Photobucket Just Damaged Millions (Billions?) of Posts in Online Communities
But last month, Photobucket made a change. After 14 years of allowing people to upload images for free and embed them within posts on online communities, in blogs and on websites – they stopped. Without notice. Immediately, quite possibly billions of images across the web broke, and were replaced with what some have compared to a ransom note, imploring people to pay if they want their image to be displayed. The price: $39.99 a month or $399.99 a year.
This has led to widespread media coverage and criticism, much of it coming from online communities impacted by the change. Former MetaFilter director of operations Jessamyn West, who recently participated in a community-led effort to migrate from one image sharing service to another, joins the show, alongside copyright expert Jonathan Bailey, to sift through this story and what online communities should take away from it. Including:
- Why Photobucket’s rollout of this change guaranteed people would leave their service
- How online communities can respond to situations like this
- What copyright implications community owners should be aware of
“Regardless of [whether or not Photobucket had a community], they created a community by making this change. They created a community of people uniting in the fact that Photobucket has taken them for granted. … They’ve created a community of criticism and people who are literally on Twitter coming together, and on online communities coming together, over the fact that they trusted Photobucket and now they cannot.” -@patrickokeefe
“Legally speaking – and this is part of what’s really frustrating about it – Photobucket is pretty much in the right here. They have the right to modify their terms of service at any time. … You agree to it, and they can do it. Now the caveat to that is we, as users, trust them not to abuse that. We understand they need that right because new legal issues come up, or they might need to make shifts here and there, but we also trust that they aren’t going to abuse that to hurt us. This is a situation where Photobucket did that.” -@plagiarismtoday
“[The Photobucket situation] allows you to have a community conversation. … A lot of the management [of communities] has to do with the personality issues, more than the tech issues, because the software just does what it does. So hotlinking and images were always seen as someone else’s problem. … I feel like communities in general have gotten more sophisticated but that doesn’t mean everybody’s more sophisticated. And so it might be worth having conversations about what the options are.” -@jessamyn
“A lot of people, with Photobucket, made a whole bunch of assumptions that were completely reasonable. Only they turned out not to be true.” -@jessamyn
“If hosting images raises significant legal issues to you, it’s likely because your community has significant legal issues, regardless of the images. Basically, you’re already sitting on a landmine, you’re not going to make it significantly worse.” -@plagiarismtoday
About Jessamyn West
Jessamyn West is a librarian and community technologist who writes a column for Computers in Libraries magazine. She runs a regular drop-in time to help digitally divided people use technology in Central Vermont. Jessamyn is the author of Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide and is a frequent public speaker at library conferences throughout North America. She’s a Harvard Law School Library Innovation Lab Fellow for 2016 through 2017.
About Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey is the webmaster and author of Plagiarism Today and works as a copyright and plagiarism consultant at CopyByte. Though not an attorney, he has resolved hundreds of cases of plagiarism involving his own work and has helped countless others protect their work and develop strategies for protecting their content and avoiding infringement.
- Our first panel episode, from last week
- Photobucket, a popular free image hosting service that launched in 2003
- “Amazon and eBay Images Broken by Photobucket’s ‘Ransom Demand'” by Leo Kelion for BBC News, which also includes details about how online communities were impacted
- TILT, where Jessamyn shares links and resources for librarians
- Plagiarism Today, Jonathan’s site
- Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide, Jessamyn’s book
- MetaFilter, which recently turned 18 years old, where Jessamyn was on staff for 10 years
- MLTSHP, an image sharing community that is owned by previous members of MLKSHK, an identical site that closed
- CopyByte, Jonathan’s copyright consulting agency
- “Update to Our Terms of Service” from Photobucket’s blog, a nondescript blog entry that didn’t actually point out the big change that was about to occur
- Photobucket’s paid plans and pricing
- “Photobucket Launches Unlimited 3rd Party Hosting Plan,” a press release issued after the initial wave of criticism
- Google search showing discussion about this situation in numerous online communities
- Photobucket’s blog, which, before this news, had not been updated in about 20 months
- “Photobucket and a Different Kind of Content Theft,” Jonathan’s article on this topic
- Flickr Pro, a paid subscription service from popular image sharing site Flickr
- PlayStation Vue, a live streaming TV service from Sony, which Jonathan cited as a good example of good customer service surrounding a negative change
- Imgur, another free image sharing service
- “Photobucket ‘Ransom’ is Making Your Amazon, eBay Listings Pricier” by Alyssa Newcomb for NBC News
- “Photobucket Addresses Complaints Over New Policy That Charges Heavy Users $400” by Tamara Chuang for The Denver Post
- Archive Team, “a loose collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths dedicated to saving our digital heritage,” led by Jason Scott
- Internet Archive, which archives websites (and much more)
- ImageShack, a service that used to be free, that Patrick referred to as being free, but is no longer actually free
- Chaos Dwafs, an online community dedicated to the Warhammer gaming series
- “Photobucket Migration to the Darklands – Stage I,” a thread on Chaos Dwarfs about their efforts to help members migrate the photos they had shared on the community, that were hosted on Photobucket, from Photobucket to the community server
- rank2traffic.com, a site with historial Alexa website ranking data
- Listing for photobucket.com on rank2traffic.com
- Previous Community Signal episode with Jessamyn, where we discussed death in online communities
- “Photobucket Migration to the Darklands – Stage II,” a thread on Chaos Dwarfs, detailing their efforts to migrate photos posted by members who are no longer present on the community
- Wikipedia page for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act
- Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which Jonathan works with to help combat revenge porn
- Copyright.gov, the website for the U.S. Copyright Office
- Register a DMCA designated agent with the U.S. Copyright Office, as Jonathan suggested
- librarian.net, Jessamyn’s blog
[00:00:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal. The podcast for online community professionals. Tweet as you listen using #CommunitySignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:20] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. Last week, we did something brand new for the show, a panel made up of previous guests. And I liked it so much that we’re going to do it again. This week, we’re talking about popular free image hosting service, Photobucket, and the change they made that essentially removed potentially billions of images across the web. A change that has impacted a large number of online communities.
