Wikimedia Commons as private photo hosting

This is a long read, and it expresses something I was thinking about for a long time. It is more like a personal blog post format, but I will put it here having in mind the target audience. I apologize for the length.

I have a travel blog, already for more than 10 years. I travel a lot, and I show there my photos and talk about what I have seen. (It is in Russian, but this is not relevant). Every post is a html-formatted text which embeds 10 to 30 photos. All files are on my hard disk, the blog is on one of the blog platforms, and hosting photos is a problem. When I started in 2011, I performed a comparison of imaging hosting services, and I have chosen a minor hosting in Russia, streamphoto.ru. It was free and offered practically unlimited storage, the interface was inconvenient, but since I was only using it for hosting files which I embedded elsewhere I did not care. In 2013, a big Russian Telecom company, MTS, bought the service, and I could not login anymore. In 2015, they closed down the hosting. By the time, I was on Flickr, I transferred there most of my files, had some fun updating references in the posts, and by the end of 2018 I had 7.5K low-res photos uploaded there. Then we all know what happened - in the end of 2018 SmugMug, a company which earlier bought Flickr said that they can not afford free unlimited storage anymore, and they limit all free accounts by 1000 last pictures, and everything else would be deleted. I was thinking whether I should start hosting photos on my own server (which I do not want to do for a number of reasons) but finally found one more hosting with unlimited storage, and started moving photos there. In more than a year I moved 3K pictures and still have 4.5K photos on Flickr. The bottleneck is not uploading photos but replacing links in the files (again, it probably can be easily done by writing a code, but then I would have to invest quite some time into learning it which I currently do not have). I am not sure how long my new hosting will exist before they got bought by someone and decide to limit the total upload volume to 10Mb or to make all accounts paid.

Then I noticed that I upload more and more photos on Commons. I have been an active user there since 2007 and administrator since I believe 2013. I used to upload only photographs which could be immediately used for illustration of the projects, and I usually just added the pictures to the projects myself, but the number of needed pictures significantly increased after Wikivoyage introduced the listing template - now every sight needs its own photograph. I am not a professional photographer, and there are a lot of Commons users who are better photographers than I am, but I still have decent equipment, I post-process every single picture, and I often found myself in a situation when my photo is better than everything else available - even for some fairly commons sights. I remember that in 2016, I could not find a decent photograph of a city of Roskilde in Denmark - a very popular tourist destination - to insert into the Russian Wikivoyage infobox, and I had to use my own photo. And I often travel off the beaten path, and for the destinations I visit it is not unusual that there are no photographs on Commons at all, so that I ended up uploading almost everything in high resolution. When I upload I do a good job - find coordinates, leave a reasonable description, give a descriptive name, and add suitable categories, so that I can always figure out (and hopefully others as well) what I was trying to shoot.

Then I naturally thought - if I upload almost everything on Commons anyway, why do not I try to use my uploads on my blog? And can I upload just about every picture what I take? Obviously there are some things which can not be on Commons, but in my case the share of these pictures is clearly below 10% (in fact, for the last three posts, about 80 photographs in total, I only put two photos on the photo hosting, and everything else on Commons). I tried, and it seems to work consistently, for different topics. However, if it worked for me, it does not mean it would work for everybody. After all, Commons explicitly is NOT a photo hosting: The very first page one encounters while trying to upload a photo, Commons:First steps/Uploading files says “Commons is not a repository for your personal photos”. Now, what are ups and downs of this approach, and when it could be made working?

General advise: Wikimedia Commons is still not a photo hosting. Only do it if (i) you know what you are doing (ii) the photos are of a reasonably high quality, at least better than the average Commons photographs (iii) they have educational value whatever this means.

Advantages:

  • I basically trust that Wikimedia Commons is not going to become commercial, meaning the files uploaded there are safe. I do not want to say forever (see below), but at least long-term. I do not anticipate any bullshit coming such as upload limits.
  • Before the file is uploaded, one has to do the ground work and understand where the picture was taken and what it depicts. This simplifies writing the blog.
  • One can (and should) upload high-resolution photographs.
  • The photographs can be reused, basically by everybody.

Disadvantages:

  • Not everything can be uploaded to Commons. Personal photographs are out of scope. Modern buildings and monuments in the countries without freedom of panorama are not acceptable. Modern artwork (in particular by living artists) may not be uploaded.
  • Even if it is perfectly in scope and not a copyright violation, sometimes it just does not add anything. For example, if you have a nice photo of the Eiffel Tower - chances are that on Commons one can find a dozen photos taken from the same point, in the same weather, and having a higher quality and higher resolution. In this situation, it is not clear why you should bother uploading it.
  • You have at the very least to know what is on the photo, otherwise it is out of scope.
  • Sometimes figuring out what is on the photo can take a lot of time, this impedes the blog publication. At some point just an upload process starts limiting unless your files are all of the same type. I can hardly imagine how I can upload more than 30 photos per day, and only if I am free on this day. Usually even 10 is a challenge.
  • It becomes very difficult to sell photos (for example, on stock sites) if there is a free version. Some people tried to solve this by uploading a low-res version on Commons and selling a high-res version of the same photo. This is usually perceived negatively by the Commons community, because people feel it is like free advertisement.
  • There are Commons users who can nominate any file for deletion, and there are enough administrators happy to delete anything. I myself had my photographs nominated for deletion en masse several times, for various bogus reasons. If you know ins and outs, you are safe, but if not, anything can be deleted anytime.
  • If a file is moved, the external link to the file gets rotten. Anything can be renamed any moment because someone arbitrarily decided the name is not descriptive enough. Have all files in the watchlist and give them maximally descriptive names.
  • The category system on Commons is not really suitable for finding files, and this applies to your own files as well. Once you uploaded several hundred photos, it becomes difficult to track all of them, in particular, to avoid uploading a duplicate. This can be solved by creating personal categories and also by categorizing photos by country and date, but if you really have many uploads, even these methods become problematic.
  • Again, Commons is still not a photo hosting. Linking images externally is fine, but if you want real hosting features, for example, if you start creating many private albums - at some point they may be deleted.
  • The privacy issue: In my case, it is not difficult to figure out what my real name is and who I am, but people concerned about the anonymity of their Wikimedia account should not connect an external blog to this account.
  • Most people never get blocked on Wikimedia projects, but some do, and if you are an active user, the chances are higher. If you are blocked, the photos are still there (although you can not upload new ones), but you have no control of them. Think whether this is a viable option, and whether this situation would still be acceptable for you.

Finally, there are some points which are not clear to me but which can affect the functioning of Commons long-term. We know, in theory, that unlimited free photo hosting is not sustainable. This is exactly why Flickr has all these troubles - Yahoo promised every subscriber 1Tb free space and then realized it is not really feasible. It is difficult for me to estimate how much volume I uploaded on Commons, but 5K files 10kb each give me 50Mb, and since last year I have 20kb each, and I am going to upload more intensively. I do not know what share of WMF finances goes to providing storage space for Commons, but it should be quite a lot in absolute numbers. At some point it will become a problem, unless a magical new technology comes and saves us. And before it becomes a real problem, there will be some solutions proposed, for example, to delete all low quality files. And this is something I am really afraid of, because different people have different ideas about the quality of the files. I am pretty sure some will think that all my uploads are such a junk that I should be ashamed that I have ever taken these photographs and made them public. Or may be leave only quality images and delete everything else. Or delete everything which is not in use. Or something else.

But until this has happened I think I am safe and can continue using Commons as a photo hosting.

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