When Web 2.0 “goes bad” – part 1

What do a social bookmarking site, a web-based database and a social networking service mainly used in Vietnam have in common? The answer is that all of them have either recently changed, or are about to change, in ways that will disrupt thousands of their users – thus providing a timely lesson for everyone who depends on social networking or other web-based applications.

Services on the social bookmarking site, Ma.gnolia, stopped abruptly in January 2009 when its host computers suffered a database crash, irretrievably losing all the site’s data, according to Data Center Knowledge. The Ma.gnolia site, which was apparently hosted on two Mac OS X servers and four Mac minis, now carries an announcement that it will be reborn as a as a “by-invitation community bookmarking service”.

More recently the owners of Blist, one of the better-known online databases, announced that the site is morphing into Socrata, which will concentrate on “delivering social data discovery on government data sites around the world”. No doubt this has the potential to be a useful service, but the news must have come as a surprise to current Blist users who will apparently lose the original service in August.

Even bigger companies aren’t immune from these changes. Just ask the Vietnamese users of 360 Degrees, Yahoo’s social networking site. Whilst 360 Degrees failed to make an impact on Myspace and Facebook, it was an unexpected success in Vietnam, where in a country with strict government controls on information and dissent it became the dominant social networking service.

Yahoo announced that the service would close in 2008 but, according to the EarthTimes website, it is only now that the 13 July cut-off date is looming that many users are hurriedly trying to migrate their data to alternative sites or Yahoo’s Vietnam-only replacement service.

These three examples demonstrate why councils as well as public and private sector organisations need to exercise caution in choosing web-based applications to use in managing their operations or in providing services to residents, clients or customers. They also illustrate some of the potential issues that users need to consider in evaluating Web 2.0 services. These include:

  • Data security: whilst the Ma,gnolia example of a catastrophic loss of data is thankfully rare, it does demonstrate that these things can happen. Potential users need to assess whether the services they are interested in provide adequate storage and backup facilities. More common concerns are whether and how online services maintain the confidentiality of the data that users or thier clients or customers store on their sites.
  • Service closure or change in focus: again, whilst complete service closures are very rare, the Yahoo 360 Degree shut-down illustrates that they can happen. Even a change in focus such as that underway at the former home of Blist can amount to a service closure for dedicated users of the service being replaced.
  • Service downtime: all websites can be affected by brief periods of downtime for essential maintenance or uploading software upgrades. These interruptions should be rare and advised to users well in advance.
  • Ability to access data: users need to be able to access and download easily any data that they store on a Web 2.0 site, as well as contact information for their clients or customers.
  • Upgrades and backwards compatibility: from time to time, all online services need to upgrade their services. These upgrades should be advertised well in advance, along with advice on whether users need to change any of their settings. Apart from the downtime involved, users will need to check whether there are any compatibility issues with new versions of software.
  • Fee changes: users need to check out the different fee levels on web-based services – and how easy it is to terminate an agreement or change the level of service. They also need to be mindful that fees, service levels and conditions can be changed at any time by the provider.

Whilst these is an obvious need to proceed cautiously, these concerns should not be used as an excuse for councils and other organisations to not engage at all with social networking or other Web 2.0 applications. In my next post I will outline some practical safety checks for users to apply in evaluating these applications.

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