Last week I started a new Tumblr site, Our Incredible Journey, devoted to chronicling what often happens when an internet start-up is purchased by a larger company, often Google or Facebook.
Usually these are “acqui-hires”, acquisitions whose only purpose is to employ the start-up’s staff. This might sound extravagant to those in what we might call the real world, but given the total costs of hiring and keeping qualified and experienced staff, the ability to employ a small, hopefully proven team, and keep them hooked for a couple of years with share options, is seen to be worth a few million.
Because the staff have been hired to be part of Google or Facebook or AOL, they are now part of that company’s grander scheme, a scheme that rarely includes whatever website or service the start-up was originally developing. Consequently, the initial blog post starting:
We’re thrilled to announce that igglypiggly.io is now part of the Facebook family!
is soon followed by:
The igglypiggly.io service will be closing in two weeks and all your photos, writing, updates, check-ins and contacts will be deleted at that time.
Thanks for coming with us on our incredible journey!
Sometimes these announcements will be years, months, or weeks apart. Sometimes they are part of the same announcement, an artful blog post featuring both joy and authoritarian warnings.
Our Incredible Journey is cataloging these announcements. There are many from the past to catch up on, and new ones will feature as they occur. Let me know via Twitter if you think of one that should be included.
In part the website is simply angry, fuelled by a frustration that so much stuff is deleted, so many communities destroyed, after people have taken a punt on a service and started using it. Yes, people have been using a free service, but they’ve also put some level of trust in the enthusiasm and hopes of those creating the service, trust that is too often mis-placed.
But I’m also trying to raise bigger questions. Is this the best way to structure and grow new businesses? Is this the best long-term model for keeping people interested in making and doing amazing things on the internet? Why do almost no websites or online services (my own included) have plans for what happens to their users’ content over the long term? If we should accept that no website or online service, particularly “free” ones, will last a lifetime or longer, what can we do about managing peoples’ expectations better?
I’m not saying, “these companies should keep their services operational forever.” That’s unworkable and we’d end up with millions of barely-used websites, all maintained at the expense of developing anything new. There is no simple answer, and some of these now-shuttered services have handled things as best they can: providing some (although rarely much) notice; offering downloads of data; preparing easy ways to transfer data to other, similar services.
But there is something fury-inducing and, I would say, morally wrong in start-ups persuading thousands of people to devote their time and energy to using a service that is summarily erased once the owners have been paid off. Yes, the owners may have worked hard, but without those users’ efforts they would not have their payday. They may well have had an incredible journey but, time and again, ordinary people are being led up the garden path.