Welcome, Jenn!

Meet the Foundation’s first ever Research Fellow!

It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to the Flickr Foundation’s inaugural research fellow, Jenn. In her own words…

Hi I’m Jenn Phillips-Bacher, the Flickr Foundation’s first-ever Research Fellow. I’ve been a Flickr user since 2007 when my first public photos were taken on a point-and-shoot digital camera. Oh, how the quality of photos have improved since then! It’s an absolute marvel to be able to trawl decades worth of (ever-improving) photography, still, in one place.

Before joining Flickr Foundation, I was most recently a Product Manager at Wellcome Collection, working to make its library and archive collections accessible to as many people as possible. I’ve also recently been a content strategist at the UK’s Government Digital Service where I focussed on tagging and taxonomies to help people find stuff. I’ve also been a web editor, project manager, reference librarian and technology trainer, all within the GLAM (that’s galleries, libraries, archives and museums) world.

My modus operandi for the 20+ years of my career has been to 1) find interesting work to do with kind people and 2) labor for the public good. That’s why I am delighted and honored to be part of Flickr Foundation’s efforts to preserve and sustain our digital heritage.

So what does it mean to be a research fellow?

Given my career history, I’d never considered that I could be a Research Fellow. I used to think research fellowships were reserved for academics (“real” researchers), which I resolutely am not. I’m still figuring out what it does mean to be a research fellow, but here’s where I’ve settled for now: a research fellowship allows me to take time out of normal life for learning and thinking while offering a practical benefit to the Flickr Foundation. That means I’ll use my research skills honed as a librarian and product manager to seek out existing knowledge and expertise, connecting the dots along the way, in order to help shape the Flickr Foundation’s work.

As the fellowship progresses, I’ll write more about what it’s like to move from a digital practitioner role into a Research Fellow role.

My research focus

My research is aimed at the Content Mobility program where I’m specifically interested in how we might design a Data Lifeboat. Not only the logistics of creating a portable archive of any facet of Flickr, but also how to plan for a digital collection’s ‘good ending’. I’ve always been interested in the idea of digital weeding—removing digital collections that no longer serve their purpose, as librarians do with physical materials. As we become more aware of the environmental impact of any digital activity, including online access and long-term preservation, we need to be even more intentional with what we save and what we let go.

As a complementary bit of research, I’ll be digging into the carbon costs of digital collections. I’m curious to see whether there’s something useful to do here that would help the GLAM sector make carbon-conscious digital collection decisions. (If you or anyone you know is already doing this work, I’d love to meet you/them!)

What else? When not working, I can be found nosing around galleries and museums and perambulating around cities in search of human-friendly architecture and good cafes. And like anyone who’s ever lived in Chicago, I have Opinions on hot dogs.

Superdawg drive-in

Photo by jordanfischer, CC BY 2.0.

Welcome to the team, Alex!

I’m very excited to introduce you to Alex Chan, who joined us this week as the Foundation’s first Tech Lead.

We’ve known since Day 1 that we wanted the Flickr Foundation to make things, and not just talk about things. It’s an important way for us to express our mission and long term hope. We know it’s a huge challenge to make Flickr images visible for 100 years, and, while technology is certainly a big factor, meaningful future-proofing of our approaches and tools and documentation will also be key.

That’s why I was so excited when Alex Chan applied for the Tech Lead position. They’ve joined us from Wellcome Collection, where they have led software engineering for digital preservation efforts for several years. We knew we needed an engineer who actually enjoys documentation and creating code that’s clear, tested, and is designed to be re-run by someone else. The code we write today will become the foundational stones of our future approaches, and the Tech Lead must be very focused on that all the time.

Apart from writing great code, Alex is also into noodling about with complex cross-stitching, and we’re already working on a first “toy” we’re hoping to publish very soon, but I’ll leave Alex to tell you about that.

Welcome, Alex!

A millions-of-things pile: Why we need a Collection Development Policy for Flickr Commons

Flickr is a photo-sharing website and has always been about connecting people through photography. It is different from a generic image-hosting service. Flickr Commons, the program launched in 2008 for museums, libraries, and archives to share their photography collections, is different again: it’s about sharing photography collections with a very big audience, and providing tools to help people to contribute information and knowledge about the pictures, ideally to supplement whatever catalogue information already exists.

A collection development policy is a framework for information institutions like libraries, archives and museums to define what they collect, and importantly, what they don’t collect. It’s an important part of maintaining a coherent and valuable collection while trends and technologies change and advance around the organisation. We think it’s time for the Flickr Commons to have a policy like this.

As the Flickr Commons collection grows, we’re seeing all kinds of images in there: photographs, maps, documents, drawings, museum objects, book scans, and more. Therefore, one aspect of the policy is to ask our members to use of Flickr’s “Content-Type” field to improve the way their images can be categorised and found in search. 

Why are we asking Flickr Commons members to categorise their images?

Since the program launched in 2008, the Flickr Commons has grown to also include illustrations, maps, letters, book scans, and other imagery. The default setting for uploads across all accounts is content_type=Photo, so if you don’t alter that default for new uploads, every image is classified as a photo. This starts to break down if you upload, say, the Engrossed Declaration of Independence, or, a wood engraving of Bloodletting Instruments.

One of the largest Flickr Commons accounts is the great and good British Library, which famously published 1 million illustrations into the program in 2013, announcing:

The images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of… We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these ‘unseen illustrations’. ”

A million first steps by Ben O’Steen, 12 December 2013

Because the default setting for uploads is content_type=Photos, it meant that every search on Flickr Commons was inundated with “the beige 19th Century.” Those images had, by default, been categorised as Photos, but instead were millions of pictures from 17th, 18th, and 19th-century books. 

