Flickr layoffs could spell a photo finishS

Every bit of Yahoo got the slash this week. Why should Flickr, the photo-sharing startup it bought in 2005, be any different?

The sacking of designer George Oates and two of her colleagues might seem too minor to note in a week where 1,500 of their colleagues also got pink-slipped. But Flickr has been spared in past rounds of layoffs. And the seemingly political dismissal of Oates, a well-regarded designer and popular figure in the office, has created a stir of more consequence.

Flickr had become the last great hope of Yahoo, the place where talents frustrated with the Web giant's bureaucracy fled. But it was never meant to be a redoubt of cool — rather, it was meant to be the home base of a conquering army which would transform all of Yahoo, infusing its websites with the buzz of user participation.

Didn't happen. For a while, Flickr rode high; last year, Yahoo shut down its bigger Yahoo Photos site in Flickr's favor. But then Flickr founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield left. They put Flickr in the hands of a Yahoo executive, Kakul Srivastava, who made the decision to lay off Oates, I'm told.

I haven't uncovered the specific reason Srivastava and Oates had a tiff, but it seems impossible to argue that the firing had anything to do with performance. Oates had championed a project to post photos from the Library of Congress's collections; Library officials just yesterday declared it a resounding success.

This is how a team falls apart: Remove a key player, and the social bonds that keep their friends on the job weaken. Before you know it, you've got a group of employees collecting paychecks, not a team working for a goal. Bugs go unfixed; servers crash; the design becomes ugly; and users flee. This could well happen to Flickr. Back up your photos now!

If that happens, what it tells us is that the culture of Flickr was always illusory — one built on personal ties rather than more lasting devotion to a cause. If so, the notion of exporting it to Yahoo was a delusion. That's the problem with turning a community into a commodity: Take away the people, and you have nothing left.

(Photo by martinalvarez)