How not to get your question answered

[Updated 12-05-07: the story continues! Jump to the end to read the latest.]

In the course of my job, lots of people email me with questions about their Macs, Mac software, and—more recently—their iPhones. As someone who writes publicly about these topics, I’m expected to be conversant with many of their intricate details, and in most cases I am.

But what I’m not is a personal tech support guru. I try to help out people who email me, because, well, I spent years working in tech support and I like to do what I can to make sure people have a good experience using technology. As someone with specialized knowledge, I feel an…perhaps obligation is too strong a word, maybe call it an inclination to help out those who don’t possess that knowledge, just as people with more money often feel an inclination to help out those who are less fortunate. Again, to be clear, it’s not my job, and I don’t respond to every email, but I try to when I can.

Most of the time the people I deal with are polite and appreciative that someone has even responded to their emails. I don’t want to get into a position of saying “Hey, you should be glad you even got an email back,” but let’s face it: a lot of people whose positions are similar to mine don’t have the time or interest to respond to queries that will take hours away from their actual paying work. But the rule of thumb seems like it should be this: when you ask a favor from someone, you should be civil and gracious for any time they take to help you out. That goes for dealing with people in pretty much any walk of life, in my opinion.

My latest email help request started innocuously enough. It wasn’t sent to the catch-all for the iPhone blog, or through Macworld’s contact form, but directly to my work address:

hi,

i put a video on youtube.com and it worked fine. I listed it as global
event as the key word search and then I tried to view it on the iphone. i
couldn’t find it in the listing. Do you know why this is?

Matt [Just as a note, I’ve changed the man’s name.]

A valid question, but not one I was prepared to spend a lot of time on: the fact is that YouTube is a closed system and I don’t know the intricate details of how it works. But I’ve uploaded a video or two to the site and a quick check shows that at least one of them shows up on my iPhone when I search for it. Going on the basis of that, and my general knowledge on the topic, I jotted back a quick reply:

Hi Matt,
My first question would be how long between uploading and trying to find it on the iPhone? YouTube videos need to be specially encoded in a format for the iPhone, and I don’t know if YouTube does this when the video is uploaded or later on. My suggestion would be to wait and try again later. Hope it works out.

Cheers,
Dan

Admittedly, not the most in-depth reply I could have offered, but I did invite further information from Matt to see if we could try to approach this in a logical fashion.

Twenty minutes later, I got a response. I quote the entirety of the reply below:

this was a lame response. Do some digging. jeez.


I won’t say that my jaw dropped, but I did find myself a little surprised and put off; enough so that I twittered about it. My friend Glenn offered this advice “I usually reply to those, ‘Once civility is abandoned, so is discourse. No further replies will be read.'” I wanted to reply with something witty and biting, but well, I had actual work to do, so I opted not to write back at all, figuring that would be the end of it.

Oh, would that it was. The next day, I get another email from the guy.

what did you find out?

matt

Er, well, I found out that you’re a jackass, but that’s about it. At this point I was reduced to exclaiming somewhat unsatisfying mid-20th century expressions like “The nerve!” and “What gall!” Glenn’s suggested reply to this development: “Alternate response: “No soy tu mono.” (I am not your monkey.)” Tempting, but I again chose to ignore the email. Don’t feed the trolls, as they say.

The end, you think? Not by a longshot. A day later, I get another email:

Hey,

I’m not asking just because of mild curiosity. I have several dozen retailers paying me in Oklahoma City to stream over youtube.com. I want to be the first person to hit all three networks when it launches in france. if it doesn’t work then I won’t waste my time. I need a good explanation so I can do business.

Thanks for your time.

Matt

The tone here is at least civil, but there’s a tone of entitlement here that I found distasteful: I’m in business and I need you to help me. That’s right, you’ve got “several dozen retailers” paying you and you’re trying to cadge free tech support from a writer, because you want to get the cheapest fix to your problem rather than, say, hiring someone whose job it is to figure these things out.

So I finally gave up and wrote back.

Matt,
I’m sorry if my first reply was not helpful to you, but when you abandoned civility, I abandoned discourse. I recommend contacting YouTube if you’re having problems. Good luck to you.

-Dan

Okay, I probably shouldn’t have even bothered because, as we all know, this just opens up the channel of communication again.

And so, here comes the missive, which, if you don’t mind, I’m going to break up and respond to piece by piece:

You told me in your e-mail that I should just wait for a while and see what happens.

No, in my email I asked you how long you waited between uploading the video and looking for it on the iPhone, a question that you never answered. It’s like going to the doctor complaining that you’ve got a stomachache. Then, when he asks you “How long have you been experiencing abdominal pain?” you reply “Didn’t you hear me? I’ve got a stomachache.”

