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ZCom Sucks – Or Does It?


Note Please: If you are a regular and comfortable user of ZCom, this piece is probably not for you, save for information’s sake, though it may be for people you know, who use ZCom, but not much of it. If so, please consider passing it along…or even better, just give them a little friendly push. 

For a few days this week we have had a house guest here at Z – Brian, a friend from New York and a very active and effective organizer regarding participatory economics and participatory society among diverse other involvements.

I mention this because yesterday Brian was sitting here, next to me, in my "office." Actually, he was sitting at Chris Spannos’ desk, since Chris is in Detroit until the end of this week, maybe even a bit longer due to serious car trouble. 

Well, Brian and I got to talking about the site and Brian was telling me how hard it is to use, that it was difficult to see what he wants, etc. He liked the mobile site, utterly plain, but had trouble with the full site, too complex.  

Now please understand, Brian is not ninety and just learning how to use a computer. He is twenty three. His cell phone appears to be an extension of his arm. His eyes may well be wired to chips, as far as I can tell, given his comfort with and his active use of the internet. And Brian is also close to us, a friend, a partner in struggle, etc.

So, I was a bit incredulous at what he was telling me – and I had him go to the site to show me – which, of course, he should have done two years ago, if he felt thusly. Still, this was perfect. Brian was right next to me. And if the site is really hard to use, as many still suggest, we need to know, of course, and Brian could explain why. If, instead, as I felt was likely, the site is fine but Brian was simply judging it oddly, then we would learn that. 

Okay, so Brian went to the top page. Whoa, he clicked around a bit, and navigation turned out to be no problem – there was the tab menu, and he could go anywhere, easily. More, I then asked if he had used the left menu. "No."

I told him, "you can see almost any content – or at least a great deal of it – without even leaving the top page. "Impossible," he said. So I said "click the little right point arrow next to the label comments, in the left menu." He did. And he saw lots of links pop up, the most recent, right there, quick, without even leaving the top page.

I said, okay "do that for other left menu entries." He did. "Great," he said, quite impressed he could get content by topic, person, type, place, etc. And I am wondering, how could he possibly not know this was there. He has used the site for years. Sometimes he uses it multiple times a day. He has gotten a gazillion emails describing features – not from an impersonal source, even – but from a friend. 

Fact: The only way for Brian to not see this navigation aid, or any other user, was to never look. 

Question: Why, I wondered, if one felt things were hard to get to, would one not look for ways to get to things? 

I admit, I have trouble thinking of possible answers to this question – but here is one.

Perhaps Brian assumed, implicitly, and others may be more explicit about this viewpoint, that there couldn’t be any good tools on the site, therefore there was no need to look for them. If an instant reaction – not unlikely given that anything takes a little effort to discover – is I can’t do X, and if I think there can be no significant features that work – then surely it would turn out, even with giving some time to seeing how to do X, that I would still be unable to do X. So there is no point to my even trying. And I don’t. 

Alright, at this point I am wondering why in Brian’s mind, particularly since he had frequently successfully done it, even navigation was a problem as compared to his routinely saying to people the site is great, it has tons of material that is easy to find, by title, topic, author, date, place – and quick to access. 

Okay, maybe we could find out why Brian had that disparaging view of the site lodged in his head by trying something admittedly slightly more complex, especially since at this point Brian said that in any event he didn’t really mean that he couldn’t get around and read things, rather he meant he found the more interactive features confusing and hard or actually pretty much impossible to use. 

I should say that from my point of view this only raised another confusing matter to explain. Let’s suppose that setting up a ZSpace page, posting a blog, customizing the site, putting up a photo album, commenting, or whatever, was in fact a little tricky or even really really difficult, and also that there was no help available, there were no videos showing you how to do it, etc. Okay, all that is contrary to what I think is true, but still, even if all that was the case, why would that translate into saying or feeling that the site was hard to navigate? Other sites have no such features, have less content, have fewer navigation tools, etc. But they are fine. Call me nitpicky, but if you can navigage ZCom as well or better – then why is the fact that ZCom offers other options – even if they were horribly hard – evidence that you cannot navigate it? I find that odd.

So, okay, not to belabor that nitpicky detail, at this point I instead said, "how about if you go to your ZSpace page." He did, no problem. After all, how hard is it to click `My ZSpace’ next to text saying `Hello Brian’ that is clearly and always visible at the top of all site pages, just under the tab menu, whenever you are logged in as a Free Member or Sustainer, of course? 

