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.

Whippin’ ’em Out on the Table

Wow, apparently I have an enemy now. AWESOME!!!

I’m too busy searching for the next big Java job to prepare a cogent response at the moment, but I wanted to let you know that, yes, I saw his post and, yes, I’ll address it later this evening. And I’ll probably do it with significantly less swearing and name calling.

I’ve finally made a name for myself by shitting on the big guy! WOOHOO!!! All my dreams have been fulfilled.

Your Call May Be Recorded…

Here’s a fun side effect of the intersection of the Internet, ubiquitous recording technologies and mob mentality – your bad customer service horror stories are no longer limited to retellings around the water cooler. Thanks to blogs, video hosting services like YouTube and folks with a willingness to spread stories, you can effect actual change when a customer service rep – or anyone, for that matter – has done you wrong. I’m not necessarily saying this is a good thing.

Take the most recent example of a Comcast technician falling asleep on a customer’s couch during a call with customer support. Comcastic! This baby spread through the blogosphere thanks to posts by influential sites Boing Boing and Fark as well as many individual blogs. I read today on Fark that the technician who fell asleep on said couch has been fired by Comcast.

This comes on the tail of last week’s AOL customer service debacle which also resulted in the firing of the employee involved. Loads of bloggers listened to Vincent Ferrari’s AOL recording and recalled their own frustrations trying to cancel their service with various providers. 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. As he said in his original post, “Knowing the horror stories, I decided to do the deed at work where I could record the whole thing.” This doesn’t exactly set anyone up for a friendly conversation.

The echo chamber that is the blogosphere can rapidly generate a mob mentality unlike one we’ve ever really been able to create. In the old days, the townsfolks would raid the castle (or whatever) carrying pitchforks and torches. In reality you’d probably be luck to get a dozen or so folks revolting in such a way, and only after tensions have had time to brew and simmer. The French Revolution, which was anything but a dozen angry people, was not something that transpired overnight. In the world of ubiquitous recording and communication technologies, however, the time between being wronged and retribution has shortened considerably, often providing immediate visceral proof to shock the easily shocked. No longer does it take something as odious as a bourgeoisie class building their fortunes on the backs of the poor to incite a revolution (what with the multitude of sins committed by the current presidential administration, it in fact seems that’s the only thing that doesn’t incite a true revolution on the internet). All it takes these days is one bad customer service experience.

Of course, these mini-revolutions are endemic of a much bigger problem with customer service in general. Between outsourcing to India – where the language, cultural and accent differences turn even the simplest CS requests into a drawn-out nightmare – and the apparent arrogance of large corporations and their focus on making a buck over satisfying the customer, not a single person who has ever relied on technical or customer support can report having a perfect experience. This is not to say there aren’t good CS reps out there who not only do their job, but leave the customer happy – I’ve had many recent positive experiences that I assumed would be far worse than they turned out to be – but it seems that those folks are far and few in between to find. After all, sitting in a call center all day listening to angry customers is bound to wear a person down. Combine that with the pressure to not only please the customer but help the company save money and keep generating revenue (which often turn out to be conflicting interests when all common sense indicates they shouldn’t) and it’s no wonder the system is as messed up as it is.

The message here is clear: If you are a company that provides any kind of customer service, now is the time to review your policies and procedures to ensure that your service reps are performing in line with what you expect. Both of these incidents resulted in the employee being fired and the company providing mea culpas in an attempt to spin bad publicity. As far as the consumer is concerned, this is an encouraging sign of success that these tactics work, so you can be sure their numbers will only increase. It’s better to spend the time and money now to ensure your customer service team is doing the best they can to help the customer than to play clean up later. Many customer service departments tell customers that their calls may be monitored for training or review purposes. You can be sure this will start happening en masse on both sides of the phone line.

The Origins of Islamic Extremism

Via Boing Boing, I see this article discussing the origins of modern islamic extremism. Apparently, just about every modern extremist islamic movement – from Hezbollah to Al-Qaeda – has been influenced heavily by the writings of a man named Sayed Qtub in which he discusses the wickedness he found while visiting America. Here’s one choice quote from his essay titled “The America I Saw”:

“American girls know perfectly well the seductive power of their bodies… that it resides in their face, expressive eyes and hungry lips. They know that seduction resides in firm round breasts and hungry lips, full buttocks and well shaped legs — and they show all this without trying to conceal it.”

