May 14, 2009

Don't Tempt the Online Mob. They Come Bearing Pitchforks.

There's no need for me to recap Twitter's two-day flub as you've already seen it 40 different places. What's most interesting to me about the entire situation is the rapidity of how the user community turned on the service and its founders in response to what was a relatively minor change that was confusingly and sloppily addressed. The response, which loudly came from all corners, mirrored that of previous blowups, which have also included Facebook and Digg as victims - the first around its terms of service and Beacon, and the second, around its blocking of illegal series of numbers that could unlock DVD region codes. Even Google Reader faced a backlash last year from users who expected a different interpretation of what friends were and who could see what.

See also:Every single case dealt with a Web 2.0 service driven largely by user generated or selected content, where the mob was reacting to changes handed down unilaterally from a seeming all-knowing company, without first communicating potential changes, or accurately foreseeing downstream effects. And in most of the examples (Google Reader being practically the only exception), the service had already chipped into its balance of goodwill, leading to a strained relationship with a vocal minority of users, setting the stage for the much larger backlash that was to come.

Did the services that made mistakes and got roundly slammed deserve the punishment? If you ask the users, the answer is yes. In today's world, the online communities that have been built around these popular products have a sense of entitlement, not just to specific features, but that they will be made a part of the process, spoken with and not just spoken to. And if they feel they have been wronged or lied to, all hell can rain down on the company or the individual bearing the broken message.

To me personally, the change in @replies for Twitter was frustrating and annoying, but what ticked me off was more the way in which it was delivered. As with the company's previous comments about following many users being "disingenuous", this week's move seemed like they were once again telling us of a right way and a wrong way to use their product. That their blog post was backtracked upon and respun as a product issue and then a technical issue made us feel lied to, and the team, despite having what by all means is a very successful product, disappointed us again.

Here's the thing: Before I get slammed (again) for being a FriendFeed apologist and/or Twitter hater... the truth is not so black and white. I think Twitter is great for what it is supposed to do - send short messages and help broadcast information quickly. It is now a utility, like e-mail, and we're all assumed to be there. But I, and many others, continue to get frustrated when we see the system and its people fall short of what is an amazing potential. You can have hundreds of millions of users, but the experience itself is diminishing, and the management seems disconnected, in a way that makes them look like they are in love with the latest celebrities to sign up and less enamored with us rank and file who evangelized their product the last few years, pointing out both the good and the bad as it came.

Similar too are the stories of those previously stabbed by the mob. The Digg fanatics believe strongly in their ability to push favorite items forward, and potentially upset the balance of the new world media. Facebook, once deemed a safe place for friends and family to congregate online, found itself on the wrong side of privacy choices and business. Google Reader wrongly hoped that those you e-mailed in GMail would be fine to share your RSS favorites with. In each case, the users believed in the product, wanted it to succeed, but disagreed strongly with the latest moves, and they would not give up until their voices had been heard and made impact.

Designing new products and services, and adding new features to existing ones, is very difficult to do in public, especially when you are trying to walk the fine line of placating existing users while attracting new ones. Twitter, in a flash point of popularity, is especially vulnerable due to the fact their own product, as also are Digg and Facebook, could be used by users to fight back. Did Twitter or Facebook or Digg lose users permanently due to such heated battles? Probably not for long, but the scars do linger, and the trust factor that might once have been there is gone, or at least damaged enough that the mob will keep their torches at the ready, waiting for the next time they're needed.

The world of product development, on the backs of user content, is changing the way people expect to participate. And when they aren't treated as equals, or they are talked down to, people are taking it very seriously, and there are more platforms for conversation than ever, with more people to reach than ever, so any service who is in this space who expects to make even "small settings updates" should strongly think of their potential impact and be ready in case things start to go wrong - fast.