Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Openness and Transparency: A beer for Second Life (part 1)

We were mentioned recently on the Second Life blog. They were blogging about communication and transparency and asked for comments on the companies that were doing it right. Very few of the comments took them up on that suggestion–more on that later–but one LibraryThing/SL user dropped our name as “a small start up that knows to admit it when it has got it wrong. and answers questions instead of ducking them.” SL repeated the recommendation.

The hat-tip got me reading the post and its comments. It gave me a powerful sense of deja vu! I’ve seen many of the same negative patterns on LibraryThing. Some I’ve seen and it got me thinking about why the patterns happen. Others I’ve seen us deal with successfully, so I thought I’d write about how I think we did it.

The post got so long I’ve split it in two. The first part describes the post and offers a partial defense of Linden Labs. The second will describe some of the things I’ve learned about member involvement, and some of the things Linden–and LibraryThing–could do better.

In defending Linden I want to make it clear that I am not a high-volume user of Second Life. I visit about once a week, usually for something like the BookMooch/LibraryThing meet-up. As a low-frequency, low-impact user I did not have strong or informed opinions about whether they’re doing a good job, and, except for admiring the book they put out, no opinion about whether they communicate well with their users. Until now, I enjoyed the site, but I wasn’t passionate about it.

Now, Doughty Lindens, I am on your side! And I would like to take this opportunity to extend my person invitation for Boston-based Second Life employee to drive up to Portland, Maine for a lobster roll and a beer at the LibraryThing apartment. Seriously. Expense it!

I sympathize for two main reasons:

  1. The quantity of feedback was enormous. They cap the blog at 149 comments (and are excoriated for it). Users hit this in twelve hours. Comments totaled 28,000 words. The longest comment was 2,100 words long!*

    But I only saw the the horror of the situation when the blogger revealed that, as one response, Second Life was going to hire its first dedicated community-relations person. Not having dedicated community “handlers” is the brave way to go. I think its the best course of action—that “filters” are bad for both company and users. But man, I sympathize!

  2. Most of the comments were negative, and many were downright nasty. The negatives wrote the most and screamed the loudest. They mentioned competitors; they talked about ditching the site; they went ad hominem. If you read only this post you would believe that Second Life was a buggy disaster, managed by lying, incompetent and venal “hypocrites,” focused on screwing its users and deaf to their unanimous and desperate pleas. In particular, they hate Europeans.

Now, I can’t beat back any of the specifics, but something tells me that this picture is flawed. It certainly isn’t my feeling, and I’ve never met anyone in Second Life or out with such strong, negative opinions.

More the point, people don’t write paper-length comments about something they hate. Or, if it is hate, it is a hate that only the deepest love can engender. While Linden Labs surely has much to learn from criticism, there is a meta-message: you’re doing something right.

Back-seat driving. I was caught by the amount of back-seat driving and second guessing. Stability was the main topic. Take this comment (much reduced):

“How many people at Linden Research know what the value of plus or minus three standard deviation on metrics is? Does anyone at Linden research know what control limits are? Has Linden research implemented +/- 3 sigma trending monitors … Does anyone at Linden research know who Deming was? Does anyone at Linden Research know what Kaizen is?”

Now, again, I don’t have proof, but I can’t believe that the commenter is better equipped to run Linden than the people at Linden. Everything points to a pretty stellar team–the sort of team that only an extremely exciting project and stock options can produce.

And think of what they’re doing. Linden (unlike LibraryThing) is doing something fundamentally new. Second Life isn’t just an online 3D world—itself a pretty new idea—but an infinitely plastic one. Everything is editable and scriptable, from buildings to sun glasses. It’s a world where members create buildings in real time, to an audience, and eyeglasses have their own programming code. It’s a word where you can not buy user-generated genitalia—many brands—but if someone has a compatible set, you can use them!

If that weren’t enough everything needs to be communicated to computers all over the world, running different hardware, with different networking constraints. Wikipedia puts their storage at 24 terabytes. They run thousands of machines.

