A for Apologies?

Ok, I admit it, this year’s April Fools’ “joke” was probably in bad taste and definitely went out of control… and I guess that multiple apologies are in order. However, the end result was curiously quite positive, so bear with me for a moment…

My problem is that I’m not famous for my sense of humour, so it’s often not easy to find a theme to blog about on April 1. I usually tend to pick on some real fact, present it in a distorted/speculative/just plain wrong way, but let people think a bit about the implications. After all, even if reality gets distorted in some subtle way, it doesn’t mean we are not allowed to do some reflection on the consequences…

April 1 actually started with me being on a rather bad mood. A client of mine (local government) was having a lot of trouble to fight both its internal bureaucracy at the same time as Linden Lab’s bureaucracy to get an island transferred to them. Things were at a stand-still while documents, tickets, emails, and Live Chat support flogged links and comments and interpretations on policy all the time, and time was passing, without a solution being apparent. On our side of things, we could just sigh and say, “this is sooo typical”, since we’re so used to the way things are handled by LL’s support: depending on how lucky you are, you can get a support rep that is just going to be a pain on the bottom, or someone who handles things in no time in a miraculous way. You never know. Murphy’s Law dictates that you’ll get the worst possible person when you’re short of time, have a lot of bureaucracy to deal with, and a very precisely orchestrated plan that relies on meeting deadlines with excruciating care, or everything will go wrong. Most times it will go wrong just because you got the wrong person on the job. You have all experienced it. One day, you get the “right” person on a task that the ‘Lab claims that “it takes 3-5 days to fix”, and that person gets the job done in 5 minutes. The next day, happy about the quality of the support, you request the same thing again. After 3-5 days you get the answer that it’s “impossible”. Or that “the rules don’t allow it”. Or “that the policy has changed, so what was easy a week ago is now very hard this week” (claiming that you not only were “lucky” the last time, but that the colleague has somehow bended the rules and they shouldn’t have done so). Or “we’re closed this week, try the next one”. And so forth. We all know how it is. On average, things do get done — the amount of patience and time it takes until a Lab rep understands what you want to do can just take more or less time, and it’s up to you to accept that and be content, or to find it unacceptable and get angry and furious about it…

So, a few days before April 1, I was finding LL’s stance towards a lot of things quite unacceptable. On one hand, yes, they were handling some tickets filed on support quite badly (not technical issues; just to ease Xan Linden’s mind, who wanted to know what was wrong — thanks for the contact, Xan! But no, they were administrative/policy/bureaucracy issues), and that didn’t improve my spirits. On the other hand, the new ToS, and the incredible mess of documents we have now to agree with if we wish to enjoy SL was grating on my nerves. Most important for me was that all of these require lawyers to interpret. Can we still make machinimas, yes or no? Can we use third-party viewers, yes or no? Do we still retain our copyrights on uploaded content, yes or no? Are crowdsourced developers responsible for LL’s bugs in the permission system, yes or no? Does the new ToS apply liability retrospectively (e.g. can someone be made liable for improper use of their content developed years ago, for instance), yes or no? Depending on whom you ask, the answer is different. And now it requires hiring expensive legal advice to be sure you can continue to do what you wish to do in SL.

This, I admit, made me go over the top. And while I was writing a complaint to LL about the way they were handling a customer of mine (to be honest, I’ve delayed sending that complaint, because I was given some assurance that LL would answer the tickets — Live Chat help rocks!!), I thought that this should also go to the Better Business Bureau as a formal complaint, lest it be ignored. And that’s when I found about the not-so-surprising BBB’s “F” rating for Linden Lab!

It’s not surprising because… they have had the “F” rating for years now, like FlipperPA Peregrine commented on the SLED list, or Hamlet Au noted a year ago. It’s not “news”. A quick search on Google showed that the “F” rating had also been reported by Beta News (not related to me, hehe) 14 months ago, but many others did the same. Like many explained, BBB ratings are not that important, and we shouldn’t read too much in them. Nevertheless, I was quite surprised to see how some of the worst-abused companies in public have actually quite better ratings than Linden Lab

LL’s stance regarding this rating has remained consistent over the past years (allegedly, as early as November 2008). They claim that the rating is not important (and many would agree), and that they actually have much better metrics and statistics to show how Second Life’s experience is getting better all the time. Still, I thought, for an April Fools’ article, it would be something worth fishing out and write something about it 🙂

