Flick’d Away

Until 22 June I had a Flickr Pro account, through which I posted hundreds of photos (most of which were visible only to friends and family) in carefully crafted and lovingly maintained sets. On the morning of 22 June my Pro account expired without notice, and all but the most recent 200 photos were flushed off the site—like that!

The minute I discovered my “Pro” status had expired, I placed a two-year reorder. That was six days ago, and the upgrade is still pending. See, Flickr likes you to pay with PayPal—there doesn’t seem to be any other way to pay—and PayPal can take a week or more to slowly leech the funds from your bank.

Although it’s not the best of all possible user experiences, I guess I’m okay with the sudden, unannounced bump-down of my account status. And I’m semi-sanguine about waiting a week for PayPal to transfer the funds, although they ought to provide methadone while you wait. But the unceremonious dumping without notice or warning of hundreds of family photos feels rough, and wrong, and if I may say so, unFlickr-like.

For this is a program that nearly always understands how people feel. It knows why we take pictures. It knows how we share with each other. Flickr is the warmest and most human web application I know. Thus it is not only upsetting but also out of brand character for Flickr to trash a member’s family albums without so much as a warning.

I feel like the landlord busted down the door to my apartment and set my family albums on fire (all but the most recent 200 pictures) for nonpayment of rent he didn’t tell me was due. I expect utility and insurance companies to bully and bluster and break my heart. But I and you and we expect more and better of Flickr—and the program almost never lets down. A user experience mistake like this feels quadruply wrong precisely because user experience is what Flickr typically gets so right. (It’s like Apple, that way; and we all know what happens when Apple makes the smallest misstep.)

Of course Flickr is a nice way to stay close to far-away friends and family. But it’s also much more than that. For us, it’s the primary tool we’ve used to save our family’s history during our daughter’s first two years of life. And I’ve got to tell you, it kills me that our trip to Spain (where our kid saw The Simpsons for the first time—in Spanish!), a magical day at a Manhattan flea market, her first experience of an ice arena, and more, are simply gone. Using iPhoto, with about ten hours of work, I can probably recreate fair semblances of some of the discarded photosets. But not the texts and the comments by friends and family.

So to my gifted friends at Flickr, who have given us a product many of us can’t imagine living without, this small request: Please notify members early and often as their Pro accounts near their expiration date, and allow a grace period of at least a few days before removing the fragile and irreplaceable human constructions with which we have entrusted you. Thanks.

Updated 10 am ET, 28 June 2006

Ah. Saith Flickr: “If your Pro account expires, don’t panic! None of your photos have been deleted.” Thank you, Suzanne Carter-Jackson (and over 100 other readers) for locating this hidden piece of reassurance.

I contend that I’ve still stumbled onto a problem—that this is one of the very, very, very few things Flickr gets exactly wrong.

Thought. Instead of apparently deleting all but 200 of a user’s photos, sets, and comments, and then hiding the fact that they aren’t really gone on an obscure Flickr Help page, wouldn’t it be better to simply keep the pictures up?

It’s not a question of storage: Flickr claims to be storing the photos anyway. So why send a user into panic by hiding pictures you have every intention of showing again once a PayPal payment clears?

For that matter, why hide the pictures at all? Even if a user deliberately let their Pro account lapse and had no intention of becoming a “Pro” user again, didn’t the Pro account they paid for the first year ensure them the right to keep the photos they uploaded during their Pro period online?

Shouldn’t the “penalty” for ending a “Pro” account be that you can’t upload boatloads of photos any more? Isn’t that sufficient motivation to make most folks re-up their Pro accounts? It was for me. I re-upgraded long before I knew that Flickr had removed almost all of my photos from the site.

While I’m deeply relieved to know that the family photo treasure trove I spent two years building is still intact somewhere on a Flickr server and will be shown again once Yahoo gets its hands of my small, greasy wad of virtual dough, I’m disappointed at being put through a somewhat user-hostile experience on a site I consider among the smartest and best ever mounted on the web. I will keep this post up to remember that nothing, not even Flickr, is perfect, and in hopes that my colleagues there will rethink this bit of architecture.

It’s really pretty simple:

  • Let people know their Pro account is about to expire. Notify them by email and RSS and do it more than once.
  • If a Pro account lapses, keep the photos online that were posted while the account was active.

Over 100 Flickr users wrote to me (a testament to Flickr’s popularity) and I am grateful to all. Several suggested that Flickr had probably tried contacting me to alert me to the expiration, and that its message had gotten trapped in SPAM filters. This is possible, although I filter for Flickr way ahead of filtering for Trash, and I receive dozens of Flickr messages every day, from people who want to become contacts. Flickr messages always seem to reach me, is my point.

I also checked Flickr’s online message board to see if there was notice there, and found none. So it appears that no automated expiration notices were sent to my account, but who can say for sure?