Earlier this year, the British Library team adjusted the images in their account to set them as “Illustration/Art” and not Photos. But, that had the effect of “hiding” their content from general, default-set searches. This unintentional hiding raised a little alarm with their followers (who were used to seeing the book scans in their searching), some of whom wrote in to ask what had happened. And rightly so, because it had yet to be explained to them by us or by the search interface.

The Backstory

In any aggregated system of cultural materials, you get colossal variegation. Humans describe things differently, no matter how many professional standards we try to implement. Last year, in 2022, the Flickr Commons was mostly a vast swathe of images from scanned book pages. Not photographs, per se, or things created first as photographs. 

There have been two uploads into Flickr Commons of over one million things. The first one was in 2013, by the British Library, whose intention was to ask the community to help describe the million or so book illustrations they had carefully organised with book structure metadata and described using clever machine tags. The BL team was also careful to avoid annoying the Flickr API spirits by carefully pacing their uploading not to cause any alerts. Since then, they have built a community around the collection for over a decade now, cultivating the creative reuse, inspiration and research in the imagery, primarily through the British Library Labs initiative.

The second gigantic upload, in 2014, was (also) mostly images cropped by a computer program. Created by a solo developer working in a Yahoo Research fellowship, the code was run over an extensive collection of content in Internet Archive (IA) book digitization program to crop out images on scanned book pages. Those were shoved into flickr.com using the API. The developer immediately reached the free account limits, so they negotiated through Yahoo senior management that these millions of images should become part of the Flickr Commons program in an Internet Archive Book Images (IABI) account. Since the developer was also loosely associated with the Internet Archive (IA), IA agreed to be the institutional partner in the Flickr Commons. That’s a requirement of joining the program—that the account is held by an organisation, not an individual. 

These two uploads utterly overwhelmed the smaller Flickr Commons photography collections, even as the two approaches were so different. 

Here’s a graph from April 2022 data that shows all Commons members on the x-axis, and their upload counts on the y-axis.

The IABI account is 5x larger than all the other accounts combined. If you remove the two giants from the data, the average upload per account is just under 3,000 pictures.

These whopper accounts both have billions of views overall. These view counts are unsurprising, given that they completely dominated all search results in Flickr Commons. While the Flickr Commons’ first goal has always been to “increase public access to photography collections”, its secondary—and in my opinion, much more interesting—goal is to “provide a way for the public to contribute information.”

You can see from the two following graphs that a big photo count doesn’t imply deeper engagement. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite is true, and the Flickr Commons members who enjoy the strongest engagement are those who spend time and effort to engage. Drip-feeding content—and not dumping it all at once—will also help viewers to keep up and get a good view of what is being published.

The fifth account in the most-faved data is the fabulous National Library of Ireland, with about 3,000 photos then, which excels at community engagement, demonstrated by its 181,000 faves.

In the comments data, IABI ranks 21st (~3,000), and British Library 27th (~2,000). The top-commented accounts are all in a groove of stellar community engagement.

Employees working in small archives (or large ones, for that matter) simply cannot compete with a content production software program that auto-generates a crop of an image in a book scan and its associated automated many-word metadata. At the Flickr Foundation, we have a place in our hearts for the smaller cultural organisations and want to actively support their online engagements through the Flickr Commons program.

I remember when the IABI account went live. Even though I wasn’t working at Flickr or at the Flickr Foundation at the time, I thought it was a mistake to allow such a vast blast of not-photographs into the Flickr Commons, particularly the second massive collection, mainly because it had been so broadly described, meaning it would turn up content in every search.

Fast forward to last year, in April, when—as my strange first step as Executive Director—I decided in consultation and agreement with the staff at IA to act. We agreed to delete the gargantuan Internet Archive Book Images (IABI) account.

A couple of weeks later, people realised it had happened, and a riot of “Flickr is destroying the public domain” posts popped up. I had not prepared for this reaction, which is the opposite tone I want the Flickr Foundation to set! I’d consulted with the Internet Archive, and a consensus had been reached. But, I was also ignorant of the community enjoying the IABI account—I had presumed there was no community engagement since nobody had logged into the IABI account since just after the giant upload had happened in 2014. That was a mistake, I readily admit, but in my defence, the IA team echoed that same impression when we discussed it. The lone developer (who didn’t work at IA) had uploaded the millions of book images and did not engage with the community. The images were generated from lots of different institutions’ collections digitised through the Internet Archive’s wonderful book scanning initiative. Unfortunately, correct attribution for each institution had not been included in the initial metadata produced for each image. (This was later rectified by a code rewrite by Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, with support from Flickr engineering.) In some cases the content was known to have no copyright—so didn’t fit in the Flickr Commons’ “no known copyright restrictions” assertion and could/should have been declared public domain materials—along with the content_type=Photo declaration, and broad, auto-generated metadata (along with some tagging to group images into their books, for example). In other words, a millions-of-things mess. 

Despite my hesitation, we decided to restore the entire account. This scale of restoration is an incredible engineering feat and an indication of the world-class team working behind the scenes at Flickr. We also set the correct content type designation and adjusted the licences on the restored images to CC0 as Internet Archive does not claim any rights for them. This has the benefit of making them more clearly classified for reuse. 

What we are doing about it

We need to be more restrained when it comes to digital commonses. These huge piles of stuff sound great, but they are not often made with care by people. They’re generated en masse by computers and thrown online. (As a related aside, look to the millions of licensed pieces of content that are mined and inhaled to improve AI programs as their licences are ignored.) 

