The Web Is a Customer Service Medium

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I sometimes chat with people in the book- and magazine-publishing industries. They complain to me about the web. They worry about what is being lost. They can sound like this bookseller in Buffalo, New York:

Books are not product. Books are creative endeavors as individual and singular as any work of art. They cannot be tweaked as if they are idling wrong. They can't have leaves pulled off as they rot like a cabbage or lettuce.

I call the people who say such things the Gutenbourgeois. They believe in the cultural primacy of writers and editors and they feel good—even a bit superior—about working in publishing. They believe it is their job to drive culture forward. The web, they are a little proud to admit, confuses them. They say: “We gave away all those short stories on our website but it sold no books.” Or: “We built a promo site for our famous author who does the crime novels and it was just a total boondoggle with no traffic.” Or: “The magazine can't get enough pageviews, even after we hired the famous blogger. Now management wants to make people pay for access.”

“Look,” I say, “maybe you're doing it wrong.”

“But,” they say, “we tweet.”

That's when I tell them about the fundamental question of the web.

The Fundamental Question of the Web

One can spend a lot of time defining a medium in terms of how it looks, what it transmits, wavelengths used, typographic choices made, bandwidth available. I like to think about media in terms of questions answered.

Here's one question: “I'm bored, and I want to get out of the house and have an experience, possibly involving elves or bombs. Where do I go?”

The answer: You could go to a movie.

Here's another: “How do I distract myself without leaving the house?”

You might turn on the TV.

“I'm driving, or making dinner. How do I make a mundane thing like that more interesting?”

Radio! Especially NPR or talk radio.

“What's going on locally and in the world, at length?”

Try this newspaper!

A medium has a niche. A sitcom works better on TV than in a newspaper, but a 10,000 word investigative piece about a civic issue works better in a newspaper.

When it arrived the web seemed to fill all of those niches at once. The web was surprisingly good at emulating a TV, a newspaper, a book, or a radio. Which meant that people expected it to answer the questions of each medium, and with the promise of advertising revenue as incentive, web developers set out to provide those answers. As a result, people in the newspaper industry saw the web as a newspaper. People in TV saw the web as TV, and people in book publishing saw it as a weird kind of potential book. But the web is not just some kind of magic all-absorbing meta-medium. It's its own thing. And like other media it has a question that it answers better than any other. That question is:

Why wasn't I consulted?

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Why Wasn't I Consulted?

“Why wasn't I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

I first wrote about this in 2007, after 18 months of isolating and frustrating work on a website:

Brace yourself for the initial angry wave of criticism: How dare you, I hate it, it's ugly, you're stupid. The Internet runs on knee-jerk reactions. People will test your work against their pet theories: It is not free, and thus has no value; it lacks community features; I can't believe you don't use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell; my cat is displeased. The ultimate question lurks beneath these curses: why wasn't I consulted?

That line was tossed off, but since I wrote it I've seen the same pattern everywhere. I've explained it to many other web people, and they laugh, but then a few months later some say, “you know...”

WWIC is the thing people talk about when they talk about nicer-sounding things like “the wisdom of crowds” or “cognitive surplus.” It has become the first thing I think about when I think about the web. I've spent a lot of time with users, and as part of various web communities. I've answered thousands of emails about things I built or said. Now, when I sit down to graffle, I start by asking: “How do we deal with the WWIC problem?” Everything else comes after.

A surprising portion of the writing about the web is actually about WWIC, about the question of who controls what territory. Here are a few random examples of how this plays out, from my WWIC folder: Michael Arrington's “Digg's Biggest Problem Is Its Users And Their Constant Opinions On Things.” Or the way that digital groupies claim ownership of their heroes online. Or how Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a producer on Lost, took a year off from Star Wars after realizing how his anger with George Lucas was overwhelming his life:

In our gluttonous lust to replicate the exhilaration of a matinee from 1977, we demanded that his otherwise fun little film metastasize into so pervasive a chunk of the collective unconscious that Carl Jung now sports Mandalorian armor and flies a modified Firespray-31 attack cruiser turned slave ship.

