Flickr - Governance

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See Flickr for general information.


Closedness to participants involvement in infrastructure governance

Mayo Fuster Morell:

"In the first year of Flickr’s platform design and development, the Flickr provider relied heavily on fairly intense interaction with the original participant base (M. Alpern, Presentation at Wikimania and informal interview, August 28, 2009). In this first stage, the Flickr provider collaborated and enabled participants to construct, manage and have control over their interaction at the platform, and in the infrastructure governance in terms of platform design (Garrett, 2005). By 2006 however, the platform design became fairly stable and participant involvement was restricted. With the stabilization of the platform design, the participants’ active involvement in platform design and self-governance altered with participants as individual “consumers” of a service as part of an increasingly commercial relationship in which participants’ experiences are centered on their own photos and not intervening in designing the overall platform. In other words, Flickr’s infrastructure governance evolved from an early stage of participative platform design and interaction in self-governance to commercialization in which participants do not intervene in the overall platform, but only use it (Cox, 2008).

In terms of the structural points of relationships, the relationship between Flickr and the community of participants is based on closedness to participants’ involvement, the corporation providing a service that the participants use. The community does not contribute on infrastructure provision matters, nor is there any overlapping or collaboration with Flickr.20 In Flickr's words: “Flickr works on getting things up and serving you”.

Two main points of contact and communication can be discerned between Yahoo! as provider and the participants: the Flickr team as broker and the community manager as contact point .

When Yahoo! bought Flickr, it “absorbed” both the platform and the team in charge of it. Flickr's team maintains the platform, but importantly, it acts as a channel between the contrasting interests of Yahoo!’s profit goal and the community’s social and communicative aim in using Flickr. In addition, among Flickr’s team there are activists who developed Indymedia, and other activist platforms (E. Rabble, Interview, August 28, 2009). In this regard, placing such creative and activist profiles between the corporation and the community is a way of linking social processes and activists’ creativity with a profit enterprise. The Flickr team acts as a broker between the corporation’s interests and the community’s interests, which highlights two main tensions between the Flickr team and Yahoo!. On the one hand, the Flickr team defend and advocate for the community’s interest and empowerment before Yahoo!’s commercial interests (E. Rabble, Interview, 28 August 2009). On the other hand, the Flickr team wants to keep its own identity and independence as a working group apart from Yahoo!.

Within the Flickr team there is the figure of the community manager who acts as the contact point between the team and the community. Community managers are in charge of community control and implement the policies set up by Yahoo! to regulate community interaction. The generation of a particular culture within the platform results from active intervention from community managers. This contrasts with the image of the Flickr community as “self organizing” which ignores the importance and the scope of these interventions by the community manager. Community managers also intervene to block participants or remove content which is not deemed appropriate by Yahoo! The community managers try to get to know the community through ”participative observation”. The communication with the community takes place though blogs, forums and via email.

Community managers are also in charge of collecting community feedback for the design and maintenance of the platform. In fact, users play an important role in the innovation of the platform (von Hippel, 2005). For example, before introducing a change in the platform, the community manager works internally to review participants’ feedback and solicit new feedback from the community through blogs or forums. After the change is made, the community manager encourages participants to actively participate in the discussion regarding the appropriateness of the change. In the words of a Yahoo! community manager: “By giving people ownership of something and allowing them to influence their product, they are more likely to stick with the product and have a positive impact” (Yahoo! community manager intervention at Online community report unconference). On some occasions, participants criticize changes incorporated by the provider. The community manager also deals with the reactions of participants. Additionally, Yahoo! lent importance to the emotional dimension and emotional linkage of the community within the platform (M. Alpern, Presentation at Wikimania and interview, 28 August 2009). Thus, another task of the community manager is "managing the mob" or “convoying sentiments”. For example, addressing calm mad/sad/frustrated feelings within the community when things are changing at the platform.

