[Below is an exchange between a ZCom user and myself about our facilities as compared to other social networking sites like facebook. His email was prompted by our mass email urging more users to participate.]
ZCom User: Hi Folks,
ZCom User: I really appreciate all the effort, and I am a prime candidate for someone that would like to be more involved. However the website, profile and community features feel very hard to use and I’m fairly proficient at computers.
CS: Okay let’s try to address some of this…
ZCom User: When I click on "Edit my Z-Space" I get a page entitled Z Content, with an enormous list of Instructions and a huge number of links that don’t make any sense at first glance.
CS: We are in the process of simplifying, but it is going to take some time. That said, there are sustainers who are very active, and it is not too difficult to use. It just takes a few minutes to get used to things, like anything else, and a few attempts to get things right. Soon after it will become familiar and we are currently trying to simplify it even more. We have also provided short video tutorials for using every aspect of the site which you can find here: http://www.zcomm.org/zvideo/videoTutorials/
ZCom User: By contrast when I click on My Profile in FaceBook (since you mentioned it in comparison) I get a page with no instructions and a clean, very easy to edit interface that makes perfect sense without any instructions.
CS: And facebook has no doubt pumped millions of dollars into developing facilities that we are trying on a shoe-string budget, and a very small dev team.
ZCom User: FaceBook works because it is founded on finding people you already know then building out from there. Are there people I know on Zmag? I don’t know, because there isn’t a way to find out.
CS: Sure there is, search for other sustainers and members using the facilities designed for that purpose under the ZSpace tab: http://www.zcomm.org/zspace
It is easy on facebook because there are millions of people already using it. But our objectives are different. Sure it is a bonus that people connect with people they already know. But we are trying to connect, not only people who know each other, but people who do not know each other, and here is the important part—in a non-corporate environment around shared political interests in changing the world. We are trying to build an online Left community and infrastructure that is not only consequential for personal relationships but movement building as well. This should be the appeal despite the need to iron out a few wrinkles in what may be an occasionally clunky user experience. The site has grown leaps and bounds over the past year, and we are constantly working to make improvements and are taking major steps in this direction over the coming year as well.
ZCom User: Do I want to approach strangers..not really.
CS: It is a personal choice if you want to meet new people or not. But beyond personal choices, I think this is a big problem on the Left more generally i.e. their ability and desire to want to socialize. The Left, until perhaps recently, and hopefully this is changing, is very inward looking and seems to have a phobia against meeting new people and changing attitudes and social orientation. This could be changing in large part to online networking making it easier for people, facilitating the process without much pressure. And this is very positive, however, where is the positive political consequence? It is the social and political mixing and mingling and relationship building, between individuals and groups, that is not manipulated by corporate interests, that we are trying to facilitate and I believe there is much value in that, and I think that others should see the value too.
ZCom User: Is there anyone interested in what I’m interested in; I don’t know, how would I find out?
CS: Again, use the facilities designed for that purpose mentioned above. Admittedly, there is not millions of users like in facebook or myspace, so the pool is limited, but there are thousands already and getting them active in the facilities would enrich the experience many times over and provide an inviting context for many thousands more. That is what we have asked people to do. Get active. We need people to believe there is social and political value in this over the corporate alternative which thrives on capitalist objectives of profit making and selling its users to advertisers and selling its advertisers products to its users. In the corporate social networking environment we are all for sale.
ZCom User: The ZMag website feels like a gigantic beauracracy, meanwhile FaceBook which is probably much larger and IS a gigantic corporation, feels like a small intimate space where I can safely relate to my friends and build new friendships off of relationships with people in my friends group.
CS: This is revealing of our challenge I think. You are fully aware that facebook is a "gigantic corporation" designed to provide the feeling of an "intimate space" where you can "safely" relate to others. Well you are right, it is a "gigantic corporation" and although it does feel "intimate" and "safe" your interests and preferences are being used for corporate interests. And yet I don’t need to tell you or others this. You already know it! So why do you and others go along? Well, it does provide a social benefit which should not be ignored, I don’t think, which is a good thing, and is what is probably most appealing for people. We are not asking others to stop using facebook or other social networking sites because we understand this benefit.
However, given that we are trying to provide a Left alternative, why do people including Leftists (!) who this is even more true for, despite being fully aware of the corporate interests underlying facebook, myspace, etc., continue to use them and not an alternative? The reasons are probably two-fold and perhaps there are more as well. First, the predominant social networking sites are behemoths, meaning they, on top of their huge budgets which supply all the glitter and gold appeal, there are millions of people using them. They are the predominant offering and they are easy to use, and provide some use value. Okay, but then there is the second reason, that is probably less acknowledged and consciously thought about, but is probably in peoples minds none-the-less and is self-fulfilling—that is, people probably feel like it is futile to participate in an alternative with not as much glamour, not as many people, not as many facilities, and not as ironed out or as slick as the corporate offerings. They may think that they agree with our efforts and that is good enough, or maybe they’ll even take the extra step to donate a few bucks as a sustainer, and think that is all that needs to be done before logging in to check facebook status updates and their friend activity. This orientation is easy to slip into and many people do including those on the Left. But just because it is easy or convenient does not mean that it works in their own interests and in the interests of Left communities they are a part of and care about, or the Left projects they support. Overall, the corporate interests are exactly opposed to their interests and in knowing this, especially Leftists, they should not give up the benefits of facebook, etc., but be more consciously active in the Left alternatives like ZCom, not by simply donating money, as much as that is needed, but by filling out their profiles, posting blogs, commenting on articles, uploading other content, connecting with other sustainers and writers, etc. Heck, an easy compromise, if they must, would be for them to upload content to ZCom and then post the link on their social networking site.
All this is easy to do if you spend just a few minutes trying. Not only are there links, video tutorials, and instructions to walk users through every aspect, but there is also what we have called "Quick Edit" which allows users simple access of the kind you mention you like on facebook. Is it perfect? No. Is it as good as it could be? We are trying and are taking concrete steps to make it better. Is it of any value socially or politically? Oddly, this is the part that is probably least contested, as I and most other Z Contributors obviously believe in. What are all these reasons then that people have for not participating despite knowing the benefits of the system we offer while at the same time being conscious of the costs of the corporate model? I think it is mostly an excuse to not take a few minutes to watch a video tutorial, or to experiment with something, or to ask for help, or to put up with a few kinks that may exist. Because the system is certainly easy enough to navigate and use if one uses it at least for a few minutes a day, or even per week, and that is certainly asking for less time than most people spend on facebook!
ZCom User: These problems shouldn’t stop folks interested in the larger, more important issues from participating in this community, but the website doesn’t make it easy for me at this point, which might mean it is also hard for others to use as well.
CS: Again, we know some aspects are clunky and need development. We are trying, believe me, very hard to make improvements. But we think the site is at a level of development that does not make it too difficult for users if they WANT to use it. Especially if they believe in the larger more important issues, as we both do. So I encourage you and others, not to give up your facebook interactions, but to try something simple to start with ZCom, like watching the video tutorial on how to post a blog, and then try! After, try it regularly… Once you get used to that all else will come much easier. The blog video is here and there are many others under the ZNet tab: http://www.zcomm.org/zvideo/videoTutorials/14
ZCom User: Thanks for listening,
CS: Thank you…