Flickr weighs support for ActivityPub, the social protocol powering Twitter alternative Mastodon

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On the heels of Tumblr's decision to integrate with ActivityPub -- the social protocol powering the open source Twitter alternative Mastodon and others -- it appears that photo-sharing site Flickr is now considering doing the same. Flickr CEO Don MacAskill today began to actively poll users about whether or not they'd like to see Flickr support the protocol, too. If it moved forward with this plan, Flickr would be the latest larger company to commit to joining the "fediverse" -- the interconnected group of independent servers across the globe running free, open source software that allows their users to communicate and connect with one another.

The concept presents a challenge to modern-day social networks controlled by corporations -- or billionaires like Elon Musk.

ActivityPub is a key component to the fediverse, powering not only Mastodon, whose popularity has grown in the wake of Musk's Twitter acquisition, but also other alternative social platforms, including the Instagram-like Pixelfed, video streaming service PeerTube, and others. If Flickr were to add support for ActivityPub, it would no longer function only as a photo-sharing site, but would become a part of a larger web of social networks where users could find, follow and engage with one another across platforms without having to create separate accounts for each service.

MacAskill had already been weighing Flickr's direction with regard to the fediverse before today. Last week, following the Tumblr announcement, the Flickr CEO had tweeted that his company had been internally discussing ActivityPub support, too.

"It might be right up our alley," MacAskill said at the time.

But in a later tweet, he cautioned that taking this path would mean having to deprioritize other projects on Flickr's roadmap -- including those customers said they wanted. That's why it makes sense that the exec would try to gauge consumer demand for the protocol's adoption before actually making a commitment.

MacAskill today noted that there "appears to be a lot of interest" in seeing Flickr move forward with ActivityPub, but he wanted to first gauge the type of interest more specifically.

So far, the results of a poll he published on Twitter seem to be promising. As of the time of writing, only 8.9% of respondents have said no to the idea of ActivityPub integration; 38.2% said yes, but only if it was free. Meanwhile, two other groups indicated that ActivityPub support could become something that encouraged them to pay for Flickr, as 37.4% said yes and that they already pay for Flickr, while 15.4% said yes and that they might pay for Flickr if the protocol was supported.

MacAskill ran the same poll on Mastodon, where the interest for making the support a part of a free product is so far running even higher, at 47%; meanwhile, 26% said yes and they even already pay for Flickr and 22% would consider doing so if ActivityPub was added.

Though an older site, Flickr today claims it's used by more than 60 million people per month, according to its Jobs listings page. That would bring a significant number of new people to the fediverse, if the company chooses to add support for ActivityPub.

Flickr, of course, could use a feature that encouraged more customer engagement and adoption. Once a prominent company in the Web 2.0 era, Flickr eventually lost out to other social photo-sharing platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, as well as to more utilitarian photo-hosting services, like Google Photos and iCloud.

In April 2018, Flickr sold to SmugMug and soon the company reduced the limits for free usage, began threatening to delete the photos of nonpaying users, and urged users to help it find more paying subscribers to keep it afloat. Earlier this year, Flickr also began paywalling the ability to upload NSFW photos to its site.

In more recent days, MacAskill has claimed Flickr is "healthy and growing again," and noted it has established a nonprofit to preserve its images in the event that the company again falls on hard times. Flickr didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on its ActivityPub plans, but a representative later noted MacAskill is a "wildly customer-centric leader and technologist with a long track record of successfully identifying meaningful innovations," and, "This is potentially one of those innovations, which is why he’s exploring it publicly," they said.

Updated, 11/28/22, 5:19 p.m. with flickr comments.