Since the establishment of the Flickr Commons two years ago, remarkably little attention has been paid to it – which is odd, given its extraordinary breadth and significance. In January 2008, Flickr announced that the Library of Congress would put 3,500 pictures online without copyright or restriction, and invited other institutions to do the same. Neither Flickr nor the Library of Congress, it should be said, had entirely altruistic reasons for doing this – Flickr wanted the extra traffic, and the Library needed help catagorizing and identifying many of its photographs. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the response – both from users and from other historical institutions – has been vastly more enthusiastic than anybody counted on.
Today, the Flickr Commons hosts historical photos from no fewer than thirty-three institutions, including The Smithsonian, the U.S. National Archives, the Getty Institute, the State Library of New South Wales (from which the above picture, entitled Soldier’s Goodbye & Bobbie The Cat, was taken), and many more. Flickr hopes to double that number by the end of 2010, and while it’s oddly difficult to gauge how many photos are in the Commons, there are certainly tens of thousands now, and there may soon be hundreds of thousands (this in addition to the four billion user-uploaded photos already on the site). Flickr has, almost on the sly, positioned itself as the single greatest cultural achievement of the internet after Wikipedia.
This is interesting both because the Commons are an incredible historical resource (and, speaking from experience, an absorbing way to spend three hours) and because it’s such an incredibly unlikely place for Flickr – a company that has succeeded almost in spite of their best intentions – to find themselves. The entire history of Flickr is one big accident: it was originally developed as an adjunct to a now-forgotten online role-playing game called Game Neverending, whose users found that swapping photos was a more engaging pastime than the game itself. Presumably luckily for everyone involved, Game Neverending was soon shelved and Flickr’s life began in earnest. But all of its primary innovations, from photo-tagging to groups, have been user-driven.
It wasn’t uncommon even in pre-internet days for companies to evolve far away from their original product. IBM originally sold mechanical adding machines and, later, typewriters. Nintendo was originally founded in 1889 and for most of its existence sold hanafuda, an elaborate style of Japanese playing cards; it was only after the company had narrowly avoided bankruptcy by running cab companies and love hotels that they finally invested in an upright arcade game called Donkey Kong. But the speed with which that evolution takes place is definitely accelerating. Flickr went from a vague afterthought to a colossal cultural institution in seven years. Where’s it going to be in 2015?