So, why on earth are U-bloggers so angry?
I’m often concerned that the language divide makes non-English-speaking people miss out on a whole lot of interesting stuff. These past few days, I’ve been concerned that the language divide may be preventing English-speaking people from knowing about certain things. U-bloggers are angry, and they also have the sympathy of others in the franco-blogosphere, but all that is happening in French.
How aware is Six Apart that they have a bunch of angry french customers, who were encouraged to sign up for a paying version before the end of last year under promise of new features, which weren’t developed and seemingly never will? Edit 06.01.05: see note.
Let’s rewind a bit, shall we? I always think that history explains a lot. Many of the dates here are taken from Laurent’s short history of the franco-blogosphere, a work in progress. Other information comes from my regular trips around the blogosphere and my conversations with people — in particularly, here, with Stéphane, the creator of the U-blog weblogging platform. This is the story to the best of my knowledge. If there are any factual mistakes, I’ll be glad to correct them.
In November 2002, Stéphane Le Solliec starts working on a blogging platform he calls Meta-blog. A few months later, in December, U-blog (the new name for the platform) already has a few hundreds of users.
The interface is good, U-blog is pretty zippy, and it has a great community. Also, it’s French. Setting aside any primal xenophobia or anti-americanism, a great product designed in your language by a fellow countryman is not the same thing as another great product translated and adapted from English. (Ask somebody who lives in a country where most of the important stuff is “imported” from the German-speaking part…) And let’s face it, one does like to support a local product, whether one is French, Swiss, or American. I actually considered U-blog the best hosted solution for French-speakers, at some point, and recommended it to a few friends, who started weblogs. Joueb.com is a native French weblogging platform which has been around for far longer than U-blog, but for some reason it isn’t quite as popular.
About a year later, Stéphane is thinking about abandoning the platform. He’s doing it on his free time, he has a baby, and U-blog takes up a lot of time. He stalls development, and stops allowing the creation of new free blogs. (It will again be possible to create free blogs a few weeks later.) Existing free blogs remain in place, but lose visibility (pinging and home page) compared to paying blogs. (Paying U-blog customers pay 1€ per month.)
Around that time, Loïc, whose interest in weblogs has been sparked by meeting Joi at the World Economic Forum, and who has unsuccessfully approached the founder of Joueb.com, Stéphane Gigandet (yes! another Stéphane!), gets in touch with Stéphane Le Solliec in September (2003). As a result, he acquires the platform and user-base, and founds the company Ublog.com. Loïc really wants Stéphane to stay on board, and he does, before leaving a couple of months later (company-life isn’t really his cup of tea).
Loïc does a great job getting the French press (and later, politicians) interested in weblogs. He calls up journalists, educates them, and before long
Loïc, fondateur de Ublog regularly appears in articles about weblogging. Inevitably, he starts appearing as “the guy who introduced weblogs in France”, and the expression “founder of Ublog” entertains a confusion between the blogging platform and the company (“founder” being at times replaced by “creator”). Loïc founded the company, but he in no way created the blogging platform U-blog.
You can imagine that the U-bloggers, who already weren’t very excited about having been “bought” (particularly by a guy who had the bad taste to start blogging in English), didn’t really like seeing Loïc shine so bright and Stéphane slowly fade into oblivion. Some long-standing French-speaking webloggers external to U-blog will start keeping a suspicious eye on this newcomer that so many are talking about, and who seems to be (God forbid!) making weblogs into a business (complete with press pack).
End October, when Stéphane announces the changes at Ublog following the association with Loïc, the following structure is presented (as an aside, the fact that this page seems to have been taken down doesn’t make Ublog look good. If it’s a mistake, they should put it back up again):
- Free U-blog
- The basic offer, with an advertising banner.
- U-blog Plus
- The paying offer, with a few more bells and whistles than the free one (ping, home page listing) and lots of exciting new features (for 4€ per month instead of the actual 1€)
- U-blog Pro
- More advanced, with own domain name, multi-author, etc… to be defined
In a smart move, existing U-bloggers were given the chance to sign up for the second offer for 1€ instead of 4€ for the coming year, starting January 1st (date at which the new tariff would become active). It sounded attractive, and quite a few went for it. The future seemed bright, with promise of dynamic future development, despite the complaints about the increase in pricing (but which did not impact existing users that much).
During the next months, some new features are introduced. More are announced.
In March, Six Apart and Ublog SA sign an exclusive representation agreement in Europe. An announcement is made in the U-blog newsletter. April 29th, TypePad arrives on U-blog. The official Ublog weblog will publish another four or five brief posts related to TypePad before going quiet.
