The new archive

Untitled (Alpine view of hikers), Museum of Photographic Arts,

An interesting announcement was made this week. Flickr, the image hosting site, has formed the non-profit Flickr Foundation, whose aim is to “to figure out how to keep Flickr around for 100 years, preserving our shared visual commons for future generations.”

Flickr has recognised that it is an archive, and wants to ensure that the 50 billion-or-so photographs it holds survive in perpetuity – or at least the next one hundred years. There is a world of difference between being an archive by default (as so many of the global online platforms are) and making an active decision to act as one. It means an understanding of the historical and cultural value of the artefacts that are in your care; of the needs and assumptions of those individuals and institutions who depend on you; and the need for long-term preservation plans. Primarily, there needs to be the desire to archive. And that seems to be there.

This doesn’t mean that there is a vast pot of money that has magically been gifted to the Foundation (though you can make a donation), nor that they know exactly how to achieve their preservation aims, but they are – in that common phrase of our times – “starting a conversation”. In a blog post announcing the formation of the Foundation, Ben Macaskill, COO of Flickr and SmugMug (the company that bought Flickr from Yahoo! in 2018), writes that the idea is to build on the collaborative model established by Flickr Commons, which since 2008 has had the aim of increasing access to publicly-held photography collections, by working with cultural institutions such as the Library of Congress and the British Library. The idea is that Flickr and such institutions all have a vested interest in ensuring preservation and long-term access for the benefit of different user communities, and that sharing ideas and finding common solutions must be the best way forward.

So far there’s not much to see. There are ideas about decentralisation, social cataloguing, automated curation, preservation formats, digital heritage workflows, digital buoyancy, all and more of which could form the building blocks towards developing a 100 year plan. In all these, they want to work with Flickr Commons members, each of whom will have been thinking much the same things in developing their digital preservation strategies, which includes the degree to which they are dependent on and can trust a platform such as Flickr. They are all in the same boat.

Seaton Carew Lifeboat and Crew, Museum of Hartlepool,

Five years ago I wrote a post entitled ‘The End of Archives‘, which reacted to the news that the Library of Congress was giving up trying to archive the whole of Twitter, owing to the sheer scale of it, with considerable complexities both technical and legal. I argued that archiving such platforms was beyond the capabilities of traditional archiving institutions, despite the great enterprise of the various web archiving initiatives out there, because what was published was so integral to the platforms themselves – in form, scale and meaning. Here’s what I said (in part):

There is argument for separating the archiving of the physical and the digital. Our existing archives, libraries and museums look after the physical very well. They manage the space and can measure likely growth, they understand the optimum conditions needed for long-term preservation, they have the objects in their sights. But the digital is growing beyond them. No one is archiving Facebook – how could they? … Who else could archive YouTube except its owner, Google? The unique nature of such supranational, networked, ever-growing digital resources demands that they who maintain them have the responsibility for sustaining them.

We could imagine an arrangement whereby national archives give up the impossible task and governments enjoin the giant online corporations to ensure the preservation of their ‘archive’, and access to this, in return, say, for legislative concessions of some kind … Facebook, Google, Twitter et al would become what they already are, in effect, the archive of themselves at the same time as they remain the living entity. It is the separation of producer from custodian that no longer works …

… These new archives are not going to disappear. Too much has been invested in them, in infrastructure, and of ourselves. As published objects are increasingly rented to us rather than sold (the Netflix model), so the traditional understanding of ownership withers, and with it the public archive as representing the ownership of all of us. Of course, the older material will increasingly decline in interest, and consequently in commercial value (you can’t sell any products off the Facebook page of a deceased person, and how many videos from YouTube’s inaugural year of 2005 are still being viewed avidly?). But by the time that problem becomes acute, the only bodies capable of tackling it will be the owners. They will come to governments and strike a deal – you help us, and we will be your archival servants.

This was in part meant as a provocative statement, to make us think what an archive is in the exponential digital age. But I also think it is true, that it is inevitable, and that the Flickr Foundation is a possible first expression of it. The attempt to archive all of Twitter preceded it, but that was the traditional institution trying to do things on its own terms, albeit with co-operation from the platform in question. Google (or Alphabet) collaborates with cultural institutions through its digitisation programmes and Google Arts & Culture, but that is not about archiving Google itself (whatever that might mean).

Flickr, however, has said that it is an archive, and in the language that an archivist understands. It does not exist for the moment. Its scale has given it archival responsibilities. Of course, Flickr is not a huge commercial operation such as Facebook. It loses money. Who can say how long it will last? One might detect an element of forcing the hands of national archival institutions, and the governments (or wealthy benefactors) that support them, to help Flickr to help them. But that’s the whole point. Flickr is not simply the friend of archives – it is the new archive. It has looked one hundred years ahead and can see this. Governance is not something identified among the several programmes of work on the Foundation site, so far. But governance will ultimately be what it’s all about.



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3 thoughts on “The new archive

  1. I’m glad Flickr is putting some resources toward a long-term outlook of their service. That Techspot article you posted is helpful – I used Flickr all the time until Yahoo changed things up, at which point Instagram was becoming more popular. I essentially switched to Instagram.

    Now, I think I’m going to focus on Pixelfed. It’s not popular, and the mobile apps need some work, but I’ve really been convinced that “federated” social media is the future. Protocols like ActivityPub have been around for years, but it’s finally getting some attention from people leaving Twitter for “fediverse” sites like Mastodon, Friendica, and Pixelfed. My account: – it’s kind of like email, but a whole new thing!

    Have you checked out Mastodon yet? My account:

  2. I’m intrigued by, but not yet convinced by, decentralised or federated social media. There seem to be too many technical hurdles for the general user to lead to widespread adoption. But if moderate rather than widespread adoption is the goal, then maybe.

    So I am still with Twitter and I haven’t tried Mastodon. I’ve never quite understood how Instagram functions, to be honest.

    1. Indeed, there are a lot of technical hurdles for federated social media. As a technically-oriented person, I will say that it’s been fun digging into the usability of fediverse products.

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