WWIC January 6, 2011 6:38 AM   Subscribe

Metafilter gets a very kind shout out on Paul Ford's new essay The Web Is a Customer Service Medium.
posted by artlung to MetaFilter-Related at 6:38 AM (55 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

That was really a very insightful piece. Some of the best thinking on media I've seen in a long, long time. I think he really nails what's going on with apps, and a lot about how the web has changed.

On the Steve Martin/92nd St. Y debacle, this analysis might be a little off, though --

Of course he didn't expect that. It's not his medium. All the same, here's a guy who, according to his autobiography, cultivated audiences at stadium-scale, spending decades crafting an act that would draw thousands of people to his shows and millions to his movies. But the audience actually furrowing its brow and sending emails—that's a suprise.

It's not that the audience reaction was a surprise. The problem was that Martin didn't know the audience was going to be live emailing, that the whole program was set up by the organizers in a way that wasn't shared with Martin and his interviewer, and that their expectations of what they'd been hired to talk about were totally different from, and inexpertly managed by, their hosts. It wasn't a problem of web-meets-old-media-guy, it was a problem of bad program management that didn't consciously marry the messaging about the event to the actual planned content of the event.
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on January 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

*grunts praise*
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:03 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

And is just me, or does humanity come off looking pretty sad after reading that article?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:04 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why Weren't We Consulted?
posted by londonmark at 7:16 AM on January 6, 2011

MetaTalk: WWIC all the way down
posted by DU at 7:19 AM on January 6, 2011

This should be a front page post.
posted by geoff. at 7:19 AM on January 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah nice piece except for what Miko said.
posted by Mngo at 7:23 AM on January 6, 2011

Who are all these people that aren't being consulted? I'd be pissed too.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:25 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think mentioning, but not linking to, 4chan is the new "plain brown wrapper."

If you must, you're a smart cookie and we trust you slide that wrapper off yourself.
posted by artlung at 7:25 AM on January 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Why Weren't We Insulted?
posted by MuffinMan at 7:27 AM on January 6, 2011

And is just me, or does humanity come off looking pretty sad after reading that article?

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with wanting to be important and special. I like that on MetaFilter I can say/favorite anything that I want and help shape discussions in ways that'll interest me. It's a lot better than being completely unspecial anyway.

The issue is more that not many designers spend their time asking themselves how their particular system of special/unspecial is going to affect their users. I know people that can't stand to use Reddit or Hacker News because they get so pissed off at crowd-downvotes. One person makes themself feel better by clicking a down arrow, and another person feels suddenly like their contributions aren't valuable. Or there're systems like Youtube, where the points basically don't matter; then again, how could you possibly make comments on Youtube in any way meaningful? It's really not a place meant for discussion.

MetaFilter does a bunch of things that make it a really happy medium. I think my favorite thing about it is that it lets me see who's favoriting what, so that those numbers next to a post aren't in any way objective. I can see who specifically liked a comment I left. In flamewars I love seeing that three people on one side favorite any post by those three people, and same thing goes on the other side. And since posts aren't threaded and weighted, it means that you don't need favorites to be meaningful in a conversation, so long as you make an effort to talk to people.

Don't blame people for looking bad in systems that aren't well-designed to make them look good. Self-importance doesn't come from people wanting to talk. It comes from systems that aren't good at fitting people comfortably in. (And this doesn't just apply to points-ranking. It also applies to communities that haven't figured out ways to explain to people why their pedantic asshattery is not welcome.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:37 AM on January 6, 2011 [13 favorites]

I've worked in a customer service medium, in that I worked in customer service for several years post-college pre-law school, and hearing moderation analogized to customer service just made me feel even more sympathetic to our humble mods. Working in customer service made me hate people and by the end of my tenure my entire day was spent just waiting for the right customer who I could sense was on the verge of a freak out so that I could fuck with them in such a way as to drive them insane with rage but where they couldn't describe an actual thing I had done to upset them to my supervisor so that I wouldn't get in trouble. When it went right I would get to sit there listening to them hurl abuse at me with a big grin on my face, becoming happier as they became more livid. Those calls were the highlight of my day. My life revolved around creating and enjoying those moments. I began to feed on people's hatred. Customer service turned me into the emperor.

