While the usage rate of the “Support 2.0” label has thankfully dropped, the assumptions and motivations that were underneath the hype are still active — and need to be examined. The idea that social networking and technology can be united to produce a free powerhouse for customer support, available everywhere via the Internet’s insistent Now, certainly seems compelling. But the enthusiasm of some vendors — and support professionals who should know better — needs to be tempered with a dose of reality. It’s been tried before in the support world. Neither the social networking nor the technology for enabling and using it are new in either concept or practice. Further, let the user beware: free support is generally worth exactly what you paid for it.
The OnLine World of Support 1.0
In the 1980’s and early 90’s, the forerunner of today’s Internet was launched and became popular because it enabled geographically and temporally unlimited social networking, knowledge sharing and collaboration. The technology was initially based on mainframes and minicomputers, and was made available to the public by organizations such as The WELL (The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), CompuServe and later by America On Line (AOL). The WELL and CompuServe were virtual communities begun and built around threaded-message discussion forums and libraries of downloadable files. Anyone could start a discussion on a topic, and others were free to join in by attaching comments and responding to others’ comments. AOL added multi-party simultaneous “chat” to the picture. Despite the limitations of slow speed access and cost, some of the virtual communities flourished to an astonishing degree, and fostered “offline” connections as well.
These online communities began long before the introduction of IBM’s PC, the “Personal Computer.” Savvy home and business users, running “micro”computers made by early companies such as Atari, Apple (the IIe), Tandy/Radio Shack and Godbout/CompuPro, logged in via telephone modems, mostly during the evening and late night hours when access rates were the cheapest. The members of the forums were on the cutting edge of using the new technology, and knew it — and were very willing to share their expertise with their fellow hobbyists and pathfinders. Post a question about S-100 board or disk drive switch settings in a CompuServe forum in those early days, and within two hours you typically had answers from a dozen or more people who had successfully resolved the same issue, telling you how to do it too — and in several flavors. Although the evening/night access patterns had an effect, the virtual communities had a flavor of immediacy about them — time didn’t seem to be a factor, it was all Now. The advice was just as accessible three years or more after it had originally been posted as it was the minute after the author pushed the Post button.
The Lessons Still to be Learned
While it was an interesting, almost addictive, era, there were some significant limitations to that brave new 1.0 world and they haven’t gone away. Companies who want to succeed in the 2.0 version will need to find answers to the same challenges.
First, the value of the whole online world was necessarily based on successful access. If you couldn’t log on, the posted wealth was of absolutely no value. The same was true if you couldn’t find the forum or post you needed, or didn’t know how to describe your problem. And if you couldn’t understand or apply the solution, its value was again effectively zero. So the existence of a potential knowledge resource online is no guarantee that it can be, or will be useful or valuable to anyone.
Second, for every dedicated, responsible contributor, there were literally hundreds of “lurkers;” people who silently visited and read but never posted. Who were they? Why had they come? What were they looking for? What did they do with what they read or downloaded? These questions had no answers then, and still don’t now. Don’t assume that high traffic volume necessarily means success.
Third, there were always those who sought to disrupt the community process, to turn the conversations to their own purposes or to drive others away. CompuServe had good forum administration functionality; AOL did not — and there was a definite quality difference between forums on the two services. AOL, on the other hand, was always better at chat functionality than CompuServe. Without management, “flame wars” can erupt between anonymous or named people, and if left unchecked, will destroy virtual communities very quickly.
Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, there was no guarantee that a “solution” posted by a visitor was accurate. There was often no manager or identified group/organization who was responsible for ensuring the validity or usability of the content. Bad knowledge was as easily posted as good; it was left to the user to determine individual validity and usefulness, or to winnow out the gold from the heaps of material. The “noise” level grew quite high on some forums, and this problem got dramatically worse as more and more people discovered how to access the communities. Those volunteers who had built solid reputations as experts gradually faded away, worn out with answering the same trivial questions over and over again, and the value of the communities was lost. Now, with the Net accessible to ever increasing numbers of people, the quantity vs. quality challenge is even greater. It is estimated that 90% of the e-mail volume today is junk mail. There is no corresponding estimate for publication of junk content, but it is certainly a major factor.
The advent of the Internet ended the era of the original discussion forums, for now, anyone could open up their own forum, blog and/or website, publishing whatever content — of whatever validity — they wanted. The vast piecemeal distribution of content sharply increased the effort required to find, validate and use knowledge resources, and while the rise of the search engines has been helpful, they serve up wrong answers and misdirection just as readily as good ones. Let the User Beware is the very real truth of today’s online world, and people are becoming increasingly aware — and wary. There are more risks than just getting a wrong answer. Menaces may be active or passive, or both; viruses, malware or trojans lurk for the unwary, and revealing too much personal identification can result in identity theft or harassment.
For companies and individuals both, those who seek to utilize the Internet for providing and receiving effective support must understand its limitations. There is potential value in the use of e-communities for mutual support, but in order to succeed, you’ll need to do more than just putting up a site and opening the doors.