An additional part of community management (especially of commercial communities) is the creation of “false” users created by employees who participate in the community and act as regular participants without revealing the fact that hey are Yahoo! employees.

In sum, Flickr’s infrastructure governance is characterized by the structural closedness to participant’s involvement. Furthermore, the linkage between Yahoo! and the community is mediated by Flickr's team and bridged by the figure of the community manager. Community managers control the community and preserve the order defined by Yahoo!; plus, they are charged with ensuring the participants satisfaction with the platform design and policy and discouraging them from leaving."

The Blackbox Approach

Mayo Fuster Morell:

"The Flickr platform is based on proprietary software and is copyright licensed. The blackbox conditions of Flickr restrict the possibility of replicating its activities somewhere else. As the software is proprietary, users do not know exactly what the program is doing with their data. They can not technically or legally modify the program nor create a copy of it to develop in another direction. Additionally, Yahoo! does not favor data portability and flow outside of the Flickr platform. This means that even though the participants are the owners of the data they upload at the platform, it is not facilitate for users to remove their data from Flickr and/or move their data from Flickr to somewhere else. Furthermore, in moving the data somewhere else, the participants would lose the network effect and the collaborative metadata that joins all of the photos together. Finally, data ownership of Flickr is individually based. This makes creating an independent and autonomous archive complicated, as all of the participants would have to agree on using a free license or moving their data somewhere else." (

Power embedded in Flickr infrastructure governance

Mayo Fuster Morell:

"Flickr is based on a "classic" distribution of functions. The participants develop the works or content at the platform. In other words, participants upload the large majority of photos on the Flickr archive, while Yahoo! as the Flickr provider takes care of everything else. This includes amongst other things, the technical base and maintenance, sustainability and legal issues.

The commercial providers depend on the community to develop the content of the platform.

Volunteers also contribute depending on their own views and motivations. The lack of control over these important factors (the availability of volunteers to create content on the platform) indicates a weaknesses in these types of corporations. Furthermore, it makes the corporation vulnerable to their own corporate reputation. Corporations that do not rely on their own image to attract participants do not have to worry about their reputation. But if the community is a product of the corporation, then the corporation is in a lot of ways at the mercy of its participants, which makes it vulnerable. Thus, a body of people, large enough and vocal enough, could cause problems for the corporation.

One consequence is that the community is more empowered with regard to the corporation, because the corporation depends on the community. Another consequence is that these create stimuli for ethical practices by the corporations. Corporations therefore make extra effort to maintain their reputation and image and to “gain” the trust of their communities and the general public. However, ethical debates on the role and behavior of commercial providers do not always conform to this there is also the practice of creating “fake” images of the commercial providers in order to gain a reputation. I will refer to these practices with the concept of “wikiwashing”.

Wikiwashing refers to a practice present in new media corporations which is based on building and promoting a corporate image based on a conscientious distortion of the real practices of the corporation, and/or the adoption of pro-democratic and community discourses (particularly associating its image with Wikipedia’s reputation) with the only purpose of gaining a good reputation with the community and the general public. Wikiwashing is based on a similar mechanism to the greenwashing of petrol corporations.

For example, the platform presents among its values the quality of online sociability, and certain types of purpose (i.e., commercial ones) are systematically misrepresented (Werry, 1999).

A platform which appears to have an active and fair relationship with the community is more valuable and attractive to participants and is more likely to be considered by the community during decision making. In this regard, corporations also fake the image of the platform with several mechanisms. For example, when staff act as community members to give the impression of a live community. Or when a community manager uses feedback to legitimize decisions, such as “Tell(ing) people looking at new products, asking for suggestions (look or don't look at it), then when relaunching saying "This is what you wanted"" (C. Watson Community manager intervention at Online community report unconference).