Good luck jessamyn and cortex. You're going to need it.
posted by ND¢ at 7:42 AM on January 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

Based on how a lot of MeTa threads unfold, I liken the mods jobs here to being the cat in this video.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:57 AM on January 6, 2011 [12 favorites]

I'm sort of against any definition that turns the web into a service or commodity. I realize that it's subject to the whims of capitalism and will be defined in those terms, but I think there's a big difference between saying "That's what the web IS," and "That's what we DO with the web."

The language in the article is rubbing me the wrong way for that reason. "The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium."

It also tends to oversimplify. IMHO. I understand the need to define scope, but I do think it's necessary to clarify the difference between a narrow scope and a simplistic description.

I could rant further, but in this context I suddenly feel shy about my loud, "unconsoluted" opinions. Too much irony. It's a trap. ;)
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:05 AM on January 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

No, Stagger Lee! Go on! Rant! We want to hear!
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:20 AM on January 6, 2011

Every time I read WWIC I parsed it as "Why would I care?" and I humbly put forward that reading it that way makes opinions on the internet so much easier to deal with. I have therefore started selling "WWIC" bracelets at a small mark-up.

You're welcome.
posted by longbaugh at 8:24 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Isn't that Paul Ford, MetaFilter's own?

As ND¢ says, customer service or in this case moderation can drive you crazy. You never get the call that says, "Hey your systems worked well today, thank you." Is is always, "Your systems suck. You suck. In fact you are one load your mother should have sucked." I make it a habit of thanking one of my vendors whose software I use daily to thank them for a job well done that month. Once in a while, I will send a bottle of wine or a basket of candy to the help desk. Because, when I really need help, I get it.
posted by AugustWest at 8:29 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some of the best thinking on media I've seen in a long, long time. I think he really nails what's going on with apps, and a lot about how the web has changed.

What's interesting to me there is that one of the early mantra's of the web "It's all about content, the medium doesn't matter" is now biting the web in the butt a bit. I work for a weekly newspaper and we're definitely hearing people ask "Where's your app?" The web isn't good enough anymore. Hell, I found myself doing that, was really eager to try the Big Picture App, but alas, it's kind of crappy, too slow. The medium is the message and the sometimes the message isn't a good one.

On a side note, I had to reinstall Mac OS X on a computer last night and was booting from a Firewire drive that had Safari 2.0 (Current version is 5) on it. Naturally I used it to browse around while waiting for the install to finish and it was interesting to see what I thought was relatively simple sites, such a Google, fall apart in it. Metafilter, however, did just fine, except for some javascript stuff, but it was fine for browsing and reading and commenting. Nice job Matt and pb.

I'm not sold that on the article though, will have to think on it today and reread it. Some of his descriptions seems narrowly focused to fit his thesis, such as Wikipedia. Is it really about the desire to be consult or the desire to show off or is the desire to show off just another branch on the the "consult me" tree? Must ponder this more.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:48 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

No comment section Paul?
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 8:48 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with wanting to be important and special.

Well, it's a scale, from "What a great post (or comment)" to "Tao Lin, don't fucking spam our site".
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:52 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

You never get the call that says, "Hey your systems worked well today, thank you."

You'd be surprised. I get random emails and chats saying thanks pretty much daily. Some random MeFite sent me a $50 in a holiday card. I don't have to pay for my own beer at meetups unless I want to. Questions get marked resolved in AskMe every single day in a way that is super-gratifying. In my local job, I'm often teaching people how to double-click, over and over and over again. It's satisfying in its own way, but coming here where I get to work with bright, thoughtful, interesting, funny people and untangle what to me are complex problems worth solving all while in my pajamas... you can't pay for that sort of job satisfaction.

I can't read the link because ftrain is down but Paul Ford and MeFi have always had a mutual admiration party going. He does great work and truly feels that online content and community is a medium worthy of cultivation.

Also if this is the navelgazing media mention thread, people might like this as well.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:56 AM on January 6, 2011 [14 favorites]

Did we break it? It won't load for me.
posted by rtha at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2011

I can't believe you don't use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell

Heh. That's a keeper.
posted by iotic at 9:03 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Did we break it?

Well yeah, you guys did, not me.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:07 AM on January 6, 2011

Web Wizard In Charge?
posted by jtron at 9:12 AM on January 6, 2011

Thanks for saying that, AugustWest; I'm going to head over to IT and let them know things are up and running and working well, and that I appreciate that.

seriously, on my way right now
posted by davejay at 10:37 AM on January 6, 2011

MetaFilter: You can almost hear the sighing den mother
posted by Miko at 10:41 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

As ND¢ says, customer service or in this case moderation can drive you crazy. You never get the call that says, "Hey your systems worked well today, thank you." Is is always, "Your systems suck. You suck. In fact you are one load your mother should have sucked."