Three sigma? This isn’t data processing for an insurance company!

Entitlement. Customers have every right to get upset. But this can get out of hand. Take this comment:

“[About] LL’s inability to provide full help coverage to basic accounts, one can compare this to the US’s inability to provide full health coverage to basic families.”

Excuse me, but the United States is a government! Whatever duty the US has to provide basic health care to families is utterly unlike the duty of Linden Labs to non-paying users. It might still make sense for Linden to do as much free customer service as it can; we do as much as we can. But failing to do so is not a grave injustice.

Opposition to change. I grew up in Cambridge, near Harvard Square. It used to be great, but it isn’t any longer. I think this. My older brother thinks this. My father thinks this. But none of us have the same Square in mind. The truth of the matter is that the Square we had in our teens and early twenties is the Square from which all subsequent examples deviate.

The same goes with software, particularly social software. Users wanted stability, not new features. There was particular hostility to LL’s addition of a voice option, although users were not apparently calling for it (“NOONE ever asked for the VOICE thing”) and didn’t use it (“except for escorts”).

That voice was only for escorts is clearly wrong–a number of users, including a member of the “SL Shakespeare Company” contradicted this. But I can’t believe the first assertion. Users don’t ask for game-changing changes.

But a company like Linden Labs needs to try new things. I’m not a big fan of voice either, but, as I see it, it had to be tried. It could have open Second Life up to a whole new audience. It may yet.

Expectations outpace openness. The more you let users in, the most they can expect. As one user put it:

“Saying ‘We goofed’ is not enough. What the goof is, and the steps being taken to see it does not happen again, that to me is being transparent.”

The commentator goes on the ask “Why did it take LL so long to fix the ‘vanishing water bug?’” Now, I have no idea, but I can suggest some possibilities.

  1. The “vanishing water bug” may have been hard to find. Back when software ran on stand-alone computers and was released in integer-number versions every year or two, nobody noticed. Web delivery speeds everything up, most of all expectations. Programming is still hard.
  2. The “vanishing water bug” may have been deep. It’s unlikely that water was vanishing because of an error in the “prevent water from vanishing” function. More likely there was a basic problem with gravity, or transparency or some concept I’ve never thought of. Maybe Linden Labs was working overtime to prevent the vanishing water problem from becoming the “vanishing everything” problem.
  3. Mundange things were more important. If Second Life is anything like LibraryThing, the “vanishing water bug” may have taken second place to the “we-grew-by-20%-this-week” problem.
  4. Maybe a new feature was more important. Which was more likely to attract new members, stay-put water or voice?
  5. To adapt mayor Giuliani on ferrets, “this excessive concern with [vanishing water] is a sickness. You should go consult a psychologist.”

As I’ll detail in part two, the answer to the cycle of expectations is more communication, not less. But man, I feel their pain.

Nobody answered the question. Users often take any opportunity to talk as an opportunity to talk about anything. In this case, the blogger asked for examples of companies doing transparency right.

Now, in fairness they can hardly restrict comments to this alone; the bulk of the blog post was about their transparency. But it was still remarkable that only 14 comments too them up on the request. Of these, only a few seems applicable. Walmart may be a great company—although I’m girding up my loins to doubt that—but it wouldn’t be at the top of my list of companies for Linden Labs to imitate. Ditto Amex, Southwest Airlines and Coca-Cola.

Looking forward to part two. I do not think LibraryThing’s discussions are as dysfunctional as this exchange. LibraryThing members may get angry, but they seldom get nasty. (And with fewer fuck-yous, I think our responsibility to listen goes up.)

But these are familiar patterns, and worth talking about as such. Some questions:

  • Is disfunction inherent in the medium, or are there ways of doing it better?
  • What obligations does being open impose on a company?
  • Are there limits to openness?
  • Does communication have to change as a company grows?
  • How can a site encourage everyone to talk?
  • How can a company understand member communication when you know not everyone is talking?

