I Want Sandy is a small but useful “personal email assistant”—a proactive time management and reminder system that was built to work for you and intelligently help you manage your time. It’s offered for free and it’s one of many time management-type web 2.0 solutions available. Yesterday, its creator Rael Dornfest announced that he would be shuttering the site entirely in two weeks, as Twitter had hired him and purchased the intellectual property to the site. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the Get Satisfaction forum post he made, essentially decrying that he’s left his user base out in the cold. And people aren’t happy.

There are so many web 2.0 applications out there that building a following and reaching a point where it makes any financial sense at all to keep the site open and available and to keep actively developing the site is a difficult challenge. It’s not helped at all by the fact that a site can grow beyond a regular simple hosting account to requiring an entire dedicated server, or even two or more in a load-balanced configuration. This problem is compounded when sometimes that growth milestone can be hit without the dollars backing it up. And yet, this decision wasn’t a financial one.

When a user initially signs up to use an application, they’re in an exploratory phase. They’ve been enticed enough to consider the app, and they want to play around with it a little. They’ll soon make a decision to become an active, engaged user, or to forget about the site. But when a user becomes active and engaged, and when they find themselves using an application to help them manage their lives, they are putting a great deal of trust in the application.

Nothing is permanent. There are a great deal of sites that we all use day to day that could easily not be here tomorrow or in five years. But when something is useful and someone has sold you on their concept and you actively support them by coming back every day, it can feel like a simple act of betrayal when it’s announced that the site is closing. With I Want Sandy, people are feeling burned more because they were never given a chance to pay for the service or contribute. Rael will be working for Twitter, and the intellectual property for IWS has been transferred to Twitter.

This, to me, is not a classy move. I don’t know Rael personally and I’m not privy to the inner musings that went on with his deal with Twitter. But if I were in a similar position, I would want to make clear, first and foremost, that I would need for my site to remain active, available, and open to the users that have come to love it and use it every day. Even if the intellectual property is being transferred, or if Twitter is purchasing the concept and has bigger ideas for the IP, I would want them to keep the site active until it was assimilated into the purchasing company’s portfolio—shuttering the site entirely only serves to vastly erode the value of the IP Twitter picked up when they acquired Rael. And while clearly they want him as an employee to work on Twitter and that is their primary focus, I don’t see what good reason they’d have for pissing off a few thousand people by essentially removing this “distraction” from Rael. As the founder of the site, I’d feel I would owe it to my users to keep things going.

This further goes to erode people’s trust in web 2.0 applications in general. This poisons the well. While people understand there is some risk in putting their eggs into free web 2.0 baskets, all it takes are a few terrible shutdowns like this one to get people gun shy and reluctant to use other applications. And that’s not in anyone’s best interest, but least of all when the site is (probably) cheap enough to just keep things going at the very least, or to have Twitter sponsor the hosting, or just to work something out instead of completely shutting down in two weeks. With personal produtivity tools and applications that become part of your routine or workflow, a shutdown feels even more disruptive and like an even more callous act of betrayal.

The comments in the Get Satisfaction thread are interesting. People are bitter. And they’re coming to distrust the cloud. It’s an ethereal thing and their data isn’t their own and the application isn’t their own and they can’t take it with them and they have no insurance that it will be there tomorrow. This is a significant issue for those who see value in web-based applications, who see potential in releasing something that can do something clever, for free, with a unique business model, if only there were the users and daily traffic. Says one commenter: “You’re really leaving a lot of people high and dry. If you treat your users like this now why should we trust you not to do the same again in the future?”

And even worse, people are feeling betrayed for having extolled the virtues of Sandy to others. It’s out of your control, sure, but it’s a credibility hit and you feel a bit the fool for suggesting a service that just completely went quiet. This is an interesting situation because it wasn’t at all a matter of dollars and cents—Rael took an offer with Twitter and explained that maintaining Sandy would have taken too much time. But this just comes off as feeling selfish and shortsighted. Twitter and Rael should have come up with a solution to keep this going for his community. The issue wasn’t at all helped by the fact that Rael didn’t see fit to have an export option until after he made the initial announcement, which has left other users high and dry as well.

How could Rael have handled this differently?

1) Work with Twitter to continue operating and hosting IWS. Spend a little time focusing on making it stable and automating a lot more of the time-consuming maintenance components. This would be difficult, but it’s responsible and it prevents Twitter from catching the flak that we’re seeing in the GS post. A responsible acquiring company works hard to not completely screw a set of people over, even in a situation as unique as this one.

2) If still committed to shutting down the project, provide at least 30 days for users to get their data out and make sure that they have the ability to do so on day 1. Further, communicate clearly and efficiently across the site and through the service itself that the site would be closing, providing instructions of exporting data and alternatives in the email.

3) Remember that betraying the trust of a userbase hurts everyone in this market. “It’s annoying to maintain” isn’t a particularly good excuse to kick an entire userbase in the nuts. Especially when a considerably larger, more glamorous startup just bought you out and doesn’t benefit from appearing on the t-shirt of the nut-kicker, so to speak.

Take a look at the forum posts and you’ll see why this is frustrating so many users. And while I don’t know what agreement Rael has made with Twitter, I’m still of the belief that something could be done and they could act to keep it up and running still. But I doubt we’ll see that happen—IWS has little to do with Twitter’s competencies and Twitter isn’t looking for distractions. It’s too bad, really.

[Updated 11/26/08 @ 5:07a to add bold, for readability's sake.]

Posted in: Rants