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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hate, hate on the web

The back-and-forth of the recent verbal threats and harassment against blogger and tech guru Kathy Sierra is evolving into some more reflective commentary. For those of you who have a Salon subscription, I recommend the essay "Men who hate women on the web."

One of the thoughtful and wry observations Salon editor Joan Walsh makes in the piece:

"And what does it mean that women writers have to drag around this anchor every time they start to write -- that we reflexively compose our own hate mail, and sometimes type and retype to try to avoid it? I can honestly say it's probably made me more precise and less glib. That's good. But it's also, for now, made me too cautious. I write less than I would if I wasn't thinking these thoughts. I think that's bad."

That really struck home with me — the part about composing your own hate mail. It's so easy to do! If a woman is overweight, she'll be called "a fat ____"; underweight, she's "a scrawny ____." Old? That would be a "wrinkly ____." Well-educated? "Ivory Tower ____." Under-educated? "Trailer park ____."

And on we go. If someone like Kathy Sierra (who looks like a model for the J. Jill fashion catalog, and is one of the strongest writers in the blogosphere) comes in for this sort of abuse, it's not hard to imagine what could happen to the rest of us!

Perhaps I'm reading the wrong blogs, but it seems to me that the 20-somethings active on the web, men and women, have been oddly silent during this discussion. Is this dynamic absent from their web experience? Is this discussion so "old school" that it's irrelevant to them? I'd be curious to know.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Customer support that really sucks

OK, try and beat this one:

J2 is a fax service you can use from your computer on the road. I used it during my travels in January and February, was not hugely impressed, paid for the second month of service, and then decided to cancel my account.

But, searching all my account options and their website, I couldn't find any way to cancel.

I finally emailed their Customer Support with a request to cancel, and they wrote back the following:

We have received your e-mail request to cancel your account. However, please be advised that we require your request be confirmed by calling us at 1-323-817-3218, or by visiting out Live Chat service, at [URL removed] where a Customer Service representative will assist you in the cancellation process. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Please note that your account will remain active until your cancellation request is confirmed by Customer Service.

[Name removed] j2 Customer Support

Of course, it was at this point that my blood began to boil. This email was from Customer Support. She didn't need me to be confirmed by Customer Service; she needed me to be high-pressured by Sales.

I called the (long-distance) number, followed the annoying system of convoluted prompts, finally found an option for "inquiring about cancellation." I thought that was an odd turn of phrase, and I was right to be suspicious. The automated message told me that if I wanted to inquire about cancelling my account, I had to use the Live Chat service on the website.

Rolling my eyes, I went the Live Chat page, logged in with my account information, and waited for the Chat screen to load. And waited. And waited. And waited. (My browser hung, and continued to hang on repeated tries.)

So I called the phone number again, but this time I selected Technical Support. The fellow who answered (a very pleasant person who had trouble understanding English) got my account information. He told me that my service didn't have any Chat, just conference capabilities. He didn't seem to know anything about the Live Chat service mentioned in the email and the phone system.

I then told him that I was trying to cancel my account. This sent him off to talk with a supervisor. He came back and offered me an extra free month of service. I stuck with my guns and told him I wanted to cancel. More chat with the supervisor. Then he came back and told me that my account would be cancelled and I would receive an email to confirm that.

Note, by the way, that all this had to be conducted via two long distance phone calls that I had to pay for; I suspect the two calls cost me as much as a month of service from the company.

Bottom line: I'd rather hike four miles in a blizzard to fax something from Kinko's than ever do business with J2 again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Blogging and threats

It's not uncommon for a blog (and a specific blogger) to attract nasty comments, even death threats.

For that reason, many personal bloggers simply turn off the Comments feature on their blogs. However, professional bloggers and people whose blogs are part of their business marketing don't have that option; comments (as many as 100 on a good post) are a key part of the blog's value. (For an example, see the comments about my recent post on TrenchMice; the post raised questions; the commenter addressed them.)

