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.
That is how the Valleywag blog described the layoff of a key member of the Flickr team: George Oates. It struck me how close this analysis was to my musings in Fragile Giants. Owen Thomas is talking about those same elusive values that take a company from Good to Great, whether a giant or not.
I disagree with Owen on the value of devotion to a cause as opposed to personal ties. I don’t think that principles alone fire the human spirit unless they come in human form. We really need living, breathing principles that can show us the way past obstacles and help us see our potential. In other words, devotion alone is not enough. We need a leader, preferably one as principled as (s)he is charismatic.
I also wouldn’t call the culture of Flickr illusory, but I would call it fragile.