The British Library acknowledged this, asking for interaction and effort from interested people, and stated explicitly that their 1 million images were “wholly uncurated.” People ultimately enjoyed hunting around in a millions-of-things pile for illustrations of things and made some beautiful responses to them. Indeed, one person managed to add 45,000 tags to the British Library’s Flickr Commons content. 45,000!

Perhaps I’m about to contradict myself again and say this scale of access at a base level was good, at least for computers and computation. But, it wasn’t good inside the Flickr Commons program, and that’s why we need the Collection Development Policy so we can encourage and nurture the seeing, enjoyment and contributions to our shared photographic history we always wanted.

And that’s why we’re drafting the new policy in collaboration with the membership, so we can help Flickr Commons members know how to hold the shape of the container we’ve created instead of bursting it. 

With thanks to Josh Hadro, Martin Kalfatovic, Nora McGregor, Mia Ridge, Alexis Rossi, and Jessamyn West for your time and feedback on this post.

Flickr Commons: About Content Type and Advanced Search

This is a sister post to A millions-of-things pile: Why we need a Collection Development Policy for Flickr Commons. We’re writing this because our new policy changes what turns up in Flickr Commons searches.

Images can be categorised as Photos, Screenshots, Illustration/Art, Virtual Photos, or Videos on Flickr. The default setting for uploads across all accounts is content_type=Photo, so if you don’t alter that default for new uploads, every image is classified as a photo. This starts to break down if you upload, say, the Engrossed Declaration of Independence, or, a wood engraving of Bloodletting Instruments.

Therefore, we’ve launched our new Collection Development Policy to ask Flickr Commons members to classify their images more specifically.

Default search settings

Searching on Flickr defaults to only showing content_type=Photos and Videos. That default means that if one of the Flickr Commons members does change the content type for their uploads, those other types will fall out of the default search results.

This is the default setting: Photos and Videos

We know this can come as a surprise to viewers who were familiar with how things worked before we started asking Flickr Commons members to use the new policy. That surprise isn’t great, so we’re working on addressing it, and working with the flickr.com Customer Support team to get documentation online.

Part of that work is to show how the search works, so you can broaden it to include other content types. To do this, you open up the Advanced Search panel—on the right, under the header search box—and look for the “Content” heading. You can select or remove the different types of content as you wish.

Here you see a different selection: Photos and Illustration/Art

If you want to share around a list of search results that also contain, say, images cropped from page scans of old books (which would now be marked as content type=Illustration/Art), you can see that these settings will show up in the search URLs as parameters if you change them, like this:


Those parameters highlighted in bold tell you the search is filtering for Photos [0] and [%2C] Illustrations/Art [2]. So, as you adjust your content type settings, you can share URLs that will take other people straight there without needing to adapt their Advanced settings.

We know this is a bit fiddly, but your default settings—whether on upload or as you search—should stick if you ever adjust them.

When Past Meets Predictive: An interview with the curators of ‘A Generated Family of Man’

by Tori McKenna, Oxford Internet Institute

Design students, Juwon Jung and Maya Osaka, the inaugural cohort of Flickr Foundation’s New Curators program, embarked on a journey exploring what happens when you interface synthetic image production with historic archives.

This blog post marks the release of Flickr Foundation’s A Generated Family of Man, the third iteration in a series of reinterpretations of the 1955 MoMA photography exhibition, The Family of Man.

Capturing the reflections, sentiments and future implications raised by Jung and Osaka, these working ‘field notes’ function as a snapshot in time of where we stand as users, creators and curators facing computed image generation. At a time when Artificial Intelligence and Large Language Models are still in their infancy, yet have been recently made widely accessible to internet users, this experiment is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the current state of play. However, by focusing on a single use-case, Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, Jung and Osaka were able to reflect in greater detail and specificity over a smaller selection of images — and the resultant impact of image generation on this collection.

Observations from this experiment are phrased as a series of conversations, or ‘interfaces’ with the ‘machine’.

Interface 1: ‘That’s not what I meant’

If the aim of image generation is verisimilitude, the first observation to remark upon when feeding captions into image generation tools is there are often significant discrepancies and deviations from the original photographs. AI produces images based on most-likely scenarios, and it became evident from certain visual elements that the generator was ‘filling in’ what the machine ‘expects’. For example, when replicating the photograph of an Austrian family eating a meal, the image generator resorted to stock food and dress types. In order to gain greater accuracy, as Jung explained, “we needed to find key terms that might ‘trick’ the algorithm”. These included supplementing with descriptive prompts of details (e.g. ‘eating from a communal bowl in the centre of the table’), as well as more subjective categories gleaned from the curators interpretations of the images (’working-class’, ‘attractive’, ‘melancholic’). As Osaka remarked, “the human voice in this process is absolutely necessary”. This constitutes a talking with the algorithm, a back-and-forth dialogue to produce true-to-life images, thus further centering the role of the prompt generator or curator.

This experiment was not about producing new fantasies, but to test how well the generator could reproduce historical context or reinterpret archival imagery. Adding time-period prompts, such as “1940s-style”, result in approximations based on the narrow window of historical content within the image generator’s training set. “When they don’t have enough data from certain periods AI’s depiction can be skewed”, explains Jung. This risks reflecting or reinforcing biased or incomplete representations of the period at hand. When we consider that more images were produced in the last 20 years than the last 200 years, image generators have a far greater quarry to ‘mine’ from the contemporary period and, as we saw, often struggle with historical detail.

Key take-away:
Generated images of the past are only as good as their training bank of images, which themselves are very far from representative of historical accuracy. Therefore, we ought to develop a set of best practices for projects that seek communion between historic images or archives and generated content.