If you enjoy the show and appreciate our independent perspective, please consider becoming a backer on Patreon like Luke Zimmer, Carol Benovic-Bradley, and Sarah Judd Welch. To learn more about the perks of doing so, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
On today’s episode, our panel features Jessamyn West and Jonathan Bailey. Jessamyn West is a librarian and community technologist who writes a column for Computers in Libraries magazine. She runs a regular drop-in time to help digitally divided people use technology in Central Vermont. Jessamyn is the author of Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide and is a frequent public speaker at library conferences throughout North America. Jessamyn is a Harvard Law School Library Innovation Lab fellow for 2016 to ’17. Related to the show in today’s topic, she spent 10 years on staff at online community MetaFilter, leaving as director of operations. And recently, was part of a community-led effort to migrate content from an image sharing site that was closing, MLKSHK, to a new one owned and operated by the community, named MLTSHP.
Jonathan Bailey is the webmaster and author of Plagiarism Today and works as a copyright and plagiarism consultant at CopyByte. Though not an attorney, he has resolved hundreds of cases of plagiarism involving his own work, and has helped countless others, protect their work, and develop strategies for protecting their content and avoiding infringement. Jessamyn, good to have you back on again.
[00:02:00] Jessamyn West: Thank you for having me. Good to be back.
[00:02:03] Patrick O’Keefe: Jonathan, welcome back.
[00:02:05] Jonathan Bailey: And thank you for having me. Great to be back as well.
[00:02:07] Patrick O’Keefe: My pleasure. I think today’s story and/or discussion has relevance to the community world in a few ways. In a more abstract sense, it’s about closing a community the right way or at least implementing negative change in a way that limits the damage instead of maximizing it. In a more direct sense, what Photobucket did has harmed many online communities and damaged what could very well be more than a billion forum and general community posts, we don’t really know, but it’s a big number.
Photobucket is a really well-known image hosting service that launched in 2003. They made a name for themselves as a free service where people upload images and then link to them or embed them elsewhere, especially in their posts on online communities. They are one of the most commonly used image hosting services for this purpose. On June 26th, they quietly announced a terms of service changed without highlighting specifically what that change was. The change was to disable embedding or hotlinking on all free accounts. They didn’t just prevent it for new accounts or for images uploaded after that date, they retroactively blocked previously uploaded images, replacing those images on the websites where they had already been embedded with a new image telling people to upgrade their accounts so that the image would be displayed.
For that to happen, you must pay $39.99 a month or $399 a year. In a press release, Photobucket said that in their 14 years they have amassed more than 100 million registered users and over 15 billion images. There are two million daily uploads and 60 billion photos are accessed every month. This is or at least was an extremely popular service. And they did it without notice which might be the most absurd part of this story. How do you provide a service for 14 years and then just turn it off without giving people any time to adjust?
And if you do a Google search about this, you’ll see many people online talking about this. Many different online communities across the gamut of topics who are upset and figuring out what to do next. Many have likened it to a ransom and while I’m not sure that’s my exact definition, I can understand the sentiment. Let’s start with this: for Photobucket to get to this point where they can exist for 14 years as a business and be able to make this transition at all, they no do doubt owe a substantial portion of that opportunity to their popularity driven by those free accounts. Many of whom are sharing their images in online communities. Jessamyn, what do you think this move says about how Photobucket values those people?
[00:04:21] Jessamyn West: I think it really says that Photobucket doesn’t see themselves as an online community. When you look at their talk about this move and especially their response to the swift and angry feeling they got from their users, the way they’ve managed it is just like, “Look, man. We’re just not making any money.” People are like, “What?” Obviously, people want businesses to be able to stay in business. But there’s all sorts of ways to gradually scale stuff in. You’re like, “We’re not making any money. We got to work on this, maybe, blah-dee-blah-dee-blah.”
You can ask your community. Many of which who are people who might be able to help you. And it just seems like this, I mean not only wasn’t it managed, but it seems like they just didn’t even care. You know what I mean? I’ve seen communities have to be like, “Hey, people who got something for free, now you’re going to have to pay, or your service is going to have to change.” And it’s an awkward thing to have to tell people but I think a lot of us understand free on the internet doesn’t always mean free forever as much as people would say it was. And Photobucket just doesn’t seem to think they have a community, and I think that explains how they handled or didn’t handle, getting this messaging out in the first place.