They “demanded”; as fans, they felt that was their right. (Lost, of course, was masterful about consulting its fans—as much wiki as show by the end.)

There's also Steve Martin, whose Q&A session at the 92nd St. Y in New York City was interrupted by a bored audience that demanded better. Wrote Martin:

What I wasn't told was that the viewers were going to be encouraged to send in e-mails during the discussion; what I didn't expect was that the Y would take the temperature of those e-mailed reactions, and then respond to them by sending a staff member onstage, mid-conversation, with a note that said, 'Discuss Steve's career.'

Finally, there's the Register-Citizen newspaper of Torrington, Connecticut. In a sincere attempt to reimagine themselves in the age of the Internet they recently opened up newsroom story meetings to all comers. The process of putting together the paper—once the territorial imperative of editors—is now open to anyone wanting to swing by and mumble.

What sums it up best, to me, is this image published on the blog Kotaku. The image was posted as a comment on a blog post linking to an article about British computer-industry millionaire Clive Sinclair marrying a younger woman. Here is the image:

Consider what that cartoon means in that context: It implies that the commenter feels—with some irony and self-awareness, I'm sure—that his opinion, in some way, is relevant to the question of whether Clive Sinclair should marry a particular woman. This is, for many obvious reasons, completely insane. And yet there was an image already sketched and available to that commenter so that he could express this exact sentiment of choosing not to be outraged at a situation he read about on the Internet. WWIC in action.

(Update: Thanks to Riaz Moola, Karl Dubost, Daniel Nugent, Josh Braun, Jason Alderman, Calvin Bienvenu, and Hex I learned that this image is by KC Green [who is disappointed that it has become a meme]. It's the final two panels of a “Custom Comic”—comics created by audience request—entitled “Andys 16 Now - Bobby”. See also.)

The Unconsulted

If you tap into the human need to be consulted you can get some interesting reactions. Here are a few: Wikipedia, Stack Overflow, Hunch, Reddit, MetaFilter, YouTube, Twitter, StumbleUpon, About, Quora, Ebay, Yelp, Flickr, IMDB, Amazon.com, Craigslist, GitHub, SourceForge, every messageboard or site with comments, 4Chan, Encyclopedia Dramatica. Plus the entire Open Source movement. If you spend more time on sites like those listed here than you do reading books, watching TV, or visiting sites like ESPN.com or NYTimes.com, then, like me, the web is now your native medium.

The obvious example of WWIC at work is Wikipedia, created for free by unpaid labor. It tapped into the basic human need to be consulted and never looked back.

Then there's YouTube. It was created so that anyone could upload and distribute videos. So that's one level of WWIC—to hell with TV, people should look at me! The site has comments, so people can discuss the videos—a second level of WWIC. But there are now also thumbs-up/thumbs-down icons so that you can rank the comments and the video, a third level of WWIC.

Once you see that third level, a website is complete. You're down to the bedrock. A boolean or integer value is the digital equivalent of a grunt. You can't get any more basic than a like, or a thumbs-up, or a favorite.

My favorite among the sites with favorites is MetaFilter, which asks its members to filter out, and write up, the best of the web, and then invites them to discuss what was filtered. The creators of MetaFilter never worried about having the most advanced web technology in place, or about looking like other sites. The focus, above profit, was on moderating and managing the community. That worked very well. But while huge, the site remains a great read. I visit it far more often than I visit the website of my local paper.

Many years after founding MetaFilter, its creators took what they learned and made a Q&A spinoff site, Ask MetaFilter, that did away with the need to filter the web and went straight to the users for both questions and answers. It has been, both in terms of traffic and editorial quality, a success. I suggest that the engine that drives its success is that need to be consulted, to demonstrate knowledge and superiority. It turns that instinct to good, and rewards those who exercise it judiciously—certainly the few times I have answered Ask Metafilter questions I've felt like a champion, and it's double gratifying if your answer is picked as one of the best. The site allows one-click favorites, so that we (including I) might grunt our praise. Of course there's also MetaTalk, the gray, the part of MetaFilter that lets people talk about MetaFilter, so that people can feel consulted about being consulted. It's WWIC all the way down—but acknowledged, understood, and turned, through painstaking labor, to good.

