Where to go for public photo-sharing?

Or why I miss the days when Flickr ruled…

This is one of nearly 20 “Change Bracket” signs we developed at Nerds for Nature, to crowdsource timelapse photos in parks, especially after fires or other changes.

A couple of years ago, a few volunteers for Nerds for Nature (a group I helped start in the SF Bay Area) put together a system for enlisting park visitors and social media to create timelapse views of habitats undergoing major changes (usually recovering from wildfires).

The project, which we dubbed Change Brackets, was covered by the media (local TV, local NPR affiliate, and even in Australia!) and has since gathered about 2,000 images in Mount Diablo State Park and Stanislaus National Forest. We just recently got approval to install two more signs in McLaren Park in San Francisco, where we’ve been doing lots of work and where the city will be investing $12 million in park improvements in the coming years.

The Change Bracket system lets people post to Flickr, Twitter, or Instagram. Basically, no one uses Flickr. About 40% of submissions come from Twitter and nearly 60% from Instagram.

Until June 1, that is. That’s when some changes went live on Instagram’s API, essentially ending Instagram as an easily accessible public photo discovery platform for noncommercial projects. Since then, 100% of the images have come from Twitter.

The Instagram API still does other things, but it doesn’t allow hashtag searches any more. There are ways to pay for access via services like Adobe’s Livefyre, but that’s not feasible for unfunded, social-good projects like this.

IG announced its intentions well ahead of time (back in November), but I have to admit I didn’t pay close enough attention until the changes went live (such is the danger of small side projects).

So I’m not complaining about how Instagram changed its API. As far as I can tell, they did a decent job of letting folks know what was happening. And the modern Internet is a place where services come and go.

But I am mourning the steady erosion of open platforms like Twitter and Flickr and the delightful things they make possible. For photo sharing especially, it’s painful to see Flickr, with its many excellent features, constantly and utterly eclipsed by competitors that make fewer rather than more photos discoverable on the web.

For a mass audience, Twitter is really the only currently viable open network for sharing and discovering text and images via API.

Free discovery is simply not crucial for making tons of money (consider: the Facebook+Instagram juggernaut; let’s call it FB+I).

And broad image discoverability just isn’t relevant for most users, who really just want to share images with their friends. The numbers are staggering. In late June, Instagram announced it had reached 500 million users. And 300 million people use it every day, uploading some 95 million photos and videos every 24 hours.

By comparison, Twitter has about 300 million users who post about 300 million tweets a day (down from 660 million a couple years ago). That’s a hell of a lot of people.

But the 200 million person gap between Twitter and Instagram (to say nothing of Facebook) fuels periodic doomsday talk in tech media that Twitter is going downhill (here’s a recent example).

Perhaps back when Flickr ruled, which is also roughly when social media was being invented, only early adopters and photo fanatics were willing to use it anyway. Maybe most regular people never publicly shared photos, so we never really knew if the mass of users would adopt an open-by-default image platform.

Truth be told, I myself was never a model Flickr contributor. For a decade, I edited a local nature magazine (Bay Nature), and I was constantly trolling Flickr looking for images to publish (and pay for, if only the small fees nonprofit magazines can afford).

Through Flickr, I met people like Damon Tighe, Ken-ichi Ueda, and Jerry Ting. Not because they were friends of friends or liked the same bands but because they had taken photos of things I was interested in and Flickr made those photos discoverable to me.

It still does, and it still gives its members the best control over how their work can be shared and viewed, with multiple license options and control over downloads.

But not many people are using it. In the small world of Change Brackets, Instagram and Twitter photos each outnumber Flickr photos by 20x or more.

For now, we’ll need to rely on Twitter for Change Brackets, which is mostly OK. But Twitter’s also the last network standing for us.

All the more reason to keep fingers crossed that Twitter can find its way to a future that’s both viable and open.