Homeless on the Internet

As a student, I’ve had the remarkably painful experience of moving every blasted year for the last seven years. Every May, I have to pack everything I own into boxes, stuff the boxes into either a storage area or some sort of moving device (or, several times, both, as I’ve had to move to a storage area for a few months, then move from it back to a different apartment), then leave. This is annoying– and it’s particularly so in light of the knowledge that nine months after I unpack, I’ll have to do it all again, first because I was switching dorms, then apartments. What a pain.

I haven’t, however, had to move without notice; I’ve always known at least a month or two in advance, even when I hadn’t planned really to move. This let me make sure my fragile stuff would be packed correctly, that I knew where my computers would be throughout the move (always important), and that I had some idea how everything would work.

Recently, I completed a digital move, taking all of my sites, SVN repositories, mailing lists, etc. from DreamHost to Linode, and setting up all the software that I wasn’t responsible for on DreamHost (as Linode is a much more hands-off hosting environment– I like it, but it did take some extra work). This was made relatively easy because all of my software follows established standards, from both servers allowing me SSH access and SFTP file transfer, to all the webapps I run (e.g., Movable Type) using web standards to export and import data (like my blog posts). This meant that while the move wasn’t easy, all the painful parts were entirely of my own doing (like when I turned the firewall on before I’d given permission for SSH to go through it, meaning that my server obligingly killed my ability to fix the problem; thankfully, Linode is nice enough to have solutions in place for people like me :-) ), and I got through it relatively easily.

Consider, then, the difference between these moves that I’ve made, and what AOL has been doing recently. They’ve been shutting down a huge number of their sites– Circavie, Ficlets, AOL Pictures, and Hometown, to name a few. Most of these, especially Hometown, had little to no notice given (it was announced, but not in a way to actually reach the users, so the first time that users heard of the shutdown was when they received this message:

Dear AOL Hometown user,

We’re sorry to inform you that as of Oct. 31, 2008, AOL® Hometown was shut down permanently. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.


The AOL Hometown Team

Wow. Not a good move; this represented terabytes of data that users had spent years on. One– a snarky one, perhaps– might comment that it was only AOL users’ data, so why should we care? It’s simple– many users don’t have another choice (I myself used AOL at one time, when for years they were the only ISP in my hometown), or aren’t aware that there are other alternatives. And even if they did have other options, don’t they deserve to be able to move their content?

What’s even more shameful, though, is the complete lack of support AOL is giving when being asked how to move content. Here’s their instructions for ensuring continuity of data from their Ficlets service:

…we urge you to save your works immediately. Since each ficlet is relatively small you can do this easily by copying the text and pasting it into a plain text or Word document.

Really, guys? The best you can come up with is to just copy and paste to Word? That doesn’t save formatting, that doesn’t save metadata like the contributions made by different authors and timestamps, and that certainly doesn’t help move content to another space on the Web.

The thing is, it’s not like AOL has no better option. Movable Type and Wordpress both offer easy import and export features to open standards, even if I wish they could be a bit better on compatibility (and both have improved since I wrote that post). Movable Type, in addition to exporting to files, uses AtomPub, another open standard, which allows other blog platforms to interact more directly with it, so it can be a one-step process to move when the user needs to, or simply wishes to go elsewhere (either to MT or not). Hundreds of other services do the same thing, following the standards established by large groups of people working to make the Web “just work” a bit better, each type of service working as befits their type of content.

Instead, AOL has driven its users straight into a brick wall; for those people lucky enough to get a bit of warning, they at least have some semblance of their data, but for all of them, they’re homeless now; the place AOL told them to make their “Hometown” is demolished because AOL can’t deal with it anymore. It’s not that corporations should be required forever to support things they have no (financial or otherwise) interest in; it’s simply that they have a responsibility to the users who depend on them. Just as landlords can’t evict tenants without warning (and to take the more extreme example that AOL has provided with Hometown, can’t evict their tenants then immediately destroy all their worldly possessions with no recompense), corporations should allow users to move their data in a full-featured way at any time, then provide assistance when services are being closed. This is why we need an Open Web– for the same reasons we have law in a physical society.

Without it, we have groups of forlorn people, with a few shards of data on their backs, wandering confused through an increasingly hostile world, with no idea why they can’t go home, and why everything they worked for is gone.