Insignificant

About three years ago I read Howard Rheingold’s “Smart Mobs” and was inspired by the idea of random groups gathering out of nowhere, participating in some short, reasonably meaningless activity and leaving with nothing more than an unforgettable experience shared with several dozen strangers. As a web developer and full time geek, I thought up a handful of ways that would make such gatherings possible but, being consumed by other life-related things, backburnered the whole project.

That summer, some guy named Bill living in Manhattan actually began making these “mobs” happen. I decided that, rather than sit on another good idea, I should throw myself into turning it into a reality. So I threw up a signup form on my website and sent the link to Boing Boing where it was promptly posted. The response was totally overwhelming. It inspired me to completely throw myself into building one of the tools I had dreamed up, which eventually became FlockSmart. This garnered the attention of Wired Magazine, TechTV and Mr. Howard Rheingold himself.

I immediately gained a certain amount of notoriety. Over the course of the next couple of weeks my poor cellphone, helpfully listed on my personal website, began ringing off the hook. I spoke with the BBC, was taken as a live guest on no fewer than three radio stations, appeared on four different television interviews including TechTV and Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox News and spoke with literally dozens of newspaper and magazine journalists from around the world. I was suddenly a media darling. The weirdest part about all this was that, in most articles, I appeared only as the second person interviewed – I didn’t start the movement, I was just a part of it. But man, oh man, did my self worth sky rocket.

Then, something funny happened. The calls came less and less until they dwindled to almost nothing. Bill up and decided that the whole “Smart Mob” thing was over, announced as much to the world then stopped completely. The news agencies moved on to their next big story and left me in the dust. Some journalists had even intimated that they’d like to keep my information for future reference so that they could talk to me whenever some technical story came across their desk. Though I gleefully obliged, I have yet to hear from a single one of them.

I spent two years working for a daily newspaper, so I understand intimately how the news cycle works. When the calls stopped coming, it didn’t phase me. The smart mobs story was what is often referred to as “the flavor of the week” and I was just one of the candy sprinkles on top of it. I still get the occasional call or email about the experience – I just received an interview request the day before yesterday, as a matter of fact – but I politely explain that, for me, the smart mob thing was sort of a one-time gig, that aside from a dedicated few (who are far more creative than I am and really do some VERY cool things) the whole “scene” is dead. If after all that they still want to talk – even just in the capacity of being a source for other folks to talk to – I’m happy to help. Ultimately, I know that, without the big story, I became pretty insignificant in the media’s eyes.

In a week or two, so will Vincent Ferrari.

When the press storm centers around a person like it did me or like it currently is Vincent Ferrari, it’s very, very easy to get caught up in it. Along with that can come a sense of persecution by critics. There were more than a few folks who thought the whole smart mob thing was stupid beyond comprehension and I did feel a certain anger when I read some of the comments about it, but I understood that that’s pretty much the nature of the Internet and everyone is welcome to their opinions. If you’re going to put yourself out there, you need to grow a thick skin.

I stand behind what I said in my previous post. The one part that seems to really stick in his craw is the following:

“And, while the customer service person on the other end of the line was completely out of line, I feel Ferrari may have precipitated it with his already belligerent attitude. Keep in mind: it’s not like he records all of his phone calls on the off-chance he’ll have something bloggable.”

When calling him belligerent, I was not referring to his tone of voice, I was referring instead to the fact that he entered the conversation with the expectation that it would go poorly. He entered the call with an agenda. I still agree wholeheartedly that the customer service rep on the other end was totally out of line, but to my ears Ferrari began losing his cool well before the call got far out of hand. To use the handy transcript on his site:

AOL: OK, well actually, I’m showing a lot of usage on this account.
VF: Yeah, a long time ago. Not recently.
AOL: No, the popsferrari account was on 71 hours since the 24th of last month.
VF: No he wasn’t. He doesn’t even have the AOL software installed on his computer. You’re looking at AIM usage probably.
AOL: No, AIM usage doesn’t come on to this.
VF: He doesn’t have the AOL software installed on his computer.
AOL: Now, this is your father then?
VF: Yup.
AOL: Well, I’m looking at this account…
VF: Uh, either way, whatever you’re seeing…
AOL: Well what’s causing you to want to turn this off today? I mean obviously…
VF: I don’t use it and he doesn’t use it, so we’re cancelling. I’m telling you he doesn’t use the account. The software is not even on his computer.
AOL: Well OK, I mean is there a problem with the software itself?
VF: No, I just, I don’t use it, I don’t need it, I don’t want it. I just don’t need it anymore.
AOL: OK, so when you use this, I mean, when you use the computer I’m saying, is that for business or for school?
VF: Dude, what difference does it make? I don’t want the AOL account anymore. Can we please cancel this?