Interface 2: ‘I’m not trying to sell you anything’

In addition to synthetic image generation, Jung & Osaka also experimented with synthetic caption generation: deriving text from the original images of The Family of Man. The generated captions were far from objective or purely descriptive. As Osaka noted, “it became clear the majority of these tools were developed for content marketing and commercial usage”, with Jung adding, “there was a cheesy, Instagram-esque feel to the captions with the overuse of hashtags and emojis”. Not only was this outdated style instantly transparent and ‘eyeroll-inducing’ for savvy internet users, but in some unfortunate cases, the generator wholly misrepresented the context. In Al Chang’s photo of a grief-stricken America soldier being comforted by his fellow troops in Korea, the image generator produced the following tone-deaf caption:

“Enjoying a peaceful afternoon with my best buddy 🐶💙 #dogsofinstagram #mananddog #bestfriendsforever” (there was no dog in the photograph).

When these “Instagram-esque” captions were fed back into image generation, naturally they produced overly positive, dreamy, aspirational images that lacked the ‘bite’ of the original photographs – thus creating a feedback loop of misrecognition and misunderstood sentiment.

The image and caption generators that Jung & Osaka selected were free services, in order to test what the ‘average user’ would most likely first encounter in synthetic production. This led to another consideration around the commercialism of such tools, as the internet adage goes, “if its free, you’re the product”. Using free AI services often means relinquishing input data, a fact that might be hidden in the fine print. “One of the dilemmas we were internally facing was ‘what is actually happening to these images when we upload them’?” as Jung pondered, “are we actually handing these over to the generators’ future data-sets?”. “It felt a little disrespectful to the creator”, according to Osaka, “in some cases we used specific prompts that emulate the style of particular photographs. It’s a grey area, but perhaps this could even be an infringement on their intellectual property”.

Key take-away:
The majority of synthetic production tools are built with commercial uses in mind. If we presume there are very few ‘neutral’ services available, we must be conscious of data ownership and creator protection.

Interface 3: ‘I’m not really sure how I feel about this’

The experiment resulted in hundreds of synthetic guesses, which induced surprising feelings of guilt among the curators. “In a sense, I felt almost guilty about producing so many images”, reports Jung, with e-waste and resource intensive processing power front of mind. “But we can also think about this another way” Osaka continues, “the originals, being in their analogue form, were captured with such care and consideration. Even their selection for the exhibition was a painstaking, well-documented process”.

We might interpret this as simply a nostalgic longing for finiteness of bygone era, and our disillusionment at today’s easy, instant access. But perhaps there is something unique to synthetic generation here: the more steps the generator takes from the original image, the more degraded the original essence, or meaning, becomes. In this process, not only does the image get further from ‘truth’ in a representational sense, but also in terms of original intention of the creator. If the underlying sense of warmth and cooperation in the original photographs disappears along the generated chain, is there a role for image generation in this context at all? “It often feels like something is missing”, concludes Jung, “at its best, synthetic image generation might be able to replicate moments from the past, but is this all that a photograph is and can be?”

Key take-away: Intention and sentiment are incredibly hard to reproduce synthetically. Human empathy must first be deployed to decipher the ‘purpose’ or background of the image. Naturally, human subjectivity will be input.

Our findings

Our journey into synthetic image generation underscores the indispensable role of human intervention. While the machine can be guided towards accuracy by the so-called ‘prompt generator’, human input is still required to flesh out context where the machine may be lacking in historic data.

At its present capacity, while image generation can approximate visual fidelity, it falters when it attempts to appropriate sentiment and meaning. The uncanny distortions we see in so many of the images of A Generated Family of Man. Monstrous fingers, blurred faces, melting body parts are now so common to artificially generated images they’ve become almost a genre in themselves. These appendages and synthetic ad-libs contravene our possible human identification with the image. This lack of empathic connection, the inability to bridge across the divide, is perhaps what feels so disquieting when we view synthetic images.

As we have seen, when feeding these images into caption generators to ‘read’ the picture, only humans can reliably extract meaning from these images. Trapped within this image-to-text-to-image feedback loop, as creators or viewers we’re ultimately left calling out to the machine: Once More, with Feeling!

We hope projects like this spark the flourishing of similar experiments for users of image generators to the critical and curious about the current state of artificial “intelligence”.

Find out more about A Generated Family of Man in our New Curators program area.

British Library & Flickr Commons: The many hands (and some machines) making light work

By Nora McGregor, Digital Curator in the Digital Scholarship Department of the British Library

Over a recent cup of coffee, George Oates, the indefatigable founder of Flickr Commons and now Executive Director of the Flickr Foundation, asked me if any memorable moments stood out during our long relationship with the Commons since British Library first joined nearly a decade ago. Of course a multitude of inspired engagements instantly filled my mind like some exploding word cloud and I could’ve easily prattled on until our cups dried up and the shop shutters went down. But one emerges from all the rest for me as the most shining example of all and that is what we’ve come to call “The tale of Chico vs the Machine”.


British Library digitised image from page 57 of "A Strange Elopement. ... Illustrations by W. H. Overend"
British Library digitised image from page 57 of “A Strange Elopement. … Illustrations by W. H. Overend” | Flickr


Our Flickr Commons story began in 2013 when we were looking for inventive ways to improve the discoverability of a new and exceedingly eclectic collection of 19th century illustrations we’d recently collated. Plucked from the pages of our digitised books by an algorithm built by Ben O’Steen in British Library Labs, this unique and sizable image collection was largely untagged and undescribed. Each image had associated with it only the title of the book and page it came from, but no other details to describe it, such as what the image itself depicted. We needed a curious, smart, engaged, and global audience to set their eyes and collective expertise on it, to help us tag and describe them so we could create meaningful subcollections and improve searchability. We also needed a powerful API to enable working with such a large collection, and the millions of interactions it may potentially garner, at scale. We happily found both in the Flickr Commons. 

