Friday, February 6, 2009

Off Topic: Missing the Point

One of the blogs I read regularly is 37signals' Signal vs. Noise. For the roughly six billion people who have never heard of them, they make web-based productivity, collaboration and organization software. It's a very small company from Chicago who break all sorts of business rules, and they are doing great. They run one of the best blogs I've ever read. They just blog about what interests them - often it's business-related, but not always, from technical details to the 50,000-foot view, to "how we did [whatever]" or "how we made this design decision", which is refreshing and open and paradigm-smashing compared to the traditional closed American business model.

They get lots of flak, and it's been on the rise in the last couple of years, for their somewhat arrogant tone, especially in their posts about business philosophy and tactics. One of their principals, like Jason Fried or web development framework guru David Heinemeier Hansson, will describe some aspect of their business - how they find inspiration, how they do customer support (rotate e-mail duties among their dozen employees), or what kind of desks they bought - and some goobers will take it as absolute gospel. "That would never work for us!" they cry. "That would never work in the Real World!" they continue.

[Big sigh.]

37s have even written posts about How It Won't Work for Everyone, and How You Have to Think for Yourself, and Stop Being Such a Dick. Unfortunately, there are people so un-formed that they think every utterance not accompanied by a disclaimer means You Must Do This or You Will Never Be Successful (Also, We Think You're a Loser). Is this a sign that we have totally lost our critical thinking skills? When you start with "This might not work for you, but here's how we [whatever]..." it makes me wonder why I should listen to you in the first place. "But it softens the blow," you might say. Of what? Of someone's opinion? What are you, four years old?

The problem with disclaimers is that they water down your entire brand. For example, who reads those e-mail things any more and takes them seriously? ("This e-mail may contain privileged content... If you are not the intended recipient blah blah blah...") See, if I get this in every message from you, I lose respect for you in an amount proportional to the time I have to spend deleting the goddamn thing from my e-mail replies. I stop getting your message because I'm too distracted by the junk content.

One of today's posts was Why you shouldn't copy us or anyone else. The theme was that you cannot replicate some object or process and expect to also replicate results. Don't think that you can sell X by starting with an exact copy of someone else's X, because you haven't gone through steps A through W to understand X completely and have some idea of what Y might be. Sounds pretty smart, right? Well, out came the goobers.

Once you got past all the commenters trying to explain their version of "I agree!" (a not-so-subtle form of copying, BTW) there were the trolls who Missed the Point Entirely. These folks tried so hard to explain how you couldn't go through life doing every single thing as if it had never been done before. Want a slice of cheese on that sandwich? You're copying! Want to shave your face with a razor blade? Boo! Copying!

[Before you go that familiar place in Copying Theory all by yourself, let me tell you it took only six comments before old Pablo Picasso showed up. You know, "Good artists copy, great artists steal"? I'm not certain what the crazy old man meant, but yeah, when you say it, it just sounds stupid. Then 18 comments later, someone repeated the quote. This was after someone else implied that it was Picasso who cut off his ear, so more psychic energy was definitely wasted there. Good times.]

37s came up with two tags for their blog comments. One is "Royalty" (a crown) for comments that are on-topic, respectful and enlightening. Most of the junk in the middle warrants no tag, and is entertaining or harmless or helpful or stupid. The "Troll" tag is for the bottom of the barrel - people who try to be hurtful for no reason and ruin the entire discussion. Unfortunately, the tags haven't been getting much use lately, but it's nice to know they're there in case of an emergency.

My suggestion to 37signals is to create an entirely new tag for the ones who Missed the Point Entirely. This is for the commenter on the post "Ice Cream Is Good on Hot Summer Afternoons" who can't help himself and writes "That will NEVER work for US! When it's summer there, it's winter here! You're just a bunch of ignorant yobboes!" I suggest that the icon for the Missed the Point tag be an unblemished bulls-eye. I did not intend to get all Aussie on you there. Sorry, mates. G'day.

If you came here expecting a running entry, sorry to disappoint. Get your own blog.

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