How one admin mistake cost a Flickr user 4000 photos

Image representing Flickr as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

We come today not to bury Flickr but to praise it. Any service that can competently manage 5 billion images is worthy of admiration, and the Flickr interface and platform have long been posterchildren for user-friendly and effective web applications. That’s what makes this post from the New York Observer so noteworthy:

Major, major stumble from Flickr today—a Zurich-based photoblogger says Flickr deleted his account by mistake and lost his 4,000 photos.

Mirco Wilhelm has the original files saved elsewhere, but the photos from his extensive Flickr collection had been linked to from all over the web, including the official Flickr blog. Those links will now point to deadspace. Additionally, the followers he had accumulated, tags, photo captions and copyright information have been wiped out and may not be restored.

So where did Flickr’s vaunted platform fail? What design wisdom can we derive from this object lesson? When can we expect the salient code-review article to be posted to Hacker News?

Never, because it wasn’t a design flaw or programming error that cost Mirco Wilhelm his 4000 photos. It was plain, old-fashioned user error.

Wilhelm, you see, had submitted a support ticket to Flickr some days before his mass-photo loss. He reported that another user was posting stolen photos to a Flickr account. The support ticket, naturally, included a link to Wilhelm’s own Flickr account. Unfortunately, the investigating Flickr admin simply mixed up the account IDs on the support ticket and deleted Wilhelm’s account rather than the suspect photo-thief’s. And like all suspected copyright-violating material, those photos were permanently erased from Flickr’s archive — with no way to get them back.

Wilhelm has the original photo files which he can laboriously re-upload, re-tag, re-group and re-label, but he can’t recreate the URLs associated with originals. He can’t get the community — or the link equity — of his Flickr account back. All because a single admin inadvertently transposed two identifier strings.

Human error is responsible for a third of all data loss. The Flickr admin’s mistake is entirely understandable (and increasingly likely to recur given that Flickr-parent Yahoo is laying off more employees and Flickr troubleshooters will grow more, not less, overworked). That said, this simple mistake cost Mirco Wilhelm years of work and investment in his Flickr account. You can’t put a price on that.

Backupify for Flickr could have restored much if not all of Mr. Wilhelm’s lost photos, including the upload dates, tags, descriptions and — most importantly — the original URLs of every image.

Once upon a time, hardware failure was the leading cause of data loss, with human error following closely behind. In the age of cloud storage, hardware error has been removed as a serious threat to data — but human error has grown in significance. With the convenience of cloud-based access comes the risk of that many more fallible human beings influencing (or erasing) your data. It could be an overtired admin. It could be hacker that gets ahold of your password. It could be you, simply mis-clicking your mouse with dire results.

No one can design a totally user-proof system — not even Flickr. That’s why you need a third-party backup, even in the cloud. As the Observer post notes, “Despite a growing reliance on cloud storage across industries, negligence or a rookie mistake by a new employee could irreversibly wipe out user data — be it Facebook friends, blog posts or a photographer’s oeurve.”

You can get 2 GB of Flickr backup for FREE with Backupify Personal. Set up takes less than five minutes. That’s a small price to pay to ensure your complete Flickr archive is safe.

Online storage may be safer than any single hard drive, but that’s not the same as your data being invulnerable. Just ask Mirco Wilhelm.

Hope you’ve got a good backup plan.

UPDATE: Flickr was able to eventually restore most of Mr. Wilhelm’s photos. And they’ve given him free Pro service for the next 25 years. While we’d like to believe Flickr would have gone to such extraordinary links for any customer that suffered such a loss — regardless of whether the blogosphere raised a PR stink over it — we humbly suggest that investing in a Backupify account is the safer bet than relying on the kindness of vendors.

  • operamaniac

    I have to admit I had no idea Backupify can restore images to their original URLs!

  • operamaniac

    I have to admit I had no idea Backupify can restore images to their original URLs!

  • Francois Jordaan

    Backupify definitely deserves some exposure after this unfortunate incident. I for one feel safer having it as a backup. Also had no idea you backup the original URLs!

    Question: will you ever back up Comments on photos? Is there a reason you do not currently do so? This is often one of the most valuable things in a user account, akin to an archive of personal emails.

  • bindermichi

    Might be worth testing after all

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  • Adrian Crook

    So you can restore images to their original URLs, but can’t remember which sets or collections they were a part of?

    I hope that feature comes soon because I have 16,000 Flickr images that would be a BIG pain to resort. :)