Now, this isn’t even halfway into the call. I’ve completely lost my cool with customer service folks myself and I can completely understand why Ferrari is getting frustrated, but the AOL rep at this point is still doing his job. And what is his job? To do what the customer says and blithely cancel the service?

Naive.

As we’ve all been educated by now, the CS rep gets bonuses for retaining accounts. This is often anathema to good customer service, particularly in cases like this, but the rep is simply trying to save the account. And why not? He’s showing “a lot of usage” on the account. For now, let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume that the usage is real (because we have absolutely no reason to doubt that he’s seeing usage – as one commenter on Ferrari’s side said, it’s possible the usage indicated a hacked account). If Ferrari’s father was actually using his account, losing it may be a problem for him. Perhaps pater Ferrari would prefer to take over his son’s account. Perhaps he would like to open his own account. Regardless, on the surface, activity indicates some lasting interest.

None of this is justification, by the way, for the rep asking to speak to Ferrari’s father. Which would be a great story if it actually happened. But it didn’t. Again, straight from his transcript:

VF: You’re not helping me. You’re… Helping me would be cancelling…
AOL: I’m am trying to…
VF: Helping me… Listen: I called to cancel the account. Helping me would be cancelling the account. Please help me and cancel the account.
AOL: No it wouldn’t actually. Turning off your account would be the worst thing that…
VF: Cancel the account. Cancel the account. Cancel the account.
AOL: Is your dad there?
VF: My dad? I’m the primary paying… I’m the primary person on the account, not my dad.
AOL: Yeah, cuz I’m just trying to figure…
VF: Cancel the account. I don’t know how to make this any clearer for you. Cancel the account. The card is mine, in my name.
AOL: OK

At no time does he actually ask to speak with Ferrari’s father. Had Ferrari not cut him off, the rep may have simply finished by saying, “So he knows you’re cancelling the account?” Again, no reason to doubt this – the rep here is trying to establish that the account is not being used. If someone in the household is using the account, he may be able to either save this account or sign up a new one, thus getting his bonus. How much do these guys make, you think? On his site today, Ferrari posted an ad for an AOL “Retention Consultant”, which would seem to answer this: “$14 per hour + Bonuses!!!!” And how do you think they get those bonuses?

Retention.

If Ferrari’s dad uses the account, there may be a chance this guy can get his bonus. Is he overly pushy and greedy about it? Oh yeah, no doubt. But the guy is trying to do his job. I can see how someone with no understanding of how these things work could get upset by this, but Ferrari is not one of those people:

AOL: As I process your cancellation request, I have to tell you about a free benefit available for valued members like yourself. We will continue to provide you some features of the AOL
VF: Don’t want it. I know the… I know the drill. I don’t even want it. Don’t even bother.

If you know the drill, then why didn’t you know this guy would do what he could to retain your account? It seems someone with such knowledge might enter the conversation a little differently, perhaps opening by explaining, “I appreciate that you get bonuses and such by saving accounts like mine, but I’m really set on cancelling this account, so let’s save each other’s time.” This tactic has actually worked for me. Given the number of calls these guys field, aside from a token attempt to keep you (remember, these calls may be recorded for “quality assurance”) they are usually happy to get you off the phone when they know they’re not going to get anywhere with you. No one wants to waste their time on a hopeless cause. He saw activity, he saw hope. He went WAY over his bounds to try and keep you, but I do believe he did it within the expectations of his bosses at AOL. Firing him was a PR move, plain and simple. And not a particularly bright one – a better move would have been to actually address the culture that creates such situations to begin with.

Bottom line: there’s fault on both sides. I believe the rep would have done the same with just about any caller, except he would have probably kept his cool a little better if Ferrari had. I believe that by entering this conversation the way he did, Ferrari set the rep up to look bad. And he really didn’t need any help. But Ferrari’s attitude absolutely precipitated the rep to say that Ferrari was annoying him as well, despite the fact that it was wholly unprofessional. And any questions as to Ferrari’s tendency to belligerence have been answered by his response to my original post. The point I tried to make in that post is that, in the age of ubiquitous recording technologies and the ability to disseminate such recordings instantly to millions, companies need to care more about how they treat their customers lest they find themselves the subject of a mob riot. Ferrari was ancillary to that argument, warranting only one paragraph.

