Reply to Larry Halff / Ma.gnolia

Posted on September 30, 2009


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A discussion (of sorts) between a user (me) and the owner of a service (Larry Halff of Ma.gnolia) on that service’s homegroup on Flickr:

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Me, five days ago: “I was wondering if anybody else was having this problem. I recently got my invitation message to join the new Ma.gnolia – which is very cool – but when I clicked on the link, I found that I couldn’t connect to the page one goes to, to accept the invitation. I tried going to Mr. Halff’s page – and couldn’t connect to that either. Finally, I just tried going to Ma.gnolia itself – and couldn’t connect to that, either. Not in Firefox and not in Internet Explorer – most recent releases of both.

Yes, I cleared my cache, ran Spybot and rebooted. No change. Very frustrating, and leaving me wondering if the problem is with the site or with my connection.”

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Larry Halff, four days ago: “Hi Joseph, I haven’t seen any other reports of problems getting to the site. Perhaps it is your connection? Do you get any particular error message when trying to access Ma.gnolia?”

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Me, four days ago: “Just that usual one when one tries to go to a site that doesn’t exist? I’ve since been able to get through, though, and start up my account, but run into a few frustrations along the way that I should mention.

Monk is coming on, though, so this will have to wait. First things, first. Empty Space Green Smiley

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Me, four days ago:

“1. The button on the sign-in page isn’t visible in Internet Explorer. It was visible in Firefox and Chrome, however.

2. On going directly to Ma.gnolia from the place where I got my new OpenID and trying to sign up, I found myself on this page, where I was presented with this request:

"Please enter your invitation code below"

As my invitation letter contained nothing of the sort, I guessed and used the string following the .gnolia.com in the url for my invitation page. The system didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm for this idea, and I got nowhere.

Clicking on the link, again, though, once I was logged into Open ID on Chrome seemed to work just fine. So, the system did work in the end, but it had a few bugs and at least one quirk: one’s screenname isn’t one’s screenname.

What one enters as a screenname becomes one’s id, and what one enters as one’s "real name" becomes one’s screenname. Not a huge deal, but it will leave a few people scratching their heads for a second.”

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Me, four days ago: “Uh oh … now, this is a problem. Having just created a group, I went to start a discussion – and found that I couldn’t. That feature doesn’t seem to exist in the new Ma.gnolia. Is that a permanent change, or am I missing something?

Also – if we will have discussions, will they be taking place in an all text environment, like the old Ma.gnolia, or will graphical content be allowed? I ask because I’ve just created a Mathematics group, but Math done in plain text becomes notoriously difficult to read, very quickly. I’m trying to decide whether I should focus my efforts on the Math group, or delete that and spend more effort on subjects that do lend themselves to plain text (eg. philosophy, literature) when posting to Ma.gnolia or moderating groups, there.”

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Me, today: “I see that you don’t want to respond. I’m not surprised. After all, not counting your own personal associates, I was the only user of the old Ma.gnolia to post to the Ma.gnolia wiki, as I did in this post, and yet never got a reply. Obviously, Larry, you don’t really value your users’ input, which leaves us with the question – why do you ask for it? You did invite us to sign up for that wiki.

OK, whether you value that feedback or not, you’re going to get some now. Right now, you and Ma.gnolia are associated with maybe the worst data loss incident in the history of the Internet. One need only google your own company name and see the search suggestions that come up to see just how much of an impression that crash made – it is what your company is now primarily known for, with multiple versions of “Ma.gnolia crashing” being suggested before any more flattering combination. It’s a public relations nightmare.

Having been over on the new Ma.gnolia, I found that so few of the old users had returned, that even with the connection problems delaying my entry into Ma.gnolia for a few days, when I went to set up my groups, I had no trouble claiming names as common as “Chicago” and “Mathematics”. As I looked around, I kept seeing the same names, over and over, with a frequency that would have been considered unusual even by small town standards. Accept this and come to terms with it – most of your old users aren’t coming back.

This is more than understandable. Let’s face it – by your own admission, you did mess up. Some of these people lost thousands or even tens of thousands of bookmarks and the commentary that went with them, I understand. Getting hit that way twice would be a hard one to take, so who can blame them, if those who suffered those losses should be a little risk averse at this moment. So, where does this leave you?

You need to get a large number of new users so excited about what you have to offer them, that when they remember what you’re best known for at this moment – the January crash – that they’ll be willing to forget that for a moment. If you do not succeed in doing so, then I sincerely hope for your sake that you’re independently wealthy, because with what appears to be maybe a few dozen users at present, Ma.gnolia isn’t going to produce enough income to keep a gerbil fed, much less a full grown man.

Oh, and Larry – I’ve seen your photostream, and having been poor, myself – I don’t believe that you’d adapt to the experience, very well. Your tastes aren’t just expensive, they’re reliably expensive. After the third week of trying to find yet another way to make rice and beans interesting – and wondering how much longer you’d be able to afford the beans – I suspect that somebody would end up trying to talk you off of a bridge. Worse still, the Tech industry being what it is, odds are that you’d have to settle for the Bay Bridge, because the Golden Gate would probably be booked up a few months in advance, and nobody wants it to come to that.