As a rule, most sites use the comment-moderation feature (part of their blogging software) to handle off-the-wall comments. For instance, when someone posts a comment on Writer Way, I receive an email notification and log in to Blogger to read the comment and publish it. On rare occasions, I choose not to publish it. (The comment may be "comment spam" promoting a product and having nothing to do with the Writer Way blog, or it may contain what I consider to be offensive language.)

"Offensive," of course, is a matter of taste.

Recently a group blog run by several leaders in the "A-level" blogging realm allowed several comments to be posted, some of them with photos, that contained extremely crude smears about a well-known blogger and expert on user-friendly design, Kathy Sierra. Some of the comments waxed enthusiastic about ways Kathy could be killed.

It all sounds like some high school kid's MySpace slambook, but, no, this was really appearing on a blog run by well-known tech types. Who apparently were having a collective Lord of the Flies flashback.

My initial reaction when I learned about this (from reading Kathy's blog post) was simply to resolve never to have anything to do with any of those folks. I was truly appalled to learn that one of those involved with one of the blogs that tolerated the offensive comments is Jeneane Sessum. She's a prominent member of the women's organization BlogHer (where I'm a member).

But I then read Bill Humphries' blog; his remarks ("It's Not Funny") point to Liz Henry's call to action. Liz is right. Behavior like that at (which replaced the original offensive blog, is comletely unacceptable. Liz writes:

"Kathy rocks for speaking up. She rocks for calling this out and exposing it on her blog. She rocks for calling the cops and the FBI, and for saying so. She wasn't shamed into silence or afraid of being called 'too sensitive' or 'humorless', two things which often stop women from speaking up."
Liz's post goes on to focus on the tone of woman-hating that characterized the attacks on Kathy Sierra, but I don't think that's the only key issue -- I've seen sexual slurs and threats used to attack male bloggers on political blogs. For me the crux of the matter is the issue of blogging community standards and the need to shore them up.

I urge other bloggers to post about the Kathy Sierra situation and to talk with their non-blogging friends about what's going on. If the mainstream press reports on this situation, wouldn't it be great if they could also report that the blogging community has taken a strong stand against a tiny minority of foul-mouthed bullies?

Can you spot a bad adverb?

You'll find out if you listen to the delightful Writing Tools: The Musical by Roy Peter Clark of Poynteronline.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

TrenchMice is Facebook for the workplace

When I clicked over to TrenchMice this evening I could hardly believe what I'd been missing. This site enables registered users to post reviews of their companies and their managers. And that's just the beginning.

Bronze membership at TrenchMice is free; Gold and Silver levels provide "super anonymous" posting capabilities ( how anonymous is Bronze?) plus advanced search features and the ability to reply to posts about yourself before they are published (hmm again...are we talking about paying for "protection" from other users?).

Certainly, TrenchMice promises to be highly entertaining as well as potentially informative. I predict we'll be hearing a great deal about this Seattle-based start-up in coming months.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Writer reads

My office is a neat, well-organized place -- papers filed, desk cleared, cords coiled -- with one exception.

The books.

They're everywhere. On bookshelves. In boxes. On the floor.

While preparing to do some book reviewing for January Magazine I was forced to go through the piles to locate the novels I'm reviewing and referencing.

It was discouraging to realize that only a dozen of the books were memorable, and only half of those were memorable for good reasons. The outstanding book among them was The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Inventive, light-footed, and thoroughly charming, it's a novel about an Ann Arbor writer whose late-night wanderings lead him to a fellow insomniac who has a treasure trove of bittersweet stories. And I liked Simple As Snow by Gregory Galloway, slightly edgier in tone, about love and coming of age in a small town that reverberates with echoes of Columbine. (Parental guidance: If you have teenagers, this book will make you crazy.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ad agency ads

Advertising agencies are famous for demonstrating their production skills with elaborate insider jokes. The corporate site for Kruskopf Coontz does it better than most. After you've enjoyed their intro, go to Fun Stuff>BS Central>(2) Viral to check out their proposal to improve on the viral marketing using a contagious scheme of their very own.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Follow that lemming

I came across a blog entry today written by a fellow who had apparently just heard about the latest power-of-positive-thinking book, The Secret.

