Being dogged by the hate-posse

There was a write-up about Tagged yesterday on TechCrunch.

We’re profitable! *Pats self on back*

The most interesting part is the comments. My reply hasn’t changed in the last six days:

You cannot single out one Web 2.0 company for doing viral marketing and not be a complete hypocrite. Either bash them all or none.

[More musings after the jump]

The funniest comments were the ad hominems about Greg being a “convicted spammer,” especially since there is a certain irony in that is overlooked when these same people have “big warm fuzzy secret <3” for Facebook.

No, I’m not talking about how ad hominems are logically flawed.

No, I’m not talking about the hypocrisy in Facebook running importers for the same sites as Tagged.

No, I’m not talking about the obvious inconsistency and myopia in anecdotal statements like this: “Why is it that I am not receiving invitation to join facebook yet I have invitations to join Tagged on almost every email account? Why is it that almost everyone I know on facebook logs into their account daily?” (Because you’ve joined Facebook and haven’t joined or unsub’d Tagged?)

Things like logic and common sense slide right off their teflon convictions.

No. Previously I worked at Plaxo which shares a remarkably similar experience.1 One of the most common arguments:

Plaxo is founded by a Napster co-founder, Sean Parker. Based on Napster’s interesting concept of “fair use” and property ownership, I will never trust an ex-Napster exec with anything, especially not my personal data. Plus, as far as I’m concerned, any money made from Napster is tainted. Yes, I do think businesses should pay attention to ethics, and there should be penalties for those that don’t.

People put the hate on Plaxo because one of our founders created Napster. Oh Wikipedia, remind us where Sean went after Plaxo?

You couldn’t write better comedy. Really.

Yeah but Facebook is better than you

Look. Tagged really does have more registered users than Facebook. Tagged really does register more users a day than any other social network out there. Tagged really is profitable (so is Facebook). Tagged really does implement controls (like CAPTCHA and message limits and customer support) to ensure those users are humans and not programs (how is spam messaging users on Tagged’s social network good for Tagged)?

But instead of hacking the numbers to prove that Tagged not successful, or that Tagged is evil, or that Greg is a bad man, ask me this question:

Would I as the Software Architect at Tagged rather have Facebook’s problems:

  • A vocal but nichey userbase?
  • A gorgeous but complicated and cold user interface?
  • A high daily unique count and phenomenal engagement with a shitty CPA?
  • A wonderful network updates architecture with an incredibly high infrastructure and operational cost?

Uhh. Hell, yes.

I follow sports. It’s some male dominance aggression thing. The difference here is I may say, “Yes, it is sort of silly I root for the Pittsburgh Steelers.” When you hold up Facebook and push down Tagged, you’re no different. It’s just a team with benefits (They pay me. Given our original target market, I’d be arrested if I got any “benefits” benefits). Tomorrow Tagged could go under and I could be working at Facebook or wherever.

I’m really damn good at my job. I honestly try my best to make things better. I realize some things are outside my control. I try all the time to tell the difference.

Facebook is a competitor. I know a lot of people at Facebook—they’re really cool people. I go to any of their events I am invited to and I write many good things about them on this blog. But at the end of the day, I’m my own person and so are they. We’re not machines, but people full of contradictions like this.

I can tell you with all honesty, as a person I have no trouble looking at myself in the mirror every day.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the rightness and wrongness of what I do or what the company I work for does.

I ask no less of everyone else.

I don’t <3 you

If you’re a tad hurt and want to say, “but… but…” I understand where you are coming from.

In fact I wrote a huge braindump about trying to understand not too long ago.

I’m not saying people don’t have a right to bitch about being “spammed.” I’m just asking them to stop starting with prima facia Santa Claus assumptions and then changing their facts to fit their “reality.” Because there is no “naughty” and “nice” list here; no “good” and “evil.” They’re either all naughty or all nice; all good, or all evil; or, all none of the above.

What I hope we can agree on is:

There is a problem.

And it’s the elephant in the Web 2.0 room.

