...six words he never saw coming by darkmatter on Flickr This hilarious photograph by darkmatter is my favourite Flickr-lover shot of all time (although I recommend you check out the Flickr Fan Art Pool for some great ones).

Some of the users go totally ga-ga over Flickr. Many of their users are at least moderately in love with the service. Most find it quite useful and life-enhancing. It continues to grow at a nice rate (sometimes with spurts, but mostly steady) and has become a total zeitgeist, appearing in almost every magazine around the world that talks about community, technology and things that inspire.

This is a website. A website. A mere tool!

But is it?

Flickr has mojo. They have alot of it. In fact, the site oozes it...but it isn't really the layout or much of anything to do with the programming...that's just a part of it. It's everything that goes into it. When I started to use Flickr in early 2005, I could feel the "soul" of the site instantly.

The reason I bring this up right now is that I'm working on some solid examples for my upcoming presentations at the Future of Web Apps and ETech as well as the fact that Mick brought it up on the Tangler blog.

He asks:

As a up and coming company with more then a dash of community about it, I’m interested for Tangler’s sake in what people think are the reasons that Flickr won.

I mean, there were a lot of photo sharing sites, or at least online photo storage sites around when Flickr got started, but it carved a big niche and was successful as a startup, selling to Yahoo.

Well, I would say, first off that 'winning' is a pretty subjective term. But, for argument's sake, let's say they "won". I've personally spoken with many of the people who took Flickr from A Game Neverending (GNE) to Flickr to it's acquisition and who are still working on it at Yahoo!, and there doesn't seem to be one cogent "story" or "reason" for their success. [Really, it's kind of what I'm referring to when I am talking about the diversity of experience with "community".]

That's okay, though. Everyone experienced the growth from a different perspective, but I believe that they all understand that a passionate team, working together towards a similar Higher Purpose, does what it does to get wherever it is that team is going. Furthermore, I conjecture that each of them understand that all of these elements working together, combined with the environmental factors they couldn't control contributed towards that success.

Scientists know that if the slightest change to the environment of a petrie dish can dramatically change the outcome of an experiment. So, even if Tangler or any other startup out there knew the EXACT steps Flickr took and repeated nearly every single element that went into their success, the results would probably dramatically different because, well (to name a few): the environment is drastically different, they have a totally different team of people, the product is different (and in Zooomr's case, the product is almost exactly the same, but it's not...[yes, this is a subjective viewpoint - I've removed the Alexa reference because I don't believe in pure stats as indicators anyway]), the intentions are different ("winning" didn't seem to be their driving purpose), etc.

But even so, the Flickr story is pretty darned inspirational and I believe that they did do and continue to do some really inspirational, fantastic things that we can all learn from. In fact, if everyone in the world could be just a little more like the people behind Flickr, the world would be a much better place.

So, I made a little image map on Flickr that maps out some 'milestones' from their success that I would love others to add to as well as tag the way you want (and, please, tell me if there are other versions of this around - I suck at searching for these things), and I wrote a little synapses in the comment section of the Tangler blog that got eaten up (luckily I typed it in textmate first) that went like this:

Hi Mick,

There isn't one reason why Flickr 'won' and it sure as heck wouldn't happen again, even if you tried to recreate, but here are some things they did right:

1. They didn't go into it thinking, "Let's win" They started GNE because they were passionate about online gaming. Check out their ABOUT page for Ludicorp.

2. They were already involved in many online gaming communities, so they already had tonnes of connections to get feedback.

3. When Flickr started getting more popular amongst their users, they paid attention and shifted focus...a little in the beginning, more as it picked up. Check out their news page for the progression from GNE to Flickr.

4. As Judson indicates above, they were revolutionary and first...but it was only a tiny tweak. There were tons of photo storage sites on line, but none that said, "Screw it" to privacy and made it all about sharing your photos with the world and connecting to others...even strangers through it.

They didn't try to change everything at once...just simple, slight tweaks to teach people a new paradigm.

5. They were excited about every new community member, connecting them to one another. The legend reads that when a new member signed up and started uploading their photos, Caterina would say, "Welcome to Flickr! I noticed you really enjoy nature photography. You should really meet this person over here who does too."

6. They took risks and tried things that nobody else was doing. Like tagging. They knew Josh at del.icio.us and tagging seemed like a great way to structure data, so they gave it a whirl early on...not when it became 'cool'.

7. They helped people kick ass. They helped amateur photographers strut their stuff by making the photos front and center. They helped people who enjoyed photography by making great, revolutionary navigation (tags, interestingness, etc.). They helped people who liked to share their 'social shots' connect with their friends who were doing the same (groups, tags, rss, friending, etc.).

8. They did this over a long period of time, not in a couple of months, but from 2002 to 2006 (Flickr from 2004).

9. They are still as passionate today as they were when they were starving programmers in their little space in Vancouver.

Personally, I think it is a scary thing to try and duplicate 'success'. It's what all of those formulaic business books do and they perpetuate a great deal of mediocre (and sometimes dangerous) thinking.

We certainly can learn from people, like when Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt, "You make me want to be a better person," in As Good as it Gets. We need to learn to take the time and care to carve our own successes (continuing to redefine whatever success means). And, if we lack the instincts we need to get there, we need to start working on those first.

And the first step to that is to really connect to others, looking beyond our own little world we live in. It helps us see the reflections of ourselves in it, which will help us understand our place within the world, which will lead to us being more in touch with our instincts.

The mediator between head and hands must be the heart! - Metropolis.