The next step was how to write this, as people would surely point out that this is no “news” and, of course, they would wonder why I’m not providing much information besides the link to the “F” rating. So I got some inspiration from the past comments on this blog. Some of my regular commenters are known to take an angry and furious stance, misinterpreting deliberately what others post, take things out of context, mix them together, be adamant in their positions, and just insult everybody. Ironically, I remembered an old chat with an acquaintance of mine, who is a well-read blogger in my country, where we discussed this. She is also known as an “angry blogger”, although she, at least, is rational, logical, and thorough in her articles. She explained to me that this was the “hidden secret” of being a good blogger: be angry. Show deep emotions. Don’t blabber; don’t be patronising; don’t be soft. The audience, brain-washed by sensationalism on TV and newspapers, want blood. They want blog articles that excite them. They want to feel their blood heating up, get furious at either the blogger herself, or at the kind of things she writes about — they want to be brought in to the same level of emotional aggressivity, and that’s what makes them return.

I remember shaking my head and saying “Wow, I couldn’t ever write anything like that!…” Specially because playing around with people’s emotions — manipulating them to get interested into written things — is the most un-Gwyn-ish way. Sure, when I feel something with passion, I like to write about it too. But just creating “artificial passion” to get more readers sounded, well, “fake”.

That’s what real journalists do, she claimed. Well, I was not moved by her arguments back then (and knowing a lot of journalists who do not write like that, I was not so sure she was right), but I had to admit that my ever-optimistic stance, even the neutral way I present most of the controversies, are far less read than, say, Prokofy’s blog, who uses this skill of shouting abuse at everybody and getting people angry with him to an incredible success — people come always back to read more. My friend does pretty much the same in her blogs (even though she is careful just to be “angry” and not “insulting”). She and I even collaborated on a local Portuguese blog about SL and it was quite clear that her articles always got a very fair share of the readers — the more angrily she wrote, the higher the reader count, and the more comments she got. So there was definitely some truth in what she said. Then again, she makes (part) of a living out of blogging (I don’t!!) so I guess all’s fair in drawing an audience.

So, well, I tried my own attempt at doing a “Prokofy pastiche” with “F for Fail“, in a very angry tone. But this sort of back-fired: everybody took it way too seriously (possibly even myself, as you can see from some of my first comments, where I sort of tried to “defend” my position). Hiro Pendragon was the first (the only?) to spot the inconsistencies in my article — he immediately flagged it as “having little factual information like my usual articles”. You’re so right, Hiro — well spotted indeed 🙂

But after some point, the comments went completely out of control. Wayfinder, for once, applauded my article, and engaged into a discussion with Prokofy about metrics; Prokofy started by defending that LL should be able to limit whatever they wish in-world (in the sense that we are not supposed to take pictures of content without explicit permission), and when I showed to him how this is a way to limit freedom of expression (in the sense that if you wish to publicly complain about a building or something, and take a picture of it in an area where there is no permission to do so, you might be kicked under the new ToS) and against his pro-freedom of expression stance, he accused me of “character assassination”, and called for a new Crusade Against Gwyn on that topic.

T Linden contributed to the discussion showing that LL uses different metrics to establish success — mostly, showing growth — and a lengthy discussion ensued about where exactly this “growth” is. Wayfinder and Prokofy, working from similar data, independently reached opposite conclusions — but the discussion, by itself, was rather interesting to watch. Until I had to step in and explain that this was, after all, an April Fools’ article, putting me on Wayfinder’s list of “people never to trust again” and an allegation that I had been bought off by LL (I wish! LL, please send me some L$!). Whew! I got a new enemy…

In any case, my blogger friend was right. Engage into harsh language, insult people left and right (or write things in a way they feel insulted…), and the traffic grows. That single article got twice as much traffic just on the first day; after a week, it has been the most read article in the past 3 years or so 🙁

There are only two good things that came out of it.

Earlier today, Caliandris Pendragon emailed me saying that I ought to check the Better Business Bureau again. And wow — as of today, Linden Lab now has an “A” rating!

