Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Comment Moderation

I've been meditating lately on the topic of comment moderation, chiefly in regard to blogs (though obviously, not this one, as comments are disabled due to its nature), and chiefly, because the notion of comments seems to be of questionable value.

Originally, the value of providing site visitors with the ability to provide feedback was done with the intention of getting bug reports: a link is broken, the graphics don't load, and so on. Site visitors would help the site owner maintain the site, and would also provide some helpful suggestions along the way. I don't sense that's the value of comments anymore. Site owners are expected, and rightly so, to maintain their own content, and since the Web has settled down quite a bit, the problem of outbound links constantly breaking is no longer a major issue (and there are utilities that will automate the task of finding them).

It seems to me that the chief value of comments in social media is giving site visitors the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. A "good " comment suggests a revision to the content of the page that will ultimately improve the quality of a site, or suggests a point of view that the author may not have considered. I'm generally glad to get these comments, though there are still a handful of kooks and trolls in the woodwork who are either amusing themselves or trying to provoke an absurd reaction.

Sadly, the reaction I get when I post such a remark to another site is generally less than grateful. It tends to be along the lines of "how dare you disagree" - or at best "gee, thanks" from someone who doesn't intend to consider what I've attempted to contribute. That could be in the nature of blogs, in which entries are dated and, once a person clicks "post," they feel that their job is over, and that the content will be preserved as written as a historical document, regardless of any errors or omissions. Which is probably the reason I seldom bother, anymore.

The majority of comments I see on blogs are flattery - which say "what a good post you've written," and add nothing at all to the topic. My sense is that people like to get praise as a reward for their work, and consider the praise of others to be a credential for their ideas, which is probably the reason that so many posts have a long queue of hollow praise in which any substantive comment is well buried.

When a company does this, it flows from the same spring, but my sense is that companies are more cautious than people, and people are more critical of companies. A corporate blog that contains only positive comments (and excludes any unflattering remark) seems untrustworthy and disingenuous. I don't think that it's any different when it comes to personal blogs, but we're more forgiving of vanity when it comes to individuals.

In blogs where comments are accepted, I've taken to rejecting comments that contain only hollow praise. There was a brief period of time when it seemed to me that people were posting positive remarks without even having read the blog entry, because they expected that I would be eager to publish praise of myself - and because most blog comments contain a link back to their sites, flattering others can be an effective form of self-promotion.

The problem is that, when you weed out all the spam, there doesn't seem to be very much at all left over. In my "convenience sample" of the comments I've received in the past week, 72% were either outright spam, or "good post" spam. Looking around at the other blogs I follow, including a number of topic-driven blogs, I have the sense that the proportion is much higher - though admittedly, these are only the "approved" comments, after the authors have decided to weed out comments they didn't feel merited posting (though if they consider hollow praise to be worthwhile, I'd have to question whether their judgment is worth considering).

It may be a while before I get around to coming to a firm conclusion on whether this practice is worthwhile - but for now, I'm lumping hollow praise in with the rest of the spam. I expect a few people may feel offended at being ignored, but if they have nothing of value to say, and are just looking to get a link to their site by flattering me, perhaps it's not high-value traffic anyway.

And so, my sense is that I have more thinking to do and more data to collect - and the topic of comment moderation is to be continued ... sometime.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Browser Wars

A number of the blogs I read are on about Google's "Chrome" browser, which is gaining steam very slowly. The latest news is that a firm that provides a statistics service to small Web sites has put out a Web release stating that Chrome has passed Safari in usage statistics, implying that it's on its way to being a contender.

I don't know if I agree with that assertion. While the numbers seem reasonable, it's just not very newsworthy: like crowing that your off-brand cola sells more than another off-brand, even though you're clearly unable to compete with Coke or Pepsi. But even if/when Chrome is able to rival the big players, I don't know if I can get excited, or even remotely interested, in the competition.

What seems to be missing from this late stage of the "war" is any appreciable benefit to using one browser or the other, or any impact of the competitors on the nature of the game. Back when Netscape and Microsoft were the contenders and the battle was more heated, I definitely had the sense that the outcome of the battle for market share was constant and dramatic innovation - and regardless of which browser was "on top," the internet itself benefitted from the struggle for dominance.

Netscape, in particular, gave us the ability to use forms in Web pages, choose typeface and color, use script to control browser events, and a number of other capabilities we now take for granted. Although it was painful and time-consuming to have t develop two or three different versions of each page to suit the capabilities and limitations of different browsers, the long-run benefit to the medium was enormous.

Now that the war has cooled off and the major players are generally adherent to standards, the "benefits" of using one versus the other are negligible ... and innovation has slowed to a crawl.

And while I'm thankful for the breather, I wonder if it's been a good trade in that sense.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Obstacles to Customer Experience

A recent survey of business attitudes toward customer experience (I failed to note the URL) found that the majority of companies acknowledge the importance of customer experience, but cite a number of factors that prevent them from being able to invest in improving it. As I recall, the chief obstacle was cited as "competing priorities."

