I received the above message from Amazee today. Amazee is (or will be until December 23) a platform built using Drupal where people can create groups to organize around social change projects and campaigns. The makers of the site (Amazee Labs in Switzerland) have now decided to shut down the service because, as they say, “if web projects don’t move ahead, they move backwards.” In their minds, we are better served by Facebook and Google. Meanwhile, they are focussing their efforts on building community websites for clients.
This is disappointing news, but I am not especially surprised. I am saddened though to see that Amazee is offering no migration path to move Amazee groups to other platforms, or some community supported alternative to shutting down the platform. All the work people put into growing a community of support, all the content they came to put on Amazee in the course of their collaboration on that platform, will simply be deleted on December 23rd. This is certainly not what those people bargained for when they chose Amazee as their organizing platform.
This trend reminds me just how important it is to have civil society platforms run by civil society organizations. We need to have reliable places we own and can rely on to put our stuff and to run our campaigns to fight for our communities, our environment, the future of our world.
Facebook, Google and the rest are great but at the end of the day these companies are, just like Amazee, not doing it for us but for the benefit of their own business and shareholders. They are driven by a bottom line that will always put pressure on them to shut down, sell off or change platforms that aren’t making them money. The risk in relying on them is encapsulated in this phrase circulating the social networks: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
What is the alternative? If I had a campaign in the works, I would always look to open platforms that leverage Facebook, Google+, Twitter and whatever other platforms emerge, but that do not rely on it as the main place where data is stored and your supporter “list” is kept. Recently, I started the /open campaign using WordPress, with an accompanying Facebook page and Twitter account. It took me a morning to set everything up and get started. The campaign benefits from Facebook and Twitter, but the main home of the campaign is on the /open site which is self-hosted and, thanks to WordPress import/export tools, easy to keep backed up or migrate to another location.
Meanwhile, civil society organizations running networking platforms must hang in there and not give in to the temptation to defer their important role to the Facebooks and Googles of this world. Instead we can experiment with different models for sustainability and community support. For example, as of 2008, Kabissa is a volunteer-run platform supported by donations from the community. Our target annual budget is a modest $20,000 to maintain our organization and platform, and additional work to evolve the platform is funded on a project basis. A business can’t do this but we can – it doesn’t need to make business sense to continue to maintain Kabissa as long as it makes social sense.
As civil society platforms seeking to improve the world, the Kabissas of the world also need to be mindful of the importance of being open platforms, and investing in openness. Here is a checklist that we are working from for developing Kabissa which you may want to use when evaluating platforms for your organizing or, if your organization runs a civil society platform, for deciding your own future course:
- include openness in your charter and display it prominently on your site
- be financially transparent and post your annual report and budgets prominently on your site
- use open source software wherever possible and give back to the open source projects you benefit from
- build in integration widgets to leverage the Facebooks and Googles out there through feeds and badges pulling content from other places and connecting to those sites
- provide import/export tools so that people and organizations that put their trust in you are able to move their data when their needs outgrow us or when for whatever other reason they decide to move on
- provide open data tools to enable others to download and use the most useful data being shared on your platform offline or on their own websites
Amazee Labs has perhaps made the correct business choice for them to move on by shutting down Amazee, especially since their brands are joined and they are no longer investing in improving the Amazee platform. But having yet another social change platform disappear from the web is a setback for the civil society sector and a warning to the rest of us.
Amazee members should take their advice with a grain of salt. Don’t just go to Facebook and Google to continue your social change organizing without reflecting on who is paying the bills of those companies and that our use of their platforms makes us the product they are selling, not their customer. Instead, look for open platforms and invest in making them better.