Giving Away the Farm
Hosting large amounts of video used to be expensive, in terms of bandwidth and disk space. Compressing and hosting video is tricky business. But YouTube solves all of that for us -- for free. Image hosting, with built-in slideshows and social networking? Flickr solves that for us, for free. Blog hosting without worrying about security, database configuration and template modification? WordPress.com and other services solve that problem for us... for free. E-Mail? Google and Yahoo handle it so IT departments don't have to. Social network? Ning is primed and ready for deployment. From discussion boards to multimedia, there's an abundance of free or affordable services out there ready to lower the barriers to entry.
So why shouldn't your publication utilize these free resources? Less stress on IT, drastically reduced costs for ambitious projects, readymade web interfaces to let you manage large amounts of multimedia content. Everyone wins, right?
But there are hidden and not-so-hidden gotchas lurking in Web 2.0's free service bonanza.
First, your publication may want full control of the branding - they may want full control of the templates, logos, and URL. Some external services make this possible, while others do not.
Second, every external service you use comes with its own Terms of Service. If you don't read the fine print carefully, and verify that the terms are compatible with your organization's policies, you could risk putting yourself in a sticky legal situation as far as rights and ownership go.
Third, your organization may need full editorial control over all content going out under its name. By breaking out of your content management system and onto the larger internet, editors and managers lose the ability to control that content. Maybe that's a good thing... (but they probably don't think so).
Fourth, it's hard enough to keep all the bits and pieces of a publication's web presence corralled under a single technical umbrella. Let your content sprawl all over the web and the job of keeping tabs on your content is going to grow increasingly difficult with time.
Fifth, you run the risk of having content on these services pulled at any time, for real or perceived violations. Case in point: A piece of film my father shot in 1957 of a Coast Guard hazing ritual - citizen journalism at its finest - lived on YouTube for almost two years, receiving more than 25,000 views. Then, a few weeks ago, the footage was suddenly pulled by YouTube for an alleged "Violation of Terms of Service." I did not receive notification from YouTube about the take-down, only hearing about it from a reader a while later. Three attempts to contact YouTube for an explanation went unanswered. I still have no idea why the content was pulled. Are you willing to subject your publication's content to the whims of an unreachable corporation?
O'Reilly author Jesse Vincent recently produced a slideshow titled Web 2.0 is Sharecropping, a five-minute talk on the dangers of not using your own tools. When you use external services like YouTube or Flickr or Ning, you gain a lot. But you also:
- Farm land you don't own
- Using tools you can't afford
- And you pay for it with your harvest
- A pretty sweet deal... until things go bad
Only you and your organization can make the decision about whether it makes sense to utilize free Web 2.0 hosting tools. I'm not saying you shouldn't - only that you need to be fully aware of the implications. Think hard before accepting that gift of "free" acreage.