Like the last, huddled patrons of a broken-down tavern facing the landlord's bulldozer, the final denizens of Friendster got their notice this week: You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.
The owners of the original social network, whose example gave rise to MySpace and then Facebook, announced that they're about to level the place, deleting users' profiles and data and then relaunching the brand as a gaming site. If you want your data, they told Friendster loyalists, grab it now.
The forecast is looking cloudy for MySpace too. Just as Friendster's demise went public, News Corp. was trying to auction off the foundering site for at least $100-million. To put that in context, News Corp. bought MySpace for $580-million in 2005, thinking that it would be the next big thing. But the future turned out to belong to Facebook.
Companies fold all the time. But when big online services go under, having harvested content from millions of users, there are consequences beyond brand nostalgia. What happens to the information users have posted and the slices of life that they've shared? Such dilemmas are only going to become more common as people move their information into what's being called "the cloud." And we all can learn some lessons.
1. Nothing lasts forever
People are always cautioning that the embarrassing tidbits we post to the Internet might haunt us forever. But keeping vast quantities of data online isn't free: Data centres are expensive things to maintain. Indeed, a business doesn't have to fail outright for data to vanish; all it takes is a change of business plans. This week, Google reversed at the 11th hour its plan to wipe the contents of Google Video, an earlier site that became redundant when Google bought YouTube but was still popular as a repository of longer videos.
2. The clouds have already rolled in
"Cloud computing" is already ubiquitous in everyday life. We just might not think of it as such.
The term refers to the idea of storing your data - photos, files, music and information - on the Internet, housed in anonymous data centres in far-flung towns, instead of on your home computer.
Even if users haven't thrown away their hard drives yet, cloud computing is already augmenting the familiar ways of doing business. Hundreds of millions of people entrust their data to online tax preparation, online banking, Gmail and Google Docs, or post hundreds of photos on Facebook. There's no turning back the clock.
3. Cloud computing trades technical risks for corporate ones
There are lots of advantages to storing data online: The software is always up-to-date, the security - in theory - is professional and top-notch, and users don't need to worry about mechanical failures or theft.
But it also exposes individuals to the risks associated with commerce: Businesses thrive and fail, get bought and sold, make good decisions and terrible ones - and there's no guarantee that users' data will survive the transition.
To draw on another example from this tumultuous week, Del.ici.ous, a once-thriving site where users store and share their favourite Web bookmarks, was just sold by Yahoo, its floundering owner. Its users were informed that as the site got melded with a new one, their data would be preserved only if they signed up and opted in.
4. It's a personal-data concern now. It will be a media concern next.
So far, the faded Web giants that have run aground have been in the business of storing personal data - contact lists, personal writings and websites. (Remember GeoCities?) But imagine an iTunes in which, instead of downloading music, you merely rent or buy on-demand access to files online. Various companies have offered subscription-based services for years, and Apple is widely rumoured to be bringing the concept to iTunes. (The fact that it's bringing out Mac laptops with much tinier hard drives bolsters this theory.)
At that point, again, permanence becomes a question: How much will consumers feel comfortable investing in access to media that might not last forever - a "record collection" that might simply shut down some day?
5. This could never happen to Facebook … right?
Predicting Facebook's demise is always a fun sport, even if there are no signs that indicate it will suffer the same fate as Friendster, MySpace and the other social networks it crushed.
But, partly as a function of network dynamics, social networks rise and fall swiftly. Networks get more useful the more people join them, so big networks tend to get bigger, while small networks wither. (Who wants to use a social network when everyone is socializing somewhere else?) It's a cruel business for second-place finishers.
Facebook shows no sign of flagging. But a future in which it's never challenged would be a future in which innovation stalls, and that seems even more unlikely. If it falters, it could fall hard.
So keep a backup of your data handy. Even in the cloud, there's no such thing as "too big to fail."