Dealing with Automated Monoliths

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Welcome to the era of the self-service platforms, automated monolithic machines wrapped in consumer-friendly branding.

Have you noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to talk with a live person? I have.

Amazonian Journey

My wife just accidentally processed an Amazon return request on an item that we later decided to keep. The user interface is excellent for doing the most common of tasks. But go off the beaten track, and you’re in for a little digital adventure.

I first tried rooting around Amazon Help pages for ten minutes or so to try to help myself. When that failed, I tried finding a contact number. Again, lots of pointing me here and there before I found the link. The good little end user that I am, I had my return authorization number in hand, I was all ready to chat with someone. But then I ended up getting the run-around by a semi-intelligent chatbot that managed to irk me a bit before eventually deciding to hand me off to an actual person, in India I’m guessing, who finally helped me process my issue. Total time elapsed? Maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes.

The Black Hole of Self Service Platforms

My story is nothing special, of course. We’ve all had the experience of wandering around in the digital circuits of self-service platforms. First, it was over telephones and clicking “one” for English. Now, it’s websites and chatbots.

To be clear, I’m not so much complaining right now as I am observing. As end users, we are becoming increasingly used to interacting with a kind of black hole when it comes to working with the self-service platforms of the new economy. By “black hole,” I mean we pour lots and lots of our own human time and energy into working with these systems, while very little in the way of human energy actually comes out.

We think we are talking with companies in the same way that our parents once did, but we’re not. Increasingly, we’re talking to machines. We’re getting used to it, but every once in a while we have that experience that makes you realize exactly what’s happening. That happened for me today on the Amazon site.

Talking into the Void

Three months ago, Google announced quite suddenly that it would be shutting down its Google+ social network. Since then, I and a small group of people have been trying to work with the company to help other end users ease themselves off the service by helping them extract their data an move it to other services.

The best way to describe the experience is that, once again, it’s like orbiting a black hole. Humanity goes in, but very little comes out.

Google+ has no customer support. It’s a free service with no paying customers, so Google has followed the lead of many other self-service platforms and simply decided not to offer any customer support. There is an online Google+ Help community where people can go to ask questions. But most of the work answering those questions is done by other end users, some of whom have been deputized as “product experts” by the company.

That has worked alright until now. With the decision to shut the service down, a crisis has erupted and thousands upon thousands of people try to figure out what to do with all the social connections they’ve made and the content they’ve poured into this service since June 2011. People are begging Google for more details, but it’s like talking into the void. Lots of human energy going in, but almost nothing coming out.

Welcome to life in the era of monolithic self-service platforms.

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