In late 2014, we had been chatting with artist Mario Klingemann aka Quasimondo who had happened upon this wild, wonderful and wholly uncurated collection of ours in Flickr Commons and was keen to create a series of artworks using the images. As part of his craft he was mixing automatic image classification with manual confirmation to identify and tag tens of thousands of the images – ranging from maps to ships, portraits to stones – to discover more from within the collection, and in turn, make them more discoverable for others.


16 x 16 Colourful Faces from the British Library Collection

16 x 16 Colourful Faces from the British Library Collectio… | Flickr
By Mario Klingemann

The result of data mining the British Library Commons Collection, identifying colorful plates using some image analysis and subsequently using face detection to extract the faces contained therein.


As we were running some statistics around the algorithmically generated tags Mario was creating and adding back to individual images for us via the Flickr API (something in the region of 30,000 at that point if I recall), we noticed that yet another user had already contributed something in the region of 45,000 tags to the collections. Assuming this user was similarly a dabhand with an image classification algorithm, we were absolutely gobsmacked to discover that, at closer inspection, no, actually, these contributions were all added by hand! Not only were these invaluable image tags being manually contributed by one person, but they were expertly and thoughtfully individually crafted. They did not simply identify general objects or themes in each image like “ship”, which in itself was of incalculable value for improving search, particularly when no such simple descriptions existed at all. These tags were of a rare and profound quality. To illustrate, for 19th century biblical images, the user, only known to us by his handle, had added specific biblical passage numbers for which the scene depicted referred to!


British Library digitised image from page 394 of "The eventful voyage of H.M. Discovery Ship 'Resolute' to the Arctic Regions in search of Sir J. Franklin. ... To which is added an account of her being fallen in with by an American Whaler after her abando

British Library digitised image from page 394 of “The eventful voyage of H.M. Discovery Ship ‘Resolute’ to the Arctic Regions in search of Sir J. Franklin. … To which is added an account of her being fallen in with by an American Whaler after her abandonment … and of her presentation to Queen Victoria by the Government of the United States” | Flickr


The sheer scale, quality and value of this singular Flickr user’s personal contribution was so staggering, we immediately sought them out to personally thank them and to ask if we could recognise their work publicly through our BL Labs Award programme, at the very least. And yet, more surprises were to come. When we approached them with our gratitude and our offer of recognition we were very politely rebuffed! They shared with us that as they had been bedbound, it was they who wanted to express their gratitude for the opportunity to remain active in the world in some meaningful way. They told us that days spent trawling through and tagging such a wild and unruly collection, in the knowledge that they’re helping others to find these same gems, was reward enough and I can tell you, it was a response that no one in our team will ever forget. We attempted a few more times to shower them with accolades in some agreeable way but every time our overtures were politely declined on the same grounds.

This memory makes my heart swell and it’s a tale that so perfectly encapsulates the variety of valuable interactions –from the very intimate and human, to the technologically innovative and computationally driven – that the Flickr Commons community and platform has supported.

To give just one example, since 2015, 50,000 maps have been found and tagged by humans, and machines working alongside each other individually or as part of community events. They’ve all been georeferenced and are now being added back into the British Library catalogue as individual collection items in their own right – bringing direct benefits to current and future users of our historical image collections as more wonderful images are surfaced.

Screenshot of an old map on a newer map

Explore the georeferencer or the British Library’s Flickr Albums.

Every tag contributed, whether expertly crafted by human hand, or machine learned by an algorithm, has helped to make thousands, if not millions of unseen historical images from British Library collections more discoverable and we simply could not have gotten this far in curating this massive and wonderful collection without the Flickr Commons. 

By Nora McGregor, Digital Curator in the Digital Scholarship Department of the British Library

Welcome to the team, Jessamyn!

It’s with a great sense of calm I introduce our newest team member, Jessamyn West. She’s joining us as the new Community Manager of the Flickr Commons program.

my favorite librarian

The Flickr Commons has been around since 2008, but hasn’t been looked after too well. There is still lots of activity, but the membership hasn’t grown for a few years, and there are no special tools for members, or for the volunteer researchers who help out by adding information about the photographs shared. We did a bunch of research in 2021 about how to turn things around, and I’m happy to say, bringing Jessamyn in to help is a fantastic power-up.

Essentially, the plan to resurrect the program has two main elements:

  1. Stabilise the current membership – support community cohesion and communication, develop  aggregate/activity baseline views, fix out-of-date stuff on flickr.com/commons, reconnect with “sleepy” members, and
  2. Grow the membership – we especially want to support small institutions who either cannot afford to pay for expensive collection management software, or don’t have enough staff to build out that kind of digital resource, help show/teach members about licensing, digitization, preservation techniques that we can support, build out partnerships and collaborations around the open web, open licensing, and, importantly, careful sharing (as opposed to batch throwing huge piles of cultural materials across the internet without appropriate care).

In her own words:

Hi I’m Jessamyn, and I’ve been a Flickr member since 2004. I’m the daughter of two serious hobby photographers (mom|dad) both of whom have legacy accounts on Flickr and I’ve put a few photos up there as well. I’ve really benefited, over the last two decades, from having a well-organized archive of at least some of my family’s digital heritage. Here’s my great great grandmother, and here’s my great great grandfather from the other side of the family.