One can wonder: what sense does it make for a blogging platform like U-blog to sign an agreement with another, similar, hosted blogging platform like TypePad? Was the U-blog platform not good enough? Will development be stalled on the “old” platform, will it be abandoned? Overall, U-bloggers are worried and unhappy (I could add more, but those are two good starting-points and seem to sum it up pretty well). They are now offered three possibilities (as often, what is said in the comments is much more interesting than the post itself):
- Free U-blog
- The basic offer, same as before.
- U-blog Plus
- The paying offer for those who already have it, same as before, but no new features.
- A more advanced platform, where the active development will take place. Approx. 15€, but discount prices for current U-bloggers.
In short, all new development efforts seem to be going towards TypePad, and U-blog Plus will stop evolving, unlike what had been promised end of October. Reactions are aggressive (we all know that end-users are not kind when they complain). When U-bloggers ask about the new features that had been promised to those of them with paying accounts, they are told that the features are on TypePad. Loïc, who has already ruffled a few feathers by demanding that a popular blogger remove a post about him, under threat of lawsuit, does not distinguish himself in the area of good customer relations. (In particular, his comment regarding the contents of Aurora’s weblog (bondage and S&M), in the middle of a thread about U-blog and TypePad, didn’t look very good.) U-bloggers (particularly the paying ones) feel a bit cheated.
There is no question for me that Loïc is being given a harder time than he deserves, but it is pretty clear that he is not doing a very good job communicating with his unhappy customers.
TypePad.fr does not seem to be a howling success. I have heard complaints of people who find it slow (slower than U-blog, in particular) and not intuitive. Jean-Luc Raymond, the blogger who runs MediaTIC, publishes a critical post about TypePad.fr. Now, JLR isn’t the blogger I respect the most. He doesn’t always verify his sources, and has been known to remove embarrassing comments and posts with little ceremony. However, if his article on TypePad is over the top (as I suspect it might), it would in my opinion deserve more precise refutation than this dismissive comment of Loïc’s.
So, what is going on today? Basically, a continuation of what was already going wrong. Now that Six Apart has bought Ublog, the U-blog platform and communitydefinitely seem doomed.
No official announcement of the transaction has been made on the U-blog site (as I mentioned, the official “corporate” weblog is dead). Loïc’s answer to my post raising the point is that U-bloggers who want information can contact him on his blog. Worse, in my opinion, Loïc withheld the announcement on his blog until it was published by the media. So in the franco-blogosphere, we learnt about it through the press rather than through Loïc’s weblog (the de facto official source of information for U-blog, as the company site has not been communicating anything these last months).
Aurora goes to war, and other U-bloggers are following suit. One can disapprove of their virulence, but calling them “Aurora’s fan-club” (in the comments to my post) does not get anybody anywhere, and mocking Aurora’s sexual preferences in response to her criticisms is distasteful, and unbecoming of the Director for Europe, Africa and the Middle-East and Executive VP of Six Apart.
Loïc may have a squeaky-clean image in the anglo-blogosphere, but it is far from being the case in the franco-blogosphere, particularly when you start digging around in comment threads. I find it especially disturbing that there seems to be a discrepancy in attitude between Loïc’s discourse on his weblog and his comments on other people’s weblogs.
I personally do not think Loïc is a bad person, or has bad intentions. He’s interested in “the business side of weblogs” (and in that we differ), and that of course will make him unsympathetic to some, but I do believe he is genuinely interested in what he’s doing. However, I think he does not understand his customers very well, and does not communicate with them well either. His ambition as a businessman, excited by
the challenge of managing an American company, leader in its domain, does at times seem to overshadow his concern about his end-users well-being.
This has been a long post. If you’ve read it, thank you. If you’ve just skimmed it, let me briefly come back on my main points:
- U-bloggers have been promised features for their pay-version, which will not come.
- The acquisition of Ublog by Six Apart seems to point to a near death of the old blogging platform, and more dramatically for its users, of the very strong community built around it. (Typepad doesn’t really have this “community” thing to it.)
- Ublog (and now, Six Apart Europe) is demonstrating pretty poor communication with its unhappy users
Update, 24.07.04: a brief update after some comments I’ve received about this article.
- I have now learnt that Six Apart did know about the problems at Ublog (since before the acquisition).
- Although I considered it a possibility that they might not know, my main motivation for writing this article was that there was more to the Ublog story than what the English blogosphere in general was getting.
- Of course, not all U-bloggers are unhappy. We’re talking about a bunch of very vocal and very angry people, not about the whole community. But in my opinion, the fact they are a minority does not mean they should not be taken seriously.