What people want

2 Drink Minimum” by 500hats
You’ll have to read until the end to find out why I included this photo.

Holly wrote recently that your most passionate users don’t necessarily build the best products. It’s really worth a read.

I think the problem comes from the fact that there is often a large difference between what people say they want, and what people really want.

Forgetting that this difference exists and being insensitive to a customer’s true desires is the source of many mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned.

What follows is an example of each of those things two things: a mistake and a lesson.

[Michael and me after the jump.]

In medias blogs

We’ll begin in the middle of things with a customer satisfaction reducto ad absurdum, or an extreme case of a customer asking for the moon. Last year, back when I worked at Plaxo, I read this article from Michael Arrington, then of the rising star website TechCrunch.

Stacy, Thanks for the note. I just hate the fact that I have to go to your site and go through a multi-step process to ask you not to email me anymore. And then I have to do that for each and every email address I have. And when I get a new email address I have to go through the process for that as well. Imagine if I had to do this for every site on the internet. Your model doesn’t scale. We don’t need to engage in a dialog here – I know what you are going to say and you know what I am going to say. I just hope, someday, you guys kill off this spammy feature.

Now this statement and ensuing blogstorm of comments on the article really pissed me off at the time. Why?

(If you want a preview: read the linked article above and substitute the word “Plaxo” with “LinkedIn” or “MySpace” or “Facebook” or “Tagged” or “Flickr” or “YouTube” or almost any Web 2.0 company and see how its privacy policy, use of e-mail, and opt-out stack up. If you’re a typical person like me, checking your e-mail inbox nowadays makes those comments seem very dated.1 Calling out Plaxo for doing this back then seems a little hypocritical unless you call them all out on it today. From where I’m standing, Plaxo seems more like a visionary in understanding virality as the dark necessity of Web 2.0.)

Understanding Plaxo’s Privacy Policy

A lot of people say that my former company is evil. In fact, people are so blithe about using the phrase “Plaxo is evil,” that I begin to question if they know what the term “evil” means.

If instead of parroting what we’ve been told by the BoingBoing crowd, let’s think for ourselves. Is it possible Michael Arrington (or the BoingBoing editors) have a very valid (poorly articulated) reason to put the hate on Plaxo (I’ll get to that later), but we don’t?

Here is what Plaxo’s Privacy Policy states in simple terms: Your data is your own.

It seems really intuitive, huh? That is until you realize that no major company has such a strict privacy policy.

If Plaxo were truly evil, being such a small company, how long would they last? Especially when you consider this privacy policy is a legally binding document. A corporation that is huge can afford to be so amoral as to be psychopathic (not evil, but close). But they usually have a monopoly on something essential, are powerful and have manipulated the legal system to favor them. But Plaxo? Honestly?

I am proud to have worked at Plaxo. I’d rather work for a company that everyone says is evil (but isn’t) than one that everyone gives a fluffing to (but really is)…like Google. 😉

The privacy problem

The root of why Plaxo appears to be evil is one of ownership. When you give someone your business card, who owns the data? If that someone puts that business card data into Plaxo, who owns it?

Plaxo’s Privacy Policy says, “Well it is their address book, so it’s their data. Plaxo can’t remove this data, since the privacy policy gives them complete control over their data.” But then you say, “Yes, but the data is of me. So it’s mine.” This gets to the heart of the ownership of privacy problem:

The problem with ownership is it can’t really be shared.

So Plaxo’s solution is to treat their service like a rolodex of business cards. When someone else has your business card, you can’t demand it back. You can only ask politely. Plaxo lives in that reality.

Besides, that virtual “rolodex” is tightly integrated with their electronic address book (I still use Plaxo and it’s certainly tightly integrated with my Mac OS X Address Book, and I’d be a little miffed if Plaxo were suddenly deleting my data out of my address book (and from there out of my Outlook on my work PC, my Palm pilot, my iPod, my cell phone, my dotMac account, my Yahoo! account, my GMail, my AIM buddy list, and my Skype) just because someone else wanted them to.)

Plaxo, now with MORE evil?

Put another way, who is more evil: LinkedIn or Plaxo? Everyone will tell you Plaxo is, certainly. (Case in point: one of the articles linked above myopically makes this direct comparison as if this conclusion is fact.) Hell, LinkedIn doesn’t even appear on anyone’s list of evil. But consider this: Plaxo can’t be a LinkedIn because their privacy policy forbids it; LinkedIn could be a Plaxo if they could figure out how handle contact synchronization and address book integration, in fact, they’d love to be and have made some abortive attempts in that direction.

I love LinkedIn and it has helped me get my current job; I am also aware what everyone says is the less-evil company, but there is really no comparison—the conventional wisdom is dead wrong.

Walking a mile in someone elses shoes

Let us imagine if we’re Michael Arrington running a super hot tech blog called TechCrunch that every Web 2.0 startup wants to get their press on. People are sharing our e-mail address and phone number behind our back and we’ve lost control of it. (That’s true whether it is in the real world as the virtual.) But it’s got to suck to get all these update request e-mails from losers. And when these people are sending e-mail through Plaxo, a site we’ve already put on our dead-to-me list, it’s got to suck more. Finally, when we keep having to create more e-mail accounts to run away from the old ones that got spammed out of existence and those people keep following us, we’d be liable to scream:

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!