Which brings us back to the whole reason we’re here right now. Ferrari discovered my post by searching for himself on Bloglines. He used this opportunity to once again point out that he appeared with Matt Lauer on NBC. This is quite cool – it’s rare that the average Joe gets to go on national network news and have someone with influence ask for his views. I can tell you from experience that it’s an absolute thrill ride and can get pretty addictive. But, like most thrill rides, it quickly comes to an end – unless you find a way to keep the story going in a compelling enough way.

Having enemies is a good way to keep the story going. Folks love a good soap opera and starting a public fight is a great way to get attention – just ask Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.

Thing is, I just don’t have the time or energy for such a fight. Ferrari is looking for more attention and, in my infinite generosity, I’ve donated a whole long post just to him to give him what he so sorely desires. But, honestly, it’s pretty much all I have. Earlier today I posted that I didn’t yet have time to prepare a cogent response because, in a tongue and cheek reference to some of the things he said about me, I was too busy looking for a Java job. That, of course, is not true.

Two weeks ago we learned my wife was pregnant. We have always been told that, due to several health issues and whatnot, this would be a difficult feat, so we were understandably excited. During one of our doctor’s visits, we were told that it looked like the fetus was not developing as expected, and we panicked. An emergency ultrasound, however, allayed our fears and allowed us to hear the most beautiful sound in the world – our 7-week-old baby’s heartbeat.

We went back in this afternoon for a routine prenatal checkup. We experienced the exact same scenario – the doctor said there was a problem and another emergency ultrasound was ordered. This time we were not so lucky. The heartbeat is gone, the baby has not developed past seven weeks. Both my wife and I are heartbroken. It’s been a bad day. Not exactly the worst day of my life, but not a good day.

Discovering Ferrari’s post has actually been a highlight. It made me chuckle, but it also made me wonder how someone could spend so much time and effort expelling so much vitriol over something so lame. I wrote one paragraph sort of criticizing him, he interpreted it as my being “all over the ‘time to drag down Vinny’ shit”. Frankly, despite the fact that I’ve been “blogging” for more than five years and surfing the Internet for more than 10, I had never heard of him before all this started either, and my life wouldn’t be any different either way if I never had.

So, there’s your response and your extra flicker in the spotlight. It ain’t much, but it’s what I have. I have to go tend to bigger things – comforting my wife, dealing with my own compounded grief and convincing both my wife and myself that, no matter what, nothing can tear us down so long as we don’t give up. This I wholeheartedly believe above all things.

And that is what’s significant.

3 thoughts on “Insignificant

  1. Rob,

    You sure have taken a lot of heat over this. I think you are essentially correct and I have sahred the same opinion with Vinnie. He slammed you hard for ‘bringing your dead baby’ into this. I see it entirely differently. You were putting this so-called ‘blogwar’ into its proper perspective. I read the post regarding your mother’s death and it broke my heart. My mother died suddenly in 2000 at age 59 after undergoing surgery with a 15% mortality rate. You can assume I was betting on the 85%. So, I relate to all that you have written on this subject and I just want to let you know that I think Vincent deserves the commentary he has been receiving, and that he needs to learn to handle it better.

    Take care.

  2. I appreciate the kind words and support. The truth of the matter is that I started that post before the appointment with my wife when I thought I had something to look forward to – hearing my nine-week-old pre-baby’s heartbeat again. When we got back from the appointment, I waited until my wife calmed down enough to go to bed to finish what I had promised to write. I put the ending in the way I did because, quite honestly, I didn’t want to write a separate post about it. I was pretty tapped by then and, as you point out, it put the whole thing in perspective for me. Not that I had any inclination of being part of any “blogwar” (never heard the term before now) but I felt I was unfairly attacked and had to defend my position.

    Though it’s been six years, I’m sorry to hear about your mother as well. Pretty similar situations, except I expected a 100% recovery rate seeing as nothing was wrong with her, as far as anyone knew. Still, 85%… My wife had her surgery yesterday and I was a wreck. They didn’t give me percentages, but the way things have been going I was pretty worked up about it. Everything’s physically OK now, though.

    OK, enough of that. Thanks again for your support. I genuinely appreciate it.

    Rob Z.

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