What's Ours

As it was purchasing Tumblr, Yahoo was also quietly making changes to the Flickr photo sharing service. Flickr has been one of Yahoo's few success stories recently, and this was the first major revision to the site in a number of years.

The change came without warning, it dramatically changed the look at feel of the site, it changed the emphasis from sharing and community to photo browsing, and it upset a lot of people.

Like Jenny Mackness, I've been a member of the site since the beginning, have become a 'pro' (ie., 'paid') member, and have thousands upon thousands of photos stored on the site.  And my issue with the changes are similar to hers: it’s like hanging too many paintings on a wall in an art gallery, and 'Collections’ no longer show on the opening Flickr page.

And most importantly, "the worst thing about these changes is that they have decreased and diminished my sense of ownership over my own photos, since I no longer have a choice about how they should be displayed" It's not as bad as Google+, which has been "auto-enhancing" (ie., wrecking) my photos, but it's bad enough.

And she adds, "What Flickr hasn’t seemed to recognize is that they have ‘meddled’ with my identity." This was the part I thought she got exactly right.

But Alan Levine responds: "I disagree- Jenny gets a lesson that third party sites are not 'ours'. If they do their job well it has that sensation."

And he has a point, of course. Spaces like Flickr and Facebook and Google+ and Tumblr belongto large corporations who offer us certain services in exchange for the right to monetize our creativity and attention. From time to time they will allow us to pay for extensions to that privilege, which is how I can to pay Flick for 'pro' membership and Google for 100 gig of 'cloud' space.

And of course, these spaces are not ours, which is what in turn motivates things like the Domain of One's Own project, which exists thanks in no small part to Levine's own efforts. In the past I've supported the idea, and I still do, because, as we have just seen, these large corporations that give us a place to put our stuff are fickle.

That said, I have no illusion that hosting my own domain and server and all the rest of it will free from such fecklessness. It simply moves it back a level.

For example, the ISP on which I hosted my own server has been purchased three times since I started with them (which is how I find myself a SoftLayer customer without even trying). Everything about my service (and most importantly, the Linux configuration  support, which has long since vanished) has changed.

At home, I found myself viewing advertisements inserted into my web stream by my internet service provider (which also admitted to 'traffic-shaping' and of course bandwidth limits). Though I don't think it does this any more (I'm not sure, because I bolted from the service as soon as I could) I get the same sense of my personal space being violated.

And of course there's the wireless internet access industry, a collection of companies that have proven manifestly unable to resist no-cancellation policies and excessive roaming fees, and the platforms on which smartphones run, which enforce monopolies like the iTunes store or Google Play. Having iTunes deleting your music or Google Play banning updates certainly feels like a violation.

Even if I were to construct my own internet backbone and manufacture my own computers, our economy is so interlinked that fickle behaviour on the part of one corporation or another (perhaps the power company, perhaps the government) will intrude on my space. Because, in the end, everything I own, everything I create, everything I see, is obtained from, and at the discretion of, corporations and service providers.

This is not sour grapes; it's just a fact. It's no more or no less a fact that that I buy my food from restaurants and grocery stores, my clothing from Mark's Work Wearhouse, my water from the City of Moncton and my gas from Enbridge. It would be ridiculous and futile to attempt to provide all these things for myself; it makes much more sense to do what I do well, get paid for it, and purchase these services from others.

But with these purchases and exchanges of services, I have come over time to have certain expectations. Indeed, it is impossible to build a reliable network of goods and services if these expectations are not met. I do not expect my food to poison me, I do not expect the power or gas to stop functioning for no good reason, and I would consider it an affront if the City came along and said it was rezoning my property and neighbourhood to heavy industrial.

No, I don't own any of these things, but they all taken together form part and parcel of my life, my livelihood, and yes, even my identity.

So Jenny Mackness is not wrong to complain about sudden and unexpected changes in service delivery, not least in one she pays for, but also one in which she exchanges other value (such as her creativity and attention) for services. There's no reason why web services should be any different in this way from the newspaper or the gas company.

We need to become more clear about this. More and more of our digital world is moving into the cloud. Software we used to buy and install, like Photoshop, is now a service. That's fine (if expensive) if we can control our software. But if we start getting upgrades without being asked, and if our computers and other tools suddenly start performing in erratic and unexpected ways, or if we suddenly lose features (like Google Reader, or anything useful in Apple iMovie), then the loss of control we feel is real.

The software and digital content industries as a whole will have to be very careful. They have already tricked people into believing they are purchasing 'licenses' and not actual products, even when those products are shrink-wrapped and stored on DVDs. This resulted in significant push-back as people lost the right to copy, trade or resell their purchased product. But at least if the product changed they could keep the old one.

Now they will not even give us the product itself. They'll change it whenever they want. Terms of service, cost increases, usage caps - we've already seen that the industry will do whatever it wants if it feels it can wring a few extra dollars out of the service. The users - as we well know - are not the customers. The only people corporations answer to are the shareholders.

That's why we need to push back. These services are beginning to play an essential role in our lives. Just as the gas company cannot by law turn off the heat in winter, just as banks by law cannot charge more than a certain rate of interest, just as telephone companies by law must allow you to keep your number when you switch service, there is a growing need for an understanding that people demand, and must receive, a certain consistency in online environments.

Last week I linked to an article launching a campaign for a "people's terms of service." I commented, "Some of the terms that would be highlighted are laudible - the idea that such agreements could not be arbitrarily changed, that producer data collection practices would be transparent, that companies would respect user copyright, and that industry standard data security measures would be in place."

But I didn't like the mechanism, and I noted that companies will simply ignore these provisions. What might be needed I think is something rather stronger. So, here's the message to Flickr, the new owners of Tumblr, and the other vendors making a lot of money hosting our stuff and providing services online: if you can't behave, people will push back. Because they do feel their sense of identity is being infringed upon.

This sort of dissonance is real. How do you think the people who purchase Joe Fresh felt when they saw their favorite shirt among the wreckage of the Bangladesh sweatshop

Companies can get away with a lot. But when they start messing with people's sense of self, they are starting to tread dangerous ground. It might be something as simple as they way we are able to display our images online. But I think we know, intuitively, that if we can't even control that, then there's a lot more serious stuff behind the scenes we can't sway at all, and it begins to gnaw at us, bit by bit.


  1. Stephen, I would love to push back, but how? It would seem that a huge mass, large enough to cause disruption would have to occur, but how many of us are willing to do without our digital worlds?

  2. It's hardly a manner of right or wrong- you are right in as much as I have zero interest in hosting my own photo platform (I do my own photo gallery site of my favorites). I want to be part of and even pay for a service to do it.

    I do not fault Jenny from complaining. What Yahoo did might be a text book case for future business study courses on how to alienate a community in every way. Why were existing Flickr members part of a beta test, a preview? Why would they not leverage the strength of a once strong community? Instead, they alienate their core in a move aimed at ??

    I probably will stay with Flickr, not for the site design but for the stuff that is under the hood-- the Flickr API does give me the route to design my own iteration were that what I sought.

    What is valuable here is the collection and tools to find cc licensed photos, as we reclaim away we make many small pools of nice photos rather than a navigable ocean to share.

    Whst we can do about it is exactly this. Talk in the open. Lobby Yahoo to treat the community like a community not a bunch of "users ".

  3. I second that last bit - talking in the open is the best and possibly the only way to respond (always has been).

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