Like Jessamyn said, this fortunately is not so much the case for us as moderators on mefi. There's plenty of critical stuff, certainly, but there's plenty of folks who are super thankful for even small stuff we do, lots of little positive exchanges via the contact form even if it's just "oh god, I typoed!" "All set." "Thanks, you rock!" or whatever. On rough days we'll get kind notes just to say, hey, thanks for slogging through all this.

And I think that's because the analogue between customer service and community management isn't perfect, at least not for places where the word "community" actually has something like what we expect the lay meaning of that word to be. People drop us nice notes (and, I suppose, specific kinds of critical notes) in large part because we're not so much faceless commodity servicepeople as we are engaged members of this group that it happens to be our job to work for as well.

When you call a customer service line, you don't have a sense generally speaking of belonging to the same cohort as the person picking up the phone. And, I suppose, in some online communities where there's not a real transparent engagement of the moderation/admin folks with the users, that may be so as well. Practically speaking, that's probably for the best in a lot of cases—I don't want my online banking to have to involve being chummy with the guy manning the helpdesk, etc—but it's certainly not a given that for all situations and its interesting to look at where it feels like there's a mismatch of expectations on that front. People trying to start up an online community as a product, treating moderation as a commodity and a function rather than a part of the community's self-identity.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:24 AM on January 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

As a post-text to that, I would say that the situations in which the work we do feels most like that faceless-customer-service dynamic is when dealing with people who haven't really come to metafilter with any clear idea of what the place is like. They're more likely to be annoyed in an unforgiving way about the things they dislike or misunderstand, they're less likely to have patience with the practical guidelines of the community. Which is not surprising, even if it's a little vexatious to me in comparison with the more clueful (even when not necessarily congenial) interactions we tend to have with people who are writing as members of this community rather than just account-holders.

The silver lining there is that our concern is more with this community than with folks who aren't here for the community; we'll try and be as helpful and polite as we can even with someone who hasn't taken the good advice of lurking a while before writing to let us know what's wrong with the site or how we run it or so on, but at the same time we have the luxury of not having to scrabble to please every misunderstanding person who might otherwise write an angry letter to our boss.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:29 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Cached version: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.ftrain.com/wwic.html


Delicious beagles.
Teapot zero, Silicon Valley

Some kind of Dadaist not-haiku?
posted by juv3nal at 12:22 PM on January 6, 2011

cortex: "When you call a customer service line, you don't have a sense generally speaking of belonging to the same cohort as the person picking up the phone."

It's more than that though. Random acts of gratitude are the result of relentless customer service that permeates the site. The vast majority of customer service operations are concerned with efficiency rather than results. So it's no wonder they get few thankyous and many "Your systems suck. You suck. etc" Thank yous are in some sense proof that you're spending too much on support.

To make this point more specific: almost every IT and call center system I've worked with assigns at most 1 person looking at each call. If they can't solve it, they escalate to a different group of people, generally in rotation. Currently I do one week every 4 weeks as the sole "support" guy. The only reports I ever see are the ones someone else thinks are mine. So each report has one user and at most one helper.

In contrast, web systems can enable many to many. Many people with the same problem, or many people looking at one question. By putting many eyes on the problem, you get both diversity of perspective and a sample of answers large enough to find the eigenanswer or something.

These two approaches and incentives are so mismatched that it can be a curse in disguise when a company tries to adopt them. Think censoring support forums and banning directions to popular modifications. Worse, many web systems are designed to intentionally keep users in the dark. A request comes in, it's triaged and routed along in silence, and eventually a response emerges. What the problem was, how to avoid it, etc, is kept secret from customers, and basically other employees as a direct result. So when I go in to see how it was fixed last time, it's simply not documented.
posted by pwnguin at 12:51 PM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's the story of where I learned to love customer service.

It was 2004 and I was going to SXSW. Having recently moved to Oregon, there were no direct flights from Portland to Austin, but I found various choices of cities to stopover in. I picked out SF knowing the chances were very high that I would know half a dozen people on the flight if I passed through there compared to say, Denver or Houston.

