Fotolog launched in May 2002 and grew quite quickly at first. They’d clearly hit upon a good idea: sharing photos among groups of friends. As Fotolog grew, they ran into scaling problems…the site got slow and that siphoned off resources that could have been used to add new features to the site, etc. Problems securing funding for online businesses during the 3-4 years after the dot com bust didn’t help matters either.
Flickr launched in early 2004. By the end of their first year of operation, they had a cleaner design than Fotolog, more features for finding and organizing photos, and most of the people I knew on Fotolog had switched to Flickr more or less exclusively. They also had trouble with scaling issues and downtime. Flickr got the scaling issues under control and the site became one of the handful of companies to exemplify the so-called Web 2.0 revitalization of the web. The founders landed on tech magazine covers, news magazine covers, and best-of lists, the folks who built the site gave talks at technology conferences, and the company eventually sold to Yahoo! for a reported $30 million.
So. Then. Here’s where it gets puzzling. According to Alexa1, Fotolog is now the 26th most popular site on the web and recently became more popular than Flickr (currently #39). Here’s the comparison between the two over the last 3 years:
This is a somewhat stunning result because by all of the metrics held in high esteem by the technology media, Web 2.0 pundits, and those selling technology and design products & services, Flickr should be kicking Fotolog’s ass. Flickr has more features, a better design, better implementation of most of Fotolog’s features, more free features, critical praise, a passionate community, and access to the formidable resources & marketing power of Yahoo! And yet, Fotolog is right there with them. Perhaps this is a sign that those folks trapped in the Web 2.0 bubble are not being critical enough about what is responsible for success on the Web circa-2007. (As an aside, MySpace didn’t really fit the Web 2.0 mold either, nobody really talked about it until after it got huge, and yet here it is. And then there’s Craigslist, which is more Web 0.5 than 2.0, and is one of the most popular sites on the web. Google too.)
What’s going on here then? I can think of three possibilities (there are probably more):
1. Fotolog is very popular with Portugese and Spanish speakers, especially in Brazil. According to Wikipedia, almost 1/3rd of all Fotolog users are from Brazil and Chile. In comparing the two sites, what could account for this difference? Fotolog has a Spanish language option while Flickr does not (although I’m not sure when the Spanish version of Fotolog launched). Flickr is more verbose and text-intensive than Fotolog and much of Flickr’s personality & utility comes from the text while Fotolog is almost text-free; as a non-Spanish speaker, I could navigate the Spanish-language version quite easily. Gene Smith noted that a presentation made by a Brazilian internet company said that “Flickr is unappealing to Brazilians because they want to the customize the interface to express their individual identities”.
Cameron Marlow noticed that Orkut is set to pass MySpace as the world’s most popular social networking site (Orkut is also very popular in Brazil), saying that “Orkut’s growth reinforces the fact that the value of social networking services, and social software in general, comes from the base of active users, not the set of features they offer”. Marlow also notes that Alexa’s non-US reporting has improved over the past year, which might be the reason for Fotolog’s big jump in early 2006. If Alexa’s global reporting had been robust from the beginning, Fotolog may have been neck and neck with Flickr the whole time.
2. Flickr is more editorially controlled than Fotolog. The folks who run Flickr subtly and indirectly discourage poor quality photo contributions. Yes, upload your photos, but make them good. And the community reinforces that constraint to the point where it might seem restricting to some. Fotolog doesn’t celebrate excellence like that…it’s more about the social aspect than the photos.
3. Maybe tags, APIs, and Ajax aren’t the silver bullets we’ve been led to believe they are. Fotolog, MySpace, Orkut, YouTube, and Digg have all proven that you can build compelling experiences and huge audiences without heavy reliance on so-called Web 2.0 technologies. Whatever Web 2.0 is, I don’t think its success hinges on Ajax, tags, or APIs.
Update: You can see how much Fotolog depends on international usage for its traffic from this graph from Compete. They only use US statistics to compile their data. I don’t have access to the Comscore ratings, but they only count US usage and, like Alexa, undercount Firefox and Safari users. (thx, walter)
 Usual disclaimers about Alexa’s correctness apply. The point is that among some large amount of users, Fotolog is as popular (or even more) than Flickr. Whether those users are representative of the web as a whole, I dunno. ↩