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?

All in

Three Saturdays ago, my father had a heart attack. Last Saturday, we rushed our baby daughter to the emergency room. In-between, my wife had to undergo scary and uncomfortable medical tests.

Everybody is fine, even my dad (truth in advertising: aspirin really can save your life) but my once-brown goatee has gone shock-white.

Everybody is fine, so take a deep breath and savor the unusually high pollen count.

Something else took place in these same tense two weeks: I finished my book. Designing With Web Standards, 2nd Edition (DWWS 2e) left my hands last night and will reach shelves this summer.

When I agreed to write DWWS 2e, I mistook the job for a quick spruce-up. After all, what I’d said in the first edition about the benefits of standards-based design was still true: accessibility and semantics make your content easier to find and faster and cheaper to distribute. And the browser most people used when I wrote the first edition hadn’t changed in five years, so how tough a rewrite could I be facing? I figured I was looking at an updated screenshot or two, a changed URL, and maybe a couple of sticky notes.

About four months into the grueling (but also magically riveting) process, I realized that what I was doing was writing a book.

A lot of 2e will be familiar to the book’s fans, but a lot is new. And new is work. New is infinite wash-loads of work. Messy, exhausting. At some point in the infinite rinsing and lathering I was told the book had to be finished by last night. And so it has been.

I wouldn’t have made it alone. Erin and Ethan were right in there, carrying me.

I finished. I finished while grappling with sudden existential crises involving the people I love most. But then, my mother died while I was finishing my first book. Books kill.

This is me being cheerful after completing a rather strong second edition.

2e! 2e! My father and daughter and wife are well. My book is good. My song is sung.

Through a glass, lightly

The men had called a strike. A 25-foot-tall rat, representing Management, had been inflated in front of the offending place of business.

Our little blonde daughter, just 20 months old, rolled up in her stroller and observed the giant rat.

“Mouse!” she cried, clapping her tiny hands. “Mouse! Mouse! Mouse!”

A block down the road, the strikers could still hear her laughing and clapping.

“Mouse! Mouse! Mouse!”

Hi, Mom!

MONDAY WOULD HAVE BEEN my mother’s birthday.

In 1993, her brother, my uncle, took me to lunch. We hadn’t seen each other for a while. I was newly sober and raw as a razor burn, but pleased to be coherent and in his company. After some minutes of chit-chat, he leaned forward and said, “I think your mother has Alzheimer’s.”

People emerge from addiction like newborns. I got sober for this? was my immediate, shameful thought. And then:

“Yes,” That Voice Inside Me replied, “you were saved, in part, so you could be present for your mother in her illness.”

And was I present enough? Thirteen years on from my rebirth and my mother’s death sentence, six years on from her passing, I am as confused as any survivor who loves and cannot save.

It is a lousy disease. Especially when you know you’ve got it.

There’s realizing, by the strained smiles that greet you, that you must have said the same thing more than once.

There’s the stage where you’re upset but can’t say why, and people who love you are looking at you with pity, and their pity frightens you and hurts your pride.

You fabricate conflicts with old friends until they stop seeing you, so they will not be there to witness your decline.

Later there is running out of the house, pursued by ghosts.

Then forgetting your grown children’s names. And your husband’s.

Then comes a hideous second infancy.

Then you don’t eat.

At that point you must be placed in a facility. The transition from your home to a “home” is accompanied by the grief, guilt, mourning, rage, and regret of those still actively living. But you are not aware of it.

Or so I hope.

I do not live in the same city as my parents, so showing up involved air travel and schedule coordination — afflictions of the living.

Sometimes my mother came to my city.

The misery was like a layer cake.

There was the time I arrived at the unveiling of my dear aunt’s tombstone to find my mother and father already at the graveside. My mother was crying but did not seem to know for whom.

“Look,” said my father, pointing in my direction in hopes of cheering her up.

My mother looked right at me.

“I know that man,” she said.

A year later she could not talk.

Finally she was like someone in a near-coma. She could sit up. You could wheel her around. That was about it.

“Look, it’s spring,” you would tell her.

“Look, it’s fall, the leaves are changing,” you would tell her.

Near the very end, her hair turned white and she bloated after a lifetime of elegant thinness.

About a month before she died suddenly in her sleep I was visiting her in the Home. She had not spoken for a long time. She did not look you in the eye or notice if you were there. She had stopped eating the ice cream and other treats my father was always bringing her, which she used to eat like a baby from his hands.

Her stereo from home was in the room — another of my father’s ideas — and I popped in a CD she had owned and loved when it was an LP, Frank Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours.” Not that it would do any good. But you keep trying.

There’s this haunting bluesy saxaphone riff on one of the tracks — a sad, brief volley of notes. Suddenly, as it played, my mother gripped my arm. Then she was gone again. Had it even happened?

Maybe one day I will see her and maybe she will be able to tell me.

She died before September 11th, 2001, and I remember thinking, Well, at least she did not have to see this.

It is a lousy disease, and one of the lousiest things about it is the way it displaces the memories one would prefer to hold onto. My mother was shrewd, smart, compassionate, hilarious, political, artistic, lively — and loved her family almost to a fault. Those are the things I want to remember, and do, when the damned disease isn’t obliterating all memories not related to death and decline.

I am blessed with a wife and daughter. My mother, who would have adored them, does not know them. My daughter resembles me as I resemble my mother. My daughter’s hands and feet are like my mother’s. Her face is like a bust of my mother my grandfather made. I never knew my grandfather although his photograph smiled opaquely at me from my mother’s piano. A painting of my mother adorns one wall of our apartment.

Will my daughter know my mother as anything besides a painting and a ghost? I think so. For there are things I will teach my daughter that only my mother’s son could teach.

A dollar short and two days late, happy birthday, Mom.