Monday, November 10, 2008

Ancestry.com ombudsman

In a recent article, Ancestry's Ranked Search, I crossed the line and called GNW "stupid." I should not have done that. I am sorry. From this point on, I will not be making nor allowing personal attacks on this blog. I have gone back and re-written the offensive article. And I am temporarily turning off reader comments.

Explaining a joke

Nothing sucks the humor out of a good punch line like needing to explain it. I hope the same is not true of creative writing, but in this situation those I've offended deserve an explanation.

On the surface, each of my articles has an initial layer or level of meaning which is, hopefully, informative and entertaining.

In recognition of the great conversation, in my writing I try as often as possible to include a second layer of meaning for the well educated. I try to invoke a reference to some part of culture, general knowledge, literature, science, etc. Whether to a movie, a book, an author, or something else, each is an unstated, intellectual challenge between friends.

Such references are sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant. For example, the article Indexing Tora! Tora! Tora! has several references or inside jokes. "Tora, Tora, Tora" is the most obvious, for history and movie buffs. "Laurels" is a pun for a smaller audience, LDS Church members. And for the smallest group of all, the oriental characters contain an obtuse pun between the Japanese phrase "tora, tora, tora" and a Chinese word for mediocre. (I was delighted to receive an email from a reader who recognized the Chinese half of the pun!)

This last one is an example where I've added a third-level of meaning to an article. Sometimes the second level references are just for fun. But whenever I can, the inside reference itself contributes an additional meaning to the primary topic. The second-level Japanese/Chinese pun on the word mediocre re-enforces one of the editorial criticisms I leveled in the article. Simultaneously, it forms a triangular relationship by invoking the idea of awakening sleeping giants. In this case, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are the giants, each sleeping in its own way.

With three-levels of meaning, when you add in research and fact-checking, it is no wonder it takes me almost an hour a paragraph to write my articles!

Other examples:

  • PAF, NFS and the Princess Bride is an interesting example that had no first level. It was written entirely in the second level, with the third level carrying FamilySearch news and issues.
  • Did you recognize the album title alluded to in the article, Triplets of different mothers?
  • Census Image Quality contains several famous quotes from Jane Austen's Emma. Did you catch them all?
  • The title of Misadventures in Indexing is a reference to a similarly titled series from one of my favorite bloggers. I received a letter from a puzzled reader unfamiliar with the reference and consequently confused by the title.
  • Shootout at the OK Corral is an obvious and simple second level reference to an historic event in Tombstone, Arizona.
  • Ancestry's Ranked Search, the offensive article, has a blatant reference to pop culture, the House television show. On the first level I presented the philosophy behind Ancestry's Ranked Search. On the second level I presented Dr. House's assumptions about people. On the third level, I responded to GNW as though I were Dr. House.

I am stupid

Boy, that was stupid. I assumed I could write using Dr. House's offensive style and readers would see it as a caricature, whether they were familiar with the show or not. I assumed that an offensive caricature would not offend anyone (just as we are able to laugh at caricature in cartoons and on Saturday Night Live). In hind sight, these assumptions were wrong. I apologize to all whom I offended.

I also apologize for criticizing complainers about the lack of actionable examples. Without experience in the software industry, it isn't very fair of me to expect you to be able to write a good bug report ("actionable example"). I don't doubt your earnestness or sincerity. Witness Reed, who must have spent at least an hour writing up a response with statistics on user complaints from several message threads on the Ancestry.com blog.

The ombudsman no longer

When I took on new search I hoped to identify the problems and get them fixed. I had precious little time to spend looking for the problems myself, so it seemed logical to elicit bug reports from the many complaining customers. Ironic that instead of getting your problems fixed we merely offended each other.

In closing, I have decided I will no longer assist readers in getting Ancestry.com bugs fixed. It was very gratifying to be able to help many of you. While an employee of Ancestry.com I had the time, the access and the motivation to see your issues through to completion. None of these are true any longer.

My news coverage of Ancestry.com will remain unchanged. And my education and persuasion attempts will continue for advanced search technologies like relevance ranking and context-enabled searching. So stay tuned...

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