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Q&A Flickr Co-Founder Caterina Fake on the Future of Photography

The co-founder of the Internet’s first popular photo sharing service gives her take on where photography is headed after Flickr

Oct 28, 2013

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Caterina Fake is the co-founder of Flickr, one of the most popular photo-management and photo-sharing services to date, which sold to Yahoo in 2005. She's had a significant impact on shaping the Internet in the last decade, both as a serial entrepreneur and angel investor. Today, she's working on Findery, a location-based app that lets you leave geotagged stories, with text and photo, around the world. We talked with Caterina about photography — how far it's come since Flickr and where it's going — people who overshare online, and the importance of place and story. 

Qualcomm/Alexandra Chang: You founded Flickr in 2004, nearly a decade ago now. How far do you think photography has come since then?

Caterina Fake: It was a moment of huge transition in 2004 when we launched Flickr. It was the first year that more than 50 percent of U.S. households had broadband; it was the first year that more than half of cell phones were shipped with a digital camera. These were things that made it possible to support a photo sharing site. And also I think one of the most important parts of it was that the psychology had changed. The psychology of members, of people on the Internet, where sharing things online was no longer this fringe activity by fringe people. It became a real social movement, actually everyone was doing it. That’s what was happening in 2004.

Now, things have evolved to the point where people are sharing almost constantly, all the time. Photography has become a more common mode of communication than text. People communicate more, it's easier to share, and you can communicate across different languages. A lot of the barriers that had prevented people from interacting are broken down by photography. It is a universal language. This is something that has kind of taken over the culture, especially on the internet. 

Q: Where do you see it going in the next decade? 

Fake: Things are moving from desktop to mobile. People are lifecasting: They are virtually sharing every moment of their lives as they go through the world. In some ways, the problem is no longer how do we get people to share and how do we get people to participate, but how do we get them to stop? How do we get them to show less? How do we filter it? How do we share with only people we want to share with? And how do we make sure that the most important stuff gets through and that we are not flooded with too much? Sometimes, there’s too much content, too much being online, too much sharing.

The challenge is different now. You see a lot of products out there like Pear, Avocado, and other private sharing mechanisms that are just for sharing with small groups. Path is taking this direction as well. That's how I see things going. The cost of taking a photo during the times of film photography was very high. Film cost a lot, developing the film cost a lot. And it's gone down to almost nothing. It comes with the price of your phone. So basically it's gone from scarcity to ubiquity.  

Q: How does mobile play into all of this? 

Fake: You now have a camera with you almost all the time—if you're one of those people who always carries your cell phone with you. You used to have to remember to bring your digital camera with you. You used to have to remember to develop your photos, go through them, and put them in an album. There was a lot of friction and all of that friction has been removed. You just push a button. The ease in which mobile photography makes it possible to share every moment of your life is built into the value proposition of mobile. 

I do see the rise of the private networks coming to the foreground. I really think the private networks are something that people want. I don't think that we'll ever leave behind the global mass sharing, but I do think there is a need for the private sharing apps.

Q: What photo tools or apps do you use most? 

Fake: I use the camera on my iPhone the most frequently. I have IFTTT (If This Then That) uploading all of my photos directly from phone to my Flickr account. I got them all funneled in there and they go in there immediately. And then I go in and curate them. I'm very conscious of not flooding people with too many photos.  

Q: You're still a daily, if not more than daily, Flickr user. Are you happy with what Flickr has become today? 

Fake: The heart of Flickr is community: The people, the creators, the comments, the conversations, the groups — connecting with other people. That was always the heart of Flickr. That was the most important part of Flickr. That was really what Flickr was all about. You don't see that in Flickr today. Have a look. 

Q: Why do you think that is? 

Fake: It's user experience design and product design. Basically the intent of the designer has to be connecting people. If it's not about connecting people, it's actually a more transactional model, or about selling photography. That looks like what they're trying to do — commoditizing photography, which is not what the original Flickr was about. It was about community, it was about connection, it was about people's experiences. That's what Flickr was about. 

Q: Tell me about what you're working on now, Findery. What is it and why is it important?

Fake: With Findery you find and leave notes all around the world. You tell stories, personal experiences, the history of buildings, and so on. There's all of these stories all around you all the time that you're not aware of. A lot of times when you're walking down the street you can tell stories to your friends. Places have a lot of meaning for people. What we're trying to do with Findery is capture that and capture the experience of knowledge of places around you. Really experiencing the places and being really present in those places. Findery is really about experiencing the world around you. It makes you conscious of your surroundings, so that you're not just unconsciously walking through the world around you; you're really experiencing it. 

Q: How has your experience at Flickr, Hunch and Etsy shaped what you do at Findery? 

Fake: One of the important things about being an entrepreneur is that you keep pushing yourself. There's a lot of stuff we know about, we know how to build communities and user-generated content. One of the things I've never done before is work in location-based content. I think one of the most exciting things you can do as an entrepreneur is push yourself into an area that you're not familiar with. And there is a big learning curve. Struggling to keep beginner's mind as an entrepreneur is important, and not to just rest on your laurels. I think you can take your prior experience with you and build a very strong company and do a lot of things better than you had done in previous years, but in the end you have to keep refreshing yourself and the things that you're building. 

Q: How does photography play into Findery? I know that people can post photos, and almost everybody is doing that with their notes. 

Fake: I do think the main form of communication has become photography. And we're doing something different, we're putting the two together. We're basically creating a new form, which is geotext, about places. They're longer than a tweet, but shorter than a blog post. They tend to be around 100 to 200 words. You're reading it on your phone, you don't have a lot of time. We're adapting to a new medium. That's a really important part of what we're doing. 

Q: I just saw a new device called Narrative that takes constant photos for you. What do you think of those? It seems like a continuation of lifecasting. 

Fake: Really, it's kind of the same continuum. I have some friends on Flickr and on Twitter who I had to unfollow. Seriously, I unfollowed one of my friends because it was "Sitting on my couch," and "Now I'm eating potato chips." And I was like, "No, I'm going to unfollow you. You're my friend, but I'm going to unfollow you." 

Let me tell you about this filmmaker in the 70s. His name was Hollis Frampton and he made this movie about this couple who were incredibly rich. They had a film crew following them around, making a movie of every moment of their lives, night and day, 24 hours a day. And their son, after they died, received his inheritance and the inheritance basically said he could inherit this enormous fortune, but in exchange for this fortune, he had to sit and watch this movie about his parent's lives. And you can imagine that this was kind of a nightmare scenario. Who wants to watch a movie about somebody else's life? Or even frankly, your own life? 

The question is really about finding the nugget, that's kind of what a story is. It has a beginning, middle and end and there's a reason for that. It's important to tell those stories and contain them.  

Q: Do you see the Internet becoming much more story-based? 

Fake: I certainly hope so. There's a lot of movement in that direction, if you look at Medium and what Findery is doing. I think it's great. 

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Alexandra Chang