There are no poor social software scientists

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Last week Liz Lawley wrote what I thought was a very thoughtful piece, both at her weblog and at Many-to-Many. She wrote:

I think we’re watching a significant moment in weblog history. Justified or not, the anger among MovableType’s users will push many of them to new tools, and has permanently changed the perception of SixApart by its customers. The users have spoken, and the landscape has shifted.

I agree with her completely. More than that, I think that this experience ultimately will prove healthy for all parties involved.

Years ago when I worked at Boeing, I worked very closely with the Oracle folks in the area because we were one of Oracle’s biggest customers. About that time Oracle released a new version of their flagship database product: Oracle 6.0. It generated a considerable amount of discussion on our floor, not to mention a lot of sleepless nights because unlike previous versions, 6.0 was a change in the architecture of the product, not a feature release. And boy was it a change, going from an old partition system to the new tablespaces, and providing a new fangled thing called row level locking..

Later on I was chatting with one of my friends at Oracle about the product, after the dust had settled and we were finally past the move. I remember saying something about how it takes guts to pull the rug out from under your customer’s feet with a new architecture. He just shook his head and said I didn’t even know the full truth of how much of an impact this move had on the company. He said the customer reaction was so severe that Oracle came within a half a step of having to declare bankruptcy, and going out of business.

It was a bite the bullet moment for Oracle.

I was reminded of this story while reading the criticism directed at Six Apart, and realize that this was Six Apart’s bite the bullet moment. All software products have to, at some or another, go through a bite the bullet release. Microsoft did so with .NET. IBM did so with DB2 (and Linux). Oracle, Sun, every company that has a maturing software product will at some time or another, have to re-think it’s architecture or strategy or consumer base and possibly issue a bite the bullet release.

If the company survives, they’ll look back on the moment, realize what they did right and wrong and hopefully be a better, stronger company as a result. If the company doesn’t survive, well, this too is a growth experience.

Just as Oracle’s customers did long ago, Six Apart’s customers are also having to bite the bullet with this release, jarred out of their complacent dependence on regular, no or low cost staircase upgrades, and forced into reviewing what they do, and don’t want from their environments. If the Six Apart crew has learned, hopefully, the value of good communication, we’ve learned that we can separate the technology from the people and make decisions about what’s best for us, overall, without having to be worry about the personal consequences–after all, the technology we use is a tool, not membership in a clan.

When the dust is settled, we’re all going to be a bit more mature, and our environments are going to be a bit richer; but we’re not going to be moving in the same direction. Some will stay with Movable Type, others move back to Blogger, or on to new environments like ExpressionEngine or WordPress or Textpattern or any of the other wonderful tools that exist – too many to list.

As Liz said, the landscape has shifted, and I think this is good; we’ve all been moving in lockstep too long. We need diversity, and not just in our technology.

Perhaps I should have stopped reading Many-to-Many at this point, otherwise I wouldn’t have read Clay Shirky’s amazingly condescending writing today. Rather than focus on the gentle, even slightly melancholic reflections of Liz’s post, or focus on the fact that Six Apart’s recent experience is a wonderful demonstration of how not to communicate with customers, he responds with the following:

First, most of the analyses have focussed on the users, as if MT were a word processor whose main value was to individuals. Seen in this light, the users complaining about the changes are behaving childishly.

However, that’s what users always do in this situation — the reaction is baked in. The problem is not with these particular users, it would be with any group of users in a similar situation. Weblogging tools are community enablers, and when you create community, you engage people’s emotions. Period. Community membership precedes rationality, both historically (all higher primates are social) and literally (children attach to their families before they can talk.)

The dilemma for people who build communal tools is this: if you want something that hooks people emotionally, you cannot have rational users, and vice-versa. And when you build a tool that helps create a social fabric, changes to the tool trigger social anxieties. Always.

This is not to say that MT shouldn’t charge for their product — we use it here, and I’m assuming we’ll upgrade when the time comes. It is to say, though, that because MT has succeeded in creating social value, you cannot expect users to act rationally to change. If you want users to really care about a piece of social software, they will invest in it emotionally. If you change the bargain they think they are operating under, even if that bargain is merely implicit and obviously unsupportable and even if you have the absolute and unilateral right to change it, they will freak out.

According to Clay, this really isn’t about money. It’s about the fact that we users are regressed infants, crying out when the bottle is taken away. Or is that chimps losing a banana?

It is impossible for me to understand how Clay can disregard what many of us have been saying so completely as to not only miss the mark, but to do so in about the most offensive way possible. But then I had to look at who he socializes with in the social software arena, to better understand where Clay is coming from: he’s used to interacting with people who are comfortably situated, and therefore has no idea–none– about how the difference between $70.00 and $150.00 (or $700.00!) can generate such a reaction.

After all, have we not spent the last year listening to the social software people as they talk about this trip to London and that trip to Zurich? How many conference reports have we had to sit through, or photos of dinners where all the faces looking amazingly alike from event to event? How many posts focused on this new iPod, or that new cellphone?

Didn’t Dave Winer demonstrate this so aptly? Calling us ‘childish’ because we reacted in shock to the license prices, while saying that after all a dinner costs $100.00, a hotel $150.00 –why are we bitching about software that costs $70.00?

These people, they don’t have a clue about how the rest of us live. They don’t know that for most of us, the difference between $70.00 and $150.00 is the difference between making a car payment or not; paying for tuition or your kid’s dentist bill; or paying one’s health insurance premium; or even making the rent or buying food.

Dinner cost $150.00? My big treat is to take my roommate and myself out for a concrete at the frozen custard place, and I can tell you, we drive ourselves, do not take a cab, and it costs less than $10.00. It also doesn’t come around that often, either.

Liz gave us the benefit of the doubt, that we were complaining about the cost because many of us could no longer afford to use the product, and we were given no warnings that such price increases were just around the corner. And she did so gracefully, in such a way that there is no loss of dignity–that we’re all shocked about the costs, we’re all in this together.

What Clay has done, is rubbed our noses in the fact that there are those that have, and those have not; and then made an assumption that everyone is a ‘have’ and therefore the complaints were about emotional investment not the cost.

Next time Clay, leave your assumptions at home with your Gucci case, next to your new iPod and the tickets from your last trip. You’ll excuse me as I go back to the free software us poor folk use.

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