Web 2.0 is about using viral marketing to substitute the bulk of traditional advertising and PR and payola. And by viral I mean “e-mail” and by marketing I mean “spam” and we need to decide if it’s all spam or it isn’t at all. We can’t pick and choose and say LinkedIn helped me get my job so it’s not spam, but I dislike the slickness of Plaxo’s e-mails so it is spam.

I’m saying we have a problem. The problem is we have a method of communication (e-mail) that is both incredibly cheap and incredibly efficient, but because we’ve engage in the fiction that it’s “free” (it isn’t), we created an externality (spam) that causes an overproduction of that good that is completely outside normal market controls.

And we’re too much libertarians or making too much money off this to really be honest that this is broken.

(And things like CAN-SPAM aren’t going to solve it because it puts enforcement before identity and fights the last battle. When Greg Tseng “spams,&#8221 you know you can sue him because he’s running a legitamate business; the real King of Spam spams, you can’t do squat but suffer and hope operations has created a really good spam assassin and the cost is outweighed by the necessity and advantages of the good e-mail you’ve received.)

I understand the suffering—you don’t think my e-mail box isn’t littered with penis enlargements, commercial messages, and invite requests? I work at a #&$ing social networking site! But that’s no reason to do transference onto Tagged or Plaxo or on whomever is the congnoscenti-declared punching-bag-of-the-month. Pushing them down doesn’t solve the problem, it propagates it.

Who among us will cast the first stone?

Instead, realize we have a problem with Web 2.0. It’s a big one. It’s not going to be solved without some serious self reflection.

The first step is to admit we are powerless over our addiction (to e-mail).

Another blog start story

When I first started this blog, I bought myself an iPod to record my thoughts. I had it engraved with a note to my future self:

Write to create context for another to think.

I’m not asking you to put the hate on LinkedIn or Facebook after reading this. I’m not asking you to have a warm fuzzy secret heart for Plaxo or Tagged after reading this.

I am, however, asking you to think.

1 I actually had two colleagues message me about this when the news broke. One wrote:

…only bad part is that many of the comments remind me of the “Plaxo is evil” arguments. Does aggressive-viral marketing attract you or is it the other way around?

9 thoughts on “Being dogged by the hate-posse

  1. > We can’t pick and choose and say LinkedIn helped me get my job so it’s not spam

    It doesn’t make our jobs any easier, but actually, I think most people do pick and choose just like this, and I don’t think that’s wrong. If Potter Stewart were alive today, I would not be surprised if his reaction to what is and isn’t spam would be the same as his approach to pornography. Distinctly un-binary, but in the world of actual humans (and law) context and intent matter.

    It is desirable from an engineering perspective to want to consider none of it spam or all of it spam, but that’s not the way the world works for non-programmers. I message I want is not spam; a message I don’t is. There will always be haters and complainers, but I think the challenge for us becomes to make sure the “messaging opportunities” provide ways for things to seem as desirable as possible to the recipients — making the purpose of the messages as well as, yes, their appearance, really accomplish something for the recipient.

    An impossible task to truly “solve” but a goal to work towards nonetheless.

    (Disclaimers: I’ve never used Tagged, I have no idea how wonderful or not the user sign up procedures are, these are just my opinions, I receive no money from the Potter Stewart Appreciation Society in exchange for my blog comments, etc etc etc)

  2. David,

    I think the more apt expression isn’t “I know it when I see it” but rather “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

    If you see value in one social network than you will correspondingly suffer the consequences of e-mail inundation from another social network. Besides, the Potter Stewart definition is an expression of futility, not one of success and I don’t think this problem is one we should throw in the hat on just yet.

    These people are applying a Potter Stewart definition to social networks by applying a Potter Stewart definition to the e-mails they send out or their registration flows. The irony here is that the e-mails, reg flows, and address book importers are remarkably similar… Why? Because they’re all optimizing the “viral chain.” If they didn’t they wouldn’t be successful and that’s true for LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook, MySpace, and Tagged.