I’m a big free culture fan, having done work for the Internet Archive and Wikipedia helping make more “stuff” available to more people online. I also help run MetaFilter, a large online community. My background is in librarianship and technology, so anything that combines those two things piques my interest and makes me happy. I write an irregular newsletter on the topic. I’ve been a huge fan of Flickr Commons since it launched in 2008, often using its images to illustrate Wikipedia or other digital projects.

When the Flickr Foundation came into view, I really wanted to help get more cultural heritage institutions get the tools they needed and wanted so that they could share their culture in a place geared towards longevity and community. I’m happy to be here.

You think you’re happy to be here, Jessamyn? YES! I’m so excited about it! We were on a zoom last week basically giggling at each other. I can’t wait to get started, so here’s a huge and happy welcome to you!

Oh, and while I have your attention, we’ve also just posted another position: Tech Lead. Please share in your networks, and apply if you’re interested!

100-year plan workshop – Edinburgh

By Robert Pembleton, George Oates, and Melissa Terras

This workshop was co-developed, iterated and convened by the Data + Design Lab, with organisational help from the Centre for Data, Culture and Society, both based at Edinburgh Futures Institute.

Imagine a vibrant, student cafe at the University of Edinburgh, on a cold but sunny January day. Imagine a group of academics, students, community leaders, and changemakers gathered in the corner near surreal interpretations of bookshelves, speaking over the excited conversations of a Friday morning.  This was the setting for a How to write a 100-year plan workshop hosted by the University’s Edinburgh Futures Institute – a challenge-led multidisciplinary initiative which tackles complex issues to imagine and shape better futures.

We convened to imagine the preservation of our digital heritage for future generations. A sense of excitement filled the room. There was an energy. Everyone was eager to contribute and collaborate, to give what they had to this purpose. 50 billion images; worthy of protection. The horizon was 100 years.

This workshop gravitated to the challenge of continuing access, about what to keep. How do we ensure that the viewers and researchers of future generations can see things both in their raw form, and with contextual colour around single photos? Flickr is interestingly different here because most of the images are described directly by their creators, and have factual EXIF data attached. 

We began by trying to step out of time and allow ourselves to think on the scale of centuries. Each of us dug out a picture of a meaningful place: breath-taking landscapes such as Ben Nevis and Zumaya Beach, a now empty hut sometimes buzzing with community vibrancy, and Bobby’s blurry family photo qualified with generational memories:

“It may not be the best picture, but it’s my picture.”

This sentence popped out as we were doing the first exercise, where we ask people to find pictures of places that mean something to them. It’s always interesting to see which places people choose. They’re often of views, or capture a place where good memories have been made with loved ones. They are rarely what you might call spectacular or historic or exceptionally well-made, but they are poignant for their viewer. John Berger has called photographs “observable moments.” Meaningful to maybe just a few people, but no less valuable than a well-constructed photograph of a classical landscape. Vernacular. Flickr is full of pictures like that. Brimming

We discussed meaning, longevity, humility, and value. What do we value, and how? We tend to show a primacy for personal value. There was once a glimmer that the internet could be a space outside of capitalism , but it has of course become integrated into the machine. Now is a good time to be cautious, as we imagine new systems. 

The profundity of the changes at hand causes pause. Perhaps we should leave things in a state where they can be found and used in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. If we curate this with the lens of the present, there is a threat of sanitisation. Obtuse decision making shrouds bias, and we’re in the midst of a swell of disinformation that’s colliding with wanting to present an unbiased picture. 

There are practical considerations for such a large archive. Do we really need 50 billion images plus the infinite amount yet to come? Maybe its value should be measured against the archive’s carbon footprint. Maybe it’s OK for some things to disappear forever. We discussed the simplistic beauty in randomness, and so perhaps an approach could be to keep a random percentage of everything. This would mean we’d keep some of the boring stuff, and history lovers of the future may be most enamoured with the mundane. Libraries, archives and other memory institutions have detailed deaccession policies – where they decide what to no longer look after – but Flickr can be thought of as a vernacular, outside, “fugitive” archive. Any decision regarding deletion of content should be collective, cooperative, collaborative, and transparent. To expose our methods, to help future generations understand how we made our decisions. Then, maybe we can release the weight of our history with joy, with ceremony, with something that could become like a tradition that we encourage, support, revisit, and maintain ourselves collectively. 

Thinking about long organisations

We talked about how ritual might help sustain a strong direction across a century. (There were jokes about everyone wearing robes.) Ritual has had a place to play in human society thus far – it seems to have longevity. Imagine a successful 1000 year old pub that never franchised and never exceeded its comfort level; it was just right. 

Towards the end of our session we went for a walk and explored the ancient Royal Mile of Edinburgh, passing by the World’s End pub. That was once the perception: there was nothing of value, the end of the world, outside of the castle’s gates. We walked in contemplation with ancient volcanoes which dot the landscape surrounding this beautiful city. A 3.8 billion year old rock? Maybe 100 years isn’t so long after all. There are more species than ourselves, and there is more to come. 

We walked past another neighbourhood whose significant industrial heritage is now demolished. The machines of the future may be quite upset indeed that they aren’t able to visit their ancestors. 

Few digital photos will survive for a century by accident. A 100 year plan should be a practical, responsive, future facing declaration of intent. We train our lens, knowing that our visions are from fascinating unknowns, impossible perspectives. We do love to play. We should nurture that in ourselves. Play inspires joy. Joy celebrates humanity. The Flickr archive is a record of what it has been like to be in certain spaces, from a certain perspective, at a certain time. It cherishes our sense of identity

“The nature of our identity must not be destroyed.”

