Help Stop Comma Abuse!

Yes, there are some rules for commas. Some are strict, some aren’t. Some are debated (the Oxford comma), some aren’t. And some commas are just a question of style.

I’d like to draw your attention on a comma issue which is not a question of style.

You cannot use a comma to separate the verb from its subject or object. Look:

John, ate some bread.

John ate, some bread.

Doesn’t work.

But you do see commas floating around verbs. That’s because they come in pairs. Look:

John, without hesitation, ate some bread.

John ate, without hesitation, some bread.

See how those commas come in pairs, because we inserted “without hesitation” into the sentence?

I was prompted to write this article after struggling through this article. I struggled because the article content was interesting — but boy, does the author have comma issues. Hopefully they’ll fix them. In the meantime, I’ve used the text to provide you with real-world examples, corrected. You can try your skills at spotting missing paired commas. (And do read the article, though, it is interesting.)

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich used a lot of his free time for playing cards.

Can you spot the missing comma? This is a situation where the first paired comma was used, but not the second. The “inserted” text in the sentence is “the 4th Earl of Sandwich”, which should therefore be surrounded by commas. This one is actually tricky, because it looks like we have avoided placing a comma between the subject and the verb. But we have. Better:

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, used a lot of his free time for playing cards.

Here is another one:

Since recently a good friend of mine, gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, I wanted to learn more.

This one has a comma which shouldn’t be there. No reason for a pair, as the sentence is not “Since John, a good friend of mine, gave me…”. Corrected:

Since recently a good friend of mine gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, I wanted to learn more.

I’ll have to admit that I’m not 100% certain about the next one:

When we are being told a story though, things change dramatically found researchers in Spain.

Don’t you also want a comma in front of “found”? It probably has something to do with the fact that instead of the usual SVO order, we’ve switched to something like OVS. Here, try this one instead:

When we are being told a story though, things change dramatically, found researchers in Spain.

Isn’t it better?

Here’s one which might have more than comma issues, but let’s stick to the commas:

The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

I would suggest one of these two alternatives, though my prefer would probably add in an extra word or two:

The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

The brains of the person telling a story, and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

And a last one which is a classic example of paired commas:

A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect.

The “inserted text” here is “if broken down into the simplest form”. Proof? The sentence would be fine without it:

A story is a connection of cause and effect.

Now, let’s add in this if-clause, with commas.

A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.

There we go. Pay attention to your commas!

Disclaimer: I’ve never really studied English grammar properly, so I’m sure there are fancy terms and maybe rules to come up with here that I don’t know of. And also, following a law which probably needs a nice name, as this is a post about language/grammar, there are bound to be mistakes in it that you can point to and laugh at — and probably, God forbid, a misplaced comma.

De la dégradation de la langue

La mienne, en l’occurence.

Plus de 15 ans que j’ai passé mon bac (XB, s’il vous plaît). Plus de 10 ans que j’écris sur le web. Quelque part en chemin, j’ai fait une licence en français.

Et parfois, quand je me relis, je suis horrifiée par les fautes que je trouve dans mes textes.

J’ai toujours été bonne (allons, n’ayons pas peur des mots — excellente) en orthographe et grammaire. Au gymnase, franchement, je crois pouvoir dire que j’avais un français écrit irréprochable.

Ça s’est gâté, ensuite. Dix ans à prendre des notes à l’uni, d’une part ça vous fiche en l’air la calligraphie (qui ne fut d’ailleurs jamais mon fort) et d’autre part, ça vous ramollit les règles de la langue.

Je me demande aussi parfois quel rôle joue le clavier dans tout cela. Je me retrouve à faire des fautes de “frappe” inimaginables lorsque j’écrivais à la main. Une terminaison en “-é” au lieu de “-er” par exemple, qui vient se glisser là, mine de rien, au milieu d’une phrase. Je l’attrape au passage si je prends la peine de me relire, bien entendu, mais le drame est que la faute ait simplement jailli de mes doigts. Ça n’arrivait jamais, “avant”.