Not one of my partners or investors thought that was a very thoughtful response. I’m having a meeting with Renee Edelman shortly and I don’t have an answer for her. I thought you would at least do some digging but I don’t know you or if you’re a lazy editor or your best guesses get the job done at Macworld. I’m sure you are busy but toughen up a little bit. I called a spade a spade and I am contacting you from a cornered position in this market, obviously. I ran this question by Amol Sharma at the Wall Street Journal and Iloop mobile’s VP of Business Development.

Then he goes on the entitlement power trip. “I’ve got investors and partners.” Who were not impressed with the free advice from a tech writer. And then name dropping: Renee Edelman (a big PR contact), a Wall Street Journal writer, and a media company VP. Gee, and none of them gave you answers either, so you came to me, huh? What a surprise.

I’m sorry if I don’t have civility, but I’m getting sick of people blowing off important things. Good luck to you Dan and thanks very much for trying to make your job all about pleasantries. I’ll let you know how things are going in the trenches where we just get things done and don’t worry about our emotions. It’s a pretty big deal to know why videos don’t show up on the iphone when they show up on the desktop.

That’s my favorite line in the entire exchange: “I’ll let you know how things are going in the trenches where we just get things done and don’t worry about our emotions.” That’s just brilliant: I think I may have a plaque made. Seriously, the trenches? You’re comparing your problems to World War I-era combat? I had no idea the world of streaming media was such a tough, barren place, where emotions can get you killed just as quickly as stepping on a mine. Truly, it’s a sad, lonely life out there on the Internets.

Your response was lame and now Macworld is irrelevant to me. I hope you continue to make friends with all of the business people you work with, but i don’t need friends I need answers.

Saying that you “don’t need friends, [you] need answers” is one of those great self-explanatory statements in the history of mankind. Now, you have neither friends nor answers: see how that worked out for you? Also, the threat that Macworld is now irrelevant to you would probably have been far more effective if you were a) a subscriber (which I highly doubt) or b) someone even as remotely important as you’re convinced you are.

Shame on you.

matt

Shame on me? Shame on me? Shame on you for your sense of entitlement: “what I want is important, so your time and inclinations are trivial compared to mine. I expect you to do whatever I want you to, because I have investors and partners and several dozen retailers in Oklahoma City paying me.” Really, no offense, but going your haughty on Oklahoma City? This is a man who has never even been introduced to irony at a cocktail party.

The worst thing about this conversation, though, is that it makes me less willing to respond to emails in general. And there are plenty of perfectly reasonable, appreciative folks who I’m sure I could help with their problems. But if there’s a chance that I have to go through this sort of harangue even one time in five or ten, it’s a heck of a lot less attractive prospect. All it does is take time out of my day. Even worse than that is the fact that there were brief moments in there where I felt guilty that maybe I hadn’t done enough to solve this guy’s problem. That just makes me angry. And when I get angry, you get long vitriolic blog posts. So, there you go.

Update 12-05-07: I actually did decide to test the issue at hand at one point, uploading a random movie file to YouTube. It does not, as Matt complained, show up immediately—this doesn’t surprise me. As I suggested in the initial email, YouTube does some processing behind the scenes, and the iPhone version uses a different codec: H.264 instead of the Flash movie you see on the website. But I forgot about the video, since the entire exchange sort of put me off investigating the problem.

To my surprise, I found another email from Matt in my inbox yesterday evening, the entirety of which was two words:

it worked.

I wasn’t really sure what worked, but on a hunch I looked up my test movie on my iPhone and, sure enough, there it was. So, as it turns out, my initial suggestion was completely utterly one-hundred percent correct.

Vindication is delicious.

5 Comments so far
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LOL. At least I get paid for that crap

Hee, dickwads are awesome. :) You should write a post about him on Macworld, but unfortunately that might actually send him some business.

And BTW thanks for your responses when I’ve asked some questions lately. It would never occur to me to ask someone like you tech support questions – that’s what tech support monkeys are for! I ask things where I’ve already exhausted what I can find thru Google or through other people I know.

The really funny part will be when you find out that Matt reads Doombot. I smell a libel suit in the making.

Wouldn’t he have had to divulge Matt’s real name for it to actually count as libel?

Also, does it count as libel if the person really is a huge asshat?

Not that my opinion matters, but I think that you should help more people if you can guarantee responses like this. Seriously, I had tears rolling down my face as I read “Matt’s” email aloud to my girlfriend. “I don’t need friends I need answers” – Unintentional comic genius!



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