Customer Relations Done Right

Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir, on flickr

Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir is one of my favorite photographers on Flickr. Her photos are amazing, and it’s clear a lot of people agree. That’s the easy part. Then two problems arose: First Rebekka discovered that somebody was selling her photos for profit, and she posted about it. The community was shocked, and angry. And then, and this is the second thing, Flickr removed her post about it.

And then the storm got worse.

More than a few cried “Censorship!” And the troubled spilled into the support forums, where 312 comments flooded in in almost no time at all. Finally, Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield wrote in.

I’ve gotten the whole back story from the team and have read the forums, various Flickr groups topics and blog posts on this topic (as of a few hours ago), so I have a pretty good idea that we screwed up for which I take full responsibility.

He was on vacation when the news got to him, writing from a Treo in the desert, but he still managed to write the sort of message that a company dealing with a crisis dreams of.

The problem turned out to be that people were posting threats and home addresses and such, the kind of thing that can be real trouble (and serious legal and moral responsibility). Nobody really knows how to deal with that, I mean, communities have argued about that sort of thing for ages.

But in this case, Flickr closed the doors and removed the post and all its comments.

The photo was deleted — again, mistakenly — because of the direction the comments had gone, which included posting the personal information of the infringing company’s owner and suggestions for how best to exact revenge. It is an emotional issue and most people were there to support Rebekka in a positive way, but some of the angry mob behavior crossed the line.

Flickr is not a venue that we will allow to be used to harass, intimidate, threaten incite hatred against people — even if those people have done something wrong. We strive to be free and open, but just like laws against crying “fire!” in a crowded theater, a desire to promote free speech has it’s limits.

We get challenging situations on Flickr all the time: ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, ex-husbands and wives, disputes between business partners or landlords and tenants, posting photos and text with the intent of hurting someone else. These can be quite tricky to deal with morally and legally, and almost all of the time we make the right choice.

Having said that, this time, we made the wrong choice. The person who made the call is not, as has been suggested, stupid, incompetent, underpaid, under qualified, inexperienced or mean. They just made a big mistake (and feel inconsolably awful about it, by the way). We also did not have the right policies in place to prevent it from happening or rectifying it afterward. And that’s entirely the responsibility of the Flickr leadership team, and myself in particular.