Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Openness and Transparency: A beer for Second Life (part 1)

We were mentioned recently on the Second Life blog. They were blogging about communication and transparency and asked for comments on the companies that were doing it right. Very few of the comments took them up on that suggestion--more on that later--but one LibraryThing/SL user dropped our name as "a small start up that knows to admit it when it has got it wrong. and answers questions instead of ducking them." SL repeated the recommendation.

The hat-tip got me reading the post and its comments. It gave me a powerful sense of deja vu! I've seen many of the same negative patterns on LibraryThing. Some I've seen and it got me thinking about why the patterns happen. Others I've seen us deal with successfully, so I thought I'd write about how I think we did it.

The post got so long I've split it in two. The first part describes the post and offers a partial defense of Linden Labs. The second will describe some of the things I've learned about member involvement, and some of the things Linden--and LibraryThing--could do better.

In defending Linden I want to make it clear that I am not a high-volume user of Second Life. I visit about once a week, usually for something like the BookMooch/LibraryThing meet-up. As a low-frequency, low-impact user I did not have strong or informed opinions about whether they're doing a good job, and, except for admiring the book they put out, no opinion about whether they communicate well with their users. Until now, I enjoyed the site, but I wasn't passionate about it.

Now, Doughty Lindens, I am on your side! And I would like to take this opportunity to extend my person invitation for Boston-based Second Life employee to drive up to Portland, Maine for a lobster roll and a beer at the LibraryThing apartment. Seriously. Expense it!

I sympathize for two main reasons:
  1. The quantity of feedback was enormous. They cap the blog at 149 comments (and are excoriated for it). Users hit this in twelve hours. Comments totaled 28,000 words. The longest comment was 2,100 words long!*

    But I only saw the the horror of the situation when the blogger revealed that, as one response, Second Life was going to hire its first dedicated community-relations person. Not having dedicated community "handlers" is the brave way to go. I think its the best course of action—that "filters" are bad for both company and users. But man, I sympathize!

  2. Most of the comments were negative, and many were downright nasty. The negatives wrote the most and screamed the loudest. They mentioned competitors; they talked about ditching the site; they went ad hominem. If you read only this post you would believe that Second Life was a buggy disaster, managed by lying, incompetent and venal "hypocrites," focused on screwing its users and deaf to their unanimous and desperate pleas. In particular, they hate Europeans.
Now, I can't beat back any of the specifics, but something tells me that this picture is flawed. It certainly isn't my feeling, and I've never met anyone in Second Life or out with such strong, negative opinions.

More the point, people don't write paper-length comments about something they hate. Or, if it is hate, it is a hate that only the deepest love can engender. While Linden Labs surely has much to learn from criticism, there is a meta-message: you're doing something right.

Back-seat driving. I was caught by the amount of back-seat driving and second guessing. Stability was the main topic. Take this comment (much reduced):
"How many people at Linden Research know what the value of plus or minus three standard deviation on metrics is? Does anyone at Linden research know what control limits are? Has Linden research implemented +/- 3 sigma trending monitors ... Does anyone at Linden research know who Deming was? Does anyone at Linden Research know what Kaizen is?"
Now, again, I don't have proof, but I can't believe that the commenter is better equipped to run Linden than the people at Linden. Everything points to a pretty stellar team--the sort of team that only an extremely exciting project and stock options can produce.

And think of what they're doing. Linden (unlike LibraryThing) is doing something fundamentally new. Second Life isn't just an online 3D world—itself a pretty new idea—but an infinitely plastic one. Everything is editable and scriptable, from buildings to sun glasses. It's a world where members create buildings in real time, to an audience, and eyeglasses have their own programming code. It's a word where you can not buy user-generated genitalia—many brands—but if someone has a compatible set, you can use them!

If that weren't enough everything needs to be communicated to computers all over the world, running different hardware, with different networking constraints. Wikipedia puts their storage at 24 terabytes. They run thousands of machines.

Three sigma? This isn't data processing for an insurance company!

Entitlement. Customers have every right to get upset. But this can get out of hand. Take this comment:
"[About] LL's inability to provide full help coverage to basic accounts, one can compare this to the US’s inability to provide full health coverage to basic families."
Excuse me, but the United States is a government! Whatever duty the US has to provide basic health care to families is utterly unlike the duty of Linden Labs to non-paying users. It might still make sense for Linden to do as much free customer service as it can; we do as much as we can. But failing to do so is not a grave injustice.

Opposition to change. I grew up in Cambridge, near Harvard Square. It used to be great, but it isn't any longer. I think this. My older brother thinks this. My father thinks this. But none of us have the same Square in mind. The truth of the matter is that the Square we had in our teens and early twenties is the Square from which all subsequent examples deviate.