Pertaining to the distribution of ownership, ownership follows the same distribution as function. Yahoo! owns the technological infrastructure and the trade mark; while the community owns the content. However, content ownership is individually based not collectively based. Each user individually owns the content she or he has produced. Flickr allows participants to choose which license they wish to use (copyright, “all rights reserved” or a set of several Creative Commons licenses). The participants who choose creative commons licenses (depending on the conditions of each license) allowing free access to others. Importantly, there are no collectively owned goods such as the entire archive, and so no collective licenses are held.

However, the distribution of authority does not reflect to the distribution of functions and ownership. Yahoo! has authority and ownership of the infrastructure, but Yahoo! also has authority over how the community functions. That is, the community is not self-governed and the rules and policies that govern the interaction are established by Yahoo!. Consequently Yahoo! has to establish tight controls over participants to maintain respect for the rules.

Flickr defines the platform use and community interaction policies. For example, even moderation of communications between participants is in the hands of Flickr. Flickr is also in charge of “administrating the participants”, if a participant is behaving inappropriately, Flickr can block his or her account and the participant will lose his or her photos (E. Rabble, Interview, 28 August 2009). However, Yahoo! does consider the participant’s opinion to some degree when defining terms of use and policies. Yahoo! aims to increase participation, so defines the terms of use in order to satisfy and attract more participants (M. Alpern, Presentation at Wikimania and Interview, 28 August 2009). This is also the case for other commercial platforms, such as Wikianswers, where the policies are defined by the corporation, yet, according to a Wikianswers’ employee: “Wikianswers have to be receptive to requests. They drive the community forward, we do not have to, but we listen to them” (Y. Goldstein, Interview, August 26, 2009).

However, the influence of participants on policy is based not on the fact that it is up to them to define the terms of policies, but based on the possibility of accepting or “rejecting” them. For example, Facebook wanted to change their copyright policy, but due to a revolt from the community was forced to reverse the change (M. Matsuzaki, Interview, October 2009).

There are several reasons to explain the compliance of Yahoo! to govern the community and establish the rules of the interaction. Firstly, Yahoo! has a profitable goal in terms of providing the platform. The platform design and the rules of interaction are driven by the Yahoo!’s profit goal. The profit driven architecture of participation could be connected to the question that Yahoo! does not promote community self-governance.

In order to fulfill its profit strategy Yahoo! needs some type of interaction and activity with the platform (the one which results in benefits increase). In this regard, Yahoo! cannot leave the community to decide what to do. Instead Yahoo! designs its framework for participation according to its profit strategy.

A second reason that explains why Yahoo! wants to keep control over the community is related to legal responsibility over the content. In general, the providers are not legally responsible for the works created by the participants at the platforms. However, the regulation on the level of responsibility over the content is an ambiguous area. For example, in the case of YouTube, in order to determine appropriate content, Google (as the provider of YouTube) used to rely on its participants to flag content as inappropriate or violating copyright law until a corporate employee determined whether the flagged material violated the platform's terms of service or copyright law. However, in July 2008 the Culture and Media Committee of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom stated that it was "unimpressed" with YouTube's system for policing its videos, and argued that "Proactive review of content should be standard practice for platforms hosting user generated content."24 Due to this type of legal controversy, corporations are moving more and more in the direction of policing the platform. In this regard, to avoid lawsuits, it is in the corporation’s interest to ensure control and intervention over a content which does not respect copyright law. In March 2007 Yahoo! introduced mandatory filtering of all photos at Flickr and a process of central review of photos by Flickr's team to set levels of appropriateness. However, this is a complex situation because the violation of terms of services and copyright law is relatively frequent in these platforms. To insure that the content completely respects copyright law and the terms of service would create a massive amount of work for the staff and would be very costly for the corporations.

This contrast to the Wikipedia case in which the major involvement of the community in the issue of governance, results in a larger amount of voluntary resources at the community level for making sure that the content added is appropriate according to the community rules and respects the copyright laws. In other words, the Wikimedia Foundation does not control participants as Yahoo! does, because participants control themselves making sure the content does not create trouble in the Wikimedia Foundation.

