This is going to be my last comment on sock puppets, hopefully for all time. And it’s not really about sock puppets at all.
After the release of the letter yesterday several people have asked two questions repeatedly. How did we do it? Why wasn’t I asked?
These two are related so let me briefly set down what happened over the weekend. I’d like people to know because this kind of rapid response may be needed by others outside writing at some stage, and there may be lessons to be learned here. Secondly… we’d have loved to have got names on that letter but it was practically very difficult.
When the puppet scandal began to break big time on Friday night, with Jeremy Duns’s outing of RJ Ellory, several of us felt it was time to make a joint statement condemning this kind of activity. A core group of around 15 formed on Twitter. It is impossible to have this kind of complex discussion — what do we do? how do we word a statement? — in 140 characters. We needed another private communications medium.
I offered to set up a private WordPress site. I know WordPress. It runs this site and we’d used it very successfully six years ago as part of the save-wye.org campaign now archived here. We decided to give that a try since another of the group knew WordPress too.
WP is a blog system. So it’s possible to create posts and allow people to comment on them in confidence when the site is private as this was. I sent out invites from WP to everyone involved, setting them up as editors. Most other people didn’t know WP and some struggled with the logon process (which is complicated if you’ve ever registered for WordPress.com before). But in the end pretty much everyone managed to get on.
First mistake: making everyone an editor. They didn’t need to be able to edit that much stuff, and it presented them with too many possibilities. So we rapidly went to two admin accounts and everyone else became an author. We were working in disparate locations. All over the UK, Jeremy Duns in Sweden, me latterly in Amsterdam, and others… I have no idea where. It wasn’t practical to talk on the phone and most of us had other things to do. So we communicated through comments.
This is far from ideal for this kind of project. Some threads ran to more than 100 comments. Comments got spread between posts. People didn’t see important messages. Misunderstandings were all too easy. And — crucially I think — as a large ad hoc group we had no easy way to reach a consensus decision. Lots of people working on the same thing need some kind of management and we didn’t have that.
As things turned out my fumbling fingers preempted the decision to release the letter. I’ve been doing some of the web stuff in between work here in Amsterdam. The site’s back end looks exactly like the back end for davidhewson.com. In the middle of yesterday afternoon, knackered, not looking properly, I published the statement here instead of to the private site.
Apologies everyone. It was an accident, honest. Although we’d agreed on the statement we hadn’t yet got enough people together to agree on timing its release.
When it came to signatures we simply didn’t have time or resources to collate more than we did. But we wanted to give people the chance to put their names to the letter. So we created nosockpuppets.wordpress.com and simply let people put their names in the comments, as they have done in droves since it went live. It’s not a technologically clever solution. But it was quick and easy and it works.
Some lessons for anyone facing this kind of situation in the future…
- You need a way to communicate in a group effectively. WordPress comments weren’t ideal. Maybe Google + would have been better. But lots of people weren’t on Google+ and you face the issue of people not understanding the system in use. At least everyone understands a blog comment.
- You need to decide how decisions are going to be made. We didn’t really handle that terribly well though in the end I think we got a great letter people got behind.
- You can’t wait. If we’d gone for a smarter, slicker solution it could have taken a week to put in place and by then the story would have moved on, and we would have denied people the chance to put their name to the letter.
- Twitter was frankly a bit dangerous at times. It’s easy for a private message to turn into a public one – a single missed letter is all that’s needed. Email is much, much better.
- Don’t let me near your web site because I will surely press the wrong button.
Anyway we did it in the end. I’m proud to have played my bit in this, proud of the people in publishing who felt strongly enough to get the whole thing off the ground, and heartened that there is such a demand for fair play and honesty in this business. I know some people found this depressing and distressing. I did, especially late at night when we were still working on the draft. But the real question is this… how badly would we feel if we ignored or worse, tolerated, dishonesty in publishing?
It’s surely clear now the vast majority of writers, readers and publishers want something better. Happy to be a part of the effort that proved this.
Oh… and one final thanks, to WordPress.com for a fantastic service. And one we were able to use for free too. Without WP — which could doubtless be managed a lot better than we did this time around — I don’t know how we could possibly have managed.