Which is sort of what Michael, among others, did. This was followed closely by a few more others in the same boat, and then a host of sycophantic panderers. From where I was standing, I couldn’t honestly tell who was in which category.

An oxymoron and a dichotomy

The social networking problem for most people isn’t privacy. The social networking problem for most people is obscurity. And the problem with that problem is that you can’t really have network privacy—the term is an oxymoron. In other words, most of us would love to have Michael’s popularity problem. But the problem is, we don’t really (so we just pretend to).

(That’s what shit like Twitter is for. See, I know that there are only three of you reading this blog, but I’d like to pretend that there are maybe six of you.)

The social networking world out there is divided into two classes: the haves (a problem with their privacy) and the have-nots (wishes they had a problem with their privacy). I know that sucks to be the have-nots because I’m with you in that group. It cheers me up to think the haves in one network can be the have-nots in another—the ensuing collision can create a juxtaposition that is quite amusing, or at least worth a writeup in Valleywag.

It’s this same problem everywhere. Take music for instance: how many artists would love to have Madonna’s and Metallica’s problem of their music being pirated?

Back to my buddy, Michael

Here is where my mistake comes into play. You see, I, more than anyone else out there, was responsible for putting Plaxo on Michael Arrington’s shitlist.

From the blog entry, you can see the hullabaloo all started when Rob Scoble visited Plaxo and blogged about it. In the comments, two people made what I felt were your run of the mill, parroting of the “Plaxo is Evil” line. I then immediately put them in their place along with a disclaimer saying I worked at Plaxo. Unfortunately, right after I posted, so did the person at Plaxo who was officially designated to respond to blogs followed closely by another co-worker. It looked like a barrage of attacks from Plaxo, even though it was an honest accident.

(Three people posted at the same instant because they were all taking time to compose their responses—none of us knew the other was posting. Add to this the reality that one of those three was me who is a smart guy who is very passionate about what he does and never hesitates to share his opinion, which is just a euphemism for “complete asshole.”)

Most unfortunately for Plaxo, one of the two victims of this flash comment mugging was Michael Arrington, who took the whole exchange rather personally.

It is a pity that the exchange no longer exists because if you read what I said so far and then read the exchange, I think I come off rather well. Even though I didn’t know who “the hell this Arrington fucker” was at the time, I felt the guy had a point: a barrage of comments looked like an unfair attack. I shut up and let Stacy Martin respond to him. Those of you who know me know this must have been an uncharacteristic display of restraint. 😉

Just saying…

So getting back to Arrington’s request last year, I want to show you why it was absurd. Take a step back and try to understand what it would take to accommodate it:

  1. Plaxo would have to scour everyone’s personal address book looking for e-mail addresses that people have listed as belonging to Michael.
  2. Plaxo would then have to secretly merge those various e-mails into a single universal e-mail profile on Michael.
  3. Plaxo then have to go into every account looking for those e-mails and then deleting them.

I’m not talking about the engineering problem here, I’m talking about the moral one:

  1. Plaxo would have centralize the data store to create a universally consistent profile. That’s the opposite of the way it is maintiained currently by Plaxo: data stores are organized into independent silos in order to maintain account ownership and handle account deletions as according to the privacy policy.
  2. Plaxo would data mine said database to do the exact thing that a certain next door neighbor is trying to do. You know the sort of thing that causes that company to put a “Do No Evil” bumper sticker over their core values because their other core value is fundamentally (what’s the word for it?) EVIL.
  3. In order to delete information, Plaxo would have to claim ownership over the users contact store.

In other words, in order to handle a valid edge case, Michael is not just asking for the near impossible (engineering wise), but the completely evil.

Plus I read the comments where everyone was in agreement and saying how deluded our Privacy Officer was. Even though there is nothing “she” nor anyone else at Plaxo could do about it. (Note to the world: Stacy Martin, in this case, is a guy’s name.)

Being stomped on the shoulders by giants

I promised to get back to where I “was standing”… or being stood on… or rather, being stomped on. My thinking:

Poor Michael had three Plaxo people disagree with him on Robert Scoble’s blog comments. It sucked to be in his shoes then. But walk for a mile in my shoes now. Nearly everyone is hopping on ‘trash Plaxo’ bandwagon: not just CrunchNotes and TechCrunch… damn near everywhere.

Some of these same people are giving blowjobs to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Flickr which were scaling up what Plaxo was scaling back. Yeah, these people certainly don’t mean to be hypocrites. But pointing that out isn’t going to win you any friends or influence any people. Remember what happened the last time I opened my mouth to defend Plaxo?

It was an accident and I was unfair to Michael back in 2005, but holding a grudge this long and forming the Hate-Plaxo-Possé begins to look like the unfairness balance-of-power shifted.

