Global Photo-Op: Caterina Fake & Stewart Butterfield — Flickr

 Time, August 15, 2005

Flickr’s fame is an unintended consequence. Creators and husband-and-wife team Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake were toying with the idea of an online photo-sharing application as a side project while developing a multiplayer game two years ago. Conventional wisdom held that Web-based photo sharing was a loss leader for photo companies that had other services or equipment to offer.


Do it yourself: posting your picsDigital photography lets you see your shots instantly, erase the ones you messed up, then copy, manipulate and e-mail the images electronically. The drawback: lots of pictures in the camera and on your hard drive, making it tough to show them to anybody else. Flickr simplifies that process and lets you share those pictures with friends, family—or a million strangers. It’s almost as easy as pasting them in an album or tossing them in a shoebox, with a couple of extra options. Signing up on Flickr’s free website ( creates a package for your pictures and shows you all the ways you can post them. The free account limits you to 10 MB a month. For $24.95, you can upgrade to 2 GB of upload bandwidth monthly and other perks. Flickr is a family photo album for the entire planet; its default setting allows anyone online see snaps of your kid’s birthday party. If you feel your technique could use improvement, encourage people to post comments. “Flickrers” tend to be a supportive group. Invitation-only privacy is an option too, of course. Flickr’s algorithms set it apart from other photo websites: the photos that tagging, “clustering” and “interestingness” yield are fascinating. It’s like finding a whole world’s worth of pictures in that shoebox.Users saw Flickr as fundamentally different from competitors like Shutterfly or Snapfish. Those sites are primarily places to store photographs. Sharing those photos requires sending a Web address and inviting recipients to peruse an online album. Flickr was conceived primarily as social software — a community with photographs as the town square. That philosophy continues under new owner Yahoo!, which bought Flickr in May. “The default setting for your photos is for them to be public, viewable by the rest of the world,” says Fake. More than 80% of the 29 million pictures on Flickr are public. “It has to be completely open, have user-generated content and let people control their own data,” she says. Butterfield, 32, who has degrees in philosophy from Cambridge and the University of Victoria, had already been working in Web design. Fake, 35, had a more visual background: she was the art director for the online magazine Salon.


Flickr users can tag each picture with their own labels. Click the tag on a picture you like, and you are presented with all the other pictures tagged with that word. Tags help create photo sets peculiar to Flickr, like “squaredcircle” and “whatsinyourbag.”


Fake describes Flickr as serving a continuum  that starts with one person’s family, moving outward in concentric circles through neighborhoods, cities, nations and the world. Flickr was a window on the London bombing, Ukraine’s “orange revolution” and the 2004 tsunami. “All of these news stories were captured by people that were there at the time, on the street, with an impetus to share,” she says.


All that in an application that’s still in beta phase. There’s no set date for Flickr 1.0, but the company keeps adding features. August brings clustering groups if similar tags, allowing users to determine whether “turkey” should yield pictures of Istanbul or a holiday dinner. “The real magic in technology is when you can anticipate users’ needs,” Fake says. “And we’re just at the beginning.”