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Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Violating the prime directive: Clouds, Flickr, and repatriation

Update: I got a response from Flickr on a workaround. It’s nearly as strange as the initial problem:

Thanks for your reply and for the clarification. Before I get started, I’m really sorry that we didn’t completely resolve your issue the first time around.

While the issue with downloading video has not yet been resolved, there is a work around that will alow you to do so in the interim. Currently you can view the old version on the video page if you select a different display language from the bottom of the screen. In this case I chose Español. Once you have done this and navigated to you video page you will be able to click on more actions button (three dots in the lower right hand corner) and select Descargar archivo original. This will download your original video file from there you can navigate to the bottom of the page and select English to restore the display language. This work around is only temporary but it will allow you to do what you need while the download video option is being implemented on the photo page.

¡eso es muy extraño!

A couple of nights ago, I was furious.

I’d decided to stitch some of the videos of my daughter together into a brief movie. Since its early days, I’ve been a paying user of Flickr, and I’ve loved it. I used it not only as a store for all my photos and videos, but as a source of creative commons clip-art and a way of sharing content selectively.

Recently, I’d been even more impressed by Flickr’s huge volume of storage, offered freely to all. I continued to pay, finding the service useful.

So imagine my surprise when I tried to download one of my videos, in its original format, via Chrome.

Flickr-downloadI navigated to the video in question, clicked the little ellipsis menu on the right, and saw a link entitled “Download/All Sizes.” Clicking this, I got the following, rather confusing dialog:

download sizes

“Wow!” I thought. “Flickr has transcoded the video into all these sizes for me!” I clicked on a link. I got a picture of the first frame of the file.

Wait, what? I needed the original video. I played around for an hour or so, trying to find the download button. It doesn’t exist. Then I went online and looked at the issue. I found an eleven-month-old support thread, in which a number of users mention this issue before someone from Flickr chimes in:

Flickr: The Help Forum: How do I download my own videos? : new layout 2014-04-10 23-59-25 2014-04-10 23-59-27That’s a little disturbing. Then I scroll down, and find a more detailed response, a month later:

Flickr: The Help Forum: How do I download my own videos? : new layout 2014-04-10 23-58-54 2014-04-10 23-58-56Wait a minute. It’s not enabled for free accounts? Good thing that isn’t me as a paying user. And what’s that second part? Nobody said anything about only being able to retrieve only a reduced-quality version of my video file if it was over three minutes.

Then I went digging a bit more. According to this support article dated April 3, 2014, it’s not possible to download videos from Flickr.


I tried to reach Flickr support. The contact application they use failed to load a support interface, leaving me looking at this a few times:

Flickr contact form

That wasn’t very encouraging; after several attempts, I finally sent them a message asking them how I could retrieve my videos in their original form. I received an automated message saying I was welcome to use the support forums, and that they assumed the matter was resolved.

Flickr support response email

Disheartened, I decided to try a few things. In a former life, I used to spend a bunch of time trying to get computers to do things they weren’t intended to do. After much poking and prodding, I learned that there are at least two ways to get your content back from Flickr. And what I learned undermined my confidence I had in the company at a fundamental level (more on that below.)

Fix 1: Downloading the version playing in your browser

The first is pretty simple, although it took me a while to stumble across it. Simply replace the “www” in the URL with an “m” in your desktop browser. Then, when the page loads in that browser, play the video. Because of the way HTML-encoded video works, it will download instead.

Here’s the browser version of a video:


If I change the “www” to an “m” I get the following:

flickr-play-with-an-mAnd if I try to play it, the file downloads.

download-to-browserOkay, so that gets me something. But is there a better way?

FIX 2: Opening it in an iPad browser and mailing the link

A few hours later, I tried to access the video from an iPad using Chrome. I did a search for videos in my photostream; this is a bit borked because you first have to search for some string, then click advanced search, then delete the string and specify the search parameters (videos only, your photostream.)

IMG_0101Anyway, once that search loaded, I clicked on one of the videos. I clicked on the ellipsis. And this is where things got really weird, because in the menu was the option I was originally looking for: download the file.


Of course, clicking it did nothing useful, because an iPad doesn’t have a file system that I can use to download things. All it does is open that file in another window. To be perfectly clear:

  • When I visit Flickr from a desktop browser, I don’t get an option to download the original.
  • When I visit Flickr from an iPad, I get the option, but can’t do anything about it.

Well, there is one thing I can do: mail myself that long URL and open it on a desktop browser. If there’s no one-time token in there, and it hasn’t expired, it should open up in a desktop where I can save it.

mailing myself a linkThen I tried opening the file in my browser, and sure enough, I have the original.

Flickr download link - original file

So there’s your workaround. And I should be able to get my videos back, despite Yahoo’s best efforts to the contrary. Hopefully this has been useful to the hundreds of people posting on Flickr’s forums about this issue.

The real problem

Cloud computing is about trust. It’s about the expectation that the company entrusted with your information acts wisely and deliberately. And that it will never, ever, break the prime directive: Let me get to my stuff. To violate this expectation is to undermine every other bell and whistle the company might offer.

Let’s be clear. This isn’t just an oversight. Flickr is so awesomely, completely confused about a fundamental feature like recovering your own files that it gives a mobile user (iPad) and a desktop user (Chrome on IOS) different menus, each crippled in its own unique and precious way. Despite problems raised over eleven months ago by users, responses like this one appeared on the support forums only a couple of days ago:

Flickr: The Help Forum: Not able to download my videos! 2014-04-13 18-53-26 2014-04-13 18-53-28

Cigarettes and ashtrays

There’s an apocryphal story about a smart investor—often, when it’s told, Warren Buffett—who, years ago, shorted an airline stock because there were cigarettes in the ashtrays on takeoff. If the airline is cutting back on cleaning the cabins, he reasoned, then other, far worse, things must be going on.

For a cloud provider, not being able to access one’s raw content isn’t just a bug, or a reason to switch providers. It’s the online equivalent of cigarettes in the ashtrays.







2 responses to “Violating the prime directive: Clouds, Flickr, and repatriation”

  1. Claty Turnbull Avatar
    Claty Turnbull

    This should be required reading for anyone opening a new account with Flickr. I bummed because I just uploaded my first (and only) batch of photos and will not upload any more to Flickr. Your video nightmare could be my photo nightmare tomorrow. So I will look on a reliable online storage option for my photos. Darn, I thought the editor in Flickr might be really useful.

  2. Ray Avatar

    I started backing up my photos to flickr because of their awesome 1TB free storage.
    However, just like your post states, things just don’t work right. Conceptually, Flickr has great features: auto upload from phone, video upload, 1TB, ability to organize. However, in execution, their service is pathetic. Buggy apps for the phone, buggy website, lots of errors and timeouts, inconsistent ways to use the service on different devices, and enormous user confusion.