I’ll try to tackle those questions in part two.


*Shorter than this post, and man is this post long.

Labels: communiation, feedback, linden labs, paid memberships, second life, users

Saturday, October 6th, 2007

Ig Nobel Awards Honor The, The

The 2007 Ig Nobel Prize winners have been announced (summary). Mixed in with studies of hampsters on Viagra and “extracting vanilla flavor from cow dung” was something of particular interest to Thingology. The “literature” prize went to:

“The Definite Article: Acknowledging ‘The’ in Index Entries,” Glenda Browne, The Indexer, vol. 22, no. 3 April 2001, pp. 119-22.

Hey, it’s a problem!
Update: A good example of the problem? Try to search for the band “The The” on Google. You can’t even do it with quotes.

Labels: indexing, the

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

The library of the future!

Steve Lawson has a wonderful post on an even more delightful 1883 article by library-pioneer Charles Ammi Cutter, entiled “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983.” He links to the full text from Google Book Search.

Cutter’s piece has much the same feel as Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward. Futurism is all about the present, and it is hard.

Cutter got a few things right, like the presence of children in the library. His photographic catalogs are about half-right as are the reading desks with a “little key-board at each, connected by a wire with the librarian’s desk.” He was less prescient about gender segregation, smoking rooms and armies of slippered boy pages. His obsession with ventilation is peculiar. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear the phrase “great unwashed” enough:

“Every one must be admitted into the delivery-room, but from the reading-rooms the great unwashed are shut out altogether or put in rooms by themselves. Luckily public opinion sustains us thoroughly in their exclusion or seclusion.”

Labels: cutter, library of the futurue

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Radiohead, Magnatune, LibraryThing

How much does the new Radiohead CD cost? It’s up to you.

Come October 10, you’ll be able to get the new album, In Rainbows online on the Radiohead site, at whatever price you think is appropriate. No labels. And no prices. Here’s an NPR story about it.

We’d like to think Radiohead borrowed the idea from us. We also go with “pay what you want” for our memberships, although we do set a lower limit ($6 for a year, $19 for lifetime).

It’s about ten times more likely that Radiohead borrowed the idea from Magnatune, the online record label owned by Bookmooch founder John Buckman. And even more likely they borrowed it from someone else, or dreamed it up on their own.

Although Radiohead owes us big time, we plan to pay them handsomely for their consideration and trust. We think others will do so too.

After all, when we added “pay what you want” our average membership payment actually increased. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Labels: paid memberships, pay what you want, radiohead

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

LibraryThing for Libraries: Richland County, Cal State – Channel Islands and San Francisco State University

Richland County Public Library

San Francisco State University (source)

Cal State University – Channel Islands (source)

LibraryThing for Libraries just passed another milestone: we now have too many customers to keep track of in short-term memory.

Our first new library is the Richland County Public Library. We’re really excited to have them on board, since they’re the biggest public library we’ve worked with so far—at nearly three million checkouts a year. They’re doing a lot of simple yet innovative things, like offering reference via instant messaging and having a kid-friendly website. Of course, they have a blog too. I have a soft spot for large public libraries, having worked in one for several years and having lived in big cities with great library systems (Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle) for most of my life. We hope to be adding many more large public libraries in the coming months.

Our second library is the San Francisco State University library. With around 30,000 students and four million items owned by their library, they’re a big one too. They’ve got one of the best- looking and easy-to-use library websites I’ve seen (and I look at a lot of them – occupational hazard). Their electronic resources librarian did an excellent presentation on LibraryThing for Libraries a few weeks back.

Our third library is Cal State University – Channel Islands, located in the beautiful area between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. They’re our first Voyager customer, and we’d like to thank them for helping us work out how to make Voyager work with our widgets. They’ve also volunteered to be our latest data source for book searching.


