Dave Winer, the founder of UserLand, got in over his head when trying to deal with weblogs.com, the weblog hosting service he’s offered for free for several years now. So, he administered the coup de grace, without warning. As can be expected, this generated a lot of responses, not all of them nice.
In my opinion, James Grimmelmann gets it right:
But this isn’t entirely personal. Dave isn’t just a guy doing a favor for the world. He’s a self-proclaimed weblog authority. And he’s a guy with a plan: to build out the Semantic Web with SOAP, RPC, XML, and above all, with RSS. He wants RSS to be universal; he’s out there stumping for his design, and trying to convince us all that he should be calling the shots, that his baby should be the standard. He sounds off on RSS all the time; he tells us how RSS ought to be; he blusters about public use of his words; he suggests the elimination of rival formats. At stake in all of these is his professional credibility.
In all the debates I’ve seen Dave get involved in, I haven’t come away with a good impression. I watched the RSS 2.0 standardization effort devolve into a flamefest, with everyone trying to figure out what the hell was going through Dave’s mind, and being chastised when they guessed wrong. Atom was the final, frustrated response; in fine open-source tradition, the community forked when it became clear that the current maintainer for an important technology was screwing up. Since then, Dave has mostly alternated between slamming Atom and arguing for a merger with RSS, not getting that his own inept communication was the main barrier between the Atom and RSS groups.
His current problems with weblogs.com illustrate his attitude perfectly. Having provided free hosting for all this time, he could easily have traded some goodwill for a little technical help. Even now, he has received a ton of unsolicited free advice, pleas to reconsider, and offers of help. Barring that, he claims that the very act of trying to keep the service up just enough for people to retrieve their data was too much for him. Warnings would have been ineffective, he claims. Worse, his first announcement was made by hijacking all the hosted blog pages, and his second was made by posting an audio clip on an unrelated site; Doc Searls was forced to do the real explaining. Finally, the comment page where people were to ask for their data back, a threat: any negative posts will be deleted. You can guess the tone on that thread: very respectful, very considerate, and very fearful. Does Dave enjoy being feared?
All in all, this vindicates my general distaste of technology that’s too strongly controlled by one person or group, especially when that person or group is not trustworthy. I don’t wish Dave Winer ill; neither do I consider him a bad person for having shut down weblogs.com. I simply see this as another example of his prime failings: pride in his achievments, disdain for anyone who challenges him, and an uncooperative nature. Let us hope that he learns from his mistakes, or at least fades into an obscure retirement.