My first leg was uneventful and as soon as I landed at SF I ran into a bunch of people I knew waiting for my connector flight direct to Austin. Joi Ito (investor, later director of Creative Commons), Tantek (microformats whiz), Doug Bowman (lead designer at Twitter), and Craig Newmark. Our flight was unfortunately delayed, and then delayed again, and finally was canceled. We got new flights but we were stuck at SFO for something like four hours and getting to spend half a workday sitting next to Craig Newmark was pretty awesome.

I'd heard Craig say in interviews that he was basically just "head of customer service" for Craigslist but I always thought that was a throwaway self-deprecating joke. Like if you ran into Larry Page at Google and he claimed to just be the janitor or guy that picks out the free cereal at Google instead of the cofounder. But sitting next to him, I got a whole new appreciation for what he does. He was going through emails in his inbox, then responding to questions in the craigslist forums, and hopping onto his cellphone about once every ten minutes. Calls were quick and to the point "Hi, this is Craig Newmark from craigslist.org. We are having problems with a customer of your ISP and would like to discuss how we can remedy their bad behavior in our real estate forums". He was literally chasing down forum spammers one by one, sometimes taking five minutes per problem, sometimes it seemed to take half an hour to get spammers dealt with. He was totally engrossed in his work, looking up IP addresses, answering questions best he could, and doing the kind of thankless work I'd never seen anyone else do with so much enthusiasm. By the time we got on our flight he had to shut down and it felt like his giant pile of work got slightly smaller but he was looking forward to attacking it again when we landed.

A year later when I made MetaFilter my full time gig, I thought a lot about that day with Craig and I realized after I started doing MeFi 24/7 I had no excuse for not responding to contact form emails and not answering things in MetaTalk and not being proactive and responsive when bad user behavior was cropping up. A few months later Jessamyn signed on to help out and later Josh and pb joined as well as vacapinta volunteering to fill the late night gap.

Five years ago, I mentally made the decision that my primary job here was customer service. Every decision after that was made a little easier in that we could say how it would help users of the site, we would brace ourselves for common feedback for any changes, and we made a ton of changes to make problem reporting faster and easier for everyone involved. Years later, we have a pretty streamlined setup where anything sent to the contact form is answered by one of four people usually in less than 10 minutes. We keep on top of problem areas with some robust flagging and reporting backend software we wrote specifically to respond to problems quickly. It's pretty rare that requests sent our way go unanswered (there is the occasional straggling comment on an old metatalk thread that might get missed).

It's all Craig's fault really, but I've enjoyed MeFi a lot more on the admin side of things after taking support seriously. There are times when we get a string of comment spammers and front page spammers arguing with us and reporting the charges as fraudulent to paypal where I sometimes feel like a cop who gets hard from seeing nothing but the worst parts of society, but like jessamyn said at least once a week someone sends us a thank you email and says keep it up, and it brightens an otherwise dismal day.

Lastly, in that comment Paul Ford quoted, I said "intense moderation" but I really meant "intense work of moderating" because I don't think what we do in regards to minor editing could be considered intense but even keeping the light hand over the community is a ton of work and feels quite intense at times.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 3:40 PM on January 6, 2011 [66 favorites]

It's difficult to reconcile that brilliant piece of insight with another I read, also here, just last year. "If you're not paying for it, you're not the customer, you're the product." You've seemed to have managed to please the product enough that it's even willing to be give you a fiver for the privilege of being part of an impressive demographic.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:38 PM on January 6, 2011

I would like to note that a few months back, I had an utterly fucked up post on the blue that had a bunch of replies before a mod looked at it.

Cortex (and I would expect the rest of the team, but I dealt with Cortex) proceeded to fix it - with my permission - and make it suck considerably less. When I expressed my feeling to Cortex that in retrospect I felt I deserved a time-out or something for it, he told me flatout that no, he didn't, but that if it had been caught before the replies it probably would have been deleted, and I accept that.

Since then I've been thinking about not just 'to post' but 'how to post'. (In the wake of the, er, Wakefield stuff yesterday, I've been considering a large post about the whole vaccine scandal, but I got distracted by the news about Bill Zeller.)