The same goes with software, particularly social software. Users wanted stability, not new features. There was particular hostility to LL's addition of a voice option, although users were not apparently calling for it ("NOONE ever asked for the VOICE thing") and didn't use it ("except for escorts").

That voice was only for escorts is clearly wrong--a number of users, including a member of the "SL Shakespeare Company" contradicted this. But I can't believe the first assertion. Users don't ask for game-changing changes.

But a company like Linden Labs needs to try new things. I'm not a big fan of voice either, but, as I see it, it had to be tried. It could have open Second Life up to a whole new audience. It may yet.

Expectations outpace openness. The more you let users in, the most they can expect. As one user put it:
"Saying 'We goofed' is not enough. What the goof is, and the steps being taken to see it does not happen again, that to me is being transparent."
The commentator goes on the ask "Why did it take LL so long to fix the 'vanishing water bug?'" Now, I have no idea, but I can suggest some possibilities.
  1. The "vanishing water bug" may have been hard to find. Back when software ran on stand-alone computers and was released in integer-number versions every year or two, nobody noticed. Web delivery speeds everything up, most of all expectations. Programming is still hard.
  2. The "vanishing water bug" may have been deep. It's unlikely that water was vanishing because of an error in the "prevent water from vanishing" function. More likely there was a basic problem with gravity, or transparency or some concept I've never thought of. Maybe Linden Labs was working overtime to prevent the vanishing water problem from becoming the "vanishing everything" problem.
  3. Mundange things were more important. If Second Life is anything like LibraryThing, the "vanishing water bug" may have taken second place to the "we-grew-by-20%-this-week" problem.
  4. Maybe a new feature was more important. Which was more likely to attract new members, stay-put water or voice?
  5. To adapt mayor Giuliani on ferrets, "this excessive concern with [vanishing water] is a sickness. You should go consult a psychologist."
As I'll detail in part two, the answer to the cycle of expectations is more communication, not less. But man, I feel their pain.

Nobody answered the question. Users often take any opportunity to talk as an opportunity to talk about anything. In this case, the blogger asked for examples of companies doing transparency right.

Now, in fairness they can hardly restrict comments to this alone; the bulk of the blog post was about their transparency. But it was still remarkable that only 14 comments too them up on the request. Of these, only a few seems applicable. Walmart may be a great company—although I'm girding up my loins to doubt that—but it wouldn't be at the top of my list of companies for Linden Labs to imitate. Ditto Amex, Southwest Airlines and Coca-Cola.

Looking forward to part two. I do not think LibraryThing's discussions are as dysfunctional as this exchange. LibraryThing members may get angry, but they seldom get nasty. (And with fewer fuck-yous, I think our responsibility to listen goes up.)

But these are familiar patterns, and worth talking about as such. Some questions:
  • Is disfunction inherent in the medium, or are there ways of doing it better?
  • What obligations does being open impose on a company?
  • Are there limits to openness?
  • Does communication have to change as a company grows?
  • How can a site encourage everyone to talk?
  • How can a company understand member communication when you know not everyone is talking?
I'll try to tackle those questions in part two.

*Shorter than this post, and man is this post long.

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Blogger Cynthia said...

I think you're right that this is a problem with most social sites. I'm not part of Second Life but you should see the comments whenever LJ has a problem or makes any kind of change. There's a lot of nastiness and a definite feeling of entitlement along with a hefty dose of "you're not supporting (insert group here) and only care about teenagers!

I've never understood why people can't seem to understand that you're much more likely to have TPTB listen to you if you treat them with politeness. Act like a civilized adult and the TPTB will more often than not treat you as such. Whine like an entitled brat and expect to be treated that way.

It is interesting to read your side of it, though. I suspect you feel the same way as much of the LJ staff, though they've never said it quite that way. (And Six Apart is not a company I'd hold out at a model of transparency).

But regarding mistakes, I think it depends on the type of mistake that was made. If it's a technical mistake, that's one thing. It's when it's not a technical change but a social one (suddenly radically redefining the terms of use or unexpectedly changing the way people interact with the site, for example) then I agree that saying "we goofed" isn't enough. I think generally users want to hear management state what the goof was (because it may or may not be the same thing that users think it was and there's no way to know if it's not spelled out) and in certain situations I think TPTB do need to say what they're doing to make sure it doesn't happen again.

For what it's worth, I think you guys do a terrific job with that kind of thing. When there's a problem with the site there's usually an explanation as to what the problem is and an ETA for when it might be back up and running. Even if the ETA changes, it's nice to know that you care enough about users to keep them informed.

I'm really not aware of any massive mistakes on this site. Certainly nothing that has had the users up in arms.

10/17/2007 6:34 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Well, today was sure a bad day to post that! We were dying all afternoon from a technical glitch related to getting faster, as it were.

10/17/2007 8:36 PM  
Blogger Zac said...

