What Facebook, Instagram, and Google Can Learn from Flickr

Once upon a time a big tech company bought a smaller photo sharing tech start-up and ruined both.

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Once upon a time a big tech company bought a smaller photo sharing tech start-up and ruined both. That's the story Gizmodo's Mat Honan tells in his long read report on the demise of Flickr at the hands of Yahoo. But, that paradigm sounds familiar to a modern-day tech company marriage of unequals: Facebook and Instagram.

It's been over a month since Facebook bought Instagram, and it hasn't killed it -- not yet. But, from reading Honan's account of Flickr and Yahoo, both the big and little guy in this situation are susceptible to ruin. And while we're learning lessons from the tech giant of yesteryear, Google, which looks a lot like Yahoo these days, should take some notes, too.

Lessons for Facebook

Don't botch the transition. Considering Instagram has a passionate community coming with it as it migrates to Facebook, it stands to lose a big chunk of its fans, if it implements some sort of annoying something or other that will disrupt the Instagram way of life. That's exactly what happened with Flickr, as Honan tells it. The company, to further its own interests, instituted a mandatory Yahoo login for Flickr users. And here's how that worked out, per Honan:

Yahoo's RegID solution turned out to be a nightmare for the existing community. You could no longer use your existing Flickr login to get to your photos, you had to use a Yahoo one. If you did not already have a Yahoo account, you had to create one. And you did not even log in on Flickr's home page, upon arriving, you were immediately kicked over to a Yahoo login screen.

Although Flickr grew tremendously with the huge influx of Yahoo users, the existing community of highly influential early adopters was infuriated. It was an inelegant transition, and seemed to ignore what the community wanted (namely, a way to log in without having to sign up for a Yahoo account). This was the opposite of what people had come to expect from Flickr. It was anti-social.

And it very much delivered a message, to both users and to the team at Flickr: You're part of Yahoo now.

Facebook: Don't force Instagram lovers to login using Facebook. It will alienate users. This seems like a likely change the social network might make, with its everything-connected-all-the-time strategy. It already does it with Spotify. But, Instagram, like Flickr, has an existent user community, which brings us to the second don't.

Don't compromise Instagram's value for your own ambitions. Facebook bought Instagram because it fills a niche that Facebook is bad at: Mobile. Yahoo, too, bought Flickr for that reason: It wanted to beat Google at search. But, in trying to win the search war, it overlooked Flickr's real value: Its early understanding of social networking. So this is what happened, from Honan again.

"That is the reason we bought Flickr—not the community. We didn't give a shit about that. The theory behind buying Flickr was not to increase social connections, it was to monetize the image index. It was totally not about social communities or social networking. It was certainly nothing to do with the users."

And that was the problem. At the time, the Web was rapidly becoming more social, and Flickr was at the forefront of that movement. It was all about groups and comments and identifying people as contacts, friends or family. To Yahoo, it was just a fucking database.

Facebook has its own goals, which could crush the value of Instagram.

Don't treat Instagram like poo. Honan describes a lot of "fuck you" moves Yahoo pulled on Flickr, as it tried to make the company more Yahoo and less Flickr. To give an example, from Honan:

One of Yahoo's goals was to move from a system of notice and takedown, to prescreening all the content members posted before it went up online. Flickr saw this as both a costly time-consuming task and one that could very well violate its members privacy, especially when talking about private photos. The Flickr team scheduled a meeting and headed down to corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale for an hour long presentation to make its case. Halfway through the meeting, the vice president who oversaw customer care for Yahoo looked at his watch, announced he had another meeting, and left. It was an open fuck you.

Moves like that make the people who built and really understand the company not really want to work to make that start-up further grow and succeed.

Considering Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram and they are just about to go public, this isn't the best time to be killing off valuable apps. The Yahoo way turned Flickr into an Internet relic. And, Yahoo, well, is basically falling apart.

A Lesson for Google

Too much integration is bad. There's really only one lesson for Google, which we've given the company over and over again. Integration can kill services. Google has gone on an integration spree these days, connecting Google+ to everything. It's already annoying users. But perhaps this micro-look at Yahoo will prove to Google that it really can kill services. Yahoo wanted total integration of Flickr with its other services. So it did some really annoying things, like that enforced login thing. Google, you're going down that road with Google+ everywhere. Beware!

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.