September 20, 2010
Scribd Puts My Old Uploads Behind a Paywall and Goes Onto My Shitlist
Over the last year, I've become a heavy user of Scribd. I have posted over 100 documents to Scribd that have generated over 100,000 reads. Posting to Scribd is fast and easy--much easier than using my extremely cumbersome web hosting solution at the university--and the documents are automatically indexed in Google for increased visibility. I also like getting the stats, which are easier to see than through my university solution. Finally, I used Scribd for a surprisingly effective self-publication experiment with my Internet Law course reader; I'll write more about that experiment soon.
Unfortunately, Scribd recently made two really bad choices that totally destroyed my trust. First, they changed their default settings so that the site automatically "readcasts" (i.e., announces on my Scribd home page) any documents that I visited. Once I realized they were doing this, I self-discovered that I could opt-out on the settings page (buried under "sharing"), but I don't feel I got adequate notice of the change. Haven't they learned anything from Facebook's Beacon fiasco or Google's Buzz fiasco? Since apparently the message isn't sinking in, let me spell out what should have been obvious: PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO AUTOMATICALLY PUBLICLY ANNOUNCE THE DOCUMENTS THEY ARE READING.
With the deep goodwill I've developed towards Scribd over the past year, I might be able to excuse that mistake (barely) as overzealous cluelessness. However, the other mistake simply isn't excusable. With inadequate notice to account-holders, Scribd set up a new program where old files on Scribd (it's unclear how old; their FAQ simply says the conversion happens after "an initial period of time on Scribd") are automatically put behind a paywall where readers have to pay Scribd to access them. [Update: Evil Wylie reports that the files are archived after 2 months.]
On the settings page, I am given the opportunity to categorically opt out of having my documents go behind their paywall, but the setting is hardly clear. The configuration choice reads "Do not include my documents in the Scribd Archive program." I presume this opaque wording was implicitly designed to communicate that being in the Scribd Archive is a good thing and I should want to do, but staying in the program sure isn't in the best interests of me or my readers. [Contrast the communicative effect of a toggle option saying "I don't want my old documents behind Scribd's paywall."] I don't recall any other notice that Scribd had put my documents behind a paywall; I learned about it from a reader who got prompted to pay to access an older post.
Scribd's paywall stunt instantly put Scribd on my shitlist because it vitiates the reason I chose to use Scribd in the first place. I don't know that they ever promised me perpetual free access to the documents I post, but their value proposition always has been open access to the documents--freely shared with everyone and indexed in the search engines. The paywall destroys that value proposition. They've taken the documents that I wanted to freely share with the public (many of them public documents like court rulings and filings) and made them inaccessible. If my readers can't freely get the documents I wanted to share with them, then what's the point of using Scribd in the first place???
I also feel like Scribd used me. With their implicit promise of open access, they got me to share a lot of high-interest documents and generate lots of link love, then they flipped the default (from free to paywall) as part of a cash grab. I could check out of Scribd, but then I would break a lot of links and it would take a lot of time. So now I feel trapped. It's a terrible feeling.
[Note: I always knew that Scribd could shut down and break the links, but I was willing to take the gamble that Scribd would succeed or someone would want to buy them up if they didn't. I didn't expect they would pull a bush league move like this.]
[Also: it would be nice if Scribd provided a bulk exporter tool that would allow me to easily port all the posts to another provider. That would give me another way to get the documents out from behind their paywall, although it wouldn't really help moving the archive to another provider because I'd still have to fix the existing links to those files.]
The most frustrating aspect is that I can't imagine Scribd's paywall will be a path to riches for them. People hate paywalls, and in many cases the materials can be found freely elsewhere on the web through a search. Plus, when Scribd's power users opt out of the paywall (as I would expect them to do once they realize Scribd screwed them), many of the most popular documents will end up outside the program anyway. As a result, this seems like an ill-conceived and possibly desperate move--they are trying to grab a few shekels now at the expense of destroying the trust of their power users.
If you are a Scribd user, I recommend two things:
1) Immediately change your settings to opt out of their paywall program. This FAQ tells you how.
2) I'm taking my business elsewhere, and you might consider joining me. I don't have a new destination yet, but I'll post it here when I decide. Meanwhile, I welcome your recommendations of a more trustworthy file hosting service than Scribd. Others have referred me to Rapidshare and Docstoc. [Update: also Slideshare and Docs.com.] What do you think of those services as alternatives to Scribd? Are there better ones? If we decide there isn't a better choice than Scribd, then I will go back to using my cumbersome university hosting option.