    You can pick and choose what social networks you are on. You can pick and choose the definition of what level of invitiation requests, reinvites, member updates, and address book importers you think personally are good and bad. You cannot pick and choose whom you choose to apply that definition to. You cannot pick and choose which invitation requests, reinvites and member updates are “spam” and which are “not spam” on the public square (Yes, David, you can make this choice on your private e-mail filtering algorithm 😉 ).

    None of these companies are committing anything fraudulent. These companies are legal entities. Sure someone could sue MySpace about their e-mails, but don’t expect Facebook to be on the sidelines cheering about this, not by a longshot.

    Spam is not pornography. There are actually very clear rules defining it so you don’t have to resort to “know it when you see it.” The same rules have been around since junk mail, wire fraud, etc. This gets confusing because people seem to confound a bunch of things. SPAM itself is just unsolicited commercial e-mail. This definition has both edge cases and instances of fraud and abuse. For the former you have e-mail ads at the bottom of your Hotmail and Yahoo! account e-mails (exempted from CAN-SPAM due to a “primary purpose” clause), user-initiated actions like invitation requests (spam? see below), and commercial email list spam (there are some really f’d up loopholes here allowing companies to pass the liability downstream to the marketer). For the latter you have 401 schemes, penis/breast enlargement scams, green card scams, and the like—all felonies even if it were not e-mail (spam).

    Potter Stewart’s argument doesn’t fly here because the intent of all the social networks listed above and most social networks in general (including your company, Ning) is to be in compliance as much as is possible. That’s why there is an opt-out/unsubscribe at the bottom of every Tagged e-mail and Plaxo e-mail. Yet all the social networks need some form of SPAM to have any virality as well as to keep the network density (members like to receive updates, not a big spam problem because these people have opted in, it’s far more annoying when you never became a member in the first place). IANAL, but I think that the current definition of SPAM defines these e-mails as being unsolicited commercial e-mails which according to my “Potter Stewart” reading of commercial seems to be a bit too binary of a classification.

    There should be another classification for these sorts of e-mails. Just this week I got a dozen or so e-mails from headhunters, potential business partners, etc. (initiated by them), on top of the hundreds of scam “work at home” and “business opportunity” e-mails I received. Are they spam? Are they that much different than the LinkedIn or Plaxo invite? You make a law, it’s going to be a little tricky.

    People applying Potter Stewart’s definition to good and bad social networks because of the “spam” they receive are emotionally worked up (understandable as they’re annoying). But when they define one social network’s stuff as “spam” and with it the confounding associations of fraud, they’ve crossed the line into hypocrisy.

    The mechanism the law provides currently is opt-out/unsubscribe.

    The problem is they never click on an opt-out? Why? That’s where you get into the spam identity and enforcement problem. That’s outside the scope of this article.

    If there was a law defining the level of these then every one of these companies would be in compliance with it. But the way the current laws are written (fighting the last battle over e-mail ISPs and absolving large corporations of legal liability), every web 2.0 company is skirting this. That’s the problem when you created a law (CAN-SPAM) that everyone knows wasn’t going to mitigate the problem at all, but what the heck it’s harmless—it’s never harmless, it has unintended consequences.

  3. Terry, I totally see where you’re coming from, and it is frustrating to have folks apply seemingly capricious and inconsistent standards based on what seems to be a Silicon Valley version of who gets to sit at the cool kids lunch table in eighth grade.

    My point was not that there are not clear legal rules defining what “spam” may be but that practically, it is useful to go beyond those rules in figuring out interactions with customers. (Hence the Potter-Stewart-isms) One of course wants to make sure that all of the nitty gritty of legal and practical compliance is in place, which, as you point out, is something done by all the sites swirling about in the maelstrom we’re in.

    What I was trying to say is that simultaneous to the understandable frustration that you’re venting about, whether or not folks are hypocritical, inconsistent, whatever, they are what they are. And so the task falls to us to make them happy (or at least attempt to make them happy) even if it means acknowledging that inconsistency and working within its constraints rather than wishing those constraints away.

  4. I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100% regarding Being dogged by the hate-posse, but it’s just my opinion, which could be wrong 🙂

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