[00:05:38] Jonathan Bailey: Agreed. I think it’s also an issue of the respect, I guess, that they gave to the trust their users had given them. These users entrusted them with their images. Things they’d often times worked very hard for. This wasn’t just people uploading random stuff to the internet, it often was, but it wasn’t just that. People who had uploaded their own work, their own ideas, images they had taken, and Photobucket was entrusted with them, and Photobucket simply broke that trust. It didn’t take that trust seriously enough to do anything to minimize the damage. In fact, it did everything it could, I think, to maximize the damage.
[00:06:15] Jessamyn West: [laughs] I would completely agree, I think that’s exactly the way to look at it. The fees are punishing, the communication is terrible, and if you look at their blog, their public face – I know a lot of people don’t still blog, but a lot of people use blogs – basically, their last post before this all changed was in October 2015, and then suddenly bam, bam, bam, “We updated, you should review them. Hey, here’s our fancy new stuff.” And you’re like, “Are you kidding me?”
So many different ways to do this. As a community person, it’s so frustrating, and I think what Jonathan says is true. People put their trust in them, and Photobucket just explained just how little that means to them. I wonder, we see this a lot of times with takeovers, like X buys Y, and then does their best to dismantle it. So I’m a little bit wondering what’s going on behind the scenes there just because this is so ham-fisted and ridiculous.
[00:07:10] Patrick O’Keefe: I think that it’s funny, even if Photobucket didn’t think of themselves as a community because, hey, they’re just a service, I didn’t see any community features on their website. They may have had comments on photos or something, but–
[00:07:18] Jonathan Bailey: Yes. I thought they had comments, was what I was about to say.
[00:07:20] Jessamyn West: Yes.
[00:07:21] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, regardless of that though, they created a community [laughs] by making this change. They created a community of people uniting in the fact that Photobucket has taken them for granted and not given them enough time to make these changes [laughs]. They’ve created a community of criticism and people who are literally on Twitter coming together, and on online communities coming together, over the fact that they trusted Photobucket and now they cannot.
You mentioned the pricing, let’s talk about that. The pricing’s $39.99 a month, $399 a year. And it seems fairly clear to me that they actually wanted to get rid of a majority of their active users and focus on the few who would pay, possibly because of the desperation of having used the service for so long and not wanting to see their images break. Or maybe might use it in the e-commerce, or a professional or corporate context. Jonathan, as you said in your piece on this which we’ll link to in the show notes, the pricing isn’t even in the ballpark for most people.
[00:08:11] Jonathan Bailey: No. And actually, I checked my receipts on this. I have a VPS that I use to host like 24 different websites, that I run or have some kind of hand in. And it’s got terabytes of data, and it’s absolutely way overpowered for what I use it for. I just checked the price for all that, it was $28.17 per month. That’s bananas, you know what I mean? It’s crazy.
[00:08:33] Jessamyn West: Wait. Well, you can host basically all your stuff, right?
[00:08:35] Jonathan Bailey: I can host everything, not just images. Blogs, podcasts. I’ve got all my stuff there and it’s $28 and some change per a month. It’s crazy. It’s far more than just an image host.
[00:08:49] Jessamyn West: Well, I’m a Flickr Pro user, another photo sharing community that had to do this, “Hey, we’re not going to be free anymore.” I think it’s $25 bucks a year, $maybe 50? It’s something that at the time seemed like a lot more than free, but realistically allowed all my old embedded photos to work and etc. Their promises are only for a couple of years, they’re like, “Okay, it’s going to be this much for the next two years and then we’ll see,” but whatever.
Again, that seems like a reasonable amount of money to pay for a service and also, I know how much storage space costs. You know what I mean? And I’m sorry for Photobucket, it didn’t scale. I’m sorry they wound up in a jam. I’m sorry they probably have to pay someone else, and that’s awkward for them. But, yes, it appears that they only want to keep the pro users and basically off-load everyone else and it breaks a lot of the internet which bothers me.
[00:09:41] Patrick O’Keefe: The Flickr Pro example is a good one because that is $50 a year or $6 a month. And if they really wanted to convert people, they would have first of all given plenty of notice [laughs], a lot of notice, lots of notice, lots of notice. You don’t just go 14 years and just decide this moment that you’re going to tell people and cut it off right then.
[00:09:57] Jessamyn West: Well, and do all those images break? Are they broken now? I couldn’t tell from reading their thing–
[00:10:03] Patrick O’Keefe: The people who are complaining, their images are dead. There’s screenshots of forums that are just threads of nothing but Photobucket pay-or-else images that haven’t been replaced.
[00:10:13] Jessamyn West: Okay.
[00:10:14] Jonathan Bailey: Yes, and I met a woman on Twitter who’s entire fashion blog, she’s been running a fashion blog for a long time, her entire fashion blog all those beautiful images of dresses and shoes and the bags, I don’t know what else was on there, but all those beautiful images are now those Photobucket images too, it’s crazy.
[00:10:32] Jessamyn West: And Photobucket has those images and their still serving content which drives me crazy. You still see an image, they’re still serving that image, I can’t imagine their bandwidth changes. The whole thing is just a little odd how they think this is going to work moving forward plus, yes, everybody else’s personal content.