(D’ailleurs, je tiens à le préciser, je ne me relis que très rarement. Oui, je sais, ça va faire des jaloux — chacun sa croix: mes compétences dans le graphisme frisent le zéro absolu et je suis tellement peu physionomiste que c’en est régulièrement embarrassant.)

Qu’est-ce qui a donc changé?

  • Est-ce le clavier au lieu du stylo?
  • Est-ce l’absence de correction en rouge pour me rappeler de temps en temps mes manquements à la perfection de la forme?
  • Est-ce l’âge?
  • Est-ce la proportion moindre de français par rapport à l’anglais, dans ce que j’écris aujourd’hui?
  • Est-ce la plus grande quantité de texte écrit que je produis?

Allez savoir.

J’ai vécu une autre expérience de dégradation de la langue, orale celle-ci, qui m’a profondément marquée. En 1999-2000, comme vous le savez, j’ai passé une année en Inde (le cas échéant, chers lecteurs, relisez vos classiques).

Bilingue déjà à l’époque, mais avec un anglais passablement rouillé, je me retrouvais pour la première fois depuis ma petite enfance à communiquer exclusivement en anglais, durant des mois — à l’exception de l’occasionnel e-mail qui, m’avouera-t-on plus tard, arborait des tournures de phrase de plus en plus étranges à mesure que passait le temps.

Après 6-8 mois, une amie de Suisse est venue me rendre visite. Et là, catastrophe. Je cherche mes mots. Je suis maladroite. Je construis mes phrases à tort et à travers. J’étais en train de perdre mon français! Il avait suffi de si peu de temps…

Je savais que j’avais pas mal perdu de mon anglais durant mon adolescence, au point qu’il m’était devenu pénible de le parler. Il revenait après quelque temps, bien sûr, mais c’était depuis longtemps ma deuxième langue. Jamais je n’aurais imaginé que je pourrais (aussi vite!) perdre mon français.

Je vous rassure, il est bien revenu. Et mon anglais est resté — j’avoue qu’il est rare que je passe une journée sans utiliser mes deux langues à présent (et internet joue très clairement un rôle là-dedans).

Mais même sa langue maternelle, quand on ne la pratique pas, se dégrade.

Multilingual Proposals (Reboot, BlogCamp)

The famous conference [reboot](http://www.reboot.dk/listpublish-63-en.html) will take place in Copenhagen on 31.05-01.06. [I’ll be attending](http://www.reboot.dk/person-471-en.html).

I’m also going to make a proposal for a talk (as the [(un)conference format](http://www.reboot.dk/article-203-en.html) encourages this). I’m being a bit shy about [putting it up on the reboot site](http://www.reboot.dk/listpublish-189-en.html) before I’m happy with the title and description, so for the moment it’s a Google Doc tentatively titled While We Wait For The Babel Fish.

Those of you who know me won’t be very surprised to learn that it’s about multilingualism online. By “multilingualism” online, I’m not only talking about [localisation](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/02/24/english-only-barrier-to-adoption/) or [stupid default languages](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/03/04/not-all-switzerland-speaks-german-dammit/), but mainly about what happens when one wants to get off the various monolingual islands out there and *[use more than one language](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2004/07/11/multilingual-weblog/)* in one place, for example. How can we help multiple languages coexist in a given space or community, as they do at times in the offline world? Can the tools we have help make this easier?

Another thing that interests me is this “all or nothing” assumption about knowing languages (when you have to check boxes): I wouldn’t check a box saying I “know” Italian, but I can understand some amount of it when it’s written, if it’s necessary. What are we capable of doing with that kind of information? [Read the draft](http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddcrwvm8_16d3fhsz) if you want more.

I’m also proposing a session at Saturday’s [BlogCamp in Zürich](http://barcamp.ch/BlogCampSwitzerland) which will be around similar issues, but which will focus precisely on the topic of [multilingual blogging](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2004/07/11/multilingual-weblog/).

Feedback on these ideas (and anything here) is most welcome. Is this interesting?

