Goodbye Flickr

Last year I felt an itch to start saving my digital records from obliteration next time a service I use gets shut down or sold. For ages I’ve been thinking of dipping the toe in the world of hosting all my own data. paralell-flickr by Aaron Straup Cope sounded like a good project to try.

paralell-flickr is a really thoughtful piece of software. You still put your photos on Flickr, and keep up with your friends there (or rather, you used to, when your friends were still using it), but on your own server you keep a replica, a copy that keeps track of your contacts, favourites, and permissions. You have to sign into it using your Flickr account and it will know who can see which photos.

As the readme states:

parallel-flickr is not a replacement for Flickr. It is an effort to investigate – in working code – what it means to create an archive of a service as a living, breathing “shadow” copy rather than a snapshot frozen in time.

Aaron wrote up a talk he gave about it, which is worth reading in full.

I thought that having my own parallel copy of each service I use — Foursquare, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter — would be a good way to preserve my data without hassle, and if I ever decide to delete my account, or for another reason won’t be able to carry on using it, at least I’d already have a complete backup in place.

The moment when parallel-flickr came in handy happened sooner than I anticipated.

I created my main account in 2010, but have another two which date back to 2008 and 2006. Flickr lets you personalise your URL, so that’s what I did, every time, and I’ve grown to regret it. The URL on my main account has a name in it that I don’t go by anymore. It annoys me because it denotes gender that doesn’t match mine, so I want to change it.

But Flickr wasn’t built with that kind of flexibility in mind. You can change your username, and all the other details, but not the URLs. Once you choose one, that’s it, game over. Permanence of the URLs is more important than your comfort, your life, your future choices and changes you cannot anticipate.

There are a million reasons why you’d want to change the URL other people find you by. Perhaps it was funny 7 years ago when you called yourself grandma_disco_fever but now you no longer do. Maybe mother_of_three was a good moniker a while back, but now you need to increment that number. What if you called yourself wife-of-someone but you’ve since divorced? Maybe these things don’t immediately spring to mind in the first year of the service’s existence, but once you’ve spent many years building an archive, full of connections and relationships, it becomes hard to leave it behind just so you don’t have to be a prisoner of your past URL choice.

We don’t arrive in the world as fully formed, unchangeable entities. We’re not finished and permanent, and when dealing with URLs referring to people it seems deliberately harsh to demand permanence. Especially when the HTTP spec accommodates redirection to a new URL.

So, Flickr, I think this is goodbye.