The rapidly expanding Internet community Reddit has its own approach to the WWIC problem—a simpler form for posts, less room for narrative and voting on stories and comments, which allows us to punish or reward, and derives from the aggregate punishments and rewards a view of the most popular or approved-of stories and comments. It even has something akin to Ask MetaFilter with its “IamA (Ask Me Anything)” section. (Question #2 at this writing—“I am a New York Times bestselling novelist. Ask me anything.”) But it's built to scale—to capture more and more links with more and more “subreddits.” Same principle, different approach.

The list grows; the Stack Overflow/Stack Exchange community has blown up to unbelievable size, and I'm now getting way too many emails announcing people joining Quora, another pure-WWIC play; also, it'd be hard to get more WWIC than Hunch, which consults people on all manner of subjects to create a generalized prediction engine. These sites sometimes explain themselves by saying that they tap into human generosity or use the power of community, and that's true in its way, but it's a generosity that must be watched, moderated, and rewarded with various kinds of points and credits. Altruism, yes, but at what cost?

Such contentions aside, there is no other medium that could do what Stack Overflow does. You couldn't do it on TV, or in a newspaper, or in books. You need a back button, a database, and a community. You could try, of course—anyone can download all the questions and answers under the terms of the site's Creative Commons license—but that would be a corpus without the spark of life.

So what kind of medium is the web if the boundaries are so unclear, and if the fundamental question is WWIC? This is from an interview with MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey:

What makes MetaFilter a success?

Matt: I'd like to think it's intense moderation and customer service.

That is the point that I am trying to make. The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium. “Intense moderation” in a customer service medium is what “editing” was for publishing.

Working Within a Customer Service Medium

That's what I tell my Gutenbourgeois friends, if they'll listen. I say: Create a service experience around what you publish and sell. Whatever “customer service” means when it comes to books and authors, figure it out and do it. Do it in partnership with your readers. Turn your readers into members. Not visitors, not subscribers; you want members. And then don't just consult them, but give them tools to consult amongst themselves. These things are cheap and easy now if you hire one or two smart people instead of a large consultancy. Define what the boundaries are in your community and punish transgressors without fear of losing a sale. Then, if your product is good, you'll sell things. (Don't count on your fellow Gutenbourgeois to buy things. They're clicking the little thumb icon on YouTube like everyone else.) If you don't want to do that then just find niche communities who might conceivably care about your products and buy great ad placements. It's a better online spend.

I'm winging it here, but I mean it. I own[ed] SavePublishing.com (that I haven't been able to figure out what to do with it is, I think, emblematic). I also own WhyWasntIConsulted.com, and welcome suggestions on what to do with it. Obviously. (Oh, and [I once owned] CommentsAreClosed.com.)

The days of the web as all-purpose media emulator are numbered. Apps on mobile are gaining traction; the web browser, despite great and ongoing effort, will not become the universal platform for everything ever. Apps provide niche experiences. People apparently like niche experiences enough to pay for them. This is serious.

Sadly, mobile apps, as a class of software, are less free than many would like, in terms of both freedom to tinker and freedom from payment. This upsets people who are commited to the WWIC web, but for other people, like publishers who have been told that they “don't get it” for a decade, the idea of a defensible territory, a walled garden, looks just swell. That the new thing might make, instead of lose, money is a morale booster. So media properties are migrating into these apps, where boundaries between reader and publisher can be defined and enforced. TV is migrating back to TV, but “smarter.” To read a book people will turn to their phones. But the web is where they will go to complain.

Further Discussion

WhyWasntIConsulted.net [was] up and running, cataloging examples of people on the web who haven't been consulted. Writes the site's creator: “This is a group for discussing interesting developments in social media. Anyone with something to say is welcome to jump in and share links or contribute to the discussion. I think you need to have a Posterous account to leave replies. Sorry.” I'll be contributing, and you should too!

Twitter, of course.

On the gray, member Miko pointed out some sloppy thinking on my part. In the interest of accuracy and brevity I cut the paragraph in question. Member Rory Marinich said, wisely:

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.)




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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