[00:10:53] Patrick O’Keefe: Going back to that, if they really wanted to convert people, then notice but also allowing them to pay $2 to $5 dollars a month for a pro account. I think a lot of people, not 50% of people, but a lot of people, similar to Flickr, would have paid $2 to $5 dollars a month. But again, I don’t think they actually wanted to convert those people and I think there’s a lesson there for the community in using these sites that are planning to introduce a paid subscription level. To me, it seems obvious that Photobucket is clearly pushing these people away.
[00:11:18] Jessamyn West: Right. And you could also do micro-payments and even charge by usage like you would if you had an account at Amazon, for instance. They could even help people poke to Amazon and pay them instead and do some URL magic so it wouldn’t break every single thing. There’s all sorts of creative ways you could handle it and still try to either get paid or even get rid of your users where they don’t just feel kicked to the curb and none of that happened here.
[00:11:42] Jonathan Bailey: An interesting comparison here, and though it’s not a free service, it’s an interesting contrast here, we are PlayStation Vue subscribers in our house – by the way absolutely love it, wonderful service [laughter], I’m not an agent or anything – but their slim account is going up from $29 a month to $39 a month. Okay, that’s sad and disappointing. We got an email and Sony basically said, “Look, we’re doing this. This is why we’re doing this but since you’re a valued customer, you get three months at the current price and you’ll have the option then to transition to a different account that’s the same.”
They gave all these options, they really bent over backwards to help over just a $10 per month change, that’s how you retain your users. Obviously, Photobucket had no interest in that and that’s the saddest part. If you were a Photobucket user, many of whom were there for over a decade, you got screwed, man, there’s just no other way I can say it.
[00:12:35] Jessamyn West: Yes. Exactly. And it’s awkward, one of the things that I looked at when you brought this to my attention last week, was whether any of the other Photobucket-ish sites, Imgur, I don’t even know how you pronounce it, Flickr, or whatever, were taking advantage of this to be like, “Hey now we’re still free/cheap/you can hotlink here.” Nothing. There is a weird deafening silence because they think the internet as a whole, has decided there’s no money in this. They’re covering their ears up. Nobody is even looking to take these people in which I was surprised at. I thought there’d be a whole bunch of smack talking and, “Hey, tired of Photobucket, come to Imgur.” But there isn’t, which I found curious.
[00:13:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes and it’s worth noting. So first of all, Photobucket didn’t acknowledge this change in any way until a lot of people were very angry and this was a mainstream news story. BBC, NBC, local media outlets like The Denver Post, covering this. This is everywhere and then they put out a press release where they explained the reasoning and to your point, according to CEO John Corpus, the company has historically, “Relied heavily on advertising revenue but that major industry-wide changes in the advertising space have greatly impacted Photobucket including the rise of ad blockers and the company’s explosion of third party hosting that generates zero revenue. This model is no longer sustainable.”
The company says that 75% of their costs are tied to non-paying users who are posting their images elsewhere. I think there’s probably something there. Clearly, they might have serious financial problems that they’re not talking about, that’s a possibility. And I don’t blame them for making a change but this change and the way they handled it is exceptionally poor. And has left a lot of users, their users and the communities where they have shared their photos, out in the cold.
And I should point out, it’s had a really negative effect on the internet. You could argue their responsibility to that, I guess, but, no notice, doesn’t even allow archivists time to archive. [laughs] When it’s just gone, all they’re getting now, I assume, if they tried to archive it now is maybe the third party image, unless they’re circumventing their referrer some way to make it look like it’s coming from Photobucket.
[00:14:41] Jessamyn West: Yes. Exactly. For instance, when MLKSHK was closing we were moving to MLTSHP, when we weren’t sure what the future prognosis were, we talked to Archive Team. Jason Scott and his people from the Internet Archive, and we were like, “Can you just slurp down the MLKSHK content just in case, at least so we know it will be archived.” And it’s almost a little weird for me to rely on random do-good or non-profits as opposed to archivists, people who work for big enduring institutions, but whatever, it works and they work and those files are then available at the Internet Archive, in case. They wouldn’t be at the same URL but at least you could find them. And again, not an option here, this just happened under cover of darkness basically.
[00:15:25] Patrick O’Keefe: And don’t think I didn’t I miss the whole slurp the MLKSHK thing there-
[00:15:28] Jessamyn West: I’m not even bright enough to be doing that at all.
[00:15:30] Patrick O’Keefe: I didn’t even miss that. Jonathan?
[00:15:32] Jonathan Bailey: Yes, I was going to say that even a brief warning would have been enough time for forum owners and community managers to just talk to their community about what’s going to happen and say look we’re going to go through our database and remove all links to Photobucket. That would have been unfortunate but at least the images would have been broken and been a lot of blank spots, but at least the entire website wouldn’t become a giant repetitive ad for Photobucket.
[00:15:57] Jessamyn West: Well and you could have put your own image that could have been something else, exactly.
[00:16:02] Jonathan Bailey: Yes, it could have been a frowny face, with the Photobucket took our image type of thing, or they could have done anything with it.