I hope this explains why I was “really pissed” especially when you have a temper, a potty mouth, and an incredible urge to express yourself like me. (Someone sign me up for the 12-step of the blogging world!)

You’ll notice, even though this occurred in January 2006 and this was the sort of stuff I was thinking, I didn’t respond then. (Again, remarkable restraint, because, by this time, my understanding of TechCrunch had graduated only to being “some fucking blog by that guy who has it in for the company I work for.” But it looks like I have a ways to go on that 12-step thing. 😀 )

What did Michael want?

I didn’t find out until much later and this is the source of the lesson. You can figure it out if you read this and this.

The thing that tipped Michael was an apology… an apology! Who would have thunk?

Obviously, some people at Plaxo.

In all honestly I would have never thought of it. And so, every time you engineers think that the CEO or PR are a bunch of worthless %&#s, reread this and learn from my history: to be both humiliated and enlightened. I would have never thought that Arrington would give Plaxo a second chance because here was a guy who two months before needed to be told: “don’t let’s ask for a moon, you have the stars.” His blog had skyrocketed in those two months that even I had gathered that everyone in the Valley reads it.

What people want

Well this article has been a very long logorrhea to demonstrate that I have no clue what people want. But the lesson I learned was an important one:

I don’t know what people want.

And here’s my take on Holly’s paradox:

The thing is, most “passionate users” know what they want. In fact they’re so sure of this knowledge that they make me the wisest man in Athens.

It is still important to listen to what your passionate customers say. But take the effort to do what they really want and not just do what they say they want. That is very tough and sometimes impossible, but it is ultimately very rewarding..

(I suppose another lesson is you’re probably better off having someone with Tourette’s as a public voice for your company than someone like me. Be sure to make a change in your company’s blogging policy to reflect this.)

And have a little respect for the hard work PR, marketing, and customer support people do. Some learn and reap the rewards; others don’t and pay the price.


I did eventually meet Michael Arrington. I put together a hack for Yahoo! Hack Day in a few hours I sobered up after the Beck concert. Due to a miscommunication with Dave, I had to present my hack near the beginning and Michael Arrington was the emcee. I cracked a joke at Jeremy Zawodny’s expense and, as the first few hack presentations were both atrocious and over the time limit, Michael muttered under his breath to me, “nice hack.” I then proceeded to cure my horrible hangover with the rest of the beer they had on tap.

I won nothing but the gratitude of one of the judges who I met at the del.icio.us birthday bash and said I should have won. And maybe I’m misremembering that last part because even more alcohol was involved at that party (as you can see from the photo). But it didn’t matter. Grudging respect from Michael and a laugh from Jeremy is all the reward a good hack needs.

1 Possibly a big difference between the two is that when you become a Plaxo member, the amount of “spam” you received magically disappears. While you have to “opt-out” to achieve the same benefit as a non member (and the opt-out process sort of feels like becoming a member, only without the password). Whereas in most social networks, when you become a member, your spam load increases.

If this is the reason that it sort of proves the point: perhaps the real complaint here is that this seems inherently unfair. While legally what Plaxo does is give you more rights, it sure doesn’t feel like it for some reason—and it’s what it feels like, not what it really is: that’s what’s important.

9 thoughts on “What people want

  1. Hmm, my comment on GetSatisfaction got borked by their bad Latin-1 to UTF-8 encoding, their stripping of useful HTML from user uploaded comments, and their censorship (which, come to think of it, actually sounds sort of ironic for a blog that is designed to promote a customer service and satisfaction product). Here was what I intended to write:

    Plaxo has a very open blogging policy. In fact, the company invented the very concept of blogging policies. I hope you can understand that accidents do happen. I’m sure if you met Rikk in person you’d think he’s a pretty swell guy you wouldn’t mind kicking a few back with. Sometimes an open policy can have as a consequence an unintended argumentative exchange like this one. That’s the nature of this medium being both immediate and lacking honest visual cues like this one: 😉 of which, Rikk’s self-deprecating humor could have used a few thousand of (IMO).

    But if this is the price Plaxo pays for blogging transparency, I’d rather have the transparency. Wouldn’t you?

    Take care,


    P.S. I used to work at Plaxo and, for what it’s worth, Rikk didn’t very much care for me at the end of it. But I know he didn’t intend to come off as “retaliating” and I hope you understand that he does look out for you, the customer (or not customer in this case), and means well. He just sometimes forgets that he is Executive Vice President of Engineering at Plaxo and that can sound pretty retalitory if someone with a title like that calls you out on what was a humorous comment, if a little not funny because it skirts the raw area of the truth of Web 2.0 a bit too closely. (If you call out Plaxo on spam, why not LinkedIn, MySpace, FaceBook, Flickr, etc.?)

    Neither he nor Plaxo intended to “trick millions of people into sending out millions of email” even though that certainly did happen, and when it happenned, it took a very long time for us to admit it was a wrong.

    I was one of the very last to admit that. For that, I apologize.

  2. This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title What people want. Thanks for informative article

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