The blogger starts off a tad skeptical about the book, but quickly reassures himself "There must be some validity to the ideas in it or people wouldn't be talking about it so often."

Proof that human thinking processes haven't evolved too far from those of our furry little cousins, the lemmings.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Keeping web visitors happy

I recently wrote a blog entry for a client about how a company can make the best of an email mistake. The recommendation was to quickly send follow-up email offering customers a discount or benefit to make up for any inconvenience they may have experienced. The idea is not only to calm the minority who may have been affected by the mistake, but to make a good impression on the majority -- particularly the ones who take advantage of the freebie or discount.

Now I'm wondering if a similar marketing mechanism might be applied when a site has an unscheduled or poorly timed outage.

Today I went to log in to my Linked In account and, for the first time, ran into their upgrade/maintenance page. The friendly tone of the writing, and the amusing image, really took the edge off my initial frustration. (A striking contrast with the curt maintenance notice at my bank's website -- which I seem to encounter one in every four times I try to log on.)

Imagine if Linked In had gone just one step more are said something like "Are you a Linked In member? Come back in a bit, log in to your account, and use this code to get a free 1-month upgrade to our premium account level. Thanks for your patience!"

Ooh, that would be nice.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Austin has its limits

If you're feeling bad about missing out on South by Southwest Interactive, the tech extension of the SXSW music confab in Austin, read this travelogue by Todd Levin.

You'll feel better. In fact, you'll feel positively relieved that you didn't attend — and run the risk of having Levin write about you.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

On a roll?

Yesterday a Biznik colleague asked me asked me how things were going and I replied, mentioning that I haven't been doing much networking within the group because I've discovered the best clients for my web writing services are mid-size (50 -100 employee) businesses, not small ones.

It's just a year since I left Apple to put together a freelance webwriting business, and I've discovered quite a bit. I've had some great contract gigs, and some disappointing ones. Because I'm underwriting 2006 and 2007 from my Apple savings, I still have the luxury of picking and choosing my contracts, focusing on people and areas I like or new opportunities I want to explore.

I check several freelance and contract listings daily, and have learned to recognize the lousy pieces of work. It's easy to spot the obvious ones -- the advertiser has no idea what he or she wants, or expects to get writing work for peanuts. But some of the least desirable pieces of work (for me, at least) are the ones where the job description has been written by someone in an HR department: The ad's about two pages long, sternly describes the job duties in a long list of jargon-laden bullet points, asks you to submit a resume that goes back to your summer jobs during college, and requires that candidates have "min. two years experience" working with a piece of web-publishing software that most bloggers could master in 15 minutes. My blood runs cold at the thought of interviewing with, much less working for, this type of organization.

Late yesterday afternoon I spotted a job posting, five sentences long, in which the head of a Seattle-area company was looking for an experienced web content writer. The ad clearly defined the work. I replied (in five sentences and some hyperlinks).

I'll report later in the week about what happened next.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Remember fact-checking?

In the late 1970s I co-authored an article for Psychology Today magazine that was rigorously fact-checked by someone at the publication. Every person I had interviewed was called, the spelling of their names confirmed, and their ages and other identifying information verified. Dates and sequences of events (we were writing about the aftermath of the war in Vietnam) were checked as well.

Print magazines are still known for their rigorous fact-checking, or at least some spot-checking; most require writers to submit contact information on all sources. Webzines, by contrast, follow the newspaper tradition of minimal fact-checking. As this Slate article explains the system, "writers are responsible for the accuracy of their pieces, editors do their best to backstop them, and more often than anybody will admit, copy editors save all of us from embarrassment with their last-second interventions."

Slate, however, has a self-appointed fact-checker who's been sending in corrections to the website since 2000. I'm proud to say that the fact-checker, profiled by Slate last week, is my cousin RM "Auros" Harman.