Flickr rules in photo sharing, as video tiptoes in

Jonathan Racasa of West Covina, Calif., used to share his photos online on Shutterfly, but he wasn't sure anyone was really seeing them. He switched to Yahoo's Flickr and hasn't looked back.

"On Flickr, there's a real community," he says. "You get feedback about your photos, and meet really interesting people."

Racasa isn't the only shutterbug to jump. Yahoo's photo-sharing site has quietly become the most powerful force for dedicated online photo sharing. Yahoo, which is struggling to restore early glory in the face of a bruising, now failed takeover attempt by Microsoft, has a rare hit on its hands with Flickr.

According to market tracker ComScore Media Metrix, Flickr is now the most popular stand-alone photo site. It grew 56% in a year, with 44.4 million visitors worldwide in March, from 28.4 million the previous March.

Flickr is such an integral part of Yahoo, it's one of its most trafficked features, up there with e-mail and instant messaging, says analyst Allen Weiner at researcher Gartner. "Flickr is one of Yahoo's seminal brands," he says.

Unlike e-commerce sites such as Shutterfly and Kodak Gallery, which are designed to sell prints, Flickr is a social network for photo sharing. Pictures are presented larger than at most other free sites, and friends can easily discuss them. Last month, Flickr added video sharing to the mix, in its own unique way. Members can share clips of up to a minute and a half. You must pay $24.95 a year for a "pro" account to upload clips.

Video sites such as YouTube, Vimeo and Veoh don't charge anything to upload clips, and limits are much more liberal. YouTube, for instance, has a 10-minute limit for homemade video clips.

But Flickr had to tread carefully with video so as not to upset legions of photo-sharing purists who didn't want to see the site become a video-sharing site.

The tiny clips are "the kind of video we want on Flickr," says Heather Champ, Flickr's director of community. "We view them as long photos."

Analyst Heather Dougherty at market tracker Hitwise says Flickr was compelled to add video. "Video is all over the place now," she says. "On cameras, cellphones — everywhere. Having pictures and video in one place saves people from having to go to other sites."

Yahoo Senior Vice President Brad Garlinghouse, who oversees Flickr, says he "couldn't be happier" about the response so far. "It's quadrupled the overall number of videos sent in to the Yahoo network," he says. "It's indicative of a very unmet need being met by the community."

Some members of the Flickr community, however, have been outspoken in their opposition.

"I didn't sign up for Flickr to see videos," says Paul Snook of Christiana, Tenn. "Flickr is a site about photos, and it should stay that way."

Louis Collins, a piano teacher in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says he's getting used to video on the site, but he still doesn't like it.

"If the videos assist photography, and show how the picture was made, I'm OK with that. I just don't want to see Flickr turned into YouTube."

Champ says the folks who don't like video on Flickr are a "vocal minority" and that most of the feedback has been positive. "We're a site for people to share their stories, and video is part of that story."

Kay Petal, who makes wool sculptures in Wasilla, Alaska, says she loves seeing her work come to life in video.

"The 90-second limit is plenty of time for me to share all aspects of each character," she writes in an e-mail.

Cris Stoddard, a computer consultant in Colorado Springs, says video adds context to her work. She likes to take landscapes, and pictures of animals in nature, "and being able to capture their sounds and behavior is a nice adjunct," she says.

Flickr was created in 2003 by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, initially as a video game site. It was purchased by Yahoo in 2005, when it had 400,000 registered members.

Today, Flickr has 26 million members. Free accounts are limited to uploads of 100 megabytes monthly, or about 50 photos. "Pro" members get unlimited uploads. Yahoo won't say how many paid members Flickr has.

Hitwise says the site's market share among online photo sites leaped to 11.7% in March, from 4.5% the year before, after Yahoo added Flickr images to its search index.

"Yahoo has also made it really easy to post Flickr images on blogs, and that brings Flickr a lot of traffic," analyst Dougherty says.

Flickr fans such as Petal in Alaska check out Flickr often, just to see what folks are saying about their work.

"I don't know of another photo site where you can start a conversation based on just one photo," she says. "It really gives people a lift to their day when someone has noticed one of their photos."