**Update 19.03.2007: [proposal is now on the reboot site!](http://www.reboot.dk/artefact-773-en.html) Don’t hesitate to leave comments there.**

Not All Switzerland Speaks German, Dammit!

Here we go, yet another misguided attempt at localisation: [my MySpace page](http://myspace.com/stephtara) is [now in German](http://flickr.com/photos/bunny/409678094/).

[MySpace](http://myspace.com) now joins [PayPal](http://paypal.ch), [eBay](http://ebay.ch), [Amazon](http://amazon.ch), [Google](http://google.ch) in defaulting to German for Swiss people.

[Switzerland](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switzerland) is a multilingual country. The linguistic majority speaks Swiss-German (reasonably close to German but quite un-understandable for native German-speakers who have not been exposed to it). Second language in the country is French. Third is Italian, and fourth is… (no, not English) …[Romansh](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romansh).

You know how linguistic minorities are. [Touchy.](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2006/04/30/about-the-swiss-blog-awards-sbaw/) Oh yeah.

As a French speaker with rather less-than-functional German, I do find it quite irritating that these big “multinational” web services assume that I speak German because I’m Swiss. I’d rather have English, and so would many of my non-bilingual fellow-cititzens (particularly amongst web-going people, we tend to be better at English than German).

Yes, I’ve said that [English-only is a barrier to adoption](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/02/24/english-only-barrier-to-adoption/). But getting the language wrong is just as bad, if not worse (most people have come to accept the fact that English is the “default” language on the internet, even if they don’t understand it). If I want my Amazon books to be shipped here free of charge, I have to use [Amazon.de](http://amazon.de), which is in German, and doesn’t have a very wide choice of French books. [My wishlist](http://www.amazon.de/exec/obidos/wishlist/3ZN17IJ7B1XW/) is therefore on Amazon.de too, which maybe explains why I never get anything from it.

Paypal is almost worse. I can’t really suggest it to clients as a solution for “selling stuff over the internet”, because all it offers in its Swiss version is a choice between German (default) and English. You can’t sell [a book in French](http://lavoieetsesdegres.com/) with a payment interface in German or English.

So please, remember that country != language, and that there is a little place called Switzerland scrunched up in the middle of Europe, caught between France, Italy, Germany and Austria ([Liechtenstein](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liechtenstein) is even worse off than us I suppose), and that not everyone in that little country speaks German.

Thank you.

English Only: Barrier to Adoption

*Foreword: this turned into a rather longer post than I had expected. The importance of language and localization online is one of my pet topics (I’ve just decided that it would be what I’d [talk about at BlogCamp](http://barcamp.ch/BlogCampSwitzerland#unAgenda), rather than teenagers and stuff), so I do tend to get carried away a little.*

I was surprised last night to realise that this wasn’t necessarily obvious — so I think it’s probably worth a blog post.

**The fact a service is in English only is a showstopper for many non-native speakers, hence a barrier to wider adoption in Europe.**

But doesn’t everybody speak English, more or less? Isn’t it the *lingua franca* of today that **everybody** speaks? It isn’t. At least not in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and I’m certain there are many other places in Europe where the situation is similar.

Come and spend a little time in Lausanne, for example, and try communicating in English with the man on the street. Even if many people have done a couple of years of English at school, most have never had any use for it after that and have promptly forgotten it. German is a way more important “foreign language” around here, as it is the linguistic majority in Switzerland, and most administrative centers of big companies (and the government) are in the German-speaking part of the country (which doesn’t mean that everybody speaks German, either).

The people who are reasonably comfortable with English around here will most often be those who have taken up higher academic studies, particularly in scientific subjects (“soft” and “hard” science alike).

And if I’m the person who comes to your mind when you think “Swiss”, think again — my father is British, I was born in England, went to an English medium school and spoke English at home until I was 8, conversed regularly with English-speaking grandparents during my growing years, and never stopped reading in English: all that gave me enough of a headstart that even though my English had become very rusty at the end of my teens, I dove into the English-speaking internet with a passion, and spent an anglophone [year in India](/logbook/). So, no. I’m not your average Lausanne-living French-speaker. I’m a strange bilingual beast.

