Posts about Internet

Life is customer service

In Technology Review, Craig Newmark writes about his list and his view of customer service. As I think I’ve said here before, I’ve heard Craig introduce himself at more than one event as the guy who does customer service and that always gets a laugh but it is no joke. Customer service is the highest ethic of his venture. It is the highest ethic of open source. It is the highest ethic of a true community. If newspapers… and Dell… and AOL… and government remembered that customer service is their job, they’d be a lot more successful than they are.

My title at craigslist is “customer service rep and founder,” and my customer service role is at least a full-time gig. A CEO runs the actual organization now. I’ve always had difficulty articulating why I have this obsession. I work anywhere from two to ten hours a day, seven days a week, doing stuff like deleting “bait and switch” posts from New York apartment brokers, moderating discussion boards, and sharing community suggestions with the team. If you e-mail me about the site, I’ll probably write back–quickly, too….

I figure that reasonably good customer service is part of the social contract between producer and consumer. In general, if you’re going to do something, you should follow through and not screw around. As a nerd, I have the tendency to take things pretty seriously, so if I commit to something, I try really hard to stay committed.

This isn’t altruism or social activism; it’s just giving people a break….

Also, I’ve learned from the open-source movement that people want to contribute to endeavors of mutual benefit. So at craigslist, we’ve turned over a lot of control over the site to the people who use it. We seriously listen to suggestions and actually change the site in response to them….

I feel that all this is a deep expression of democratic values. From a business point of view, of course, it makes good sense, too: it lowers our costs and improves the quality of what’s on our site. Finally, it helps keep management in touch with what’s real–or at least that’s what we hope.

Unfortunately, in contemporary corporate culture, customer service is often an afterthought, given lip service only. This seems to be part of the general dysfunction of large organizations. As a company accumulates power and money, the people who are skilled at corporate politics take control of it. Customer service never seems to be highly prized by people with those skills. Maybe it’s because they lack empathy.

The key to customer service is not treating people like customers but like people. I’ve said this here before, too: When I worked for small papers in places like Burlington, Iowa, I talked with people who read what I wrote. When I went to work for big papers, I lost that connection and saw readers as people who wrote letters with crayons and tongues stuck out. That separation ruined me as a customer service representative in journalism until I got back into the conversation at eye level via blogs, where we’re each others’ customers.

Community policing: a business somebody should start (hint, hint)

I know many sites that need community policing — responding to alerts of bad posts, getting rid of the bozos who forgot to take their meds, cleaning the racist/sexist/xist graffiti from forums.

They are all dying to outsource this — not forum hosting but community policing. Somebody should start a company to do that. Has somebody?

When we started forums at, my last employer, we thought we needed moderators in each forum to spark conversation and slap the misbehavers. But that was the old-media way to think, the controlling way to think. We hired an expert who quickly taught us that we didn’t need moderators — people are perfectly capable of deciding what they want to talk about, thank you — but we did need people to arrest and try the bozos. He also taught us that if users saw results from sending in alerts to bad stuff — to snitching, in short — they would do it. And he was way right. Advance has 100 million page views a month of happy community campers’ chatter. At first, he hired people who were homebound to do the work (including one woman who was legally blind and used what sight she had to ferret out references to “poop,” which always struck me as, well, sad).

I tell this story to others who know the value of interactivity and they want to have that service without having to do it on staff. They want to hire it out. And there’s no reason that wouldn’t work. I’m not sure you could outsource it to Bangalore, given that cultural knowledge and sensitives are needed, but it’s possible to document and train that. (For a brief while, Advance’s community cops handled the forums for Conde Net’s and the background material explaining what was a no-no regarding fashion or Vogue or Paris Hilton was great reading; oh, if I’d only saved that memo!).

So does anybody know a company that does this? Anybody want to start one?

No cigar

I got all excited that Palm was coming out with a traffic ap for major cities on its Treo phones. Just downloaded it and it took a minute to see that it’s awkward and won’t work. The application is map-based and hard to see on a small screen and requires all kinds of zooming and scrolling and clicking…

And you thought talking on the phone was dangerous.

This is simple, folks: Every morning, I drive I-78 east and then 1&9 north and then every night I reverse it. I want someone to tell me what’s happening on my highways. And I’d be happy to contribute my knowledge if you’d make it easy for me.

The first company that captures the community of commuters will win.

This is another silly, graphical content service that wants to charge me $5 a month and it’s a loser. Damn.

No more AO-Hell

I canceled my AOL subscription last night. And they were a pain in the ass to the very end, keeping me on hold; delivering wordy, touchy-feely, insincere phone scripts; trying to rope/fool me into a continuing $9.95/month subscription.

No, cancel me. Just cancel me. Let go. I mean it.

After 12 years, I’m history. And so is what we used to call “online,” the era of closed subscription services, the world of walls.

Before AOL, I used CompuServe and also tried The Source and tried to avoid Prodigy. And I worked at Delphi very briefly 11 years ago. They were all part of a world that is over but is taking as long to die as TV Guide.

Gather ’round, young’uns, and I’ll tell you about them olden days:

Way back in 1974, I started working on my first newsroom computer (because I was bored on the midnight shift on the Chicago Tribune, waiting for someone to die a horrible death so I could call cops and their relatives and then write about it; that’s what we called journalism back then). I was the only guy who dared touch the computers sitting there, waiting to be used, and so I became the guy in the newsroom who wasn’t scared of the damned things.