The session ended in quiet, contemplative reflection. It elicited poetry, a snapshot of the moment. We could share it, but it wouldn’t really make sense out of context. Nothing really does.

We thank all attendees for their contributions. As with any good, invigorating engagement, our discussions provoked more questions than it answered. Here are some things that we may explore in the future. 

  • Oral histories happen everywhere. Could we or should we figure out how to attach sound to pictures in flickr.org?
  • When does a story become a history?
  • Is decentralisation a route to protecting neutrality? If more copies live in more and differently accessed and described spaces, could that diffuse the “truth” of history?

Postscript:Post-it transcriptions

The first section of the workshop is about thinking in centuries. Not something we do often, so we’ve found it helpful to expand our normal timeframes a bit at the start. We have an exercise in three parts, and participants note down their thoughts on post-its and we can all have a look afterwards.

  1. What in your life has lasted for 100 years? Fisherrow Harbour; books, photographs/postcards, documents (incl. design), monuments, environment, buildings/roads/rail; my house ~1910, grandfather’s crown from WWI, great-grandmother’s ring (now mine!); Victorian egg & bird collection, great AUK(?) items, egg at NMS, old paintings; a cannon from a tall ship; the ring I’m wearing; my flat; my house; the ring on my right hand; music (I sing classical music); I have a doll that was my mother’s mother’s from her childhood; my house; copies of vintage books I adore and own, e.g. Lafcadio Hearn’s.
  2. What in your life do you want to last for another 100 years? The same books, some of my pictures, some of my writings; code and info on AI planners, life/work results; my dichroic ring and the story behind it; HOPE; photos of my family; music!; family photographs; international communication; my children; my children, or at least, their children; my house; environment, community/society; how we lived, understanding of how we lived; the house.
  3. What in your life do you not want to last 100 years? The album with my weedy singing made by the band I was in in my 20s; META CRISIS; AI-generated crud; “reinforced divisions,” “Left v Right”; climate change; Tories; all this plastic; videos of my early teaching/lectures (Lecture Capture!); the rest of my pictures and writings; revenge porn!
By Ben MacAskill, President & COO of SmugMug + Flickr

Why we’re doing this

Ben MacAskill


At SmugMug + Flickr, we believe that photography is an incredibly important visual record of our history. As citizens, we don’t have nearly enough access to our own photographic histories that we collectively own in the public domain. In light of that, we’re thrilled to announce the founding of our very own nonprofit, the Flickr Foundation.

How did we get here? It starts in 2018 when, after years of attempts, we (SmugMug) were fortunate enough to be able to buy Flickr from Yahoo!. We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was an amazing business opportunity—it was losing staggering amounts of money, and nobody else seemed interested in the potential. Instead, we bought Flickr because we’ve built our company around a love for photography, and we couldn’t imagine an internet without the amazing community and the staggering collection of photography that Flickr supported.

We knew Flickr meant a lot of things to a lot of communities, but it rapidly became clear just how important it was once the acquisition announcements went out. Within hours and days, we were fielding requests from organizations and individuals around the globe wondering what it meant for their work and their communities. The CEO of Creative Commons flew out to our offices immediately to discuss the future of the hundreds of millions of open licensed works being shared on Flickr. It was an easy decision to not only protect those photos, but to work on growing the collection collaboratively.

Government agencies around the globe reached out to express how important their Flickr community is to connecting to the people they support. Schools, clubs, and community organizations also shared with us how critical Flickr has become to what they do and how they share. 

One of those first contacts we received really spoke to the importance and truly unique position Flickr occupied online. The team at the Library of Congress reached out to ask about the future of the Flickr Commons. This huge collection of public domain, cultural heritage works had been tirelessly digitized, curated, and uploaded to share with the entire world by over a hundred organizations. Those organizations included larger institutions like the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, British Library and so many more. But it also contained much smaller organizations, opening collections to the public from all over the world.  

We already knew we would preserve these collections, but we wanted to do more than just focus on preservation. Millions of photos from hundreds of institutions is a huge collection, but it barely scratches the surface of public domain historic photography that still isn’t easily accessible to the general public. We were determined, but directionless. I couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunity to do something meaningful, but I really didn’t know where to start or how to prioritize what mattered. 

One night, while very unproductively thinking through the challenges, I sent a cold email to George Oates. More than a decade before, George had started this whole Flickr Commons project and laid the foundation I was now hoping to build upon. I simply reached out, and told her that I loved the Flickr Commons and I wanted to do more with that community. She answered my email, we met, and we fairly quickly went to work together to think through what the future of this preservation could look like. The scope of the project has dramatically expanded as our vision and mission became more clear, but it still all comes back to one simple idea. 

The Flickr Foundation is working to expand access to photographic history, and to preserve those photographs for generations to come. We’re also aware that our communities are documenting those histories right now. Flickr is full of events, both significant and small, that document our humanity. In order to truly preserve and share our photographic history, we must also build out a plan and a foundation for the living history on all our digital platforms. 

We’re doing this so that in 100 years, we aren’t just sharing millions of cultural heritage photographs. With the work of the Flickr Foundation, we’re creating a visual commons—a collective reference of our history and our humanity, accessible by anyone, anywhere. 

Hello, World!


Short version:
Welcome to the new home of the Flickr Foundation! We are a new US 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to keeping the wonderful Flickr collection around for 100 years. Big goals, little steps.

