Flight or Fight: What to Do When Your Favorite App Gets Bought Out

One day, you’re happily using a free app without a care in the world. The next day, you hear that the app has been bought out, and the whole world is panicking. All your friends are posting that they’re glad they didn’t use that app, or how they’re switching to another app and wish they’d switched sooner. And you’re wishing everything could just go back to normal.

But the internet’s a fast-paced place, and stuff changes faster than we’d ever expect. So what’s one to do in a world where apps become popular overnight, get bought out for billions, shut down on a whim, and lost to history in less time than a movie can get produced?

Keep Calm, and Blog On.

Yahoo!’s own gif about their Tumblr acquisition

When it’s the norm — not the exception — for bought-out apps to get sidelined and shutdown, for privacy terms to change, and for companies to eventually get so big and corporate that the startup values we loved get lost, we get cynical. We become Chicken Little running around thinking the sky’s falling. And perhaps it is, but not for the reasons we think it is.

See, startups cost to run. And the ones that get massive consumer traction are almost always 100% free. Those server bills don’t pay themselves, and with employees to pay and investors to give a return on their investments, startups need a massive payday. Either they’ll have to charge for the app (which would make users flee en masse) or ram up the advertisements (ditto, though perhaps not as quickly) or get bought out by a larger company (ditto again).

Call it a rock and hard place. Or the main problem of startup culture today. Either way, it’s what gives us the apps we love, but it’s also what gives us the drama of shutdowns and buyouts, of fantastically rich (or failed) founders and fired dev teams, of the rest of us looking for new apps to replace those we loved. Rinse, repeat.

Trust. The Lost Virtue.

A reminder of acquisitions gone bad.

It’s at the point where people don’t even trust apps to stick around. When you hear of an app getting bought out — like Yahoo!’s $1.1 billion acquisition of Tumblr this week — you immediately assume it’s getting shut down. After all, Twitter bought out Posterous last year, and last month, we were having to move old Posterous blogs to new homes as the service got shut down. And Yahoo! itself doesn’t have the best track record in this regards, having bought out GeoCities in the late ’90’s only to shut it down a decade later.

Even when acquired services don’t get killed, they often are left to stagnate, or are changed enough that their original magic is lost. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram caused an internet uproar over the new Terms of Service, which were quickly redacted but had already caused many to declare they’d leave the service. Yahoo! never did kill Flickr, but it sure did feel like they let the service sit and rot without updates, while photo sharing on social networks took over.

And without acquisition, apps still are likely to die without funding. It’s rumored that Tumblr was close to running out of money, so perhaps without Yahoo! buying them out, we’d be having to write about ways to leave Tumblr today instead. Being bought out isn’t the end of anything, necessarily, but our trust has been broken so many times, it only takes the slightest change for users to declare the old king dead.

Live and Let Live

The bold new Flickr

But you know what? It all doesn’t have to end bad. First off, Tumblr is still a great place to start a blog today — one with a built-in social network that’s active and fun. In many ways, Yahoo! just bought the most unique and expressive social network, and I think they know not to mess it up. I think they’ll try hard with Tumblr, based on their own posts today about the acquisition, and based on how they’re running Flickr today.

Because, if you haven’t heard yet, Flickr just got a great new upgrade with a new design, 1Tb of free storage for everyone, and more. Perhaps it looks a bit more like Google+ and every other social network these days, but Flickr is still one of the best places to share pictures.

The best news, though, was where that update was shared officially by Yahoo!: on Tumblr. If that’s not a good indicator that they’ll keep Tumblr great for the long haul, I don’t know what is.

Away With the Pitchforks

No. Just please, no.

Sure, we’ve gotten burned. But that doesn’t mean we have to be reactive. When there’s an app or service that fits your needs, just use it. Try to choose wisely and go for services that’ll let you take your data with you if you leave in the future, but for the most part, just use what works for you and go on with your life. Life’s too short for online protests against Yahoo! buying out Tumblr, or whatever the major breaking news of tomorrow is.

Then, if an app gets shut down, you’ll find something better. There will be better options then, likely, as we’ve all seen since Google Reader got shut down.

But maybe, instead, you’ll find that the service you stuck with actually got better over time. That’s what I think just may happen with Tumblr, as seems to have now happened with Flickr. And perhaps with Yahoo! itself too … one of those tech startups that never got bought out, but also nearly died on its own — and now seems to be making quite the restart.

And thus life goes on.