Imagine somebody whose native language is not English, even though they may theoretically know enough English to get around if you parachuted them into London. (Let’s forget about the man on the street who barely understands you when you ask where the station is.) I like to think of [my (step-)sister](http://isablog.wordpress.com/) as a good test-case (not that I want to insist on the “step-“, but it explains why she isn’t bilingual). She took up the “modern languages” path at school, which means she did German, English, and Italian during her teenage years, and ended up being quite proficient in all three (she’s pretty good with languages). She went to university after that and used some English during her studies. But since then, she honestly hasn’t had much use for the language. She’ll read my blog in English, can converse reasonably comfortably, but will tend to watch the TV series I lend her in the dubbed French version.

I’m telling you this to help paint a picture of somebody which you might (legitimately) classify as “speaks English”, but for whom it represents an extra effort. And again, I’d like to insist, my sister would be very representative of most people around here who “speak English but don’t use it regularly at work”. That is already not representative of the general population, who “did a bit of English at school but forgot it all” and can barely communicate with the lost English-speaking tourist. Oh, and forget about the teenagers: they start English at school when they’re 13, and by the time they’re 15-16 they *might* (if they are lucky) have enough knowledge of it to converse on everyday topics (again: learning German starts a few years before that, and is more important in the business world). This is the state of “speaking English” around here.

A service or tool which is not available in French faces a barrier to adoption in the *Suisse Romande* on two levels:

– first of all, there are people who simply don’t know enough English to understand what’s written on the sign-up page;
– second, there are people who would understand most of what’s on the sign-up page, but for whom it represents and extra effort.

Let’s concentrate on the second batch. An *extra effort”?! Lazy people! Think of it. All this talk about making applications more usable, about optimizing the sign-up process to make it so painless that people can do it with their eyes closed? Well, throw a page in a foreign language at most normal people and they’ll perceive it as an extra difficulty. And it may very well be the one that just makes them navigate away from the page and never come back. Same goes for using the service or application once they have signed up: it makes everything more complicated, and people anticipate that.

Let’s look at some examples.

The first example isn’t exactly about a web service or application, but it shows how important language is for the adoption of new ideas (this isn’t anything groundbreaking if you look at human history, but sometimes the web seems to forget that the world hasn’t changed that much…). Thanks for bearing with me while I ramble on.

In February 2001, I briefly mentioned [the WaSP Browser Push](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/02/16/to-hell-with-bad-browsers/) and realised that the French-speaking web was really [“behind” on design and web standards ressources](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/02/13/poor-french-web/). I also realised that although [there was interest for web standards](http://mammouthland.free.fr/weblog/2001/fevrier_01.php3), many French-speaking people couldn’t read the original English material. This encouraged me to [blog in French about it](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/02/24/tableaux-ou-non/), [translate Zeldman’s article](http://pompage.net/pompe/paitre/), [launching](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2001/03/21/faire-part/) the translation site [pompage.net](http://pompage.net/) in the process. Pompage.net, and the [associated mailing-list](http://fr.groups.yahoo.com/group/pompeurs/), followed a year or so later by [OpenWeb](http://openweb.eu.org/), eventually became a hub for the budding francophone web standards community, which is still very active to this day.

([What happened with the Swiss Blog Awards](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2006/04/30/about-the-swiss-blog-awards-sbaw/) is in my opinion another example of how important language issues are.)

Back to web applications proper. [Flickr](http://flickr.com) is an application I love, but I have a hard time getting people to sign up and use it, even when I’ve walked them through the lengthy Yahoo-ID process. [WordPress.com](http://fr.wordpress.com), on the other hand, exists in French, and I can now easily persuade my friends and clients to open blogs there. There is a strong [French-speaking WordPress community](http://wordpress-fr.net/) too. A few years ago, when the translation and support were not what they are now, a very nice little blogging tool named [DotClear](http://www.dotclear.net/) became hugely popular amongst francophone bloggers (and it still is!) in part because it was in French when other major blogging solutions were insufficient in that respect.

