Rael Dornfest ran a company called Values of n which built two web services, stikkit and I Want Sandy, both of which seem to have been well designed and very well received. But the intellectual property of the company, and Rael himself, have been acquired by Twitter, and both services are shutting down with two weeks’ notice. People are naturally upset (from a comment by ToddZ):
Chalk me up, too, as disappointed in this rather callous decision. Not only disappointed in the loss of Stikkit and Sandy, but disappointed that the Twitter folks would bring someone onto the team who is so willing to scuttle a boatful of passengers to leap unencumbered to the next lucrative opportunity.
Yeah yeah, these are free services - but they were made, allegedly, to benefit users. You invited us to make these services part of our day-to-day lives. That was their purpose. Now, having been successful at that, to so easily dispose of their users calls into question your motives.
No more trust from me. No more investment of my time, energy, and evangelism. I’ll be canceling my Twitter account. Not going to get burned again.
There’s more user reaction at the thread on getsatisfaction.com.
I understand this dilemma all too well. We have fought to keep Tabblo alive after the acquisition by Hewlett-Packard, and have not always done a good job of it. These web 2.0 companies all offer free services, and something has to pay the bills, so it isn’t always possible to be altruistic forever.
But at the same time, we live in a web world where the culture is to offer services free or very cheap. None of these interesting technologies would have flourished if they had to be bought from day one. How many photos would Flickr currently have if you had to pay $25/year to upload anything? How many tweets would be sent if you needed a credit card and paid 2 cents to send one?
So it’s a delicate balancing act. Closing down a service with two weeks notice seems pretty harsh to me, especially if one of those weeks is Thanksgiving when many people may not notice. How hard would it be for Twitter to keep those services running? For the sake of all of us that want to experiment with free services to try out cool new technology, everyone has to be careful not to be too cavalier with the trust users put in us. It’s hard enough for a small team to build something people will invest their focus in — to shut it down as if it were no big deal is careless indeed.
As it is, I only heard of I Want Sandy because of this controversy. Will its legacy be that it was the Web 2.0 thing that burned a bunch of users? Rael and Twitter were remarkably clumsy with this transition. Forget about the technology, they are both in the business of building stuff that people want to use. That includes building trust that those services will stick around.
No amount of disclaimers now that the service was free will change the fact that everyone involved in building it really wanted users to invest their time, energy and trust in the service. If you want users to use your service, you have to treat them right. “It was fun, I’m on to the next thing” isn’t good enough, and “it was free, what did you expect?” is insulting. No one starting a new service like this would say, “It’s free, we’ll keep it running until something else comes along,” on their home page, so they shouldn’t treat the shutdown of the service that way.
This is a black eye for the whole industry. People are already suspicious of using free in-the-cloud services for important data. Rael’s handling of this shutdown seems uncaring. He and Twitter should have done a better job handling their most valuable possession: people’s trust.