Every Christmas we watch It’s a Wonderful Life. This year I’ll be imagining Jimmy Stewart saying, to a panicked crowd of delicious.com users rushing for the exits, “Now, hold on, it’ll work out, we’ve just got to stick together.”

If you’ve never used the social bookmarking service that began life with the whimsical domain name del.icio.us, here’s the Wikipedia summary. The service began in 2003, and by 2004 had transformed my work practices more profoundly than almost anything else before or since. I’ve written scores of essays explaining how and why. Here are some of my favorites:

2004: Collaborative knowledge gardening

2005: Language evolution with del.icio.us (screencast)

2005: Collaborative filtering with del.icio.us

2006: Del.icio.us is a database

2007: Discovering and teaching principles of information management

2007: Social information management

2008: Twine, del.icio.us, and event-driven service integration

2008: Databasing trusted feeds with del.icio.us

2008: Why and how to blurb your social bookmarks

2009: Collaborative curation as a service

Since the now-infamous leak of an internal Yahoo! slide naming delicious as one of a set of doomed services, there’s been some great gallows humor. Ed Kohler:

The easiest way to shut down Wikileaks would be to have Yahoo! acquire it.

And Anil Dash:

It seems like @pinboardIN is the most successful product Yahoo!’s had a hand in launching in five years. Congrats, @baconmeteor.

Anil is referring to pinboard.in, one of several delicious-like services to which delicious users began fleeing. Pinboard is notable for a clever model in which the price of a lifetime subscription rises with the number of users. When I first checked yesterday morning, that price was $6.90. I signed up at $7.24. Neil Saunders started tracking it at #pinboardwatch; it got to $7.74 last night; it’s $8.17 now. Maybe I should’ve bought 100 accounts at $6.90!

But seriously, this is a moment to reflect on how we can preserve the value we collectively create online. As some of you know, I have made heavy use of delicious in my own service, elmcity. When the news broke, Jeremy Dunck asked: “Bad news for elmcity, huh?”

Actually that’s the least of my worries. The folks who curate elmcity calendar hubs use delicious to configure their hubs, and to list the feeds aggregated by their hubs. It’ll be a bit inconvenient to transition to another bookmarking service, but it’s no big deal. And of course all the existing data is cached in an Azure database; the elmcity service doesn’t depend on live access to delicious.

The real concern is far broader. Millions of us have used delicious to create named sets of online resources. We can recreate our individual collections in other services, but not our collaborative efforts. In Delicious’s Data Policy is Like Setting a Museum on Fire, Marshall Kirkpatrick writes:

One community of non-profit technologists has been bookmarking links with the tag “NPTech” for years – they have 24,028 links categorized as relevant for organizations seeking to change the world and peoples’ lives using technology. Wouldn’t it be good to have that body of data, metadata and curated resources available elsewhere once Delicious is gone?

The problem with “elsewhere,” of course, is that there’s no elsewhere immune to the same business challenges faced by Yahoo!. Maybe now is the time for a new model to emerge. Except it wouldn’t be new at all. The Building and Loan service that George Bailey ran in It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t a bank, it was a coop, and its customers were shareholders. Could delicious become the first user-owned Internet service? Could we users collectively make Yahoo! an offer, buy in as shareholders, and run the service ourselves?

It’s bound to happen sooner or later. My top Christmas wish: delicious goes first.