learning from experience

One of the things I've learned of late is that, despite being a wonderful, generous community of truly warm-hearted people, sometimes the blog world likes nothing more than a good old-fashioned pile-on.

I thought about this looking at the (totally justified) hard time that Cory gave Fast Company over their dumb linking policy. If you look at the conversation, people act as if some lawyer gleefully rubbed his hands together and said, "How do we get this periodical to be an isolated island of unlinked misery on the web?" I'm guessing that's not the case.

Keep in mind, Fast Company is an organization that's smart enough to have a homepage that damn near validates as XHTML. They've had a real, honest-to-god weblog with comments running longer than almost any magazine. They even send Heath (and his amazing transcription skills) to various conferences so that people who can't attend can get a lot of the benefits of attendance for free on the web. In short, they're surprisingly clueful, especially for a mainstream business/general interest magazine. But people are assailing this part of their site's terms of service as if it were a concerted effort to be evil.

For Cory's part, I'm not criticizing his post about this topic at all. Cory's mandates are the openness of information, fighting the tyranny of bad law, and encouraging the free sharing of information. And he's doing what I do a lot, bitching about something that sucks, particularly appropriate as this is his bailiwick. I think I've got pretty good credentials for defending Cory's right to write about whatever he wants. But still, the reaction incited is one that's unproductive at best and unkind at worst.

Since I hate to complain without offering a solution, what I'd like to do is propose a new model for responding to the blogosphere's frequent and characteristic calls to action against Stuff That Sucks. First, read the link. Don't go being a slashdot flameboy. Read the thing that's being linked to. Second, we're good at collectively ferreting out information, so let's find the person responsible. There can't be that many people responsible for a terms of service document at a publishing company, and it's easier to get a revision made if we know who's going to do it.

There's a human benefit to finding out the person responsible, in helping to understand their circumstances and constraints. In almost all of these situations, there's someone who had to compromise for reasons that are totally reasonable. Maybe the guy writing this stuff was tired of fighting with his boss over it, and didn't have hundreds of emails from bloggers who'd back up his position. Maybe the woman who put this in place intended to fix it as soon as she got back from maternity leave, and figured who's gonna read a TOS document that closely anyway? Not all of us are lucky enough to have our licenses fisked by our audience.

So, once you've got information on what's actually happening, know who's responsible, and understood why they might have made this mistake, you've got what you need to make a change. We're bloggers, that means we self-organize pretty well. Be the person who starts the petition or explains how to contact the decision makers and provides a useful, non-confrontational template for how to get in touch with them. Provide a place where everyone concerned about the issue can TrackBack their complains, along with specific suggestions. (I can't take credit for that one, Mena nailed that idea.) And, believe me, people will read that feedback. Especially since it'll be the first Google result for either (1) their company name or (2) their name within a few days.

And then? Follow up. They'll make changes, as quickly as they can, though in most organizations that's not all that fast. Keep in mind, you're adding a task to their list that they didn't anticipate, and they probably already have a day job. My last request, though I suspect it's not likely to be adopted, is that people acknowledge the change when it happens. From personal experience, you can usually find about a ten-to-one ratio of complaints to acknowledgements of an improvement, in the best case. If you are the one on the receiving end and you get one tenth as much kudos as complaints, consider your work a success.

Now, all my blog posts are under a Creative Commons license, but this seems one of those ideas that can definitely be refined and expanded into a specific set of plans for action by the weblog community on almost any issue. So this post is completely public domain, and I hope you guys help direct all the energy of the various weblog communities into positive action more often.

I'd suggest a few things off the bat:

  • A PowerPoint plan of action so that executives or non-tech people can see how to use blogs for positive action
  • A how-to so that non-profits and other social organizations can leverage blogs for their campaigns
  • Some background documentation on the types of results bloggers have had (with everything from Trent Lott to the Star Wars Kid as examples)
  • A place to collect personal testimonials from people who've benefitted from blogger-inspired campaigns or who've changed their work or changed their ways due to input from the blogosphere

I'm proud of what we've done in creating so many different weblog communities, and I don't want our legacy to be one of having the positives overshadowed by our frequent, though understandable, tendency to be unkind or uncivil to those we're communicating with.

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