I then asked if he had read the instructions much less viewed the help video about using the site. "No." This didn’t seem to register as strange to him, and, nonetheless, as if not looking at help was irrelevant, he said gently, friendly, but still, like the mere fact was a condemnation of the site’s usebility, "I don’t know how to change my ZSpace page." And he added, "More, I have looked at some other people’s very elaborate ZSpace pages, and it seems like they must be geniuses – how could they do that?"

I admit, I was flummoxed. To my ears, this was incredible. If others have elaborate pages – why would one assume it must be because they are geniuses rather than taking it as virtually definitive proof having an elaborate page must be rather easy to do?

Can you see our conundrum here at ZCom? We put a bunch of links on the top page of the site to some exemplary ZSpace pages that users have created. We assume that users seeing those exemplary efforts would immediately think, hey, I can do that too. It looks like fun, even. And I can show my friends and family. And so on. That’s roughly the response people have, I think, on seeing innovations and features on commercial social networking sites. But not on ZCom, apparently. Here people don’t take inspiration – but instead doubt themselves. 

Okay, I ask, "Did you look at a help video?" "No." 

"Did you click the left menu help and how to items to see what they say?" "No."

"Did you read any of the many emails we have sent with entreaties and instructions, in some cases?" "No."

And "yet you came to a disparaging conclusion – you, even though you know us?" Okay, I said, "nevertheless, and without even using the help now, do you see the content boxes?" "Yes." 

"Do you see the little pencil in the upper right corner of each one?" "Yes."

"Make believe you watched the video of Chris clicking on those to show you how to make changes – or make believe you are on a mainstream site – what would you do to make a change, do you think?" "Click on one." And he did. Whoops, a big smile, a lot of surprise. It turns out it is trivial to make changes. 

I showed him he could filter a box to display any content he might want, on his page. He was incredulous. Yes, now it was him, not me, who was surprised.

Okay, "what about the customization – that is way too hard," he said.  

I said, "well, there are videos to show you how, but, even without them, up next to your name click Custom ZNet." He did.

I next said, "okay, even without viewing the video or reading the help, right click on tabs in the tab menu at the top." He did. He was flabbergasted that he could point and right click at all, much less that he could right click his way to a transformed version of ZNet that saves automatically, and that is there, whenever he asks to see his custom site, and that he can still see the public site too, clicking for that. 

Okay, I said, "what do you see in the upper right corner of each content box?" I admit I was taking some pleasure in "pedagogically" hammering home my point that something other than objective assessment had clouded his prior perception of the site. "A pencil, and an x." 

I suggested, "Click the x." "Egad I removed a box." 

"Yep. Now click a pencil." "Yikes I can change what is in the boxes that easily, and I can put in graphics, text, links, and have links to site content of different kinds automatically appear and update?" 

"Yes, right – you can filter for any content you might want. You can create a top tab menu, sub tabs beneath if, a left menu, and content boxes – all of your own design and choosing for your private viewing each time you return to the site." He was amazed. He could create his own version highlighting what he wanted, leaving out what he didn’t want.

I said, click the `Customize’ item in the tab sub menu under the tab ZNet. "See the page." "Yes." If you read the yellow box, as on most interactive pages, it is instructions, but forget that, just notice the pages listed. "Yes, they are people’s customized pages?" Correct. "But I thought custom pages were only for their owner to use." They except on this one page you can see custom pages others have created, and if you find one you like, you can click on a link up near your name to copy the page – and it will become your custom page, and then you can edit it.

Brian was addled. "I can copy someone else’s customization, and then further customize it?" "Yes, and, in fact, our plan was to put up a lot of templates we would create, and users could start with and then adapt them – but I have to admit, we got lazy about that. I think what happened to us was that it seemed folks just weren’t using this feature. We spent tons of time, and endless hours, and yes, lots of money – making all this customization not only possible but as easy as we could get it – and then, people basically, mostly, ignore it so that now, even after months, only about a hundred Sustainers have even clicked the link to customize – and of those a much lesser number have actually created a serious custom version of the site." And i suspect no one has become a Sustainer to get this feature…

Indeed, perhaps you can understand why Chris Spannos and I are amazed at how few people take advantage of these and other features, and thus very unclear about what to do to enlarge and enhance the site. in any case, then I pointed Brian to the Groups tab and said click it. He did. I explained that a group could have an admin, and that the admin – and it could be changed who it was, and there could be more than one – could not just accept new members to the group, but could also alter the group page just as fully as she could do for her own private customized version of the site. The one difference is, in the case of a group page, whatever changes the admin made to it, everyone will see. 