There were no details about what those priorities are, but I strongly suspect that they come down to one thing: short-term performance objectives.
  • A company that's seeks to boost sales will push products their customers don't want
  • A company that's seeks to increase its gross margin may reduce quality (without reducing prices) or increase prices (without increasing quality)
  • A company that's seeks to increase efficiency will gravitate toward procedures that are efficient for the employees, and may be burdensome to customers
There numerous "tricks" that a business will use to boost its financial performance for the current year or fiscal quarter, which are generally accepted as good business practices, but which at the same time are detrimental to customer experience.

That's not to say that fiscal performance is unimportant (it's the raison d'etre for a commercial enterprise) - but that if these short-term goals take precedence over the long-term success of the firm, the company will enjoy short-term success at the cost of long-term failure. And the problem is the delayed effect: a short-term gain overshadows the long-term loss. The immediate benefits of the short-term reward and reinforce the behaviors, and when the long-term effects are suffered, it's too late.

It strikes me that short-term, by-the-numbers management is very similar to another phenomenon: steroid addiction. The athlete who uses steroids gains a short-term performance boost, but wrecks their health in the long run. And it's difficult for him to abandon them, because it's such a quick and easy fix.

I have the sense it's entirely appropriate, both to the effect of these actions of a company's performance (short and long term) and the mentality of those who are attracted to such tactics.

But I'm well aware I've switched channels from exploring a problem to chasing down a metaphor, which indicates I need to stop typing.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ten Thousand Lines of Bad Code

It's been a while since I've rolled up my sleeves and worked on the code behind the screen, and having pitched in to help out with those tasks in the past few days, I'm appalled by what I found there: a tangled mess of code that, while functional, is thoroughly rotten.

My shock and revulsion arises, in large part, from being one of the old dogs, who started back in the day when the average modem speed was 14.4 Kb speed, which seemed lightning fast compared to a 9600 baud model of the year before. And 14.4 Kb was a theoretical maximum - the average functional speed was about 1 KB per second.

In those days, your code had to be tight: every wasted character, every flabby graphic, seriously degraded the user experience where the main complaint was how long it took a page to download. It was difficult, and many developers and (especially) designers hated the constraints.

Nowadays, it's possible to cram a lot more data down the pipe, and unless you go hog wild, the download speed is fast enough that the user doesn't get a sense of delay while waiting for the page they requested to show up in the browser before them. And that's largely a good thing.

The only drawback is that designers and developers no longer need to pay much attention to page weight. Unless they do something egregious, it won't make a functional difference. And as a result, things have gotten very sloppy out there.

A few years ago, I was asked looked at the home page of a site that required a download of 180 KB of data to render. Evidently, some statistical software alerted the owner to the "problem" and they were curious as to the reason.

When I looked under the hood, I found the reasons:
  • The content of the page that was being served was small, probably under 5K. Perhaps half of that was wasted on code that had been commented out in the development process but no-one bothered to delete it, excessive space and tab characters, and other sloppy code practices. But this was minor.
  • The majority of the waste was images - and that's not saying that the images were unnecessary, just that they had not been optimized for the Web, and were between 70% and 90% flab. Back in the day, developers would skip this task because it could take a couple hours per image through a trial and error process. Now, there's a "save for Web" option in PhotoShop that takes a couple of minutes to try various formats and compression rates, so there really is no excuse.
  • Another huge chunk was external CSS that, in addition to being full of complete junk (commented-out codes and whitespace characters), included loads of styles that were not used on the page itself. Perhaps hey were used on other pages, or just vestigial, but they weren't needed on the home page.
  • Another sizable chunk were external JavaScript files, of the same nature: commented-out code, a blizzard of whitespace, and unnecessary functions
If memory serves me correctly, I was able to reduce the page size by about 70% in about four hours effort, which didn't address every little thing, just the major issues. The reaction: complete indifference. I don't believe anything was done to address the issue after that - and looking at the same Web page today, it has swelled to 345 KB, so their curiosity about the site's bloat was just a passing fancy, as they have allowed the problem to become even worse.

And again, "problem" is a matter of perspective. Someone like myself, with old-fashioned sensibilities about code, sees it as a serious issue: if 70% (or more) of bandwidth is wasted, the congestion on the Internet could be significantly reduced by simply tidying up. But that's in the nature of environmental concern, something that people pay lip-service to, but still throw trash out the window of a moving car because it's inconvenient to dispose of properly.

It's also a problem for the developers who work to maintain a site, who have to comb through thousands of lines of code and sort out all the references to find out what's "breaking" the page in a given browser. But that's been accepted as part of the job, and I don't expect a low-rank code peon to get much of an audience from the decision-makers.

And as a result, I have largely accepted that pointing out this issue is akin to talking to a brick wall: nobody is listening, nobody cares, and it's probably just waste of breath - or, ironically enough, waste of type.

Which is ironic, in that I'm hammering out a few thousand characters to grouse about the waste of several thousand other characters - but for anyone who's viewing this page, the content is probably only about 2% of the wasted data, given that I'm using blogging software that I expect will add 100 KB or more of completely useless junk on top of the content.