So what happened? Your guess is as good as mine, but two explanations are possible. The first is that LL asked the BBB what they had to do to get rid of the “F” rating, and were told how to be compliant with the BBB’s guidelines. Probably there was not much to be done in this case: just answering some lost emails or such. The second possibility is that there was a clerical error on the side of the BBB and for some reason the ratings weren’t updated recently to reflect LL’s efforts in dealing with pending issues.

Whatever the reasons… congratulations! On my last paragraph on that April Fools’ article, I challenged LL to try to improve their ratings in six months, which I considered to be reasonable, assuming that some effort would be put into it. I never expected it to take just… six days (well, eleven, to be more correct 🙂 ) Something has been done, and whatever it was, I’m sure all the support team at the ‘Lab is to be congratulated!

The second thing is that, although the discussion on the other article might have been quite dense and insulting, earning me a whole new set of insults from Prokofy and a new enemy, it was not a pointless exercise. We learned a lot about what people think and feel about technical support in general, and specifically with the kind of support we have been getting from the ‘Lab. We discussed the new policies, and how it’s so hard to actually read them correctly without an legal advisor at your beck and call. We discussed metrics and how to interpret them, and got a ton of resources about those — whole essays on how to determine landmass growth and user conversion. For me, it certainly was an education.

So what can I say? I have obviously to apologise to all involved. To my readers in general, as it was clear that a joke-turned-experiment (even if based on actual facts), even on April 1, was not a good idea, but rather tasteless. I have disappointed you, and I’m sorry about that.

My apologies to Prokofy, because in my angry-playful mood I managed to blow your fuses by accusing you of defending a restriction of freedom of expression; I suppose that I’m stuck with the new label, “character assassin”, from now on, and nothing I’ll ever write again will remove that title from the long list I’ve already been awarded. Still, I do apologise for inciting Prokofy to get angry at me again — honestly, this is really just a small step removed from actual trolling, if you didn’t get the subtle humour behind the April 1 article. And I should apologise for using your furious-and-angry style as an inspiration for writing a pastiche — the temptation was just too great, but I should have refrained to do so. My only excuse is that imitation is the biggest form of flattery…

To Wayfinder, of course, I also owe my apologies. Your reasoning was flawless in my opinion, and just because the article was meant to be a joke, it doesn’t mean that your argumentation was in any way incorrect, or that LL’s support is perfect. It isn’t.

Just because Linden Lab, after all, didn’t deserve the “F” rating, it doesn’t mean that I’m always happy about their support. Earlier today, I had a rather good experience on Live Chat, just to be followed by a rather disappointing and frustrating reply to a ticket (where a client of mine had to repeat what he has been saying for the third time, wasting yet another day). So, no, LL’s support is not flawless, nor brilliant — even with the new “A” rating, there is still a whole lot to improve, and it’s all related to internal bureaucracy and wrongly interpreted policies. Sadly, often it seems that some LL employees are either too overworked or too lazy to read their own documentation; and often there are inconsistencies in the way different employees apply a specific policy. Worse than that, and I’m quoting Tateru again, there seems not to exist an unifying document with all of LL’s policies. A lot of things happen on private communications (which cannot be repeated publicly!) that somehow trickle down, after months or years, to a blog post or even a Wiki page — but until that happens, nobody knows how the policy is supposed to be interpreted. And worse than that, not even LL employees seem to know what to answer in some cases. So the article in itself — and the discussion — was really touching a serious subject, and I’m thankful for the content of the discussion, even if I didn’t like the form.

To all Linden employees, starting with T, but also including, among others, Xan, Jay, CG, Jack, TJ, and Blue, I owe to all of you — and to your company — the greatest apology. I should have flagged the article as being an April Fools’ from the very beginning, but that would have defeated the whole purpose, wouldn’t it? Aye, your company’s support is not as bad as I painted it on the other article, and the sudden jump from an “F” to an “A” rating shows that. I might still feel frustrated with some of the support I (or my clients) get, but it’s definitely not so disgracefully bad as I purposefully exaggerated on that article. So, my apologies for the exaggeration. On the other hand, all of you now deserve my warmest congratulations on the new “A” rating! Still, there is room for improvement. Your work is not done yet. And you can start by creating a Policy Wiki to place all documents, internal or public, related to the huge amount of policies that we’re all supposed to know and abide to…

The lesson I’ve learned is that making jokes about serious issues is probably not for me…

Sorry about that.

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