Web sites that share blogs, bookmarks and photos exploded in popularity in 2005, but in recent weeks a number of major outages left users stranded and frustrated.
The new breed of Web site includes blogging services such as TypePad, the photo site Flickr, the shared bookmark site del.icio.us and many others. They are sometimes known collectively as "Web 2.0": hosted online, relying heavily on users' submissions, and frequently updated and tweaked by their owners.
Their growth in the last year has been huge. Flickr and del.icio.us were high-profile acquisitions for Internet giant Yahoo, and there are now at least 20 million blogs in existence, according to some estimates, with tens of thousands being added every day.
But the surge in Web-based applications hasn't come without some serious hiccups as several notable services have crashed.
Six Apart, whose TypePad service is used by many high-profile bloggers, experienced nearly an entire day of downtime on December 16, when it suffered a hardware failure. Del.icio.us had a major power failure on December 14. Services including Bloglines, Feedster and WordPress have also experienced problems.
Nothing underlines the importance of these "social media" services as much as the outcry of users when the sites crash. While the services were usually back up and running within a few days at most, the outages prompted much consternation from users who were temporarily unable to share their blogs and bookmarks with the world.
Russell Buckley and Carlo Longino wrote on their blog MobHappy that waiting for TypePad to be fixed was like "waiting for a train to arrive, when you're sitting on a cold, damp platform. It's mildly irritating for the first 5 minutes, but then annoyance levels start to rise exponentially."
"TypePad has been growing so rapidly that it is finding the hard way that scale and scalability matter," Business 2.0 technology writer Om Malik wrote on his blog. "Are they the only ones? Not really — over (the) past few days Bloglines, Feedster and Wordpress.com have been behaving like a temperamental 3-year-old."
'Stuck in a ditch'
The usefulness of Web 2.0 services — which also include the collaborative Web pages known as Wikis and RSS feeds that deliver customised information to users — is highlighted when they are abruptly taken away.
"You need those services to be 'on.' I have come to expect 99.9 percent uptime, and when a service crashes there is significant frustration," said David Boxer, director of instructional technology and research at the Windward School in Los Angeles, where he runs workshops on subjects like podcasting and photoblogging.
"When those services go down, then we are stuck in a ditch," he said.
Boxer's students have worked on projects aimed at making them "citizen journalists" via publishing their own blogs, podcasts, documentaries and photo essays. But when those services suffer outages, everything grinds to a halt.
When the Blogger Web site went down, Boxer's students lost some of their work. And when del.icio.us crashed recently, "it left me personally in a lurch," he said.
"I knew that eventually a machine or software application will crash, but I always expect a third-party provider like del.icio.us will build enough redundancy into the infrastructure that it will never go down," Boxer said.
It is still early days for Web 2.0, and some of the recent difficulties are likely just teething problems as companies adapt to their new popularity. However, the outages may make it harder to convince businesses and investors that blogging is ready for primetime.
Boxer, for one, is willing to ride out a few outages to take advantage of the new services.
"They allow for elements of personalization, content delivery and information pushing unlike any previous incarnation of the Net," he said.