[00:16:08] Jessamyn West: Yes, and then hotlinking itself has always been a really interesting part of internet culture, to begin with, because it used to be considered poor form back when everybody was paying for their own hosting. And then Photobucket really stepped in, and Imgur, and other sites like that. And were like, “Hey, we encourage it with certain criteria.” And so people moved to that because it was okay and it was better than hotlinking to your buddy’s picture. And so I think that’s what makes it extra awkward, they were solving the problem and now they’ve recreated that same problem almost 15 years later.
[00:16:42] Jonathan Bailey: Yes.
[00:16:42] Patrick O’Keefe: In managing communities, I’ve always tried to be really respectful when it comes to hotlinking, like it’s in our guidelines, in the private forums for the staff. In our documentation, we have a somewhat easy to reference guide where people on staff can quickly look at an image based upon the first few characters in the URL, and determine if it’s a site that we know allows hotlinking or if it’s a site we know doesn’t, as is the case with some photo sites, for the most popular ones anyway because that knocks out 90% plus of most of the images shared.
And so we have had those sorts of services, where we say like on ImageShack, or on Imgur, or Photobucket where we knew hotlinking was allowed, so we allowed those images to go forward. We were always respectful of those services where they said hotlinking was acceptable. And it’s not as if they can’t change the rules but it does create an awkward circumstance for a lot of online communities.
[00:17:30] Jessamyn West: Well, and Jonathan this must be really interesting for you because part of the interesting sort of copywrite-ish aspect of it is like, “Hey, we did a thing that was okay with the terms of service at the time we did it. You’re retroactively saying we can’t do a thing that was okay at the time.” Ugh. Like pulling the rug out from under you about something, historically, that was okay.
[00:17:53] Jonathan Bailey: Yes, legally speaking – and this is part of it what’s really frustrating about it – legally speaking Photobucket is pretty much in the right here, they have the right to modify their terms of service at any time and change it anyway. And if every website, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever it doesn’t matter, they all had that same clause that says they can modify their terms of service – you agree to it and they can do it. Now the caveat to that is we as users trust them not to abuse that. We understand they need that right because new legal issues come up or they might need to make shifts here and there but we also trust that they aren’t going to abuse that to hurt us.
And this is a situation where Photobucket did that. I’ve been sitting here trying to think of a way they could have handled it worse. I haven’t gotten one outside of turning the photo into a giant middle finger or something and making it something obscene, I really can’t think of a way they-
[00:18:48] Jessamyn West: Goatse.
[00:18:49] Jonathan Bailey: Yes, Goatsee, whatever, you’ve got to come up with something like that to make it worse, you got to get pretty crazy.
[00:18:54] Jessamyn West: Or not tell everybody, so everybody’s like, “Everything broke but I don’t know why.” And then you don’t answer the phone for two weeks or whatever. Like they answer the phone, right? [laughs]
[00:19:03] Jonathan Bailey: I don’t even think Photobucket has a phone-
[00:19:05] Patrick O’Keefe: If they did they should have just taken off the hook.
[00:19:08] Jessamyn West: I would love to track down the back story though because there’s got to be a very unhappy support team there who just wants to end it. Because obviously the support people and the community people are the first people to get tossed under the bus. And I’m dying to hear one of them talk about how this went down on the back end. I think it’s a matter of time before we see that story.
[00:19:28] Jonathan Bailey: Yes.
[00:19:29] Patrick O’Keefe: I will offer Photobucket this praise, and it is thin, but I will say one thing is that the fact that they are currently allowing all account holders, free or otherwise, to download their photos in an easy way. You can just hit a button and take them away. That’s how it should be, don’t get me wrong, that’s how it should be and that’s the action they should take-
[00:19:46] Jonathan Bailey: Headline-
[00:19:47] Patrick O’Keefe: But not everyone does it, not everyone always does what they should. So at least crediting them for that, that people can still access their photos and download them in a pretty easy fashion.
[00:19:58] Jessamyn West: Sure yes, good luck with that with Instagram, right?
[00:20:01] Patrick O’Keefe: Right. That’s true, very true.
[00:20:02] Jonathan Bailey: That’s true, yes, good point. I was just going to say the headline, “Patrick Praises Photobucket.” We’re going to splatter this all across the internet.
[00:20:09] Patrick O’Keefe: That won’t be the title of this episode but you’re welcome to try to get some traction for that. There is something that communities can do to help members easily update their images on the community itself. If your community features a substantial number of images hosted on Photobucket, it is not only bad for those individual members but it’s, as we’ve talked about, bad for the community itself and the quality of the content on it and its history for these images to just disappear.
And for people who have a Photobucket account and use it to upload images, their actual image links include their username and if you know how or have someone well versed in the type of database that you use to host your content, you can do a mass update of those links. There’s a community named Chaos Dwarfs, dedicated to the Warhammer gaming series that is doing just that with a step by step guide for members which we’ll link to in the show notes.
But basically they say, first you’ve got to Photobucket, you’ve got to download your images. Remove the ones that aren’t related to the forum and then upload that zip to Dropbox or some other site. Send them a link along with an example of a post that had a broken image in it and then the community staff will give those images a new home and update all the links across the forum so that they’ll actually be hosted by the forum. And they will even give you a special medal for your profile if you do this – a badge.
