Last week, 3-D animation video site xtranormal announced that they were closing up shop after 5 years. Rich Cameron shared the news on Facebook, and mentioned that the Cerritos College Talon Marks had produced several xtranormal videos and exported them to YouTube.
I wrote about xtranormal in 2009 and 2010, making a short video as an example. The video, called “The Business Model” is still surprisingly relevant:
Recently, numerous bloggers found themselves in a similar situation when Posterous shut down suddenly. I could go through a graveyard of Internet sites that have closed as the social media (Web 2.0?) gold rush has sifted out winners from losers. Some of these sites had really great ideas for journalistic uses, others were slight deviations from other social media sites and got lost in the Venture Capital shuffle.
The lesson for journalists and online editors is clear: When you create something with a third-party solution, you run the risk that the vendor will go away at some point in the future.
There are a few sites that you can be reasonably sure won’t go away any time soon: Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, Google, Facebook, Vimeo. Even with these sites, however, the future is not guaranteed for every app or specialized service they provide, as Google showed most recently with the death of Google Reader.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from using third-party software to create a piece of journalistic storytelling. I love finding new apps and tools to help creat. a deeper journalistic story on the Internet.
But we need to be aware that good ideas can fail as businesses.
When you’re investigating a tool that you might want to use to produce something for your news site, look for a couple of key features.
- Export – Can you export your project to a format that is useable on other software? If you create a motion graphic, does it export as a Flash or HTML5 document that you can open in another app, to be presented outside of this third-party shell. For instance, xtranormal’s videos could be exported easily to YouTube or downloaded as a .flv file.
- Archive – Can you take an archive of your work off the site. This is related to the first point, but more about past work, or historical logs of information. For instance, anyone can download their entire Facebook archive (photos, messages, status updates, etc.) at any time. Google allowed users to export an OPML file of their Reader feed lists when they shut down Google Reader. Make sure you have this capability before you commit to create anything in an environment.
When you are certain you can do these two things – do them. Back up your work! You might not get a Facebook post from a friend telling you that the site you’ve been using is shutting down. The e-mail from the site might end up in your spam folder. Lots of things can happen that would mean losing something your staff worked hard to create, and leaving a huge hole in your online archives.