But I can say this: the mods had an opportunity - which I deserved - to take my head off, and didn't, instead being polite and kind and generous, and that made me look at MeFi and think about what it was to me. And it's just that: a generally decent, kind place that has some bumps, but also knows how to work with them.
posted by mephron at 6:38 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thing that is a little odd here is that you can talk directly to the programmer. I used to work at Speakeasy doing support way back in the day and one of our jobs as phone/email support was to make sure the people who had root never ever talked to a customer. I mean, not exactly, but they were the people who built the stuff and they were busy building it. We talked to customers and that's what we did. And we managed any sort of communication that needed to go up the chain ourselves and then relayed messages, often much later, back to [frequently pissed] customers.

pb answers email. It's nuts. I always treated him like some sort of hothouse flower and figured it was cortex's and my job to insulate him from ever having to deal with the "why won't my photo upload work?" questions or the quirky bug reports. Not only does he fix the stuff, but instead of sending us cryptic code-filled email and telling us to explain it to the users, he just drops them a line directly. And he's every bit as modest and reasonable as everyone else when he does it; you never get that aggrieved background-sighing thing where you feel that every question you ask him makes him die a little inside. It makes it feel like much more of a team effort, keeping the site going and everyone basically satisfied, and less like some stupid hierarchical setup where the support job was some lowly crappy thing and the "real work" was done by other people.

Here the support and communication and whatever we're doing all day is the real work. Talking to each other and everyone else, making sure people are okay and trying to fix it when they're not. Days like today can be a little exhausting in that regard, but it sure does seem worth it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:50 PM on January 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Toekneesan: "It's difficult to reconcile that brilliant piece of insight with another I read, also here, just last year."

It's still true. The people who write, comment, ask and answer, and paid five dollars all pay. Largely, I'd say it's the google traffic that's being sold. I know I lurked for like 4 years before paying up. Worth it, totally.
posted by pwnguin at 7:21 PM on January 6, 2011

It is a credit to the admins that such a thoughtful piece includes such high praise for Metafilter. I mostly agree with what is written there. I was pleasantly surprised when the one time I wrote an e-mail to Matt I received a thoughtful reply in a couple hours.
posted by bukvich at 6:41 AM on January 7, 2011

Interesting that the examples of publishing-style things that apparently do WWIC well are also things that are pretty shit. Lost was terrible by the end, and do we really need to talk about YouTube's comments and content again?

The web is bigger than any one question, as Stagger Lee said.
posted by bonaldi at 7:12 AM on January 7, 2011

Reasonable people can disagree about whether Lost was shit.

And I don't think there's any claim that YouTube is "WWIC done well" -- what it says is that it's got the 3 layers of feedback -- you have the content, you have feedback on the content, and you have feedback on the feedback. He could have cited Slashdot's ratings, but this is 2011, and people have seen the feedback on feedback on YT, and so it's a good example. He gives you that example, then mentions Metafilter.

So Glad I posted this, and thanks mathowie et al, for continuing to produce a great site and sharing about how you view it.
posted by artlung at 7:36 AM on January 7, 2011

Reasonable people can disagree about whether Lost was shit.
Surely, and we should apparently consult them. But what consensus I've seen, especially about the ending, doesn't bode well.

And I don't think there's any claim that YouTube is "WWIC done well"
Disagree. It starts with Wikipedia and then posits YouTube as some sort of "complete" website because of its three layers of feedback.

Regardless, the point that WWIC is a fundamental question of the web is an astute and correct one, and also a very interesting way of thinking about it. But trying to extend that to everything that the web does, especially to try and tie into some sort of "way forward for publishing" is an over-reach. Creativity by committee is virtually always rubbish. Hell, 90% of everything is crap.

Gems come from polish, not consultation.
posted by bonaldi at 8:03 AM on January 7, 2011

Disagree. It starts with Wikipedia and then posits YouTube as some sort of "complete" website because of its three layers of feedback.

Declarations of structural completeness aren't the same thing as endorsements of quality. Ford's talking about the layers of Youtube's interactional model, not praising the tonal achievements of those interactions.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:23 AM on January 7, 2011

Here the support and communication and whatever we're doing all day is the real work.

My partner came home from work one day and I said, "Hi, honey! How was your day?" And she proceeded to describe a day that was literally nothing but conference calls and in-person meetings from 9 am to 8pm. I said, "Jesus, how do you get any work done?" She looked at me like I had two (very adorable) heads and said "That is the work."
posted by rtha at 8:44 AM on January 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Declarations of structural completeness aren't the same thing as endorsements of quality. Ford's talking about the layers of Youtube's interactional model, not praising the tonal achievements of those interactions.