As a courtesy, I sent a prepublication draft of the above post to Scribd's press team and asked for a response. They were kind enough to reply to me pretty quickly with the following:
Thanks again for your note and the opportunity to respond. You’re right that our communication around the Archive should have been more clear. We've been working on ways to better message the changes and tweak Archives to be more user-friendly, and hopefully, you'll notice these changes soon.
Our goal has always been to develop easy-to-use products that provide open access to information and that our community finds useful and fun; it's why we don't restrict reading access online or on mobile devices, for example, and why we've given content uploaders the option to remove all their material from the Archive permanently.
As a start-up, we're constantly trying to strike the right balance: building products that people love but that also help us make money (to cover server cost and everything else associated with running a company). We're learning, and there's a lot we can do better.
That's why we'd like to invite you to participate in our newly created User Advisory Board, which we're putting together to ensure that user feedback is incorporated in our product development. I'd also like to extend an open invitation for you to come in and meet the team.
This isn't much of a response, although I'll be interested to see what changes they roll out. The only thing that makes sense is for them to kibosh the Archive program altogether. Even if they do, I still don't think I can trust a company that thought the paywall was a good idea, and their concerns about server costs make me wonder if they are financially wobbly. As a result, I'm still on my quest for more trustworthy alternatives, and I welcome your input.
UPDATE: In response to my post, some folks invoked the misguided meme: "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." Mike Masnick tackles--and busts--the meme.
UPDATE 2 (Sept. 28): Scribd ultimately apologized for its launching of Scribd Archive, but not after some second thoughts. Techcrunch covered their vacillation. Scribd further made Readcasts opt-in instead of opt-out, but no apologies for that poor choice. I'm still researching alternatives to Scribd.
September 19, 2010
Note to Law Students: A Way to Jumpstart Your Job Search
The New York Times has a nice feature on Joshua Fisher, a Minnesota Law 3L who runs "dodgerdivorce.com," which tracks every detail in the messy divorce between the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Through his blog coverage, Fisher has become a go-to commentator on the divorce and its implications for the team.
With respect to his job search, the article quotes Fisher as saying "Employers like people with a story, and I have a better story now than I did a year ago and I see the difference." *This* is one way you can jumpstart your job search. We can't all get lucky enough to spot a big issue as it's exploding. However, every law student has the capacity to develop specialized expertise on a commercially valuable topic, demonstrate that expertise to future employers through written work product, and become an authoritative and respected source on that topic. As Fisher indicates, doing so creates a completely different dynamic with employers than simply presenting oneself as a smart candidate with a lot of promise.
September 07, 2010
Another Unhappy Phone to Phone Inc. Ex-Employee Speaks Out
I got the following email (reposted with permission, of course):
I responded to an ad from this company for employment on [day 1], 2010. Their ad requested paralegals for a legal writing position for a large legal online network (I have the ad). I was contacted on [day 3], 2010 and offered a position from the legal writing team from an email address that started with medicalnetwork.com. I was skeptical about the position from the beginning, especially when I asked for a firm name and number, but was provided only with an address. I was eventually provided with a number and I agreed to come down for an interview and when the human resources manager, answered the phone she stated, hello how can I help you, with no company name...
When I interviewed on [day 4], 2010 I was told I would need to write 3-5 articles about legal topics and was given the topic business attorneys to write about. She told me that their "editor" would review my article and get back to me. On [day 11], 2010 she offered me a position, starting on [day 18], 2010.
When I arrived that morning, myself and another Paralegal were advised that we would need to write 12 (not 3-5) legal articles per day. The first day we were given an allowance but after that we were expected to write 12. Obviously being new to these types of constraints as real Paralegals (not like the drones they have pumping out false legal information every day) the other Paralegal quit within a few days, and I was ready to walk out the door as well. I decided to stick it out, figuring that they would fire me soon anyway, because as a Paralegal and with the uprising that seemed to be going on between any employee that had over 3 months employment (that's when they agreed to provide benefits...but if you have a legal background you're aware that it's not in the contract) I knew they wouldn't be dumb enough to leave anyone who knew about the law around too long.
