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22 April 2008

Make sure you can speak freely

Online groups should try to maintain their own sites rather than piggy-backing off other sites like

By Bill Thompson

Many of the strategies, techniques and tools that have been developed in the last ten years of mainstream web use are struggling to make the transition to the Web 2.0 world.

Media sites have had to turn from being one-way publishers of information into conversational spaces while more and more of us are using social network sites to manage aspects of our online and offline lives. We seize on new services (like Twitter and Seesmic), new sites (like Dopplr) and new platforms (especially the mobile web), caring little for the privacy implications, learning curves or complexity of the relationships we are now able to build.

This is a real challenge for services built by volunteer groups and local sites that seek to reflect their community, because they may have neither the expertise nor the desire to embrace the Web 2.0 world, but at the same time they want to offer something useful and engaging to their users.

And not everyone is as lucky as MySociety, with some of the world’s best programmers and database experts working on their projects.

One possibility is just to piggy-back on the sites that are already out there, and many groups already use YouTube to host their video content, run a blog on Blogger or Typepad, manage mailing lists through Google Groups, and work within the limitations of their chosen platform. Many political campaigns now have Facebook pages to carry the message, and some seem to be entirely Facebook-based.

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Doing this is an attractive and low-cost option, but it carries several risks. The first, and most obvious, is that uploading content onto one of these services puts it into someone else’s hands, and the terms of the license you agree to when you hand over your pictures, videos, documents or memberships list may not be very balanced. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Bebo and the rest all reserve the right to use your work for their own marketing and promotional purposes, for example.

You’re also stuck with the terms and conditions imposed by these commercial services, with no real redress if they decide to close down your group, censor your video or remove your carefully crafted campaign material. By and large these sites are less interested in free speech than in building their user base, selling advertisements and making money. If your group’s desire for self-expression conflicts with that then you will not be welcome.

A better model is to have your own site and your own service, but to use the various free offerings, social network sites and the rest as amplifiers and backups. If you have your own blog then putting videos on YouTube means you never have to worry about hitting bandwidth limits, but if you make sure that people watch them through your site by embedding them in posts then if YouTube gets nasty you can move to another service without losing your audience.

It may require more programming expertise, but even here some rather sophisticated software is freely available to download. It’s fairly straightforward to install WordPress on a rented server, giving you an easily-tailored blog with widgets, embedded content, trackbacks and comments, all under your control. And if you run your own mailing list, however basic, then you can decide when and how to send messages instead of relying on Facebook’s clumsy facilities.

It may not be necessary to seize the means of digital production in order to change the online world, but these days it’s wise to have your own small factory – or rather, server – in case you come up against the limits imposed by the commercial providers.