When the 10-year challenge went viral earlier this year, everyone who wanted to brag about how hot they used to be had the same idea for where to find those nostalgic photos: legacy photo hosting site Photobucket, which saw a massive uptick in traffic that week. “We found that people were like, ‘Where do I find that picture of myself 10 years ago? It’s probably on Photobucket,’” its CEO Ted Leonard tells me.
The company is trying to make a comeback as more than just a site for forgotten photos, though usage has dramatically declined over the years, and it faces significantly more competition than when it first launched in 2003. Once accounting for 2 percent of US internet traffic by hosting photos for sites like eBay and Myspace, Photobucket is now somewhere in the range of the 1,500th most-visited website in the US, according to Alexa rankings. But under new management, the company is currently in the middle of an apology tour, trying to regain the public’s trust after a sudden, exorbitant price increase that had its remaining users accusing the company of extortion two years ago.
Photobucket now wants to be seen as the site you can trust to store your photos forever. It’s a major turn from just a couple years ago — in June 2017, Photobucket quietly introduced a $399 annual fee to embed images on third-party sites. The site gave zero warning, just a blog post announcing its new terms of service, which didn’t mention the price change. When the changes went into effect, millions of hot-linked images on the internet broke overnight, only displaying a speedometer blaring the message, “PLEASE UPDATE YOUR ACCOUNT TO ENABLE 3RD PARTY HOSTING.” With 20 million users hosting images on sites like Amazon and eBay, Leonard guesses about 60 million images went dark during that time. The images were finally turned back on nearly a year later, when Photobucket replaced the executive team, including CEO John Corpus, and Leonard stepped in.
“That was just the result of a short-sighted decision from the previous management team, in an effort to get immediate results,” Leonard says. “Saying, ‘we’re going to force you into a single plan and charge you $400’, that’s not a realistic price.”
Photobucket now has more accessible plans that range from $4.99 a month for a 25GB Beginner plan, to an $11.99 unlimited image hosting Expert plan. Leonard stresses that the company will always have a free plan, which allows storage of up to 250 images. That’s a small number compared to what services from big tech companies like Google can offer, which is unlimited photo storage on Google Photos (as long as they’re compressed to 16 megapixels). But Leonard is confident that the people paying for subscriptions understand that hosting services cost money, and are drawn to the simplicity of the site. “I believe that we can happily coexist with the larger tech companies,” he says. “We pride ourselves on not being a social media platform. There’s room in the marketplace for companies that focus solely on photos.”
In the nine months since the new pricing went into effect, Leonard says the paid subscriber base has increased 50 percent, with 90 percent of new subscriptions coming from legacy Photobucket members who had been on the free plan for an average of about eight years.
The company prides itself on how it’s stuck around for the past 16 years as a reliable time capsule for people to revisit their memories. Last month, it introduced a “Bill of Rights” that promises that Photobucket will never delete its users’ photos, provided the photos don’t violate its terms of service. The news comes as a response to its competitor Flickr, which was acquired by SmugMug and began deleting user photos that went over the 1,000 photo limit for free accounts earlier in March. The outcry was immediate, and Flickr was hit with an exodus of users who opted to download their photos rather than to upgrade to a Pro subscription. The backlash to a once-free service asking for a subscription fee is familiar territory for Photobucket.
“The internet started out as this free marketplace, where you could get all types — whether it’s videos, or content — anything for free,” Leonard says. “And we’re seeing a shift now.” With subscription-based models becoming the norm in nearly every industry, from streaming services like Spotify and Netflix to video games, Leonard believes there’s more of a willingness for people to start paying for photo storage as a subscription service as well.
Photobucket has been shuffled between new owners over the years and is now a far tinier company than it once was. The company was originally acquired by News Corp. (along with Myspace) in 2007, then sold to Seattle mobile startup Ontela in 2010, which it merged with. Once employing 120 people at its height, Photobucket is now an independent company based out of a co-working space in Denver, Colorado with 11 full-time employees. Half of the company is dedicated to community management and customer service right now, but the company hopes to bring in more employees as subscriptions grow, particularly in the marketing and technical teams.
I visited the site last week and somehow logged into my account, despite the fact that the Yahoo e-mail I signed up with no longer exists. I saw photos of the house I haven’t lived in for a decade, pictures from middle school hastily snapped from a point-and-shoot, and some header images I designed for my Xanga page (which also no longer exists) all sitting in the album how I left them.
Leonard tells me Photobucket is rolling out with a new website and mobile app, but when I visited, the site looked more or less as how I remembered. Maybe that’s the point.