I was newsgeek. Computers changed the way I wrote and I was soon silicon-dependent; I was an obnoxious evangelist for that strange thing called “the cursor” (a concept that wasn’t easy to explain to grumpy editors who always hate change). When I headed out of town for stories, I still had to haul along a portable typewriter (this was our laptop, I told my kids) and a mojo wire (as Hunter Thompson dubbed the early fax machines, which took something like six minutes a page to transmit onto smelly, chemicaly, unreadable paper around a fussy and noisy rotating drum using a 300 baud acoustic coupler). I was so relieved when I got to take a TRS-80 Model 100 and transmit directly with that. I was so addicted to portability that I spent a fortune of my own to buy the first full portable computer, the precursor to the Kaypro and the Compaq, my beloved Osborne 1. But it wasn’t portable enough, so I bought the first battery-operated fully functional (kind of) PC, the Morrow Pivot.

But what really changed my life was not the machines but what I got to do with them when I moved to New York and went online for the first time with that damned accoustic coupler. It was slow, ugly, all-text, geeky. I could ^h in my sleep.

But I quickly saw that I wasn’t just communicating. I wasn’t just reading. I was joining something.

Back then, you had to pay to join and the companies that enabled us to do this made all the same mistakes big companies still make today: They thought it was about content. They thought it was about communication. They thought it was about owning the consumer. They thought it was about walls. They didn’t really understand that it was just about people.

And, of course, the internet replaced them all. When I went to work for Delphi Internet Services as editor in chief in 1994, Murdoch had just bought them (I worked for his TV Guide then) because they were the first service to take consumers to this future-shocky thing called the internet (I heard a sleezy stockbroker on a train one night tell a chump that he should buy News Corp. stock because, “You’ve heard of this internet thing? Well, Murdoch just bought it”). They were text-only and were trying to invent their graphical user interface to compete with Prodigy et al, but I was one of the guys who said nevermind that, try this Mosaic thing. I left Delphi (passing that IQ test) before it essentially imploded under millions of Murdoch’s misspent dollars and came to Advance, where they were debating between AOL and Prodigy for their newspapers. Try this browser thing, I said, and we went onto the internet and never looked back.

I got AOL then and kept it this long only because (a) I needed to keep tabs on them for work — and work paid and (b) I used them rarely for dial-up from bad hotels. But now I’m unself-employed and paying the bills. And I have my Verizon EVDO card, which works even from the wilds of the Poconos.

So I have no earthly need for AOL. I certainly have no need for its content. I don’t need it to communicate. I don’t need it to make a community for me; I can find my own here.

At long last, I canceled AOL. And it feels so good.

So spammers: I now hand over to you. It’s all yours. It has been for the last five years. You made that address utterly useless. You didn’t even know I wasn’t there. But I’m gone now. Just thought I’d let you know.

Konfeedulator: Feedthink meets widgethink

Yahoo is buying Konfabulator, the neat program that lets you place all kinds of constantly updated widgets on your computer and lets all kinds of creative and generous people write those widgets. Apple — the great copycat — snarfed up the idea for its OSX dashboard. In the old days, we would have said that Yahoo is fighting Microsoft and Apple to take over the operating system or the desktop.

Now, I think it’s part of feedthink. The difference is that widgets are dynamic; they get current information; they gets feeds.

In my feedthink post, I wrote about Twest, a Munich company that was creating similar widgets before their time, about eight years ago, and they had two additional insights:

Widgets should be available anywhere, anytime, on any device. I should be able to see my widgets on my phone — and, in fact, that’s supposed to be a benefit of the new version of Windows, Vista (nee Longhorn). Auxiliary displays will let you see your email or other current information on a small screen when your laptop is closed or on your phone screen. See how Make is creating these displays now using Konfabulator.

Widgets should also be collaborative. I should be able to share a current widget with you. Say I have a shopping list widget. My family should be able to update it from any device and we should all be able to see it on any device. Content is functionality, functionality is content, content is communication.

It’s all part of feedthink.

: Yahoo taking this over means that it could do both those things to widgets. We’ll see.

: Also, if you have an online service of any sort, you’d better start widgethink. I don’t mean taking your content and putting it into a widget (there are plenty of stupid widgets already). I don’t mean turning out ad widgets (unless you’re Bud Lite and you make me laugh). I mean think feeds, think portability, think collaboration, don’t think platform.

Southwest Airlines created its own desktop ap to give you bargain airfares. I wouldn’t go to the effort of downloading that and putting it on my desktop. But I might widget it. Weatherbug was, in a sense, the original widget and now weather is on widgets everywhere (note that because anyone can write widgets from many feeds, it’s hard to hold onto terroritory and branding in widgetville).

News headline widgets are obvious. But what else can you do with them? Can you action-enable the headlines: let me email or save or or blog the headlines from the widget, perhaps.

If I were Weight Watchers, I’d create a personalized diet widget you could call on from the laptop or the phone.

If I were P&G, I’d create that shopping-list widget.

If I were Nike, I’d sponsor the fitness widgets that already exist.

What else?