Whose Service Is It Anyway?

January 11, 2008

In recent weeks, a story erupted within the Educational Web 2.0 market, and it showed there exists a worrying lack of understanding about the entire area.

The story goes a little like this:  there is a company called Curverider, set up by a couple of guys who used to work in education.  Their main product is an open source social networking/PLE environment called Elgg.  Their own install of this social network, Eduspaces, gained some traction in the education community and began to get used by a reasonably large number of people.  Curverider then spun off Elgg to become a community-run project in Autumn of this year and all seemed right in the world.  Then, BOOM!, late-December, Curverider announced they were to close Eduspaces on January 10th, as they had made the decision to exit the education market.  If they wanted to create the maximum damage they could, this was the way to do it – a lot of people working in Higher Education go off for Christmas break mid-December and don’t return to work until 7th January at the earliest.  Unsurprisingly, the members of the community who were there were livid, especially as many were using it for assessments and teaching.

As it turned out, within a week, a Canadian NPO called TakingITGlobal.org took over the hosting and database of Eduspaces and the future of the community is again safe.

However, its what happened behind the scenes and the psyche of the community that I find interesting.

In the end of the day, this was a completely free service (with no commercial sponsorship or advertising on the site) being given to the users and a service which seemed like it probably cost quite a bit of time and money for Curverider to host and run.  My initial reaction was to side with Curverider and take an attitude of “the community didn’t pay for it, so Curverider owe them nothing and can do what the hell they want with the service”.

However, the more I thought about this particular type of service, the more my mind changed.  See, there is a thing about Eduspaces that I noticed as I browsed the site.  Simply put, as a tool the software is, well, crap.  The site layout is not good, some features are laughably awful (look at this page from the Browse all communities feature – I bet you can’t tell me without a great deal of pain which of the 82 pages that is!) and its a poor competitor to many of the other social networks.  Yet, its successful.  The measure of how successful a social network is, isn’t how great the software is, how snazzy the layout is or how many buzzwords like AJAX you can shoehorn into it – the measure of success is how big and how active the community is.  Given how important they therefore are, the community deserved to be in on the conversation when the future and closure of Eduspaces was first considered.

The guys from Curverider then explained why it was closing and, boy oh boy, I can’t think of the last time I read such a trite explanation.  According to them, Eduspaces is to close because of a raft of bodies – funding bodies, universities, proprietary software companies.  Anyone but them.  How ridiculous.

What is a horrible paradox is I feel really bad criticising these guys.  After all, if you read the comments on their site, people are appreciative of what they did in providing this service.  All they didn’t appreciate was the relationship between community and service provider.  In announcing the closure of Eduspaces as they did, they massively disrespected the community.  At the same time, I feel the community should police itself to make sure they are not disrespecting the service provided.  In my opinion, all those who were using it for teaching were disrespecting the service, especially as it says in the T’s & C’s that such behaviour is “at your own risk“.  I find it interesting that now TakingITGlobal.org have taken over the service, they have talked about having an “advisory group” of the users.  This definitely helps form the relationship better.  Interesting times ahead here.

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