He’s absolutely correct. This is what makes America so great! I’m mostly respective of other people’s cultures, thoughts and ideas and such, but I do believe the freedom of expression Qtub witnessed – which, by the way, is only one narrow example of the types of expression we’re normally allowed – is why America became a super power in the first place and why we seem to be losing that status rapidly now in the wake of the neo-conservative movement.

When Americans are allowed to express themsevles freely without fear of governmental regulations, some of the most amazing things happen. The early and mid parts of America saw unprecedented growth in our nation’s overall wealth and health due in large part to our government’s willingness to let things grow. I think there’s a direct correllation between how much the government wants to interfere in our personal lives – i.e. by clamping down on obscenity and indecency, casting too wide a net for terrorists, etc. – and the productivity potential of our nation. If you leave most Americans alone, they won’t just go about their daily lives happily, they’ll actually improve their surroundings.

The seeming frivolous “wickedness” Qtub witnessed is just one of those side-effects of this freedom. Ultimately, it’s harmless. If you believe in God and believe that all things on earth are His creation and believe that God wants us to be happy and enjoy His creation, then you should take such things as proof that we’re on the right track. Of course, if you believe God expects us to live in misery and that we should disdain his creation in favor of rigid self-discipline and suffering, well… you really need a new hobby.

OMFG Directly to the Forehead!!!!

I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while now, but didn’t really know how to bring it up. If it sounds like I’m breaking up with you, it’s because I am.

But we’ll talk about that later.

Right now I’d like to talk about “HeadOn” ProductTM. It’s applied directly to the forehead. Directly to the forehead, muthaf*ckers!

I’ve been hearing radio commercials for this product for some time. Inititally, I thought they were the worst commercials ever. They spend 30 seconds talking about HeadOn and how you apply it – did I tell you this yet? – directly to the forehead. At no point in time do they ever tell you what it actually is.

Is it a headache painkiller?

Is it a zit cream?

Is it a ball peen hammer?

I think it’s a ball peen hammer.

Then I saw that they made a commercial and I got excited because, hey! I’ll finally find out what it is!

It’s an ointment you apply directly to the forehead!!!! Awesome!

But what does it do? You know what, I just don;t know or care anymore. I’m left now with this wicked, unrelenting urge to slather several sticks of HeadOn product all over my massive forehead.

Perhaps my headaches will go away.

Perhaps my skin will clear up.

Perhaps I’ll grow a horn and prance about in rainbows on velvet blacklight paintings hung on your younger sister’s walls.

Who care? YOU APPLY IT DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD!!!! Simply amazing.

How to Destroy Your Online Community

Oooo… really, really lame move, TextAmerica. I understand why you feel the need to charge folks in order to meet your costs and turn a profit, but this ham-handed approach was bad, bad, bad. Charging $99/year is insane. It breaks down to $8.25/mo, which isn’t totally unreasonable. Offering no monthly payment option, however, will kill you, guaranteed, particularly when you have well-known competition (hello, Flickr) offering your basic services for free.

Back when I was still actively running FlockSmart (and wasn’t letting it go fallow like I am now) I had a lot of folks approach me with ideas to monetize my traffic. A large number of them involved charging my users for the service on some kind of subscription basis. I roundly defeated such suggestions without consideration. Simply put, when you have a community built on audience participation – which describes most of the Web 2.0 crowd – most users already pay in the form of supplying content. Asking them for money on top of that will more often than not chase away the exact folks you’re trying to attract, particularly when you started out offering the service for free.

One of the primary reasons FlockSmart went fallow is because I never did figure out a satisfactory way to make money off of it. It actually costs me money per month to leave it in its current state, but it’s not a significant amount and I do have plans to improve upon it. One thing I’ve been considering is offering some kind of “premium” subscription service that folks can pay to use. But turning around and suddenly requiring folks who already donated time and effort to a project to pay real money is just a bad idea. What many of these Web 2.0 folks don’t realize is that, despite the fact that they may have built the site, maintain the code, pay for server space, etc. their users feel like the owners. And why shouldn’t they? Flickr, for instance, is built entirely on the content freely uploaded by its users. The basic free account allows so many uploads per month. If you have huge and numerous images to upload, you’re free to purchase a premium account that loosens those restrictions. Seeing as you’re then taking up more space and are a more hardcore user, this may be worth it to you, and that makes sense.