So with a simple database query, if you’re listening to this and you happen to know how but certainly with any of the PHP, MySQL community software platforms out there but certainly with any one that operates on a database, with a simple query you can find out which members use Photobucket simply by searching for it. Find the ones who link to it the most. You can contact them privately, ask them to allow you to migrate their images in this fashion. And I thought that the badge was interesting too, but I thought it was a really interesting and smart way to go about it.
[00:21:45] Jessamyn West: Well, and what a community forward way of doing it because it really is one of those things that computers can do. Do a whole bunch of regex, I don’t even know how to say that word out loud, find and replace basically and allowing users to do that because computers can make this a whole bunch easier but the people have to be the ones telling the computers how to do that.
[00:22:05] Jonathan Bailey: Yes and this is still going to be an issue because since Photobucket has been around so long, a lot of those members that were using it heavily aren’t around anymore, they’re not interested in the site, their accounts are dead maybe they’re dead who knows – I took that morbid, but the point – I apologize – but the point is a lot of these users will not be around. And that’s the other thing is I think I’d be interested in actually seeing when peak Photobucket was if that’s a thing. And I suspect it’s actually been a few years ago so a lot of these images are going to be from years back rather than super recent.
And that’s going to make it difficult to get the users to help with this but still, if these users are active and they can do that, yes absolutely. That’s a great community forward way to do it and it’s an example to be emulated.
[00:22:50] Jessamyn West: Well and that’s the bummer too, that it becomes a mark of legacy web. Like if you wind up with a whole bunch of old broken Photobucket links and not a vital enough community where it’s worth fixing or updated like an old eBay auction from eight years ago. Maybe I don’t care if it’s got my pictures of whatever I was selling but man, there’s eBay auctions that are up right now that had a link that was live when the auction went live and was broken two days later and those people, I think, have a right to be incredibly angry at it but it is, I think, going to be a marker that we’ll notice years forward. “Oh yes. This community predates the Photobucket die off.”
[00:23:33] Jonathan Bailey: It’s going to like rings on a tree. We’re going to know the [laughs] Photobucket moment.
[00:23:38] Jessamyn West: Exactly. No, so true.
[00:23:39] Jessamyn West: Yes, I think that’s a good point.
[00:23:40] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s like B.P. and A.P. before and after. You mentioned peak Photobucket, there’s a site, rank2traffic.com, that I’m trusting here that apparently maintains an Alexa rank history which – some who are listening to this probably have no idea what Alexa rank is, but once upon a time it was a way of ranking the popularity of websites. And if you go to alexa.com now, you have to go to alexa.com/siteinfo. It’s not their main thing anymore they want you to sign up, to give them money but-
[00:24:07] Jonathan Bailey: Yes, well they got bought by Amazon.
[00:24:09] Patrick O’Keefe: Right, and they’ve been owned by Amazon for a long time though to be fair, a really long time.
[00:24:11] Jonathan Bailey: That’s true, fair enough.
[00:24:13] Patrick O’Keefe: But this site, rank2traffic.com, has the Alexa rank history for eight years they say and so the peak Photobucket in the last eight years was, at the start of that chart, basically June 30th, 2009 was when they had their peak. That could not maybe be their peak, it’s just their peak in the last eight years.
[00:24:31] Jonathan Bailey: So it could even be further back than that, honestly?
[00:24:33] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, yes, yes, it could be.
[00:24:34] Jessamyn West: Oh gosh, yes.
[00:24:35] Patrick O’Keefe: But I just don’t know if there’s a better tool out there for the history of Alexa.
[00:24:38] Jonathan Bailey: No, I think that’s about as far back as we’re going to able to get.
[00:24:40] Patrick O’Keefe: But that’s one metric and comparatively it’s a decent metric.
[00:24:44] Jessamyn West: Although does that even count stuff like hotlinking because one of the things about hotlinking is it doesn’t necessarily send the traffic back to the site, right?
[00:24:51] Patrick O’Keefe: No, it doesn’t count hotlinking, no I don’t think so. It was based on browser toolbar installations, wasn’t it? People who had Alexa actually installed in their browser so if they had a link on Photobucket.com, they visited that link.
[00:25:01] Jessamyn West: So if they pulled up a picture from there.
[00:25:03] Patrick O’Keefe: Well, right now we’re arguing over something that we won’t have the answer to on this program- [laughter]
[00:25:07] Jessamyn West: I am curious though.
[00:25:07] Patrick O’Keefe: -because I’m not going to look up the Alexa algorithm, but yes it may have factored in but for the most part it was about visiting the website.
[00:25:13] Jessamyn West: Yes.
[00:25:13] Jonathan Bailey: And it is an apples to apples comparison too, so that’s the other part about it that’s useful.
[00:25:17] Jessamyn West: Right.
[00:25:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. Well, we can see it over time because it hasn’t changed either way. And if you look at their history now, where it shows from June 30, 2009, it says 454 million online on desktop plus mobile sessions. May 31st, this year, 38 million. So you’re talking about 10%.
[00:25:33] Jessamyn West: Yes, a 90% decline. Yes.
[00:25:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Less than 10% of what it had in ’09. And Jonathan you brought up an interesting point about how people have died, moved on etc., unfortunately, that’s the reality of long-term community. I think I might have talked about that when Jessamyn was on, talking about MetaFilter, when you have a community for so long, life happens. Given an understandable distrust in Photobucket, Chaos Dwarfs once again, [laughs] great name for the site, Chaos Dwarfs is also endeavoring to move the images of members who have possibly long since gone inactive or are unreachable and they just don’t have faith that Photobucket will keep the images online. And they want to archive them before it’s too late.