What’s the story?
In December 2020, Ben MacAskill (President and COO of SmugMug + Flickr) asked me to return to the fold to figure out how to revitalize the Flickr Commons program. It took me a very short while to consider it before I accepted. I proposed a research project to assess what had changed in the program and the wider sector in the last decade, so a new strategy for the Commons could reflect contemporary practice and the needs of current and future members in the program

The research consisted mainly of interviews, literature review, group discussion, and quantitative analysis, and it was a pleasure. I produced two documents which, for the curious, I’ve linked to here:

Here are a few of the highlights:

  • There was a very warm public reception to this research starting, with a lot of hope for Flickr Commons.
  • Current active members want better stats. Today they’re only able to access the past 31 days of activity, and some had labored in Excel to create comparisons they needed to justify their work.
  • Current members remain concerned about the total lack of governance the program has suffered under. Less active or dormant members we interviewed said lack of governance was the reason they drifted away. There was no communication about future plans or provision of a contact person, and no shared sense of direction or commitment for the program.
  • The digital cultural sector has kept moving forward with open licensing and accompanying technical, legal, and procedural practice, but many still struggle to nurture meaningful audience engagement and almost universal reports of no time in the workplace remain. 
  • We find ourselves in a particular zeitgeist; a constellation of #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, worker’s rights, epidemiology, and a rise of nationalism. We need space for more complex historical perspectives


A big part of the strategy proposed was to create a new organization, a foundation, to run alongside the company. This organization would  develop a longer-term outlook for the collection, and investigate preservation strategies that could last for the next century. Ben agreed! So here we are.

The foundation’s mission is to make sure Flickr will be preserved for future generations. We are already working on the idea of a very long-term outlook, while acknowledging we don’t have enough voices in the mix yet. A major project will be the 100-year plan, and we’ve held several research workshops to begin to shape what such a plan should look like. It’s been interesting to begin thinking about how the foundation can and should partner with the company too. 

People & Partners

A large group has been working together to establish the foundation for about a year now. 

There are two people on the Board of Directors so far: Ryan Merkley, long-time open advocate and former CEO at Creative Commons and Chief of Staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, now Managing Director at Aspen Digital; and Stephanie McVey, SmugMug + Flickr’s Chief Financial Officer. Both Ryan and Stephanie have been hugely helpful already, and are a great compliment to the foundation. We plan to recruit more people to join the board, so please reach out if you have any recommendations.

The first Executive Director of the foundation is… me! George Oates. What a thrill and a pleasure it is to be doing this; not only as a curious designer, but as someone who is very proud of Flickr, and passionate about making our shared histories more accessible to more people. I feel very strongly that It’s not OK to delete such a huge piece of our shared cultural heritage, and we must address that risk now that we’re pouring our cultural heritage into online corporate platforms. Creating a new foundation is new territory for me professionally too, so I am extra happy for Stephanie and Ryan’s expertise, support, and guidance, and I’m really keen to bring more people into the team.

SmugMug + Flickr Volunteers

We certainly couldn’t have come as far as we have without the medium-sized flotilla of SmugMug + Flickr, Inc. volunteers and collaborators who have contributed their time and minds to bringing this new organization to life, including Ben, Cabb, Seville, Dimi, Veronica, Jill, Erin, Shannon, Leticia, Ves, Emily, Liz, Christine, Sarah, Stads, Rode, Andrew, Shane, Sean, Nikki, Craig, Navnit, Phil, Nathan, and more!

Advisory board

We have already enjoyed valuable input from lots of people, and we have plans to build our advisory group gradually. We also expect to form an advisory committee from within the Flickr Commons membership. It’s important to have people from all kinds of backgrounds and ages thinking together about this 100-year challenge we’ve set ourselves.

Our first group of advisors includes:

Funding partners

Our work to date has been directly funded by SmugMug + Flickr. We could not have come this far without it, and look forward to continuing to build this central relationship in the coming years.

Research partners

We have begun building an intersectional scholarly group involved in researching history, library science, gender studies, critical race theory, digital humanities, and archival practice. The group is already meeting monthly online and cooking up our first in-person meeting.

Our academic partners are:

Our programs

It’s probably obvious but also important to note that these programs are nascent. They’re a first pass at what we think the key elements of a long-term piece of cultural infrastructure could and should be addressing. One of our first key hires will be a program manager to help develop these programs.

  1. Flickr Commons
    Our flagship program, and current priority, we will work to restore and then grow the Flickr Commons, stabilizing and reconnecting with the 100+ international member organizations, and then looking to expand membership, particularly inviting institutions from the Global South, the Majority World. What could a 21st century Commons be?
  2. Content Mobility
    Flickr is a huge image waypoint online, and has had interoperability at its heart since it first started in 2004. This program is about researching and showing the life of an image before it lands on Flickr, when it’s on the platform, and where it goes once it’s published elsewhere.
  3. Creative Archives
    Flickr can do things traditional archives cannot. It’s made by millions of people from across the world, and holds billions of things. Its cataloging is socially generated, not standards-based. The consumer-grade technology is robust and the user base is international. And finally, the Flickr API was one of the first public APIs ever. Discuss.
  4. New Curators
    Flickr is already full of curators. Its curatorial tools include albums, galleries, tags, groups, and more. It’s a great online place for conversation too, and we hope this program can gather new influences and knowledge around historical collections and future epistemologies.

We’ll hiring in early 2023

Yes, that’s right. We’re just finalising the job descriptions on four roles: Program Manager, Tech Lead, Producer (community & events), and Archivist. Our plan is to let this first crew of five people settle in together, and then decide as a group how we should grow the team after that. Do keep your eye on our mailing list or @flickrfdn on Twitter for announcements about when the jobs go live.