Here is a story about the internet working the way tech utopians think it should. Technology is as good or as bad as the social conditions of which it is a part, but this is one of the good stories. It can be read either as a perfect example of self interest working well in the aggregate, or less cynically as a kind of altruism when there may not be a payoff.
Some years ago I subscribed to a Firefox addon called Xmarks (which used to be Foxmarks). This program syncs bookmarks not just to the cloud but to other computers, cross platform. Kind of useful, but for me it soon dropped into the background like teapots or car keys; used frequently but not very front of consciousness.
I was surprised therefore to get an email from the company a couple of months ago. Sorrowfully, it informed me that the service would be discontinued as from January next year. Could I move to one of a number of competitor alternatives as they were shutting down the whole service?
It finished with no emotional appeal for money, nor any attempt to whip up a community of supporters
“Thank you for being a part of the Xmarks community; we apologize for any inconvenience this step may cause you. We believe we have the best users in the world, and we hope your bookmarks find a new and happy home soon.
— The Xmarks Team”
I left this alone for a bit, inwardly groaning at the time I might have to spend finding a similar product, so when I got back to investigating what might be an alternative, there had been some developments.
Their well hidden blog read;
“The past ten days have been an amazing lesson in the power of community. Not in the “web 2.0 social graph” sense – I’m talking about old school community with users speaking up, speaking out and banding together. Thank you Xmarks users. You told the world it was simply unacceptable for our service to shut down and it worked. Thanks to your passion, Xmarks now has multiple offers from companies ready and willing to take over the service and keep making browser sync better and better!
This is not a signed, sealed done deal yet. But with multiple offers on the table we’re pretty confident that Xmarks will continue on with no service interruption. Our style of transparent blog updates has worked so well in this process we want to continue that approach and share this news with you. Some may accuse us of masterminding this whole process; I wish we were that clever! Instead we give the credit to our user base, who spoke up in a way that caught the attention of bloggers and journalists around the world and, in turn, generated new options for the service to live on.”
In order to achieve this heartening outcome, they had connected with a second interesting service; “PledgeBank”.
PledgeBank is one of those online concepts that is really quite powerful. It could potentially be used for funding anything – al Quaeda for instance – but seems to be used as intended for largely benign community projects that span distance, but bring the likeminded together. It is policed, if that is the term, by its own community. A standard line at the bottom of each pledge; “Anything wrong with this pledge? Please tell us.” is the only sanction. I did my own small due diligence test and checked that the Xmarks pledge on PledgeBank was connected to the Xmarks official web site which was in turn connected to the Firefox addons page.
The PledgeBank method is that anyone can set up a pledge request. They take the form of a kind of philanthropic syllogism. In Xmarks case,
“I will commit to $10 – $20 per year for Xmarks Sync but only if 100,000 other people will do the same.”
An astonishing 33,768 people had signed up by the time the pledge had closed on Oct 15th , not enough to resurrect Xmarks but enough to encourage them to approach other companies as potential buyers.
The Xmarks pledge has also spun off subsidiary pledges for Xmarks because the official Xmarks pledge closed too early for some people. One user even generated his own pledge flyer.
This subsidiary pledge, much more modest in its goals than the official Xmarks one has also had its own success. It was the one I signed. The email, received a couple of days ago, read;
We are pleased to tell you that the pledge you signed up to has been a success!
The pledge, created by Thorsten Biegner, reads: ‘I will give 10 dollars right away to Xmarks and subscribe to their premium service (i.e. about 10 dollar every year) but only if 1,000 other people will do the same and Xmarks keep their service alive and continue to develop it going forward.’ The 1000th person has signed the pledge, just moments ago!
Now it’s your turn to do what you pledged. “
Xmarks is still not out of the woods, but that is almost beside the point. PledgeBank is a really interesting phenomenon.
Some pledges are minute and personal
“I will start a private MineCraft SMP Server but only if 12 interested players will donate 10-12 dollars per year for the server.”
Some are flagrantly political
“I will become a liberty activist in New Hampshire by September 30, 2011 but only if 999 others will do the same.”
And some are a bit hard to understand
“I will picket in Victoria Square Adelaide on Australia Day 2011, against Electronic Surveillance using Surgical Rape, but only if 10 other Australians will do the same.”
All of them depend on strangers coming together to achieve something they all want, but most essentially they all depend on trust.