So, what do you have to offer?

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At present, you either don’t offer the option of creating discussions in the groups we’ve set up, or you’ve somehow made that option a hard one to find. I do remember that the option wasn’t a difficult one to find at the old Ma.gnolia, and you say that the new one is little more than a re-release of the old, so I’ll conclude that you just removed it.

This leaves Ma.gnolia with much the same feature set – and thus, now serving the same market – as Simpy, with a few significant differences. Simpy is easy to log into – enter id, enter password, click and proceed. With Ma.gnolia, now that you’ve eliminated the option of logging directly into the site, one must instead go to Verisign or some other OpenID provider, log in there – and then, at least in the case of Verisign, log into Ma.gnolia using the same window! Having attempted this in Chrome, because your login doesn’t work in IE – the choice of 80% of those surfing the Internet – I found that Verisign kept logging me out in Chrome. One is left needing two accounts instead of one, just to log in, and maybe the need to set up more, as one tries to find which browsers have been ignored by Ma.gnolia, and which by the partners with whom we’re forced to deal, if we wish to enter our accounts, at all.

Simpy offers a button that one can put on one’s toolbar, allowing one to use it with far greater ease than one can use Ma.gnolia. Oh – and Simpy has never lost its users’ data.

In Ma.gnolia’s favor, one does find a much prettier interface, and easier to read text, but in a Simpy vs. Ma.gnolia competition, will that be enough to make many people choose Ma.gnolia? Count the number of truly ugly and highly successful social networking sites out there – I think that you know that the answer to that question will be “no”. Yet, go up to the average Simpy user, and ask him to give you an honest, instead of a tactful answer to a simple question – when was the last time you used your Simpy account?

Some contrarian or another will probably write in to say “I use mine every day, and so do lots of other people” – but take a look at the Simpy homepage. One sees little other than spam. Simpy has become the virtual equivalent of a trash strewn vacant lot, still alive only because its creator seems to love it, and doesn’t have the heart to get rid of it. Conclusion: In a head to head competition with a known failure, Ma.gnolia would come out the loser.

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As a prospective returning user of your service, how should I view this? Ma.gnolia doesn’t have much to offer me at this point. Yes, it still has groups, but of the discussion-free simpy variety; bookmarks are pooled, but no opportunity for public interaction with the other users is to be found. To use a group like that isn’t community building, it is parallel play – pointless. So let’s pretend that the feature doesn’t even exist, for the moment, because it might as well not.

This leaves us with the forced one paragraph per review format, which leaves Ma.gnolia, functionally, on a level with the far more reliable and well funded Delicious, and considerably behind Faves – which, by the way, also offers a toolbar. Nobody is going to get excited, other than the usual few yes men, because everybody will have better, more competitive, and more reliable places to be.

Let’s say that I’m one of the few people who disregards this, and continues. What happens to me when Ma.gnolia folds? If I’m lucky, I’ll get advance notice. If I’ve built up a real presence there, this will leave me spending the next few days in the most tedious possible way, moving bookmarks by hand. If I’m unlucky, I lose my work. Again.

This doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me, and even if I were inclined to overlook that and plow on ahead, I’d be left with this thought – everybody else has just had the same thought, or will, soon enough. Even if I disregard my own best interests in order to be altruistic on behalf of a total stranger, what are the odds that enough people will make the same choice to keep your company alive and my work from going to waste? In this case, the generous odd man out gets badly hurt by his generosity, a thought that should deter most people from being charitable in that manner. Think of it as a variant on the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

If this sounds cynical – Larry, what have you done to earn our charity? The downgrading of that feature set wasn’t an act of G-d, it was a choice, one that you made, that set in place the perverse incentives that promise to keep your company from recovering unless, to put it bluntly, you succeed in finding yourself a bumper crop of idiots, or unless you have a lot of favors to call in. Maybe about 10,000 of them. Choices have consequences, and they should, when they’re informed ones, freely made.

If you don’t care enough about us to give us better choices than these, ones that don’t involve us climbing out onto a creaking limb and hoping for the best – why should we care about you? As for the idiots – I don’t doubt that you’ll find a few, because they’re always there, but for how long are people going to want to read what they have to write, or want to follow their links?

But it’s your choice.”

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Me, today: “I’m going to unsubscribe from this group, now, and put my Ma.gnolia account and groups into mothballs. React to that fact, however you wish, even if that should mean killing my account. As it is, my account is nothing, and I refuse to be upset by the thought of losing nothing.

If, at some point, you decide that you’d like to start treating your job like a job and make Ma.gnolia into a place worth using, send me a message. I’ll see it, eventually, and might even care enough to log back into Ma.gnolia. Until then, I have stuff to do.”

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End of discussion, at least so far and yes, I did unsubscribe, once again feeling a little foolish for having defended a provider. I’ll talk more about that, later.

A number of us really wanted to give this guy a break. I’d even started writing a pep talk, thinking (after Ma.gnolia’s reappearance almost failed to appear before the end of summer) that Halff needed a little encouragement, when what he really needed was a good, hard rhetorical kick in the posterior. He just doesn’t seem to care about the people who rely on him, and that’s just wrong.

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