Community Can Be Cruel (or, If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?)

Something Josh Ledgard said struck me as he was talking about an angry email he got about the introduction of the new web-based MSDN Forums:

I’ve heard Scoble say it a lot… if you work at Microsoft… and you blog… you had better have think [sic] skin. My own experience suggests that having an active blog at Microsoft for any length of time pretty much guarantees you your share of mails like this and it does effect [sic] you… at least it effects [sic] me. Not to get too touchy-feely, but I’m not some Borg drone that doesn’t ever feel insulted. None of the MS Bloggers I’ve met are either. If you send us mail it ends up on the screen of a real person for better or worse. Please think about that before you press send. I’m not saying I’ve never offended anyone with my blog, IM, or e-mail but…

When I posted my latest entry on default instances (and I know I still need to respond to several of the comments left there), one of my coworkers sent me an email saying, more or less, “Ah, I see you’re the poor bastard who was elected to take the brunt of this.” By and large, though, I don’t have much of an issue with the responses that I got – as Josh/Scoble says, you have to have a pretty thick skin (or develop one really quickly) if you’re going to do anything that involves interacting with the community. Some people were definitely upset, but pretty much everyone was pretty reasonable about the whole thing.

But I think that sometimes there really is a dark side to customer engagement. While it’s easy to talk about how great it is to engage with the community, such engagement always comes at a human cost. Because ultimately one of the major features of the producer/consumer relationship is the power struggle that goes on between the two sides of the equation. The producers have generally free rein as to what they want to produce, but are dependent on the consumer to fork over their money for it. The consumers are free to spend their money however they like, but once they’ve bought into a particular product, they are dependent on the producer to give them what they want. Any relationship like this is bound to produce its fair share of unhappiness and anger at times for both parties. The problem is, where does that anger or unhappiness go?

As producers, we’re pretty much prohibited from taking out our anger or unhappiness on the consumer. Oh, sure, it happens, sometimes in a subtle or passive-aggressive way, but generally producers who treat their customers with disrespect like that are going to have a hard time finding customers. On the other hand, the consumer is pretty much free to vent their displeasure at the producer however they see fit because they know, generally, that the producer cannot return fire. This means that consumers are often free to treat producers (who are, after all, still human beings) with all manner of disrespect and contempt, safe in the knowledge that they will never be called on their behavior. Rare is the time when a producer is in the position to simply write off a customer due to their attitude (although, of course, there are limits).

So this is where being customer-facing (as you could call us Microsoft bloggers and newsgroup people and such) can turn nasty. There have definitely been customers who were just plain unpleasant to deal with – mean, nasty, totally unreasonable and completely without the basic respect that one should afford another simply on the basis of their shared humanity. I don’t mind admitting that they have caused more than a few episodes of anguish on my part, made worse by the fact that I was totally unable (and, I might add, personally unwilling) to express how I really felt about them. I doubt that they thought that I particularly liked them, but I doubt that they could know exactly what I was feeling as I was interacting with them.

Thankfully, though, those experiences have proven to be the exception rather than the rule. By and large our customers – even though who vehemently disagree with me on some issue or another – have been a pleasure to deal with. It’s never fun dealing with someone who’s upset or angry with some action that you or your company took, but as long as the conversation is held within the context of basic human respect for each other, it generally turns out to be nothing but a positive (if sometimes a difficult) experience. As for the jerks out there, well, what can you do? To use some pseduo-Latin (and hoping my high school Latin teacher never sees this!): Illegitimus non carborundum.

12 thoughts on “Community Can Be Cruel (or, If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?)

  1. RichB

    Also bear in mind that difference cultures have different approaches to tact. I’ve found the Australians and Dutch tend to be complete no-nonsense people and are up front about everything to the point of abrasiveness.

  2. Bill McCarthy

    Hey Rich,

    Yep, there are definetly cultural differences, as well as individuals are.. well.. indivduals. Personally, I just loathe it when people are artificially nice. I find that more annoying as it is just a layer of bullsh*t, and more oftne that not it avoids addressing the real issues.

    BTW: don’t want to stereotype all ‘mericans, but I have found they have a greater tendency to be rude to "blue collar" or lowly paid jobs, eg bus drivers, store attendants etc, eyt are real nice ot the managerial kinds. Me, and many Ozzies tend to be the opposite.. we know the lowly paid worker isn’t being paid to put up with a customer’s rants, whereas a manager is ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. karl

    One of the problems with custom engagement in the forms of these blogs is that it makes the customer believe he or she might be able provide input which will ultimately have an effect on decisions taken. While this may be true in some cases, it certainly isn’t in others. This isn’t anything wrong on your part, and I certainly don’t want you to stop, it’s just hard sometimes for the community to accept that decisions have been made and that our arguments via feedback are, at best, good theoritical debates.