Photo credits: (1) Courtesy Richland County Public Library. (2) CSUCI bell tower by Flickr:AIBakker (CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0). (3) Library by Flickr:relic (CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0)

Labels: csuci, librarything for libraries, rcpl, richland county, sfsu

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Tagging innovations, from the government

Has anyone seen click-based tag clouds? These are tag clouds in which the size of the words depend not on the number of times something has been tagged, but on the number of times the tag is clicked.

I never had, but Abby just spotted on the website of the the State of Delaware. Apparently site visitors are interested in employment.

It’s a pretty cool idea, and one I’d love to try out on LibraryThing. It wouldn’t work on work pages, but it might on the home page. And I’m impressed that it was on state-government site. While these sites are increasingly competent, they’re not usually thought of as a hotbeds of web innovation.

Labels: tagging, tags

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Magical Thinking at Harvard

A Babylonian Demon Bowl (Kelsey Museum)

“Know the secret name of something and you control it,” is an extremely ancient idea, stretching as far back as the Sumerians, and running through subsequent Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman magic. The secrecy of the name was critical to its power, and to the mystique of those who knew it. One suspects it also helped their hourly rates.

It’s modern equivalent is the “unique identifier.” Information is available as never before, but its sheer quantity limits discovery. Unique identifiers cut through the clutter. And they can be powerful. Let the wrong person know your Social Security Number and you’ll be in a world of hurt as great as a malevolent spirit caught by a name under a Babylonian demon bowl.

In the legal world the equivalent is the West American Digest System, which numbers court cases for lawyers. Although the cases are invariably in the public domain, the numbers that identify them are not. And controlling “the only recognized legal taxonomy” gives its creator, West Publishing, a valuable monopoly.

In the book world, it’s the ISBN. Know a book’s title and you can find yourself away in a sea of editions. Discover its ISBN and you’ve got it for sure. Type the ISBN into BookFinder or Abebooks.com and you’ve a panoply of new and used sellers.

Although assigned by private firms, ISBNs will never go the way of the West American Digest System. But their power explains why the Harvard Coop* has taken to ejecting customers who attempt to write down ISBNs. As reported in the Crimson, this is exactly what happened to one Harvard student, Jarret A. Zafra. In another (?) incident, reported by the Herald, the Coop called the police on three more ISBNs-scribblers.** When asked about the policy, Coop administration told the Crimson that it “considers that information the Coop’s intellectual property.”

The IP claim is hogwash. ISBNs are facts. Under US law facts can’t be copyrighted. The Coop is probably within its rights to expel whomever it wants, bhat won’t stop people from trying. The three students above were volunteers for a site called CrimsonReading.org, which is compiling a complete list of all books used at Harvard. When a Harvard Student types in an ISBN, CrimsonReading connects them to new and used booksellers. Affiliate revenues go to charity. By calling on volunteers and getting Harvard professors involved, CrimsonReading is getting around the Coop’s magical secrecy. Three cheers to them for doing it.

We need more projects like CrimsonReading. Much the same idea was behind my Google Book Search Search bookmarklet, which asked volunteers to collect Google Book Search IDs. In this case, the unique identifier was new and more secret. By giving its scans unique—and effectively secret—numbers, Google is creating a whole new bibliographic identification scheme. And where ISBNs cover only about thirty years of books, Google’s IDs are designed to cover every book printed, including millions in the public domain.

Control the name and you control the thing. It’s what WestLaw is doing. It’s what’s what the Coop is trying to do.

Is it what Google is doing? I’m not sure. And I don’t see any signs of this happening on its own yet. For example, sellers on used book sites are not using Google Book IDs to nail down editions. But the danger is there.

Secret and proprietary numbering systems pose a serious challenge to the benign potential of the internet. When the secrecy or obscurity are used against this potential, people need to act up—and break the spell.


*Always pronounced “coop,” not “coöp.” Full disclosure: My parents belong to the Coop, which is a true “cooperative” in organization. This means they share in the annual dividend accord to how much they spend there. So I’m working against them!
**I grew up near Harvard Square, and the Coop was one of my haunts. (It’s a general-purpose bookstore as well.) Quite a few of my friends were expelled from the Coop for shoplifting. If CrimsonReading really wants to get the job done, it should enroll the private-school street urchins of Square in the ISBN game.