And on one hand members did specifically opt to share those images on the community and there is maybe an archival element to all of this but on the other, the members chose to upload it to Photobucket and they didn’t specifically give the community permission to host the image. So for those thinking of doing that sort of thing what would the legally minded perspective be, Jonathan?
[00:26:29] Jonathan Bailey: It really is going to come down to your terms of service and what you said you were going to do with people’s content. Because that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. The terms of service basically sets forth the agreement between you and your user and it sets both their obligations as a user and your rights to their content as a host, your license to use their content. I will say this, typically speaking a serms of service does not give you the right to download a user’s content from a third party service, in this case, Photobucket and then re-host it elsewhere. So it could raise an issue there. Now one of the things is you have to ask how many of these photographs are actually copyright owned by the user.
[00:27:10] Jessamyn West: To begin with, yes.
[00:27:11] Jonathan Bailey: That’s a thorny question, that’s going to vary from community to community. If you have a community of “share your own artwork or your photography,” then yes, it’s going to be pretty much all owned by the user but if it’s like this gaming community, it’s less likely because most of the content’s going to be owned at least indirectly, at least significant portions of it from other sources, from other companies. That’s going to be an item by item basis.
[00:27:33] Patrick O’Keefe: But the general answer it seems like would be, no it’s not okay, but I don’t think that’s going to stop some people but I think it’s important to know definitively that really they didn’t give you that right.
[00:27:42] Jonathan Bailey: Yes. Exactly.
[00:27:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Just because I submit a post on your website that had an image that I linked to from another site, if you take that out to its natural conclusion, I have my own domain name, I have my own hosting, I often use it when I share an image. So I uploaded to that, I chose to do that specifically to share it here and I die, or that domain goes away, I didn’t extend any right. They might miss that content and maybe that’s a part of the community and that’s sad, but legally speaking which is what we’re talking about here, not the feeling or whatever, it’s not something that you’re going to be able to do.
[00:28:14] Jonathan Bailey: Another way to think about this though, we know that Facebook has been pushing its Facebook videos silly hard. Ridiculously hard. If you embed a YouTube video on the Facebook, Facebook does not have the right to go download that YouTube video and re-host it on Facebook video. Believe me, if they could find a way to have the right they would’ve done it and they would’ve been doing it for everybody.
[00:28:35] Patrick O’Keefe: Right. Exactly. Jessamyn?
[00:28:36] Jessamyn West: I was just going to say, one of the things that I’m curious about that Photobucket didn’t mention but definitely occurred to me as the owner of an image sharing website, one of the reasons the people who ran MLKSHK decided maybe not to do that as their side gig, was because every now and again they get random letters from lawyers about random stuff and you’d have to figure out what to do, follow up and whatever. If I were Photobucket and I had 15 billion images, is that what they’re saying?
[00:29:08] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes.
[00:29:08] Jessamyn West: Just out there on the internet there were all sorts of copyright violations, we know that for sure. Maybe they just decided to cut that loose to minimize the liability angle of whatever their future business model is because lawyers are expensive. They’re often worth it but they cost money and so dealing with legal challenges seems to me to be one of the things Photobucket didn’t mention but that I feel like it’s part of the standard operating procedure for any image hosting site. And I’m also curious about that unstated thing that maybe that’s another motivation behind what they’re doing.
[00:29:44] Jonathan Bailey: I’ll say this, I have sent DMCA, Digital Millennium Copyright Act, notices to Photobucket in the past. I don’t think I’ve done it in the past eight years or so which amounts again to peak Photobucket and all that I-
[00:29:56] Jessamyn West: Since peak Photobucket, right?
[00:29:59] Patrick O’Keefe: That date is in your head now. Now it is what it is, I planted that date.
[00:30:02] Jonathan Bailey: Yes, you did, you planted it. It’s been at least that long since I’ve sent one though. I will say this, I’ve talked to two hosts, two observations, one is you are right, the more expensive hosting is, the fewer legal issues that seem to come from it. Because it’s very different hosting a Blogspot account or something or free Photobucket account versus hosting a dedicated server and some server farm. The legal issues you see are very different and typically the more someone’s paying, the more likely they are doing something that won’t cause you to spend money on lawyers, as you said.
But the other thing I would say is from most hosts’ perspective, these notices are not really that significant. There’s an issue some hosts complained about subpoenas that they received from the various world governments whenever something like that – the DMCA and so forth that’s a pretty straightforward system, proper notice, they have a response mechanism, it’s all just levers in a system basically at this point.
[00:31:04] Jessamyn West: Right, you take the content down we’re good.
[00:31:06] Jonathan Bailey: You send the notice to the user, they can file a counter notice. There’s a system, that’s levers pretty much but the bigger issue of things like subpoenas and, we’re also getting into – and I think one issue that could be coming up with Photobucket and this would be my question is, we’re talking about non-consensual or revenge pornography, whether that’s been issue. I know from experience, not that Photobucket’s responsible, but Photobucket has been the source of many accidental leaks of non-consensual pornography.