Brian didn’t believe it, so I showed him. He quickly realized – but "that means any group could literally have its own site, with tabs that it wanted, sub menus under the tabs it wanted, left menus it entered, content boxes it cared to have – it is like you are giving people access to what would otherwise be hugely expensive to program, and, incredibly, it takes no programming or other knowledge to maintain it. And it has a blog system. And a forum."

I said, Brian, "that was exactly our thinking. We have built this framework of code and how could we make not just our content but the infrastuctural features available for people to use. And this was the way we tried to do it. It is very very slow, however, to get anywhere… and we don’t know why. Publishers and local organizations could use these tools, gaining access to our audience for their ideas and writers, etc. We welcome it. But they don’t come…"

I also said, "so as to the features, you now get it, but why didn’t you get it before? Why didn’t you get it as a result of the obnoxiously high number of times we have sent messages explaining it, or as a result of how we have displayed it in videos and help boxes, etc.?" 

Skipping my question, he said, "what’s this?" pointing at the stack of little icons arrayed in a vertical column to the left of the left menu?

I said, "have you even bothered to roll your curser over any of them and clicked on them?" "No."

I mean, really, yes we do have a video and instructions about it, but honestly, we thought they were overkill, arguably useful for someone who had never seen a computer and was just first get used to using one – but if, as in Brian’s case, we are talking about a person who regularly uses computers, isn’t the obvious thing to do to just experiment a little?

"Try it." He did.

Again, he was incredulous – "you mean from anywhere I can do nearly anything, blog, comment, upload content, whatever, this easily?’ – I said, that’s about right – anything you have permission to do, due to your being signed in as a Free Member or Sustainer (with still more options).

Okay, I have exploited or ZCom’s benefit the only slightly elaborated description of the engagement with Brian sufficiently.

Now the thing to note is that maybe his experience isn’t indicative. Maybe there are some people who honestly can’t navigate the site or can’t use its facilities because for them the site is harder to navigate than it ought to be, or harder to use, even after consulting help – though of course that would mean they pretty much can’t use any site beyond the most trivial. Maybe – but I gotta tell you -while that’s one explanation, I think it only applies to only a few folks. Here are some other possibilities I think are more operative for way more people. 

1. A user assumes that nothing more sophisticated than the simplest possible site, if done by the left, much less by the very serious and very radical left, much less by the very serious and very radical and highly underfunded left, could work, so there is no point trying it. So they settle for the basics only.

2. Alternatively, a user can try something beyond the basics once, without looking at help, without viewing a video, and perhaps fail a little, and immediately give up. I should say, I think that 2 is the same as 1…different only in degree.

3. A user can be too intimidated to even try anything that isn’t basic. This is different. It isn’t a preconceived immutable doubt about ZCom that gets in the way of benefitting from its features, it is doubts about self. And yes, it is our responsibility to help bridge such doubts – thus we include the help screens, the videos, etc. No doubt we should do more, or other than we have – but what? We don’t know.

4. Of course, so far, I have been talking about people like Brian who would benefit from the tools if they only made use of them, and all the more so if they got friends and others they know to use them. However, there are many many other folks who just want the basic daily dose of content and want no involvement beyond that. Okay, that’s fine – you don’t know what you are missing, but so be it. There are a whole lot of things I am missing, too, and that I don’t know about, and that I don’t investigate. No problem. But I wouldn’t claim that the reason for my not doing those things is due to anything other than my choice…

5. Okay, one final point. A kind of Catch 22. I put up some photo albums – but then not more. Me, as a user, not as host of the site. I worked a lot on my personal ZSpace page, but then not more. Again, me, a user, not as host of the site. How come? Well, because others aren’t doing their pages, their albums much less noticing mine. Some people might do their ZSpace page for fun, for a few users, even for themselves. Some might do photo albums that same way. I am more utilitarian – or whatever you want to call it. I would use those features, and others, really, honestly, only to have others somehow benefit, and therefore only if enough others are seeing and getting something out of what I do that I think it is worth doing. So that’s the fifth and I suspect by far most operative and powerful reason for people to not try features, or try them and then forget about them, though all the four above add to this last reason, of course.

Thus, most importantly, I suspect, a user can feel about the interactive aspects of the site that despite their power and potential, the fact that others aren’t using them in really high numbers means that the power and potential are largely unfulfilled, so, hey, I won’t use them either. This is the deadly roadblock to progress we keep trying to overcome in all our endeavors, of course. We need to induce initial users despite that there aren’t more already, and then we need to reach still more users, up to the point of having enough to be self perpetuating. The same problem as building movements. It is not an easy job…someone’s gotta do it…how about more of us!

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