Online tools are great – until they disappear

Closed Sign by James Alan, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

Closed Sign by James Alan, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

Facebook announced last week that the service FriendFeed would be shut down in April. I was a FriendFeed user, I even used to have a link to it here on the Skeptic History page – for those who wanted to see the daily history posts using that service. But it’s been increasingly less useful as it has been supplanted by newer services like Twitter and Facebook itself.

As we use online tools to achieve specific goals, we must be mindful that they do disappear like this. It’s always wise to have a good idea what benefit you are getting from which tools, and which alternatives are available should one disappear.

Let’s take a moment to consider a few tools that have disappeared recently, why that happens and some good strategies for might replacing them.

Why Tools Disappear

It’s important to consider why tools disappear. Understanding how this happens can sometimes help us avoid investing effort in tools that are likely to die soon.

FriendFeedIconMinor Product For Company – In the case of FriendFeed, it was clear after having been bought by Facebook in 2009, the product was largely redundant with Facebook itself. What will often happen in these situations is the company will incorporate features or technologies of the purchased product into their main product, then shut down the smaller one.  Sometimes the purchased company gets shut down immediately, if there is no established user base or site to convert to another product. In any case, it behooves us to pay enough attention to computer industry business deals in order that we get some warning when these things occur.

Truth MarketNovel Ideas That Don’t Pan Out – Sometimes the concept of an online tool is so different from other competitors – or even completely unique – that it has a hard time gaining a foothold. Without sufficient users, any product with a social component is going to die on the vine. But any product can fail if the public doesn’t understand it or buy in to the idea. One such product I’ve written about here was TruthMarket, a site where users could post their own cash bounties (akin to smaller versions of the JREF MDC) challenging anyone on a disputed claim. The company was launched in 2011 with a good pedigree, and launched the site in September 2012. But the whole thing was shut down in April of 2013, just over half a year later. It just never really caught on – and frankly it was obvious from the site, you could tell most postings were not generating a ton of comment.

Commercial Tools Which Pivot – Something you see in commercial tools occasionally is a pivot. This is when a company has developed a product, but realizes it is not catching on or has other key flaws. The company will search for other applications of the technology and skills they have on hand, and change the focus of their product entirely to take advantage of that. For instance, Groupon was originally founded as an online activism site, before pivoting to a coupon-like service.

Trooclick logoOne such site I had been watching (but hadn’t written about yet) was Trooclick. Originally this was a service that fact-checked numeric claims in financial news stories. It seemed like that might have some eventual application to skepticism, so I was monitoring it.

But now the product has pivoted to be focused on extracting quotes about top news stories. Still a useful service for news junkies, but not so much for skeptics. The company is still building things, so they may eventually launch a product that has skeptical relevance, so I’m going to keep an eye on them.

In other cases a pivot can actually helps. The photo authentication service Izitru (which I wrote about recently) is the result of a company pivoting away from selling a packaged piece of software called Fourmatch, to a free online service. In this case FourMatch was their only product (and billed as the first of several) so it was likely that it would be replaced and not just shut down.

Academic Projects Which End – Some online projects are the result of academic research projects, and when the research ends the corresponding online service may get shut down. A Wikipedia monitoring tool called WikiScanner made quite a splash back in 2007 when it helped reveal some motivated edits to the encyclopedia by persons associated with government agencies or major companies based on their IP address. But after making a huge splash in the press, the tool disappeared.

Much later, it was fortunately replaced by a similar (but not identical) tool called WikiWatchdog. This tool is also hosted by some academics, but has been taken up by Wikimedia itself and now runs on their in-house tool servers. It is available as open-source (more on that later).

Another academic project which has let their implementation wither is WikiTrust, a tool that displays a color-coded version of Wikipedia articles, highlighting text by how recently it was added. I found it useful for exploring the sources of individual edits in articles. It is also still available as open source.

Unsourced logo

Non-Profit Tools Lose Funding – Another side of the coin is tools put up by non-profits. By definition these will have no revenue to support them, so sometimes the backing organization is forced to sideline them or shut them down. A recent example of this I noticed is Unsourced.org which I wrote about back in 2012. This is an online tool that helps you find the scientific research on which a news story is based.

After recommending it to someone online, I contacted the makers of it, and found that although it is still up and running, the non-profit behind it is in need of funding to keep it running.


Hopefully someone can help Media Standards Trust find funding for this excellent project.

The Importance of Open Source

I briefly mentioned open source software above – this is when the computer code which runs a service is released to the public. The beauty of this for our present topic is if the original service goes down, someone can always put up a new copy using their own servers.

For instance, Unsourced.org was released as open source, which means even if Media Standards Trust can’t secure additional funding for their project, someone could create a server running another copy of the code under another name. Most of the other products mentioned in this article are not available as open source, and thus could not be rescued that way. This is something to consider when adopting an online tool.

Conclusion

When choosing an online tool, always be aware of the corporation or non-profit that is behind it, and monitor their situation. If they are the target of a merger or business change, be aware the service might disappear. Know whether the tools is that company’s primary product, or a minor item that plays second fiddle to their main product. That will indicate the likelihood it will get dropped.

If you have the option to monetarily support a tool – do so! Chip in with a voluntary donation, or give some money to the non-profit behind it.  Or buy other products made by the same company. Encourage your friends who use the tool to do the same. Hosting and bandwidth cost money, they don’t grow on trees.

Beyond that, monitoring the social media chatter around a given product can help you gauge whether support is dwindling. Has the company, non-profit or people behind the product blogged lately? Are their social media feeds active? When you see conversation die, that might be a good clue that you should back up your data and possibly look for alternative tools.

When possible, understand what the service provides to you and what alternatives are available before you are forced to move. For instance, the recent move by FoodBabe to block Internet Wayback archives of her site could be worked around by using Archive.today or other alternative archiving tools I’ve documented here. But you have to know those alternatives exist to switch to them.

Ideally, steer your efforts toward services that are available as open source code. This provides a valuable insurance policy. Namely, if the existing service goes down, you or others could easily create a replacement using the open source code.

Updated: Added a reference to WikiTrust, fixed some grammar errors.

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8 thoughts on “Online tools are great – until they disappear

  1. Pingback: Virtual Skeptics #123 – 3/18/2015 | The Virtual Skeptics

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  3. bricepnet

    This is why I’m extremely hesitant to get tangled up in new products, especially from serial offenders like Google. Why put ALL of my photos in Google Photos and delete them from my phone when they can just as easily shutter this service in several years like they did Wave? And Postini? And Reader?

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