:: sigh ::

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Vine-Ripened Cherry Tomatoes

Tom Beatty posted this snapshot of a carton of "vine-ripened" cherry tomatoes to Facebook. In case you're viewing a text-only feed or have red-green colorblindness: the tomatoes are not at all ripe, and some of them are very green. Aside of the irony of the image, it strikes me as an excellent example of bad product labeling.

Consumers have become thoroughly jaded to product packaging. Thus far, neither Tom nor anyone who's commented on the photo has expressed any outrage at the obvious attempt to misinform the customer. It's laughable, but does not offend - and the lack of offense stems from a lack of faith in marketing claims - because to be offended and the "deception" would require that one had an expectation of honesty.

There was a time when something like this would have rankled, and when consumer-protection groups would have sought out the producer to set things right. But in the present age, the consumer watchdogs are asleep - moreover, if a person is misled by advertising, the reaction tends to be "what a naive person" rather than "what an unethical company."

At the risk of coming off as cynical, I tend to wonder if consumer protection groups ever gave much thought to protecting the consumer, or if they were merely pawns of the manufacturers who funded them. In this instance, it would seem that Andrew & Williamson (the importer who packaged these particular tomatoes) could be subject to a lawsuit from Desert Glory, the company that spent quite a lot of advertising money to run television commercials for its "Nature Sweet" tomatoes and establish a public perception that vine-ripening produces a tastier tomato.

My guess is that Desert Glory doesn't consider Andrew & Williamson a serious enough threat to their brand to invest in pursuing the matter, or hasn't contributed quite enough support to the consumer protection racket to get them to take up a public relations campaign, or fear that any publicity might do more damage to the public perception of "vine ripened" and undermine the perception they have paid to create.

But I digress ... the point I had intended to make was that advertising claims about products by those with a commercial interest in selling them have lost credibility with consumers, and my sense is that this image and the reaction that precipitated (or the lack of reaction) is an excellent demonstration of that.

On closer inspection, the same label contains a few phrases that have also lost their meaning: the banner across the top reads "limited edition", and just below it, there's the word "Premium" - both of which have been used so frequently in advertising that they have lost all meaning to consumers.

In all, there's virtually no value in any of the words on this label. From top to bottom, it indicates:
  • Limited Edition - A completely meaningless phrase
  • Premium - Also completely meaningless
  • Vine-Ripened - Which is plainly false
  • Cherry Tomatoes - Which is self-evident, as the package is clear
  • Do Not Refrigerate - Good advice for the consumer's storage to preserve quality (though I wonder if there is much "quality" to preserve)
  • Andrew & Williamson, San Diego, CA - A company, but their role is unclear: did they grow them, package them, wholesale them, or merely provide the branding?
  • Net weight 12 ounces - Perhaps the only words on the entire label that can be trusted, or are of any use to anyone
  • Product of Mexico - Not on the label, but a sticker which would seem to indicate that the address of the company above may be in the U.S., but the product was actually grown in another country.
There is nothing that a consumer would take into account when purchasing the item, which begs the question: why bother to label this item at all? Arguably, putting a certain quantity into a package is a convenience to the consumer in that it enables them to grab-and-go rather than to have to bag and weigh the produce if it were stored in a bulk bin - and while the price isn't shown in this image, my experience with other produce is that the convenience comes at a considerable mark-up.

I've rambled on a while, and there's probably quite a bit more that doesn't immediately come to mind - all related to a general theme of the value of marketing efforts to communicate the qualities of a product to the customer by means of product labeling, and all pointing to the general conclusion that, for some products, there's simply no point to doing so.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Virtual Community Practices and Social Interactive Media

I've added reading notes on a volume of academic articles about virtual communities and social media, which presents information that I think is of some interest - but I have to admit that it's hard to be certain.

Academic articles tend to be convoluted, so it's taken me a while to get through it and I'll concede that I may have mis-translated much. Just the nature of this mode of writing: it takes poring over over an 800-word sentence three or four times to come to the conclusion that "what he's saying here is that old people don't like to use computers" .... and even with effort, I have the uncertainty that I've quite gotten the point.

It's taken a while to slog through it, and I may need a break from my studies to clear my head and rekindle my interests, so it may be a while before I add additional reading notes to the site.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Business Ethics

I've just abandoned another book on business ethics. That makes four I've attempted to read this year. I suffered through the first two, gritting my teeth as the flaws in their premises led to some very shaky conclusions - after that, I've been quicker to walk away at the first signs of weakness in the foundation, knowing that whatever is built upon it cannot stand.

If this is the best that philosophy can do, it's no wonder the subject has been largely abandoned, which is a disappointment. A solid well-grounded code of ethics can shape the character and culture of an organization, just as it can of a person. And a company without principles is as dangerous and unreliable as a person who lacks them - more so, because a sizable organization has the tendency to have an equally sizable impact, for better or for worse.

While I'm interested in exploring the topic further, it's a very touchy subject. I expect I'll need to establish yet another persona to explore it in much detail rather than turning my personal site into a venue for debate of the subject.