Labels: google book search, harvard coop, isbns, open data, westlaw

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Link LibraryThing accounts to Google?

Check out the main LibraryThing blog for a discussion of whether LT should encourage users to link their accounts to Google Book Search.

Labels: metasexdactyly

Monday, September 17th, 2007

Evilness — Opposition — Policy and Procedure

Someone recently called LibraryThing for Libraries out over our terms and privacy policy. Guess what? They were right to do it!

The policy was vague. It didn’t describe what we actually use library data for and how we use it. It gave us potential room to do bad things.

Well, we don’t want the room. We’ve always treated our user and library data carefully, and we always will. So we’ve written it again, this time as a straight-jacket.

You can read the full text here, but the Cliff’s Notes version is this:

  • We don’t collect any data from or about library patrons;
  • We only use a library’s data to enrich their own catalog
  • We’re not allowed to change the policy suddenly

If anyone feels we’ve left anything out, let us know.

Labels: librarything for libraries

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

LibraryThing for Libraries: Randolph County, Bowdoin and Clarement Colleges

Bowdoin College (source)

The Libraries of Claremont Colleges (Honnold/Mudd Library) (source)

Randolph County Public Library, Asheboro Public Library (source)

We just added three new and very different members to LibraryThing for Libraries—a public library system in North Carolina, a liberal arts college in Maine, and a collegiate consortium in California.

The first is the Randolph County Public Library, a system of seven libraries in the Asheboro, North Carolina area. On their blog, the library has described LibraryThing for Libraries as “stunning” and a “quantum leap.” We couldn’t agree more.

Randolph County is also our first public demonstration of LibraryThing for Libraries within what is probably the most widely-used online catalog, the Horizon Information Portal (HIP) from SirsiDynix. Up until now, our live libraries have all used WebPac and WebPac Pro from Innovative Interfaces. As we promised, LibraryThing for Libraries works with any library OPAC, and just great with HIP.

Check out Randolph County Public Library searches for regency fiction or the novel Eragon.

The second is Bowdoin College, located in Brunswick, Maine, just up the road from LibraryThing’s global HQ in Portland. Bowdoin is a small liberal arts college with about 1,700 students. For a small library, they are doing a lot of innovative things and have a good-looking, easy-to-use website. They’ve put in a neat little JavaScript tooltip to explain what tags are that we just might have to steal. Check out LTFL in action here and here.

Libraries of the Claremont Colleges serves Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, and several other colleges I couldn’t get into. They’re our largest collection to date, with LibraryThing providing data on over 173,000 of their titles! Reflecting the diversity of the colleges they serve, they have a wide collection of materials, from combinatorics to gender studies. The alternate editions widget is proving especially useful for academic libraries, as can be seen for this translation of the poetry of Catullus.

It’s extremely gratifying to watch how quickly LibraryThing’s data keeps growing. LibraryThing for Libraries was originally envisioned as a product for public libraries, but LibraryThing’s continued growth is making that distinction seem less relevant. We’re now up to three academic libraries, with several more in the pipeline, and we’ve even started working with a couple of corporate/special libraries.

In the three months since our first library started using LibraryThing for Libraries, we’ve gone from 17 million tags and 13 million items to 23 million tags and 18 million items. Every item and tag added to LibraryThing improves the reach and power of LTFL. It’s really cool to be involved with a product that gets better and more powerful every minute of the day.


Photo credits: (1) Bowdoin College photo by Flickr:cybertaur1 (CC Attribution). (2) Honnold Mudd Library by Jarod Hightower-Mills (Public Domain). (3) Asheboro Public Library photo by Flickr: Asheboro Public Library (CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0)

Labels: bowdoin, claremont colleges, librarything for libraries, randolph county public library