Making more sense of Flickr’s Ides of March

Yesterday I wrote a post that was admittedly vague and rambling. I definitely did not “go home” before I wrote it, so I’d like to correct that, and try to make my meaning clearer (and by “go home”, I’m using speaker trainer Lura Dolas‘ concept of being grounded and authentic before opening your mouth to say something).

So, if I were to rewrite my post, I might say something like this:

The account merger for Yahoo! and Flickr accounts on March 15 (the Ides of March) should not come as a surprise; indeed, we’ve known that it was coming for a long time.

What the deadline represents to different Flickr members is personal and unique; there is very little generalization that can be made of the event, except that the reactions vary greatly along a spectrum from utter indifference to downright anger and resentment.

What Flickr members are experiencing is consistent with what any passionate community experiences when something that represents the core of their experience is disturbed. Whether logical or not, it’s kind of like repotting a plant — the more sensitive to the environment, the more the transplant can be debilitating, destabilizing and disorienting. There’s no rhyme or reason per se, but the individual shock can be a challenge to overcome.

Anecdotally, my personal experience was rather blasé. Previously, I had maintained a “self-perceived independence” by not succumbing to the demands of the Yahoo! conglomerate and merging my account. Indeed, every time I signed in via the “old skool login”, I got a rush of silent pride that I was still free, having avoided “following the sheep”.

My resistance somehow guaranteed that I still had ultimate control over my destiny — and that no corporate monolith could tell me what to do — especially as long as I had trusted friends on the inside advocating for my right to free choice and free association.

But that was a temporary illusion that I knew in the back of my mind would someday end.

And yesterday, the jig was up, the mirage evaporating in the form of a FlickrMail: the embodiment of Flickr’s final transformation from a renegade underdog that busted convention and ran roughshod over a corporate hegemon to become yet another cog in the machine.

Or so the self-serving mythology goes.

In reality, I’m not so sure that all that much has changed, really. I am inclined not to make any final pronouncements about Flickr, Yahoo! or whatever else. Hell, I switched over my account, and it wasn’t that bad. Innocence lost, yadda yadda, the world carries on.

Now, the part that I want to take a moment to reflect on, which I also alluded to in the last two paragraphs of yesterday’s post (and is somewhat carried on here), is the part about managing, owning and making choices that effect the destiny of the identity (or identities) that one has spent time creating and cultivating online.

I would posit that the fear or fear-driven reactions that a lot of people have expressed or experienced in the past two days can be traced to this particular nugget of thinking.

What we lack online today is the equivalent of what we call human rights in the offline world. As it stands, Terms of Service are written foremost in the interest and protection of the Corporation. Thus individuals have little transformative recourse when things go wrong for the vocal are but few among millions.

As such, minority hold outs are left feeling particularly vulnerable and exposed. Especially in the case of Flickr, where people have developed visceral and almost human connections through the service, anything that threatens their “dominion” is an invasion that provokes an immune response by what I’d call the “proverbial community anti-bodies”, for better or worse.

In this case, Yahoo! — as the larger organism eclipsing the smaller — is perceived as effectively infusing its memetic DNA into the cultural neurology of the lesser system and without effective recourse to prevent this kind of “digital “, the anti-bodies lash out in response to the invading foreign agents, as you would expect in any system.

This dance is natural, is normal, and a simple part of biological and social evolution. In the scheme of things, I think the reaction of the minority does make sense here, even if it ultimately doesn’t matter that much. Given the current architecture of social networks, where your existence and environment is at the whim, pleasure and financial health of the network owner (let’s call her “God”), these kinds of decisions will continue to elicit strong social responses when God acts like… well… God.

Asides (lightly scrambled)

I do wonder, then, if this kind of personal exasperation would more quickly lead to the creation of “articles of digital personhood” or a collective “bill of digital human rights”. Or if, instead, it might drive the furtherance of independent identity services that promise to restore dominion over one’s online personas.

On a larger scale, will these experiences lead to the recognition of our digital selves as rights-weilding extensions of ourselves? Were there a “Digital Civil Liberties Union”, would those with grievances turn to such a centralized body for redress? or, rather than unionizing power, would they prefer to simply come and go as they pleased, as one does when she moves from one house to another, taking all her possessions and friendships with her but leaving the structure behind, and letting the market woo and serve her by playing to her desires and free will to choose?

Further reading

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

3 thoughts on “Making more sense of Flickr’s Ides of March”

  1. Chris … I think I have to call you on this one. The clarification is less clear than the original. From my reading of your excellent discussions on identity to date, I think you are referring to your lack of control over the use of your identity, and that basically, you have to individually identify yourself to multiple organisations.

    At the same time you don’t want your identity centralised with group(s) where you have no control over the use of your identity, and that you haven’t provided your trust.

    But … the grouping of Yahoo and Flickr has little relevance to that grander vision methinks. So what if Flcikr requires a Yahoo ID. Is this a move away from the vision, or just an adjustment within the old/ bad scenario.

  2. Thanks for calling me out, Colin.

    I think, at base, you’re right. My thinking is still not clear on this issue.

    What the Yahoo-Flickr thing represents to me is a case where, at the end of the day, there is no choice. Now, the choice to be made is fairly trivial in the scheme of things — *but*, you really can’t just up and walk away and talk all your photos, comments, friends and so forth with you in a straightforward manner.

    Should you be able to? Well, these are creative expressions and, as far I recall, Flickr/Yahoo make no claim of ownership over those works — so yes, you should be able to.

    I don’t know what that looks like, I suppose, but I know that, deep down, I at least want the chance to say yes or no to such a merger, and if I say no, for there to be a graceful exit that leaves my dignity in tact.

    This is what I want for any service that I log into though, no just Flickr. I mean, I love Flickr; I’m ambivalent, at best, about Yahoo.

    But above all, I am passionate about having some sway over my destiny and I just don’t feel like I have it given the state of things today.

  3. And I would add … never lose that passion! The point about a lack of choice as it applies to your identity is critical.

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