Today I want to say a few things [rant] about last.fm. It may sound like I’m trashing them, but I think the issues there apply to other sites as well, and they speak to a new development where sites like last.fm that are built to serve fans become objects of fandom in their own right.
When I first found this site, I was skeptical about letting anyone know EVERYTHING I listen to. It seemed invasive and I didn’t know whether or not to trust them.
A few months later, I looked again and decided it was worth it. I downloaded the plugins and I fell head over heels. After a while, I started writing a bit about music in the journal on there, and before long I was writing and writing about every show I ever saw, every record that caught my ear. I was high on the site. I talked it up to everyone I met. I read its forums voraciously and I saw some user suggestions taken seriously and changes implemented based on forum discussion. I visited it over and over each and every day. I was ready to take any money I had lying around and invest it if they’d have let me. In short, I became a fan.
And not the only one. Their forums, at least a few months ago, were FILLED with people doting on their staff. This was helped by the fact that several prominent staff members spent time in the forums responding. There were always comments in there about how great they are, what great work they do. Criticisms were met with attacks – how dare anyone question that great great staff, providing this amazing service for free! If it doesn’t work right, you need to get a life, not criticize!
And then, slowly and sadly, my buzz wore off. Partly it was just because I got used to it. The honeymoon ended and omigosh, my perfect husband left the toilet seat up and left hairs in the sink. I took getting charts and recommendations and having a space to write about music for granted and started noticing the problems. And there were plenty to notice – the spring and early summer were plagued with glitch after glitch after glitch. In their forums I suggested they focus on making the site work rather than trying to figure out new features, their top developer assured me the glitches had nothing to do with their innovations. I still don’t get this. When you only have so many people, there’s only so much they can do.
But here is the thing that really turned me off. They had a beta testing period for an upgrade in July. In the beta forum, there were a lot of suggestions made, bugs found, glitches noticed. Okay. There was also a lot of active and completely consistent resistance to the usabilty and aesthetics of the new design which, personally, I thought were a tragic decent into bombastic user-unfriendly glitz on a site that had once been the paragon of elegant aesthetic simplicity. And the sizable sector who said “I don’t like the design!” were roundly attacked by other users for being fuddy duds resistant to change. I could live with the users attacking other users, that’s nothing new. And the staff were pretty nice throughout the discussion.
But then they debuted the upgrade without a single modification to the design. And people who hadn’t been in on the beta started raising all those design issues again. Someone pointed out these issues had all been raised in the beta. And then the staff said “the beta test was a bug hunt, not a design feedback opportunity” (not exact quote). What an insult to the people who had spent such time giving them such good feedback (we’re talking about 30 point lists written by people who knew their computer science). I was put off again recently to see that they went and implemented some of the changes that had been suggested this summer. Glad, of course, that they did make the changes, but it showed what I think is one of their greatest tendencies to shoot themselves in the foot – they just don’t know how to communicate with their users. Or, in the context of this blog, they don’t know how to communicate with fans. All they had to say in July was “thank you so much for the feedback on design. We will take all your comments into consideration and continue making improvements over time.” And when they implemented some of those changes, they should have said “Over the last few months, we got a lot of feedback that you wanted [thing they changed]. We’ve listened.” But they didn’t.
I think this get at four core things:
1. in the world of web2, sites and the people who run them can be objects of fandom
2. that’s an enormous opportunity for companies, but they have to know how to work it and how to build it which means
3. they have to communicate well with those who are already sold and well with those who aren’t, so that more and more people will go beyond user and become fan
4. the people behind those sites need to study their users and understand the ways they’re using the sites before making what otherwise appear to be whimsical changes
We’re living in a world where we do more and more of our socializing in proprietary spaces, and I believe that brings with it a new ethical onus on those who run the sites. The Facebook minifeed disaster is a good example of what to do right and what to do wrong – they made a change without any user input, users freaked, they told them to chill out, but within 24 hours reversed course and admitted they had screwed up bigtime. They made a mistake but they owned up to it and fixed it quickly.
Last.fm demonstrates the merging of fandom, public relations, and customer relations in this new world. If nothing else, I hope other sites can watch and learn from their mistakes. But what I really hope is that last.fm can stop shooting themselves in the foot and live up to its promise, because there’s no other site out there that can do what they can do, and what they can do is very very good indeed.