NOTE: This article is an archived copy for portfolio purposes only, and may refer to obsolete products or technologies. Old articles are not maintained for continued relevance and accuracy.
March 15, 1998

Elephant Talk

Talk, it's only talk
Arguments, agreements, advice, answers,
Articulate announcements
It's only talk - Elephant Talk, King Crimson

If you're a subscriber to this newsletter, then undoubtedly you noticed a flurry of e-mail in response to the last issue. Since net.Opinion is positioned as an editorial newsletter and not as a discussion list, some of you were inquisitive about the follow-up posts: "Is your system broken?," and "Do you know that people are posting to the list?"

No, the system's not broken, and yeah, I know that other people's comments are going out on the list. It's happening on purpose. You see, ever since the first issue of this newsletter went out, I've been getting well-developed, intelligent responses from my readers. From time to time, some of these have been forwarded to the list. Last week I put a system in place to handle them on a formal basis, and I'm going to start sharing the best of these as part of the overall publication process.

I've been wrestling with how to provide a mechanism for making feedback and commentary available to the rest of the subscribers for a while now. The method I've chosen—using e-mail for delivery of responses—comes as a result of a significant amount of research, a lot of soul-searching, and a good measure of discussion with readers like yourself.

Before I get too far into this subject, let me give an overview of what I've implemented. This newsletter's subscription database is a Microsoft Access file, stored on the same NT system that I use for Netscape's FastTrack Server and Allaire's Cold Fusion. I don't use ListServ or Majordomo, although I used to. Now I use hand-coded Cold Fusion scripts to manage the subscriber database and disseminate the newsletter and follow-up responses.

The subscription database has fields for name, e-mail address, message format (text or HTML), and a new field for whether or not you want to see follow-up messages. If the "participate in discussions" field is on for your e-mail account, then you'll receive any responses that I forward back to the list.

Also, I've added a Back-Talk forums area to the net.Opinion section of the EHS Company web site. These forums are accessible from the specific newsletter they're tied to, or as a whole. From within those forums you'll be able to view comments made by other readers.

I'm not forwarding every comment that I get. Instead I'm archiving everything in the forums area and only forwarding the best and most compelling arguments back to the list. I don't think it serves any purpose to generate a bunch of messages that aren't relevant to the point of discussion at hand. That would only create more noise, and I'm only interested in signal, as are the rest of you I'm sure.

If you don't want to receive the follow-up messages, go to the subscriber page, select "no" for the "participate" option and click the "Update" button. The back-end mailer won't send you any more reader comments, and you'll only get the newsletter. If you don't even want the newsletter anymore then just click the "Unsubscribe" button.

Readership and Business Models

There are a number of "community-building" tools available on the market: broadcast publishing gizmos, interactive discussion lists, on-line message boards, and even real-time chat. I chose to use e-mail and a discussion-list model for handling feedback and commentary because it seems to be the most appropriate for this subscriber base (more on this in a moment).

As with other business issues, what matters most is what the customer wants. Part of this is determing just who your customer is. This isn't always easy.

For example, Yahoo runs a bunch of chat rooms and message boards, allowing you to mix it up with others of your ilk. You can find a used car, a lover, or maybe both at once if you're really lucky, just by yakking with others on Yahoo's systems.

But you're not Yahoo's "real" customer. Yahoo's customer is the ad buyer. You're just another pair of eyeballs that are increasing Yahoo's hit-count, allowing them to charge more for premium ad space. You're inventory.

C'mon, you don't really think that Yahoo wants to help you personally find a used car, do you? Here's a test: call up Jerry Yang's office and see if he'll take the day off to take you car shopping. Nah, the goal isn't to help you, but rather to "get the eyeballs" so that Yahoo can get their real customers to buy more ads.

There's nothing wrong with this. It's the same for any site that relies on advertising as their primary source of revenue, whether it's Silicon Investor, CNN or Jesse Berst's Anchordesk forums. But it's important to realize that while these sites will do everything they can to attract your air-time, your needs as a user have nothing to do with their business objective. If it comes down to letting you post photos of you-and-your-donkey versus selling an ad, you're history.

At the other extreme, forums that focus exclusively on the participant-as-customer tend to be much more liberal. When a forum is established strictly for the purpose of getting like-minded individuals together, things change dramatically. There's not a vendor behind alt.sex.bestiality, but it would be impossible to deny that a "community" of some sort exists. Even vendor- or product-specific mailing lists and newsgroups show this same type of commune-centric nature. Members of these open services can post pretty much whatever they want, without fear of retribution or censorship.

Edited Discussion

Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. While we want to promote a free exchange of ideas, we're somewhat leery of opening the mail stream to any and all comers. Neither model really works.

In my case, this newsletter is a useful tool for expressing thoughts and discoveries that wouldn't fit cleanly into another forum. The vast majority of my literary effort shows up in product reviews, technology primers, books and so forth, none of which provide for much in the way of free-form commentary. If I were to write a review of discussion list products, then there would be a little bit of room for some commentary, but I wouldn't have the opportunity to address the concepts as squarely as I can here. This newsletter allows me to do just that, as well as to get a better understanding of what my peers think about a particular topic.

Conversely, this newsletter is most certainly not a sales tool for the hawking of my services. Nor is this a potential ad-revenue generator. I don't want it to become a formal vehicle so much as I want it to be a forum that allows me to talk to my peers about the technologies and issues affecting our ability to build and manage computer networks. I'll never take ads for this newsletter. I'll never sell the subscriber database (although I might sell the unsubscribers, nyuk nyuk nyuk). Think of it as an effective way for me to send the same journal entry to hundreds of people all at once, and you'll be on the right track.

Part of this model calls for getting commentary back, of course. Although this has been happening, what I haven't been doing very well is making this commentary available to the rest of you, at least on a consistent basis. By sending out the best of the responses I hope to remedy this and also elicit additional responses.

So in summary, my "reader-customer" ought to be able to freely express differences of opinion. This can only engender more discussion and debate, working towards some kind of truth that I alone could not express adequately. I'm not going to worry about advertisers, because I don't have or want any. But at the same time, I'm not going to allow binary posts of you-and-your-donkey, since this isn't necessarily the best forum for us to learn about that part of your life.

That's why I've chosen to use e-mail as the primary feedback and discussion medium. It allows for immediate distribution, but also allows me to audit and edit, keeping digressions and distractions down to a minimum. And I'll keep an archive of the messages available on the web site, allowing those of you who don't want to be bothered with commentary to be able to still participate in some manner.

The biggest problem for me will be in keeping on top of the editorial control functions as the list grows. There are only a few hundred subscribers right now, so it's easy enough to filter through 10 or 20 messages. If the list ever got to 20,000 like Robert Seidman's Online Insider, I don't know how well I'd be able to keep up. If that ever happened, I'd probably have to implement some other form of feedback management. But for now, we'll stick with e-mail and on-line forums.

This may be a mistake, but part of working with new technologies and metaphors is that you often don't know what a mistake looks like until after you've made it. We'll see how it goes.

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Copyright © 2010-2011 Eric A. Hall.