    I’ve also said in the past that people who provide feedback in blog entries likely don’t represent the majority of users. Therefore, when you post an entry about default instances and a 95% of people don’t agree with it, it seems reasonable that, despite beta 2 shipping in 2 weeks, you guys really should re-evaluate your position. Of course, 95% reflects what…15 users? out of what? hundreds of thousands?

    What I’m trying to say is that this customer engagement is really a special kind of custom engagement, perhaps even one that really hasn’t been seen before due to it’s casuality and it’s frequency (on going). The rules, at least the one we’ve learnt so far, are very different and I think everyone’s still learning how to play…

  4. Duane Roelands

    The guys over at Penny Arcade call this the "Greater Internet F**kwad Theory". Take an ordinary person, give them the limited anonymity and wide audience the internet provides, and they are likely to turn into a rude, obnoxious moron capable of saying insulting things they wouldn’t dare utter in person.

    My take on it, misanthropic as it may be, is that the limited anonymity and the wide audience of the internet tend to bring out people’s true natures. Considering the level of most discourse on the internet (see Godwin’s Law), that’s a pretty sad statement.

    More to the point of the original post, though: Karl has nailed it – being able to interact via a blog with people involved in the design process perpetuates the (perhaps false) notion that their comments and suggestions are actually being taken seriously by people who are either willing or able to implement them.

    It’s always easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It’s the difference between "Hey, we’re thinking about doing default instances, whaddya think?" and "Hey, we did default instances, whaddya think?" The former implies that input is sought and valued. The latter implies that to a far lesser degree.

  5. Philip

    I left a comment on the thread in question. Rereading it, it could be taken a bit rough. Reading it in the context of all the other attacks, even worse (negativity is addative, apparently).

    So for the record, from reading your blog I’ve developed nothing but respect for you. I disagree (strongly) with your position on default form instances, but the respect remains.

    But Karl has hit it perfectly – by providing voices from within Microsoft, it seems to many of us that you’ve also provided ears. I personally love this. I don’t know if any comment I’ve ever made has done anything, but it makes me feel more all the more connected to the MS juggernaut that produces 95% of everything that I use in my professional carrer.

    So please don’t stop. If you feel you’re about to quit blogging because you’re prohibited from expressing your anger – feel free to call me and let me have it. I’ll be an anger proxy. (Then we can discuss default instances ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  6. paulvick

    I should definitly clarify a few things!

    * I really did mean it when I said that the default instance discussion thread wasn’t a big deal. People are extremely passionate about VB and that’s a great thing. It’s never fun to hear criticism, but I never take issue with it because it’s so incredibly valuable, even if I don’t totally agree with it. I haven’t re-read the thread lately, but I don’t remember that anyone should feel bad about what they wrote there.

    * For me the issue often boils down to a question of respect instead of abrasiveness or rudeness. Working at Microsoft, I’ve gotten pretty used to the latter and it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. But a lack of respect is the thing that really gets to me, and someone can be extremely nice and friendly (on the surface) while still being incredibly disrespectful. At the same time, it’s possible to have a knock-down, drag-out fight over something while at the same time still maintaining a basically respectful attutude towards the *person* if not what they have to say.

    * To be perfectly honest, the blog has been almost entirely a positive experience in regards to this subject, and I have no thoughts of stopping. Most of my very negative interactions have occurred in other forums, most of which were more private than the blog.

    There’s one other thought that I’ll extend into an entry…

    Thanks for all the comments!

  7. Taiwo Ayedun

    Hello Paul:

    This is just to let you know that we’re still awaiting your final position on "defaul instances".

    Thanks for letting us contribute to what goes on "internally".



  8. Bill Burrows

    I think that one can be honest and frank without being rude or abrasive. One could say "My experience and feedback from others leaves me thinking that you and the team are just wrong on this." Or, one could say "You guys are a bunch of F****** idiots who do not get it – listen you jerks." I think they both make the point that the commenter really does not agree with something, but the former has shone some respect and the latter has shown something else.

  9. Joe Chung

    Another thing to consider about the consumer-producer relationship is that often the "producer" seems to be an anonymous, faceless entity to the consumer, and the responses we get when first attempting communication with the producer is an impersonal, usually automated reply that is of very little or no assistance.

    So by the time the producer gets to read something from a consumer, usually by that time you’re talking to a customer who is quite frankly fed up with (a) unsuccessful searches for answers on your enormous Knowledge Base database, the Internet, etc., (b) those annoying, unhelpful automated responses that, if you really serve about it, serve no purpose whatsoever, and perhaps even (c) actual people who for whatever reason were unable to help with the issue you had.

    Of course there are people who are always invariably rude for whatever reason, but even normal, otherwise pleasant, people will get that way after some frustrating experiences with the other members of your staff (computerized or not).


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