How You Can Help to Preserve Billions of Photos

Jason Scott, a self-described freerange archivist, tweeted on April 20:

“But as Flickr tries to refashion itself with a new goal of sustainability and continued access, please, MacAskills, remember that whether you intended to or not, you bought a World Heritage Site that comes with all the same headaches, but all the same weight.”

I can’t stop thinking about this tweet because it’s a good comparison for why I’m establishing the Flickr Foundation. Flickr, the US-based photo sharing service, turned 18 this year; it is one of the older platforms on the web, and holds tens of billions of images uploaded by millions of people from all over the world. After bouncing around in the maelstrom of benign corporate neglect at Yahoo for well over a decade, Flickr is now in the hands of the MacAskill brothers, Don (CEO) and Ben (CTO) (COO & President). It is the first time that humans have created such a huge photographic collection. With the exception of Facebook and Instagram, which are vastly different, it is the largest collection of its kind.

Photographs on Flickr are uniquely well-described—often by the photographer themselves, which is exceedingly rare in traditional institutions. Flickr images are socially cataloged, leveraging technical features such as comments, favorites, albums, and galleries. These are all relatively typical features for web platforms today, but they are absent from the majority of “official” traditional cultural heritage software platforms. This means that the photographs on Flickr are special. Flickr is, in fact, a (digital) world heritage site, albeit inverted from the traditional UNESCO designations, which are physical in nature and are associated with a particular culture or location. Flickr is ubiquitous.

The problem is that Flickr is now owned and managed by a corporation. To be sure, they’re a friendly bunch—in fact, they were the first donor/supporter/financier of the Flickr Foundation. But corporations don’t do permanence the way our beloved libraries, archives, and museums do. When you sign up for a Flickr account, you essentially grant Flickr Inc the authority to delete your content. While every good library has a re-evaluation policy that allows staff to periodically reevaluate their collection to ensure it is effectively serving their patrons. While conservation efforts do occur, the nature of a for-profit corporation is fundamentally different. And it is this distinction that the Flickr Foundation seeks to investigate and explore, with the goal of ensuring that the unique Flickr collection remains accessible and preserved for the next 100 years. That is why I am here at the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy (ICDE).

My research at the ICDE will focus on the concept of a 21st-century commons. My list of research questions is still long and unkempt, but here are a few to give you an idea:

  • How will the corporation have to adapt to a 100-year preservation timeframe?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of those who should be involved?
  • How will it be funded? 
  • What are its obligations to members?
  • Who decides what?
  • How should it strike a balance between conservation and use?

Flickr Commons
In 2008, when I was still at Flickr, I started a program called The Commons on Flickr. Its primary goal is and has always been to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives, and secondarily, to collect new information from interested Flickr members in order to enrich official catalogs. The program is still going strong, and the new foundation’s first priority will be to stabilize and revitalize it. The program will also be useful to consider because the majority of photographs on Flickr Commons are over 100 years old and have no known copyright restrictions. We’re trying to figure out what we can do now to ensure the collection survives for another 100 years, and extend that thinking to the larger corpus of billions of images.

Despite this, it is not yet a genuine Commons. For the time being, the community is more of a resource pool because it isn’t particularly cohesive and hasn’t developed specific norms by consensus. I’m starting with American outsider economist Elinor Ostrom’s thoughts on the digital commons and how they differ from the physical commons. “A Practical Framework for Applying Ostrom’s Principles to Data Commons Governance,” for example, by the Mozilla Foundation, is an example of good work in this area. (Thanks to Katya, another 2022-2023 ICDE fellow, for the reference!)

Naturally, I’m concerned about the long-term financial viability of the organization, and I intend to look into the history of the concept of “public subscription” as a means of long-term stability, in addition to endowments and/or other more traditional methods. I was on a “Feminist Jack the Ripper” walking tour of London the other day, and our guide, Katie, pointed out a red brick arch in Whitechapel that had the words “Four per-cent Industrial Dwellings Company” carved into it. “Investors in the scheme were promised an annual dividend of 4% from the 1,600 shares of £25 each, while rents were fixed at no more than five shillings per week,” she said, citing several companies that were founded at the time to encourage investment in housing with a fixed rate of return. Several housing estates in that area were funded in this way around that time. I’m curious how such a scheme might work for a digital world heritage site.

Polycentric governance, according to Ostrom, is another key to a happy commons, so I’ll be looking for different models that the Foundation could adopt. Currently, Flickr is a for-profit corporation, and the Flickr Foundation will be a tax-exempt corporation. The Flickr Commons program has over 100 cultural organizations as members, and hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer researchers on Flickr who are all very involved, but are not governors. I’m interested in learning about other models that combine various organizational arrangements, non-voting members, multiple stakeholders, and long-term care and kind governance. If any of this sounds like something you’re familiar with and are interested in, please contact me! Thanks for reading!

Image Credit: The photo is in the Library of Congress, and has no known copyright restrictions.