I get that, but I find it hard to reconcile the idea that it's a non-judgemental declaration with the context of an article singing the praises (or at least, outlining the inevitability) of the WWIC approach to site creation, an article which holds YouTube up as the exemplar of the complete structural approach to WWIC but which also entirely omits any acknowledgement of the massive failures of that approach on that same site.

It's like saying "look, this house was built perfectly. People who want good houses should build houses like this" when the house in question is an unliveable, unloveable, pit.
posted by bonaldi at 8:51 AM on January 7, 2011

you never get that aggrieved background-sighing thing where you feel that every question you ask him makes him die a little inside.

I think this has, at least in my experience, nearly 100% to do with management. When you're under pressure to get a lot of stuff done, with a boss that doesn't have a technical background, it makes the job so much more difficult.

When you're boss has taken (another) 2 hour lunch break, to be followed up with a, "Not coming into the office," and you have someone high maintenance who has been pestering you to drop everything to help them and you have an actual fire because that batch script written 20 years ago to process payroll fails, then pity the poor soul who comes in and asks the address for the mail server for the fifth time, instead of checking the help wiki, for they're likely to get a nice, "mail.fuckingdomainname.com like it has always been you fucking moron, also we have a fucking help desk and I don't care if they take 30 minutes to get fucking back to you."
posted by geoff. at 9:06 AM on January 7, 2011

My read on it is more like saying "look, this automobile has a no-crank ignition and a gearbox and mirrors" at a time when those features weren't necessarily yet accepted as essential parts of a functional motor vehicle.

In a strict sense, yes, it's praise for a thing, but it's possible to praise a thing's embrace of a functional paradigm without intending praise for its aesthetic qualities. That automobile may have been a pile of shit to drive and terrible to look at, but if it was a well-known model that embraced the practical facts of the nascent industry that's still worth remarking on in a discussion of the industry.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:08 AM on January 7, 2011

Yes, that's a good way of thinking of it. Perhaps it's just because it's surrounded by that tone of "oh those superior Gutenbourgeois, if only they would try no-crank ignition and a gearbox they'd have a great car" it strikes me as odd. Why would you use examples of cars with terrible drives to try to make that point?

Actually, to extend your metaphor out, I think the case there is that he's suggesting people who are interesting in making fabulous couches should add engines and mirrors and wheels and gearboxes. Yes, that could well result in a great car but, actually, what those people want to make -- and what people want from them -- remains great couches, and the advice should actually be something like "stop trying to sell your couches at the garage".
posted by bonaldi at 9:24 AM on January 7, 2011

Yeah, I hear what you're saying. I didn't feel that reading it, but to some extent that may just be me forgiving the "let me tell you about these BOOK people" framing as a functional necessity of a short-form piece that's more about the web than it is about books.

This article is more like Paul Ford writing an article on "what good is a car?" for a transportation enthusiasts' newsletter than anything. If he were instead standing outside a couch boutique picketing for the wheels-on-couches cause, I'd call him a nutter, certainly.

But at this point I believe this metaphor has now become sentient and will kill us all in a nuclear holocaust.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:45 AM on January 7, 2011

Thanks to Miko for catching my error with the Steve Martin stuff. And for all the other comments pro and con. To respond to what bonaldi wrote:
It's like saying "look, this house was built perfectly. People who want good houses should build houses like this" when the house in question is an unliveable, unloveable, pit.
At first I couldn't figure out how you drew that conclusion, but reading everything over I can see that yours is a totally sensible reading. In the middle part of my post to Ftrain I was seeking to be descriptive, maybe a little ironic--trying to avoid value judgments and just point out patterns and behaviors. But the end, when I directly address the publishing industry, is prescriptive, all advice, and I jumped from one mode to the other without signalling to the reader what was going on.

But cortex is right about my intent (and about the framing). I agree that YouTube capitalizes on the need to be consulted like meth capitalizes on the need for self-esteem, but then again it truly succeeds at what it does by churning through human effort like a jet-fueled human-effort-churner. I think that's worth understanding, if not emulating. I guess that's the sort of thing I should play with in a followup.

In summary: "Singing the praises" of WWIC? Nope. But yes, I do see it as inevitable, or maybe a better word would be foundational?
posted by ftrain at 10:18 AM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

In summary: "Singing the praises" of WWIC? Nope. But yes, I do see it as inevitable, or maybe a better word would be foundational?