TextAmerica, on the other hand, has declared that everyone – from the casual user to the phonecam addict – must all now pay the same price. Were it not for that fact that TA is essentially another photo sharing site, relying on user-created content to bring in eyeballs to view their paid ads and purchase their T-shirts, this would be fine. SmugMug is another photosharing site run by some friends of mine. There’s has always been a strictly pay model, but they offer high-quality photo hosting without restrictions, something worth paying for. Flickr remains a very specialized site that, ultimately, isn’t all that suitable for professional photographic hosting services. TextAmerica, which is almost strictly phonecam pics for moblogging purposes, is even more restrictive. Why in the world would I pay $99/yr for a service I can get for free from a site that doesn;t offer near as much as its nearest competitor?

Bottom line: if you’re going to charge your users, offer something worth paying for. Moblogging is a lot of fun and very useful for personal blogs, but not something worth paying that much for. Blogging would be nowhere were it not for the fact that the tools for it are mostly free and accessible. Place any kind of barrier up, whether it be technical or financial, and you slowly start to kill it. I don’t think TextAmerica’s charging for access will kill moblogging – MoblogUK, Flickr and other sites like it will give TA refugees plenty of more attractive options – but it does kill TA’s ability to further participate in the scene it helped create. I can immediately think of half a dozen ways this could have been handled better that wouldn;t alienate their thousands of users and hold their content hostage. I understand the need for a business to make money, but you shouldn’t kill the golden goose for its eggs.

Google Dominates

Here’s an interesting thought: Google is on a path toward world domination. This is not a joke, nor is it hyperbole as you may assume. No, they definitely want to control the world. Just not the one you were expecting.

Tim O’Reilly explains…

If you can’t conquer it, create your own. In the Web 2.0 world of user-created content, the ones banking the most cash will the ones who control the world.

Father Knows Best

With all of the shakeups happening in the administration and, more importantly, within the CIA, I’ve been wondering how pere Bush, a former CIA director, is feeling about all this. He’s been famously mum about his feelings towards his son’s administration, at least beyond the expected fatherly pride.

I couldn’t remember Bush Sr.’s actual role in the CIA, so I looked it up at Wikipedia. In addition to confirming his role in the agency, I found this blurb under the heading about the first Gulf War (emphasis mine):

In a foreign policy move that would later be questioned, President Bush achieved his stated objectives of “liberating” Kuwait and forcing Iraqi withdrawal, then ordered a cessation of combat operations allowing Saddam Hussein to stay in power. His Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney noted that invading the country would get the United States “bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq.” Bush later explained that he did not give the order to overthrow the Iraqi government because it would have “incurred incalculable human and political costs… We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq”.

In explaining to Gulf War veterans why he chose not to pursue the war further, President Bush said, “Whose life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we’re going to show our macho? We’re going into Baghdad. We’re going to be an occupying power. America in an Arab land with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous.”

What changed in 10 years? Absolutely nothing. And everything so eerily predicted during the first Bush’s tenure in office has come to pass during the second Bush’s reign. Unbelievable.

Sometimes, father really does know best.

Kevin Smith’s Boring Ass Life

I make no bones about being a huge Kevin Smith fan. His films have literally changed my life. A date of mine grew so bored watching Mallrats that she proactively performed a particularly intimate act with me to avoid watching it. Another woman fell asleep in my lap during our first date while watching Clerks – she would later become my wife.

So to find that Kevin “Silent Bob” Smith has been blogging as of late came as a small thrill to me. He doesn’t spend a lot of time writing about his movie making process (boring!) or his fabulous newish-found celebrity (gag!). Instead he actually blogs. Take his most recent entry on the perils of going to strip clubs. There’s nothing in there you wouldn’t find in a decent personal blog. It’s not marketing, it’s not pandering – it’s just a guy choosing to cover what he wants to talk about. Dig it!

If you doubt that Silent Bob has anything relevant or interesting to say, I beg you to read his nine-part series (yes, it’s worth reading the whole thing) chronicling Jason “Jay” Mewes’ battle with addiction from the viewpoint of one of his dearest friends, titled “Me and My Shadow“. It’s touching, disturbing and absolutely fascinating. I hesitate to ever call anyone who has beaten an addiction they have gotten their own selves into a hero, but it does require a huge amount of heroics to claw one’s self out of the depths of so deep a pit, particularly when it’s a pit of one’s own design. The whole saga left me riveted and eager for the next entry.

Considering that he’s an indie film hero who’s as comfortable hobnobbing with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as he is with his childhood buddies from the neighborhood, Smith’s boring ass life is really anything but. It’s an interesting dimension on the guy, one that personalizes him and makes him more personable. A lot of folks in the higher eschelons could take a cue from him.