Could Yahoo! be engineering Flickr's demise from the inside out?

Yahoo! undertook a mass cull of staff late in 2010, of which a significant percentage were Flickr staff. A little over a year on and it would seem as if that were insufficient; another bundle of Flickr staff have just lost their jobs. This time it's the entire senior tier of customer support that's been asked to pack up their desks.

This is a group of gifted and committed people, according to previous Flickr-employee Nolan Caudill. They had fairly thankless jobs, but always had Flickr's and its users' best interests at heart. Consequently, he's convinced that laying them off was a huge mistake on Yahoo!'s part. If that's the case, what sort of justification can the management at Yahoo! be offering?

It's easy to think that they reached tipping point with the number of gut-wrenching screw-ups that some of the customer support team at Flickr accomplished, for example deleting entire accounts of long-standing users, and claiming that there were no back-ups and couldn't be re-instated, or not double-checking DMCA take-down notices before removing legitimate content. But if this group of people is as talented and dedicated as Caudill says that they are, then they're the guys who are trying to make Flickr better for its users, help prevent these sorts of screw-ups, and rectify them when they do happen. Had it been these guys who were responsible for these sorts of epic blunders, then really, action should have been taken against them well before now.

From Caudill's perspective, the people who were laid off were Flickr users' biggest advocates. They helped to fix the bugs inadvertently whipped up by developers and presented the user-eye-view of Flickr at product and development meetings. They knew more about the site, its operation, and its foibles than anyone else. So with them, an encyclopaedia of Flickr-knowledge has just walked out the door and Flickr won't be getting it back. That's a huge loss.

Now this could just be a case of naivety, if I'm being kind - mis-management, if I'm blunt - on Yahoo!'s part. But I've a feeling in my gut that it's possibly a bit more sinister than that. What if Yahoo! were attempting to precipitate Flickr's own demise? There have already been concerns raised for Flickr's future - its failure to capitalise on the social media revolution and a general sense of Flickr feeling old and tired; the loss of other valuable staff members; and the sense that Yahoo! doesn't have its best interests at heart. By showing the door to a group of people who understood the site and understood its users, management has lost one its most valuable assets. Without their knowledge and support, the erosion of everything that made Flickr great for its users will be all too easy. If that were to happen, and users were to lose confidence in Flickr, then it's an easy step to close it.

If Yahoo! really doesn't have the enthusiasm to support Flickr or the guts to compete with 500px, Google+, and Facebook, then this is a gloriously Machiavellian and distinctly long-term plan to bring about its end. But it's probably a whole lot easier to steadily vex the owners of five billion photos to the point where they have no confidence or interest in Flickr any longer, than to infuriate all of them in one go by pulling the plug without any obvious catalyst. A steady stream of disappointed emails, or better yet the constant drift of apathetic users, is far easier to deal with than a vehement deluge of complaints, especially when you don't have an experienced customer support team to handle it.

I'd love for this speculation to be the product of my over-active imagination, but I've seen something similar happen to other organisations and institutions, so I'll sit and watch, and make sure that I've a Flickr alternative lined up. Just in case.