I’ve never run into it in my work with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, as it being the host of non-consensual pornography, but I know that this is another concern that’s growing legally as states take a stand on this.
[00:31:44] Jessamyn West: Sure, and also you probably don’t want to get into an online conversation about it. So it might not be part of any of the public discussions anyhow. No one wants that conversation except legal professionals, and they probably don’t even want it.
[00:31:55] Jonathan Bailey: That’s very true.
[00:31:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Alright, so what else should the community owners be doing right now if anything else?
[00:32:00] Jonathan Bailey: Running around screaming with their hair on fire is one option of them.
[00:32:05] Patrick O’Keefe: Also one thing might be that there was a time when you would not want to host images and the big reason was bandwidth, not legal liability honestly, at least that’s now how I ever thought about it and talked about it, it was always bandwidth. When I started communities in the late ’90s and 2000s, it was different to host images, it meant different things, bandwidth cost was different, now it’s less of an issue.
And so I think if you’re not hosting the images, there is a legal thing there and it’s important to point that out. But the DMCA, at least if you’re in the US it’s really straightforward; remove it, counter notice, etc. I think if you’re really concerned about this, that’s the move you make, is to upgrade your software or enable that feature or whatever so that you limit your community’s liability to third-party services going forward. Anything else?
[00:32:49] Jessamyn West: And it allows you to have a community conversation. Because I feel like a lot of these places, you just get BBS software, you toss it up on a host, you pay a little bit of money for hosting and you just let it go, and a lot of the management has to do with the personality issues more than the tech issues because the software just does what it does. So hotlinking and images were always seen as someone else’s problem. I feel like one of the things you can do is have a community conversation. How do we feel about images? What do people use for images? What works for you and what doesn’t work for you?
I feel like for some people, I feel like early hotlinking on the web we saw a lot of because I felt like people almost weren’t tech savvy enough to know that was a thing you could do on your own. It almost even wasn’t some people avoiding payment, it was just people who were like, “I don’t know how to do that, I found this on Google and I click a button and it lets me put it into the thing”.
I feel like communities in general have gotten more sophisticated but that doesn’t mean everybody’s more sophisticated. And so it might be worth having conversations about what the options are. We’ve thrown out a whole bunch of alternative image hosts. Maybe you can’t host your images for reasons, but maybe you can pick a community image hosting thing that you think is going to stick around or maybe you have a community account at an image hosting place, if the terms of service allow it, etc., so that everybody can upload their pictures to one place, if you’re all part of a small enough community where you can have that conversation.
It really does let you talk about the internet in a way that I feel like even if your community is not about the internet, the internet affects everything we do and the software, and the hardware, and the unspoken assumptions about that software and hardware, sometimes it’s a good idea to bring those to the forefront and make sure everybody’s on the same page because, for a lot of people with Photobucket, people made a whole bunch of assumptions that were completely reasonable.
[00:34:46] Jonathan Bailey: Very true.
[00:34:47] Jessamyn West: Only they turned out not to be true. And maybe talking about what some of those other assumptions might be, might be a great idea.
[00:34:54] Jonathan Bailey: Getting back to the legal thing for just one moment, I would say this, if hosting images raises significant legal issues to you, it’s likely because your community has significant legal issues, regardless of the images-
[00:35:07] Jessamyn West: Waiting to happen, yes.
[00:35:09] Jonathan Bailey: Yes. Basically, you’re already sitting on a landmine, you’re not going to make it significantly worse. If you do want to make that move, if you do want to host a significant amount third-party content that could be copyright infringing, get your butt right now – especially if you’re in the United States – get your butt to copyright.gov and register your DMCA agent, register your agent for receiving copyright notices. They have a new system that’s electronic, it is $6 and it’s instantaneous. It is a beautiful system, I have done it for all of my sites and I’ve only used comments. It’s well worth to do it for every community honestly.
So yes, get there now. And even if you have registered in the past, you need to do it again because this new system is going to be the sole system at the end of this year. This is a good opportunity to discuss that.
[00:35:54] Jessamyn West: Hey, cool. I’ll go do that today.
[00:35:56] Jonathan Bailey: As far as hosting your own images, that seems to be the trend. I can hear Patrick’s eye roll already as I mention the R word but Reddit, made that move some time ago, choosing to get away from Imgur, which was its default community. That seems to be the trend now, is to host your own images and just deal with the bandwidth and whatever legal issues may arise.
[00:36:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Jonathan, Jessamyn, thank you so much for coming on the show.
[00:36:21] Jonathan Bailey: Thank you for having me.
[00:36:23] Jessamyn West: Fantastic, thanks for having us.
[00:36:25] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Jessamyn West and Jonathan Bailey. Jonathan Bailey is the webmaster and author of Plagiarism Today at plagiarismtoday.com. He works as a copyright and plagiarism consultant at CopyByte. Visit copybyte.com. That’s C-O-P-Y-B-Y-T-E.
Jessamyn West is a librarian and community technologist. Read her writing at medium.com/tilty. That’s medium.com/T-I-L-T-Y and librarian.net. Follow her on Twitter @jessamyn. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com.
Special thanks to Patreon supporter Serena Snoad for her input into this episode. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. Until next time.
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