It’s all about the communication

Here’s a story for you:

Once upon a time there was a man who bought some hosting. He bought it because he liked the flexibility, freedom and functionality that it offered. He bought it knowing that it was cheap, and that cheap sometimes means compromise: he did this because he isn’t terribly rich, and decided that the risk was acceptable.

The man was happy with his hosting until one day he happened to head over to one of his sites only to find it was down. He tried another of his sites, then another. Also down. He went online to the support site and tried to raise a ticket – nothing worked in the browsers he tried. He emailed Support. They got back and told him there were “some problems”.

Now, 48 hours later, despite repeated emails to Support the only additional information he got was a link to a page showing a [very slow] “bare metal” install (whatever that is) of the offending server.  His sites remain broken. Man becomes increasingly pissed off.

You’ll obviously recognise that the man in question is me. The host in question is http://www.wpwebhost.com/. You’d probably guess that I’m pissed off because my sites are all down.

As it happens, you’re totally wrong about that – I understand that bad shit happens to servers, and I understand that I get a good service from these guys, most of the time.

The thing that has really pissed me off is this: the abysmal communication I’ve had from them about the issue:

  • I had to find out about this on my own. I haven’t had a single communication from WPWebHost letting me know that my hosting is borked. Presumably this means that they have a number of clients who are still – 2 days later – unaware that their sites are down
  • When I did email Support, I also raised the issue that you can’t use the website support portal to raise a ticket – and even sent them a screengrab explaining the problem. Nothing back, just a stock “sorry for the inconvenience, please see this status link” email
  • I’ve repeatedly emailed asking them for ANY kind of ETA – in this instance I have a site with some time-critical stuff on it and making the “bugger, let’s switch DNS and hosting” decision could have been made had I known that 48 hours later things would still be broken.
  • As of time of writing, the @wpwebhost Twitter account also hasn’t been updated since 12th January – not a peep about the current issue

Actually, for the most part this isn’t abysmal communication – it’s NO communication.

So now I’m thinking – righto, I hate everything about switching hosts, but I’m really going to have to think quite hard about doing it.

The huge irony is this – if I’d had ONE proactive email from WPWebHost along these lines:

Hey, we’re really sorry but we’ve had a big fuckup on one of our machines. Your sites are affected. As of time of writing we estimate it’ll take 60 hours to get them back up and running. If you need help switching DNS during this time, please contact us and we’ll be pleased to help. Once again, accept our apologies.

…then I’d probably be much happier about sticking with them into the future.

This isn’t about the hosting. The hardcore geeks among you are already lining up to tell me how many backups, failovers and dynamic DNS switching tools I should have had at my disposal. I know all that, I took the risk. The point isn’t about the technology, it’s about the relationship they have with their customers.

This is 2011. In this world, the people who get this right are the ones who are honest with their customers, not those who try to ostrich problems. If WPWebHost turn around to me and say – “You know what, everything you had hosted with us here is lost” (here’s hoping not, but they’ve already failed with one install, and I’m a realistic kind of person..) – then I’d be in a much, much better mood to accept this if they’d been proactive in communicating the problems they’re having.

Get with the shit, guys.

Pushing MRD out from under the geek rock

The week before last (30th June – 1st July 2009), I was at the JISC Digital Content Conference having been asked to take part in one of their parallel sessions.

I thought I’d use the session to talk about something I’m increasingly interested in – the shifting of the message about machine readable data (think API’s, RSS, OpenSearch, Microformats, LinkedData, etc) from the world of geek to the world of non-geek.

My slides are here:

[slideshare id=1714963&doc=dontthinkwebsitesthinkdatafinal-090713100859-phpapp02]

Here’s where I’m at: I think that MRD (That’s Machine Readable Data – I couldn’t seem to find a better term..) is probably about as important as it gets. It underpins an entire approach to content which is flexible, powerful and open. It embodies notions of freely moving data, it encourages innovation and visualisation. It is also not nearly as hard as it appears – or doesn’t have to be.

In the world of the geek (that’s a world I dip into long enough to see the potential before heading back out here into the sun), the proponents of MRD are many and passionate. Find me a Web2.0 application without an API (or one “on the development road-map”) and I’ll find you a pretty unusual company.

These people don’t need preaching at. They’re there, lined up, building apps for Twitter (to the tune of 10x the traffic which visits twitter.com), developing a huge array of services and visualisations, graphs, maps, inputs and outputs.

The problem isn’t the geeks. The problem is that MRD needs to move beyond the realm of the geek and into the realm of the content owner, the budget holder, the strategist, for these technologies to become truly embedded. We need to have copyright holders and funders lined up at the start of the project, prepared for the fact that our content will be delivered through multiple access routes, across unspecified timespans and to unknown devices. We need our specifications to be focused on re-purposing, not on single-point delivery. We need solution providers delivering software with web API’s built in. We need to be prepared for a world in which no-one visits our websites any more, instead picking, choosing and mixing our content from externally syndicated channels.

In short, we now need the relevant people evangelising about the MRD approach.

Geeks have done this well so far, but now they need help. Try searching on “ROI for API’s” (or any combination thereof) and you’ll find almost nothing – very little evidence outlining how much API’s cost to implement, what cost savings you are likely to see from them; how they reduce content development time; few guidelines on how to deal with syndicated content copyright issues.

Partly, this knowledge gap is because many of the technologies we’re talking about are still quite young. But a lot of the problem is about the communication of technology, the divided worlds that Nick Poole (Collections Trust) speaks about. This was the core of my presentation: ten reasons why MRD is important, from the perspective of a non-geek (links go to relevant slides and examples in the slide deck):

  1. Content is still king
  2. Re-use is not just good, it’s essential
  3. “Wouldn’t it be great if…”: Life is easier when everyone can get at your data
  4. Content development is cheaper
  5. Things get more visual
  6. Take content to users, not users to content (“If you build it, they probably won’t come”)
  7. It doesn’t have to be hard
  8. You can’t hide your content
  9. We really is bigger and better than me
  10. Traffic

All this is is a starter for ten. Bigger, better and more informed people than me probably have another hundred reasons why MRD is a good idea. I think this knowledge may be there – we just need to surface and collect it so that more (of the right) people can benefit from these approaches.