Yes, "singing the praises" was wrong of me. I like that you call it the "WWIC problem" at one point, because otherwise there's a risk that this is really a charter for the entitled.

I don't know if it's foundational; the web wasn't always like this. I don't know when my bookmarks bar became overwhelmed with sites ready and waiting to consult me, because there was certainly a time when the web did seem much more like publishing.

Perhaps it is inevitable, though, and in that case it will be interesting to see where mobile apps go. We don't (yet) expect to be consulted via them; we just expect to receive little polished gems -- much more like publishing, once again. And so publishers are all excited, once again.
posted by bonaldi at 11:01 AM on January 7, 2011

WCityMike, it's meta all the way down.
posted by artlung at 11:59 AM on January 7, 2011

I work in book publishing, specifically scholarly publishing, and I'm seeing something of a generational war going on in that world. On one side are traditionalist who respect the idea of the authoritative expert, who revere the sustained and uninterrupted argument, and who feel that conversational scholarship is seldom if ever productive. Scholarship is instead St. Jerome alone in his study, with only his books, his manuscript, and his thoughts, and the occasional injured lion. And on the other side is the WWIC crowd. They want everything wikified, and crowd sourced, and comment-able.

It seems to me that there is a time and place for both, and the job of those who publish scholarship is to figure which approach is most appropriate for the discipline or the question being studied. Neither is "best". It really depends on the needs of the particular community and on the question being asked. Scholarship has the luxury of not having to care about popularity (though citation metrics are sort of an exception) so it would seem a good place for experimentation in the creation of content. But this generational disagreement about which approach to take seems to be unnecessarily curtailing some of the more radical experiments and thus impeding significant progress in dissemination. The senior scholars need to get over their authority, and allow their juniors to (god forbid) have an opinion about their work. And the WWICers need to recognize the utility and efficiency of authority.

It kind of reminds me of the difference between Reddit's AMA, and our AskMetafilter. Is the question being dispersed or focused on a single expert? Both can produce excellent results, but so much depends the question.

One final observation—I attend a lot of academic conferences and the one thing I am guaranteed to witness during those conferences, no matter what discipline, is a scholar picking up a new book on their topic, flipping to the back, and then checking the bibliography for his or her name. If it's not there, they are very unlikely to read any further. That's WWIC done old school.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:44 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Finally got to Paul's article, and though I was prepared from the title to get all wonderchickensian and cranky and contrarian, as usual, it's pretty much spot on. But that shouldn't have surprised me, because he, along with our own (but rarely seen) kokogiak and a few others, is one of my Internet Heroes, and has been for a long time.

I was expecting to be compelled to write a long counterpoint piece for my newly-resurrected main websitelogthing today; turns out I have more time for Minecraft or TF2 or watching a movie or something. That's good. I can live with a lazy Saturday.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:27 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a whole other side to Paul'a magnificent piece, which has to do with people's need not only to be heard but to be ... yes, consulted. Where the web populace has stepped over a certain bounds—I blame you, blogging—and there is no filter (!) on that terrible streaming firehose. Anyone can write—and publish—anything. Okay, it began with Oprah. No, it began (on TV) long before Oprah; whenever it was that Winston's ceased to be the thinking man's cigarette, and what I call Okie America stampeded onto TV and even worse, thought their opinion mattered. A veritable tsunami of ignorance that wiped out what fragile class system America had, leading to such cases in point as Sarah Palin, and the vanishing of real writing.

The assumption that anyone cares what "the people" have to say, perhaps best described as democracy having run amuk, morphing, in it's free speech, webby kind of way, has resulted in a mass narcissism that threatens to liquify our ability to distinguish. Who will say what quality is, anymore, and worse, who will care. The thing done well, superbly well.

Nope. Just gimme links links links.
posted by zo219 at 6:27 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to work at Speakeasy doing support way back in the day...

I'll have to say that it completely does not surprise me that you used to work for Speakeasy. I've always been floored (i a good way) by their service, despite your tale of insulating root-wielding admins from users. As long as level one can solve my problem, I don't care if they have root, etc.

Folks like you are why I've payed $60/mo for slow DSL from Speakeasy for a long time despite cheaper/faster alternatives. Unfortunately, the acquisitions have me progressively more nervous. And, I think the alternatives have gotten better. But that knowledgeable support is really hard to give up.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 6:16 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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