at least be bothered by their corporatized ephemerality.

This isn’t to criticize the use of social media to share photos with friends and family or the public. It’s certainly fun and helpful for keeping up with people’s lives. So many people have been scrambling to archive their Flickr archives because Flickr was a deeply useful service. Rather, I hope it’s a moment to reflect on the fact that these companies aren’t in the business of holding the artifacts of our memories safe. They’re in the business of increasing engagement on their platforms, showing us ads, and collecting more data on us, or if that doesn’t work, charging a fee. Lots of Flickr users probably wish they’d kept their own backups right now, as inconvenient as those can be. Whether they’re on your computer, on a hard drive, or printed on paper, your photographs—and your memories—are only still yours if you save them in a place where you’ll always have the keys.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.