Today’s announcement that the social networking site, Blipfoto, is to attempt a community buyout marks the end of the ‘capitalist’ trajectory of this innovative Scottish start-up.
After a powerful relaunch a year ago that announced a licensing tie-up with the Polaroid brand the long death knell of Blipfoto as a commercial enterprise is finally over. In March 2015 the failure to make significant headway with user growth led to a crisis of investor confidence and the liquidation of the company. In a preferred bidder deal the entity was bought by two US distressed asset investors who had close links with the hollowed out licensing platform that the once mighty Polaroid had become.
Since that time there has been almost no communication from the owners or the founders of Blipfoto. Blipfoto users kept posting their daily photos and journal entries. Anecdotal evidence suggests some/many left to join the UK-based 365 Project or at least opened accounts there. In the meantime the Blipfoto Friends Facebook page spawned different fixes to allow users to download and protect their precious journals, some of which stretch back five years and more.
Apart from one or two blackouts the Polaroid Blipfoto site has continued to run with remarkable consistency. No-one really knew how it was all working or what costs were being incurred to keep the lights on. But someone was doing it and presumably the new owners were paying. For this Blipfoto users can be very thankful in that the integrity of the site and its ‘collective memory’ have been kept intact and operational.
So although the thrusting, growth-oriented, private investor-led (with substantial public investment it must be said) trajectory of Blipfoto Ltd plummeted to earth (as happens with so many tech start-ups) the fabric of the entity remains largely intact (at least as far as we know). The hugely important staff team has been lost and again best guess estimates suggests that the founders of the company have been keeping it going on a shoe-string basis. One new initiative, the photo extras feature, was launched in April this year but since then to all intents and purposes Polaroid Blipfoto has been running on autopilot.
Quite what happened in the interim may one day be known. I suspect that the new owners bought the distressed company from a mix of motives. Personal contacts, enthusiasms and chemistry were probably important. The owners were also past masters at turning around and maximizing the value of distressed assets and maybe they sensed a possibility to create some kind of convergence or synergies with other parts of the Polaroid licensing stable.
But it seems that sometime after the summer of 2015 the owners decided they didn’t want to carry Blipfoto any more and approaches began to be made about disposal. Again, I suspect (and this is with my positive hat on) that the personal relationships developed by the founders with the owners through the Polaroid licensing tie-up and the integrity of the founders (who were arguably torn from the beginning between the community and market focuses of Blipfoto Ltd) played an important part in the way the disposal became a possibility for a community buyout.
The much-lauded Blipfoto community is now confronted with an opportunity and a dilemma. The opportunity is to take Blipfoto into community ownership through the structure of a Community Interest Company. The dilemma is that if the necessary funding (buy-out plus working capital – at least £180,000 and ideally £400,000) cannot be raised through a community/crowd sourcing initiative Blipfoto, and all it stands for, may soon disappear.
But lets give thanks where thanks are due.
Firstly, to the founders of Blipfoto who have stuck with their baby as it has grown and eventually foundered. This last nine months cannot have been easy and at times must have been acutely uncomfortable.
Secondly, to the ‘new owners’ who kept Blipfoto running at their own cost and who have maintained its integrity.
Thirdly, to the four Blipfoto members who stepped up to the plate and have seized the possibility of creating a new, innovative and perhaps world first community-owned social media platform.
And last but not least to the users and community of Blipfoto, the Blippers, who kept the faith and kept posting their single (and limited extra) photos and journal entries day after day to the site during its uncertain future.
The story of Blipfoto is very much a story of our times. Made possible by the remarkable transformative power of the internet and mobile computing (and all the complex commercial and technical infrastructures that support it) Blipfoto’s rise and fall plays out some of the tensions between an internet of private enterprise and profit and an internet of user empowerment and democratisation.
The story of a back-room Edinburgh start-up is dwarfed by the giants of the internet and their social media platforms. But all face the same dilemma of finding ways to monetize their operations and actually make a profit or find alternative and sustainable funding models or eventually die.
In the meantime users have dined out at the most fantastic and varied free-lunch-of-the-internet. As they have done so they and their data, preferences and lifestyle buying choices have become the ‘product’ that the new moguls one day hope to turn into revenue streams and corporate profits that can match the capital growth of their share holdings.
The good times can’t and won’t last forever. Paywalls and the growing privatization of the internet may happen and users must make choices. Either we pay to keep afloat what we hold dear (for example the recent second fundraising round for Wikipedia Foundation and subscriptions to cherished and independent media sources) or we take what we are ‘given’ hiding behind our ever more threatened walls of ad-blockers and fragile privacy settings.
Today’s proposed community buyout of Blipfoto represents a fork in the path through the internet woods. May we have the courage and fortune to take 'the road less travelled'.
For background to this blog entry and a detailed account of the events and players referred to above see my previous posts about Blipfoto here. I will be writing further Blipfuture blogs as the details of the new proposition are released.
I was given two days advance notice of the forthcoming community buyout launch but did not have access to the details of the proposal until the launch today.
To read the Blipfuture Business Plan and Articles of Association register as a potential investor at Blipfuture invest page.