You asked:
* Is dysfunction inherent in the medium, or are there ways of doing it better?
* Are there limits to openness?

I think the answers are yes, dysfunction is inherent in the medium, and yes, there are limits to openness. If you haven't read the following (I'm sure you have), you should. I think it can inform both of those questions, although you may derive different conclusions.

10/17/2007 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading this made me want to share two things with you:
Firstly, the problems you outlined are not [only?] inherent to the medium they are inherent to current society (IMHO). They precisely the customer relations problems I face day-to-day in a small-scale real world company - resistance to change, inability to answer the question or perhaps more importantly engage with the question and the obssessive interest in specific detail that leads to chronic complaining syndrome, sigh. I will be interested in your suggested 'solutions' because although I have ideas the more the better.
Secondly, On your comment about what to do about all the people who don't communicate, My thoughts on this are that you very lucky. My experience of the LT community is that they in general let you know their opinion (not necessarily clearly but at least openly) and sometimes we can not comment unless we have something useful to add. I think a large chunk of the silence is contentment, not as fun as excitement but a good start.
thank you.

10/18/2007 6:57 AM  
Anonymous eromsted said...

There are really two issues:

1-Openness/Reporting on what you are doing.

Inherent trade off: Time spent working on fixes/improvements vs. time spent explaining them. I would err towards former. I think LT is doing fine on this.


Inherent problems: There are far more users that staff members. There is a constant flow of new users with different levels of knowledge.

Users want to get their questions answered and know that their suggestions are heard.

Staff wants to sort the wheat from the chaff of user communications and not spend all of their time on repeat questions and the peculiar issues of the loud minority.

There is no perfect solution, but discussion boards are particularly klunky at these functions.

WikiThing shows some promise, but I think it could be expanded. Ideally, I would like to see:

1- not just top suggestions but a running list of all suggestions. (sorted by #2?)

2- A way to vote assent on suggestions w/o commenting.

3-Easy links to discussions of the suggestions.

4-Easy way for staff to mark that suggestions have been noted/addressed.

Not sure if users could set this up now, or if it would need staff intervention.

Finally, remember some people are just jerks (particularly on the internet) and LT is really a wonderful service for the price.

10/18/2007 8:36 PM  
Blogger K.G. Schneider said...

Inherent: yes. Ways of doing it better: yes. Communication changing as org grows: yes. Encouraging everyone to talk: Hmmm... here's where I slow down and really think about it. Managing the "tyranny of the minority" is key. That's where I back off from the hype and hooey about "radical trust." I look forward to seeing your insights on this.

10/20/2007 8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I honestly think much of the nastiness is pretty appropriate. LL has a tendency push out new features before they are ready to keep themselves in the press while ignoring show stopping bugs on the part of users, which of course largely makes sense if you look at how their economy works. If you went and implemented collections while I couldn't view my existing libraries for several days, (a reasonable analogy), I'd be up in arms too.

10/23/2007 6:59 PM  
Anonymous reading_Fox said...

Still waiting for the second part of this essay when you get a moment from rebooting webservers.

Would be interesting to hear in the light of recent experiances.

11/16/2007 3:59 AM  
Blogger Why Not? said...

"Openness" is an endless loop that allows for ad nauseum complaining.

From my perspective, you do an excellent job of saying "this was the issue" (or "this is the new feature") and "this is how the solution (feature) will work."

I am a user that takes comments like this at face value. Perhaps this is because I work in a position where I'm often made to quantify the whys and hows of situations myself. A long time ago, I realized that getting to the working on the solution part of things was far more important than spending time finding places to place blame.

The internet, however, offers endless ways to blame. While there are lovely people that blog about positive things, I shudder to think about the endless bits of data out there that will show us as a whiny, perpetually dissatified society hellbent on blaming someone for all of our ills.

I'm always amazed at the number of individuals that are technology experts, experts on corporate communication, or even experts on quantum physics when it comes to establishing their ability to place blame once and for all.

For those of you providing a service, I'm amazed at any group that can continue to provide an excellent service under these circumstances. Whenever you open yourself up for criticism, you'll inevitably hear loud and clear from those that are essentially "worried about the ferret problem." For every 1 user that believes a service is out to get them, I imagine there are 100 users that are perfectly happy with what they have, another 20 that might like to see some things changed, and perhaps 1 additional user that will have a good idea. Unfortunately, the 1 user believing that everyone is out to get him will outpost everyone else - including the good idea user. (Sadly, the 1 disgruntled user will continually threaten to leave, but never actually seems to go.)

Bah, enough of my giving up to the ranting. I think you give out more than enough information. I'm pleased with the service, and you respond to questions quickly. From my perspective, if you were to be "more open," it could potentially take time from great service you're already providing.

11/18/2007 2:39 PM  

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