Regarding WordPress, I’d like to point out the [community-driven translation effort](http://translate.wordpress.com/) to which everybody can contribute. Such an open way of doing things has its pitfalls (like dreadful, dreadful translations which linger on the home page until somebody comes along to correct them) but overall, I think the benefits outweigh the risks. In almost no time, dozens of localized versions can be made available, maintained by those who know the language best.

Let’s look at teenagers. When [MySpace](http://myspace.com) was all that was being talked about in the US, French-speaking teenagers were going wild on [skyblog](http://skyblog.com). MySpace is catching up a bit now because it [also exists in French](http://fr.myspace.com/). [Facebook](http://www.facebook.com/)? In English, nobody here has heard of it. [Live Messenger aka MSN](http://www.windowslive.fr/messenger/default.asp)? Very much in French, [unlike ICQ](http://icq.com/), which is only used here by anglophile early adopters.

[Skype](http://skype.com/intl/fr/) and [GMail](http://gmail.com)/[GTalk](http://www.google.com/talk/intl/fr/) are really taking off here now that they are available in French.

Learning to use a new service, or just trying out the latest toy, can be challenging enough an experience for the average user without adding the extra hurdle of having to struggle with an unfamiliar language. Even though a non-localized service like Flickr may be the home to [various linguistic groups](http://www.flickr.com/groups/topic/69039/), it’s important to keep in mind that their members will tend to be the more “anglophone” of this language group, and are not representative.

**The bottom line is that even with a lot of encouragement, most local people around here are not going to use a service which doesn’t talk to them in their language.**

***9:52 Afterthought credit:***

I just realised that this article on [why startups condense in America](http://www.paulgraham.com/america.html) was the little seed planted a few days ago which finally brought me to writing this post. I haven’t read all the article, but this little part of it struck me and has been working in the background ever since:

> What sustains a startup in the beginning is the prospect of getting their initial product out. The successful ones therefore make the first version as simple as possible. In the US they usually begin by making something just for the local market.

> This works in America, because the local market is 300 million people. It wouldn’t work so well in Sweden. In a small country, a startup has a harder task: they have to sell internationally from the start.

> The EU was designed partly to simulate a single, large domestic market. The problem is that the inhabitants still speak many different languages. So a software startup in Sweden is still at a disadvantage relative to one in the US, because they have to deal with internationalization from the beginning. It’s significant that the most famous recent startup in Europe, Skype, worked on a problem that was intrinsically international.

A Brief Update

A very brief summary of my first four weeks of teaching. Tired, difficult, but I’m OK.

I’ve started teaching. Four weeks have gone by already. I’m exhausted, physically and emotionally, and looking forward to the time when everything will be running smoother.

I’m finding it harder than expected. Teenagers (13-14) aren’t easy, and as all my colleagues have told me, the first year is always tough. No exception for me.

It’s a new experience for me to be teaching English and French. I’ve had to lower my expectations a lot, and I expect to lower them yet more. I’m flabbergasted at how much difficulty many pupils have at following simple instructions.

We’ve started a weblog project, as I mentioned previously, and it seems to be starting off not too badly. This gave me a chance to have a peek at the non-school weblogs a few of the pupils have set up on skyblog.com — I doubt many of the parents are aware of what their children are posting online (lots of photographs, personal information, and sometimes also sexually explicit stuff).

I haven’t been having much social life lately, and I feel drained enough that I don’t have much to write here. I’m OK though, no need for concern. Things will start falling into place (I’m already used to getting up at 5:45 every morning), I’ll soon be a bit less tired and emotionally stressed, and more visible to those (online or offline) around me. Three weeks to go until autumn holidays.

U-Blog, Six Apart, and Their Angry Bloggers

This very long post is, for the first time in English, a pretty complete account of what has been going on with U-blog and Loïc Le Meur in the French blogosphere for some time now. With the acquisition of Ublog by Six Apart, these problems are bound to take another dimension for the English-speaking blogosphere.

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.
TypePad
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.