December 22, 2008

Tragedy at the Commons

Nat Torkington at the O’Reilly Radar blog has news this morning that George Oates, Senior Program Manager in charge of Flickr Commons and an original member of the Flickr design team, has been laid off by Flickr’s parent company Yahoo! As the person at Yahoo! responsible for bringing together the energy and cultural resources of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the Powerhouse Museum, the National Library of New Zealand, the Library of Virginia, the Imperial War Museum, and, most recently, the New York Public Library, Oates has quietly done as much as anyone in the past several years to increase and improve online access to cultural heritage collections around the world. It’s sad enough just at that. But Oates’ layoff also raises some larger questions. Is this just one of those things we see in a bad economy, or is it a reason why cultural organizations should roll their own rather than using commercial services for online work?

Torkington believes that the enthusiasm and community Flickr Commons has attracted will sustain the project through the economic downturn and what at best is likely to be a period of neglect by Flickr and its parent. Let’s hope so. A less rosy scenario is that Yahoo! decides that in tough economic times the goodwill and visibility generated by hosting the educational and cultural heritage materials of public institutions isn’t worth the cost of bandwidth.

This story drove home to me a contradiction in my own rhetoric that I hadn’t noticed before. On the one hand I have been a proponent of Flickr Commons, university channels on Google’s YouTube, and the like, recommending them to partners and colleagues as an easy way to reach out to new audiences, build communities around content, and basically just get your stuff up without the hassle of software and sys admin. On the other hand, I have repeatedly criticized the enthusiasm some digital humanists have shown for Second Life, in large part on the basis of the fact that Linden Lab (SL’s parent company) could at any moment go under or simply decide to take another business direction—and in doing so take with them all the hard, largely publicly-funded work museums, libraries, and digital humanists have put into the platform. Only today, when I read of George Oates’ sacking, did I realize that what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. While the long term prospects of Yahoo! and especially Google may be brighter than those of Linden Lab, nevertheless they are still big companies whose first responsibility is to their shareholders and the bottom line, not to cultural heritage, education, or the work of digital humanities.

My guess is that Flickr Commons will be just fine, and I still believe there is a lot of good in the idea. But the news about George Oates, someone who was universally well-regarded in our business and in the web business more generally, should give all of us pause. Specifically, it should let us ask again whether the benefits in ease, reach, and community of using commercial services for presenting cultural heritage collections and educational resources really outweigh the costs in storage, systems administration, and content segregation of rolling your own.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. This debate is one that I’ve had both internally with myself and externally with my colleagues for several years now. No one wants to think that the time, energy, money, and resources invested in placing something valuable online is just going to go away, but the benefits of a ready-made location and user base are also clear.

    It seems to me this is about balancing the ability to reach more people, often with a more polished and supported interface, with the need to protect against the risks of commercial failure and potential loss of access to data. [Although we also need to remember that just because something is hosted on the servers of an educational or cultural institution, doesn’t mean it is always going to be there. “Forever” is a long time in the era of govt budget cuts and rapid software change.]

    Still, in the end for me it comes down to a question of whether or not an institution can get data placed in places like Flickr Commons back out with some relative ease (both technically and in terms of copyright).

  2. @Jeff I completely agree: data portability is key to these questions. One of my big problems with SL is that the work people put into it is so intimately, even necessarily, tied to the platform, to the virtual world itself. That’s less true for things like Flickr, but it would be good to see Flickr and other commercial content sharing services adopt some baseline digital archival standards like Dublin Core so when the time comes to bring stuff down, it at least won’t be so much work. I also agree that many of the same longevity problems exist with non-commerical environments and technologies as exist with commercial ones, but attention to standards is one thing the former (usually) do better than the latter.

  3. This sort of news definitely gives me pause about the “open” movement. Clearly Yahoo is in worse financial shape than Google or Apple, but what about groups writing educational software for Android or the IPhone? It’s not time to hit the panic button, but do digital scholars need new criteria to examine homes for their projects? To move beyond accessibility and project cost to considering data portability and financial stability?

  4. Just a few points that I think have fallen through the cracks.. one, the cost of doing something on the scale of Flickr is insurmountable, and the cultural heritage world is engrossed in private companies interests (Gallery Systems, Mediabin, Microsoft, Apple, blah blah blah) through and through for all but the most well-endowed organizations.

    In addition, the benefit to using Flickr is not in their infrastructure, but their traffic. Flickr has that crucial critical mass of eyeballs, which is the expensive part of the proposition.

    All that being said, I am confidant in Flickr’s ongoing commitment to The Commons, and have no reason, layoffs or not, to believe anything differently.

    -Thank you
    Ryan Donahue
    Webmaster, George Eastman House

  5. @Ryan Donahue Thanks for your comment. You make a good point about cultural organizations already using commercial vendors and products for lots of different things, though I’m not sure that’s a situation we necessarily want to perpetuate. Regardless of the answer to that question, I think we can all agree that whether a given museum likes or dislikes its commercial software and service options, it would be good for everyone to have some additional open source and open standards alternatives in the marketplace. Indeed there are already lots of people in the cultural heritage technology fields working toward that very goal.

    Like you, I’m also mostly convinced that Flickr Commons isn’t going anywhere and that the Oates’ layoff isn’t a direct sign of an impending collapse. It’s just that her layoff should remind us that Flickr’s work with museum and library collections is just one piece—and unlike Gallery Systems, not a core piece—of Yahoo!’s much larger business and that like any big business, what’s in Yahoo!’s best interest isn’t necessarily also in the public interest.

  6. I agree with Ryan Donahue, but I’d add to his statement “the benefit to using Flickr is not in their infrastructure, but their traffic. Flickr has that crucial critical mass of eyeballs, which is the expensive part of the proposition.”

    It’s true that Flickr has “traffic” and “eyeballs” but that seems like the wrong emphasis, like admissions gate counts — how many tickets did we sell today?

    On Flickr, people aren’t just passive consumers of culture, they are active participants. They aren’t just looking at images, they are adding knowledge and opinions and feelings and memories and links and tags and notes. They’re engaging in discussion and debate, finding and taking “now” pictures to match up with “then” pictures, playing around with things in many different ways.

    A good example of this is the current mini-curation projects like Delivering the Mail and Ryan’s work on developing the Collection Curator.

    Even if Flickr disappears tomorrow (and I hope it doesn’t!), both the data and this kind of engagement will move elsewhere.

  7. @Elizabeth I forgot to comment on Ryan D’s point about traffic/engagement. Great points from both of you. It would be nice if we could engender the kind of audience engagement that Flickr enjoys on our own websites, but the truth is that’s probably not going to happen. In that respect, it makes more sense to make ourselves at home where the audience already lives rather than expecting them to come visit us at our place. It isn’t without its risks, however. If the audience decides to move or the house itself burns down, all the work we’ve done there will have to be replicated someplace else.

  8. Hi Tom,

    I’m on the Smithsonian team working on the Commons. The thing that makes Flickr such a compelling place to share the Smithsonian’s photo collections is the incredible community. Their response to George leaving was to create a Flickr group – – that has as the mission:

    ” We’re bringing together the members of The Commons with Flickr members and staff in a space for discussion to celebrate, play with, and carry forward what George Oates created.”

    Since they created that group, they have been curating photos across the Commons and coming up with ideas for how to improve the Commons. For institutions who’s mission it is to educate and inform, this is incredible.

    Wherever such an engaged community exists, we need to go there.

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