On [day 26], 2010 I was advised by the "head editor" or the loser who assigned the articles I would be writing "medical articles" with the rest of the office. They required me to write about irrelevant topics like celebrity butt injections, and specific products which I refused to do, as I felt that if the company was sued for libel and slander for either a positive or negative review of someone's product, they would use my name. That same day, I went to the owner and advised that I wouldn't be able to meet a 12 article quota writing such nonsense and that was not the reason I was hired for. The owner agreed and told me that they just needed help with the medical articles and that I would be returned to legal writing in a few days.
That was the only true statement made to me by this company, as I was returned to legal articles on Friday, [day 29], 2010. That day I wrote 12 articles, thought everything was back on track, and even went home and wrote five articles to prepare for Monday, [day 32], 2010.
When I got to work Monday morning, I met with the office manager who was already at her desk, I said good morning, and was met with no response. I figured that the negative attitude came from my refusal to sign a sheet the company had put out Friday where they requested that every employee punch in and out for lunch and bathroom breaks, which I know that the bathroom break part is completely illegal. The office manager also could have been pissed that I asked for a copy of my contract in addition to a pay stub which I also know is my right to receive. I filled out a time sheet, punched in and went to my desk. The computer I sat at (there are no assigned desks) was downloading some spyware and I wanted to ask the office manager if I should just let those run or close them out, but she was gone. When I went back to the desk and prepared to work, I saw an email from the office manager advising me that the company had decided to part ways with me because my writing was not up to the company’s standards and the company was not satisfied with my writing. (Despite having never told me what to write or how to write, but only telling me to make sure to use the keywords they provide you).
What is the modern etiquette about firing someone by email?
I have also gotten a copy of a Phone to Phone Inc. employment agreement. Some terms that caught my eye:
* vacation of 1 week per year, starting after 6 months [which, based on the emails I'm getting, sounds like an anniversary rarely reached by most hires]
* termination at will with zero notice by the company
* An employee is required to give 14 days notice of termination or "the employee will not be compensated for time worked prior to departure." [Is that legal?]
* "If employee leaves less than one week after initial start date compensation will not be given for time worked." [is that legal?]
* "The first 3 days of employment are on a trial basis, if terminated with in those 3 days, employee will not be compensated." [is that legal?]
* The employment agreement contains a non-compete/non-solicit clause: "For a period of five (5) years after the end of employment, the Employee shall not control, consult to or be employed by any business similar to that conducted by the company, either by soliciting any of its accounts or by operating within Employer's general trading area." [I'm not an expert in NJ non-compete law, but that seems like a very aggressive clause for a hourly wage-earner. As a practical matter, I can't believe a court would enforce a 5 year non-compete for a writer who worked there only a few weeks or months]
* Separately, the company asks employees to sign a standalone "Employee Non-Compete Agreement." This says the employee "agrees not to directly or indirectly compete with the business of the Company...for a period of five (5) years following termination of employment and notwithstanding the cause or reason of termination." This agreement defines "not compete" as "not own, manage, operate, consult or be employed in a business substantially similar to, or competitive with, the present business of the Company or such other business activity in which the Company may substantially engage during the term of employment." [It's odd to have two different non-compete provisions with different wording. Unlike the Employment Agreement provision, the standalone agreement does not have any restriction on geography, however amorphous that is in the Internet context.]
I can't imagine Person to Person Inc. would actually sue to enforce the non-compete provisions against its writers. I certainly would not want to be the lawyer bringing such a dicey case.
My previous coverage of Phone to Phone Inc. and related entities:
* A Report About a "Sketchy" Interview With Phone to Phone Inc. (May 19, 2010)
* Public Librarian Complains About Phone to Phone Inc. (Jan. 17, 2010)
* Phone to Phone Inc. is Spamming Again--This Time for Lawschool.org (Jan. 14, 2010)
* Another Phone to Phone Inc. Employee Speaks Out (Dec. 15, 2009)
* Questionable Employment and SEO Practices at Phone to Phone Inc.? (Dec. 10, 2009)
* Attorney.org is Latest Phone to Phone Inc. Website to Spam Me (Oct. 28, 2009)
* More Spam from Phone to Phone Inc.--This Time on Behalf of Laws.com (Oct. 23, 2009)
* Newlawyer.com Spams Me Again (Twice in One Day!) (Oct. 19, 2009)
* Newlawyer.com: Persistent Telemarketer, and Now a Spammer (Oct. 2, 2009)
I also wrote a review of Newlawyer.com at SiteJabber.