Monday, October 06, 2008

Goodbye Now!

Technology has created new forms of communication, and networked computer technology has exploded the number of ways we can have conversations now. One, many, writing, speaking, synchronous, asynchronous leading to forms like email, chat, VoIP, forums, webcams, instant messaging. And just like small children need to learn the mechanics of fitting into face-to-face conversations -- don't interrupt, don't whine, have a topic -- and learn how to make phone calls and how to write letters, everyone ending up on a computer has had to learn how to deal with these new avenues. To learn how to have successful interactions, but also to learn the capabilities that are simply not available in the physical world.

Filtering is a big one. In restaurants, at parties, in any gathering, it takes one loud voice, one grating continuous sound, one TV that is too loud, and maintaining a normal conversation can be difficult to just impossible. In most electronic systems, you can make irritants go away with one click somewhere. This is actually a pretty radical capability, and it is not one easily grasped as available, or desirable, by people who are new to electronic communications. We spend so much being socialized, learning how to get along in groups, dealing with and mitigating influences, not getting our asses kicked for being jerks, learning 'workplace' and 'bar' and 'home' rules and voices, that the idea none of this is necessary anymore is quite alien. You can make a voice go away, often for good, with one click. You can't really do that at the water cooler.

In fact, walking up to the water cooler at work and saying hi to Mary, Ali, and Omar, but completely ignoring Ralph, is seen as the height of insulting. Shunning should be a grave punishment for transgressing social norms, and handing it out lightly is a rude 'mean girls in High School' thing, so the idea that it can and should be implemented online is quite the mental hurdle to overcome for many people getting online. What about our shared responsibility? What about etiquette?

Yet filtering is a vital tool online, and that becomes pretty clear when the medium gets an influx of commercial messages. If Ralph stood by that water cooler hawking HerbaLife every time you walked up, you would indeed start ignoring him pretty quick. Or, more true to electronic life, if he was hawking subscriptions to pictures of 'barely legal teens'. Man how quickly wouldn't you reach for that silencer button so you could still talk to Ali.

There aren't any incentives online for 'getting along', in fact there are many visceral incentives for not getting along and finally being able to get off your chest what you had to hold in all day without getting you ass kicked. Being online can be so liberating we become pests. Well, if you don't want to spend your time online listening to Ralph and his teens and Omar talking incessantly about libtards, you need an ignore. Everyone with any experience on these systems knows this.

Which makes it so surprising that one of the oldest names in chat, one of the networks with the longest running experience in this area, did an upgrade recently that switched off filtering. Seriously. This site has been in business connecting people through chat since 1996. They're not new at this. They know about griefers, bots, political divisiveness, the way people wander in chat through topics, the way some people will repeat the same thing over and over, the way some users are just irritating, and some want and need to be utterly infuriating for their own personal reasons. Being able to filter them out is what makes people not turn away from the system in disgust -- and the maintainers of the system recently made that impossible in a system upgrade that replaced the old chat system.

This is just the surface, by the way. The whole upgrade of the system and chat site points so very clearly that a) the UX design was done by people who never used the system, or the design fell completely off the rails during implementation b) there was no big beta test. Because the results are just making everyone wonder what the hell was thinking? Yeah, I am talking about, and its latest upgrade.

Now, when a venerable property does something like this in a major upgrade of its site and chat system, pissing off hundreds of its users, making IMs a pain because of stability issues, making it take 30 minutes to get into your favorite chat room, having all kinds of switches and options no longer be available that made the chat rooms bearable -- like being able to switch people broadcasting the same personal ad every minute off -- and thus driving paying users to go away, you'd think C|Net or Wired would report on it. A major site that should know better is just screwing up with an unstable platform and loss of key functionality by not using best practices in developing web services, yet, not a peep.

It's just a list of things besides stability and filters: you can't have multiple private message windows open, they get tabbed. You can't have multiple rooms open, they get tabbed. For a while entry and exit messages could not be switched off in rooms and thus filled the whole screen in no time. It all smacked of nobody actually having used the systems, or nobody having watched hardcore chatters, like, say, 16 year olds, on how they use chat. But no. has had some "planned outages" since, fixing the worst stability issues and changing one usability problem -- the chatrooms are now no longer full of notifications of coming and going -- but the fundamental problems remain. And it was so unnecessary. has always had an unstable, ugly, and clunky chat system, so many users flocked to 3d party chat clients. Just studying why subscribers would be so frustrated they would go through all the trouble to install another client would have taught the designers everything they needed to know, and that people didn't just install them to block ads or because the previous JAVA based system would take down whole machines to blue screen. And in this upgrade, made sure all 3d party clients would no longer work. No work-arounds for this mess.

All the information was there. 10 minutes testing the new system by shadowing a long time subscriber would have told them the information that now must be flooding their mailboxes in user complaint screeds. Chatter tell me they have overloaded the voice mail, the help lines, you can tell that the technical team is scrambling, the blog is promising more user settings, and is handing out free months as compensation left and right. All completely unnecessary expenses, yet is having to make them, and some people that are leaving now will not be coming back. I don't know what the internal process was that led to such a mediocre result for a central piece of capability -- indifferent outsourcing? Cost cutting during re-implementation? A need to clear the place out of subscribers for tax reasons? -- but for being so dumb, deserves all it gets. Which, most likely for this property that never was a huge moneymaker, will be death by loss of subscribers.