The corporate system of validation of content opens up debates about censorship and several scandals have happened over the deletion of photos at Flickr by Yahoo!. Yahoo! is responsible for informing public authorities of content of an illicit nature. For example, Flickr provides information on participants uploading violent or pedophile photos (E. Rabble, Interview, August 28, 2009). This opened a debate on the creation of networked surveillance resulting from a collaboration of Web 2.0 corporate and Public authorities (Calenda & Lyon, 2007)." (


Mayo Fuster Morell:

"In conclusion, at Flickr there is a traditional distribution of functions between the provider (who takes care of technical maintenance and legal and financial issues) and the participants (who produce the content). However, Yahoo! has major authority in terms of judging participants’ behavior and also defining the policies and terms of use of the platform in the first place. Participants are “free” to accept or reject the conditions imposed by Flickr, but they do not have the authority to change the policies and rules that govern user interaction within Flickr.

In conclusion, the number and strengths of the sources of power within the infrastructure governance in Flickr benefits Yahoo! in front of the community of participants in contrast to the other cases. Yahoo! depends on the community to create the content. Yahoo! has to provide terms of use for its service which attracts participants. Yahoo! also has to give priority to the community of interest in order to insure its reputation and attract participants. However, the community does not control and govern its own interaction.

Instead, Yahoo! has control over participants’ behavior at the platform and can control participants behavior. Additionally, the blackbox conditions of Yahoo! mean that the platform cannot be reproduced and that participants depend upon Yahoo! for access and reuse of their works. The individualized mode of participation reduces the chances that users will press their interests and demands onto Yahoo!." (

How does the Flickr infrastructure governance shape the community?

Mayo Fuster Morell:

"A very large community of participants are involved in Flickr, with more than 50 million registered accounts. The interaction between participants is limited to individual actions and the collaborative generation of metadata which creates the system. As a result of this interaction, a digital common is not generated as a collectively owned resource freely available for third parties. There are several mechanisms which link the infrastructure governance in Flickr with this community.

In contrast to open providers, the closed infrastructure governance of Flickr limits Yahoo!'s ability to activate volunteers to provide the infrastructure and content control of Flickr. However, Yahoo!’s for profit character insures Yahoo! the financial resources to make up for the lack of voluntary resources and to make up for the lesser knowledge on the community in closed providers. Yahoo! has the monetary resources to keep the infrastructure updated and running as well as the monetary resources to contract the best technical expertise and creativity. Additionally, Internet standards and regulations seem to favor multinational communication corporations. corporations support each other in order to maintain their dominant positions.

In sum, the professional function of Flickr’s services could explain the large size of its community.

A small part of society boycott the use of the corporate type of infrastructure because of its forprofit character and/or its capacity to control of participants’ data. However, this does not constitute a strong trade off for Yahoo!: despite the boycott, Yahoo! remains very visible and dominates the market.

Importantly, Flickr is based on the architecture of participation which is designed to create flow more than to articulate content. The profit goal of the corporations is highlighted with the emphasis on flow and new activity (i.e., highlighting the last photos upload more than the organization of the photos). In other words, the profit goal is present in the design of the architecture of participation and content, which translates into a commodification of participants’ behavior towards the profit goals (Danlberg, 2005a, 2005b). In order to increase profits, Yahoo! aims to maximize the number of people using its services, rather than design the interaction in order to increase an integration of the content. Yahoo! aims to increase flow of information and people connected to the site more so than to produce an integrated and high quality information resource.

Corporations aim to make a profit and in this regard they have an instrumental approach to the community of participants. The main sources of revenue are advertisements and paid services, which shape the platforms they provide. The demands of advertisers and the requirements to increase paid subscriptions limit the type of content, number of participants, demographics of participants and the overall design of the platform as well as increasing growth and flow." (

More Information

Article on policing 'the spirit of Flickr' at the famous photo-sharing site.