Monday, 18 October 2010

Is Video Killing Community?

A few weeks ago, before I canceled my Twitter account, I saw an informal conversation taking place between a few of the UK Microsoft community 'leaders' on the subject of an overall decline in attendance and interest in community events over the last year.

I've noticed the decline in some of the user groups I attend and apparently more country-wide events like Developer Developer Developer are also seeing a decline in interest. This manifests itself either through less bums on seats (like the recent Windows Phone 7 event), or through a longer period before the free event 'sells out' (like the upcoming Special .NET event aka DDD8a).

I have my own theories about why the interest hasn't been as great over the last 12 months as it has in the preceding 12 months, but it was interesting to see speculation that video might be one answer to this loss of interest. Could it be that video is encouraging people to stay away and just 'watch the video' instead?

I must admit, the same concern that video might encourage people to 'miss' meetings had crossed my mind when I first started doing video for London-based user groups a few years ago. It's one of the reasons why some user groups specifically told me 'Thanks for the offer but we don't want video'. These user groups feel that video in some ways detracts from the main objective of the meetings which is networking, albeit packaged around a couple of more formal talks. This makes sense to me, and the 'rule' is usually bent when a high profile event, such as Microsoft VP Scott Guthrie flying into town, takes place and it's assumed ahead of time the demand for places can't be met.

As a video consumer I have to confess that video has meant that I'm unlikely to be attending big events like MIX or PDC again. It costs far too much money to sit in a room hearing mainly marketing material presented badly, when a free video means you can at least stop things a few minutes in and move onto something else if the content isn't what was initially advertised.

So far as 'free' community events are concerned though, my personal view is that the impact of video on actual attendance numbers is minimal (but then I would say that!), and when many user groups only have access to premises that limit live attendance to 30-50 people, but even the poorest performing video can garner over 100 views (with the most popular grabbing over 7000 views) then doing video of a talk seemed in the early days like a win-win for both the user group and its members and the speaker wanting to reach as wide an audience as possible.

At the last meeting of the user group I attend as a priority, The Silverlight UK User Group, attendance was lower than normal and for the first time in a long time we had some empty chairs. This is possibly because of a clash with another user group that same evening, possibly because of a clash with a high-profile football match that same evening, or possibly because it's becoming increasingly obvious that what Ray Ozzie described this time last year as 'Microsoft's premier UI' is clearly anything but that. Or it could, conceivably, be the fact that people knew ahead of time I'd be videoing the talks presented at the meeting.

Whatever the reason, the Silverlight User Group organisers asked me to hold the video publication back for a couple of weeks (which then turned into four weeks because I've been lazy!) instead of rushing to get it online as quickly as possible, the way I usually do.

In many ways this debate about video being a possible cause of declining attendance gives me a good excuse to retire from doing community video. Those who followed me on Twitter for the last 3 years (before I deleted my account a week ago) know how disillusioned I've become with not just Microsoft over the last 12 months, but also the current 'community' eco-system that seems to be far too reliant on 'partnership' with Microsoft. I think it's time for me to move on and use my spare time to support things I actually believe in.

The truth is that while it's been a privelege producing video when the subject matter and speaker have been as high as it often has, there have been rather more occasions than I'd like where the talks have not been good and when I've been faced with hours editing, rendering, compressing, uploading and transcoding video that I know nobody will watch past the first couple of minutes. On such occasions, it's hard not to resent the fact that you're stuck at a PC when the sun's shining outside and you know you're wasting hours on something nobody will have any real interest in.

I think it will be interesting to see what happens over the next 12 months in the Microsoft 'community' space. I am totally unconvinced that it's video that's killing user group attendance, but in the meantime I'm happy to finish my community video efforts with a really excellent couple of videos. These last two videos feature Guy Ferrier-Smith giving an excellent 90 minute talk (split over two videos) on the subject of Silverlight Internationalization. This is well-researched material that the blogs and the official Microsoft documentation have largely ignored and there's a LOT of hard work and experience gone into Guy's talk. It's exactly the sort of talk that got me excited about doing video for community a few years back. An opportunity to get the really good stuff out to a wider audience that otherwise wouldn't have access to it.

The latest videos, along with the other most recent user group talks, can be seen on my hosting page on Exposure Room. Enjoy!

Monday, 4 October 2010

Silverlight 4 Books - Whatever happened to Proof-Reading?

I read a lot of books, and at one point, unhappy with the lack of good technical book reviews available, I was going to review each new Silverlight 4 book as it became available on this blog. However I was getting so much flack about my 'negativity' on Twitter I abandoned the idea when I found each new book I intended to review was just not worth the money I'd paid for it.

About this time last year, one book author asked me via a private message on Twitter for an 'honest' opinion on his book, which at the time had received two or three five star reviews on Amazon USA.

So I gave my honest opinion! I pointed out that the book was out-of-date with even the public beta version of the software it was claiming to exhaustively cover. I also pointed out that the back cover jacket sales blurb mentioned stuff that wasn't even included in the book, and that the book's biggest chapter was irrelevant because it was all about the WPF version of something, NOT the Silverlight version, when this was supposed to be a Silverlight-specific book (and so was clearly written for the convenience of the author, not the audience being asked to pay good money for this irrelevant nonsense). I concluded by pointing out that two adjacent chapters had whole paragraphs of identical text, indicating both bad cut-and-paste writing and that no proof-reading at all had been done on the book.

To say the author wasn't happy with the 'honest' feedback he'd asked for is putting it mildly. I got the usual 'hero justification' about how many hours the author put into supporting the book, answering all his readers emails to correct things and help them, producing supporting screencasts and even downloadable extra chapters, speaking to community etc as if that were justification for selling a book that didn't meet its basic remit and which people were expected to pay a hefty fee for.

Apparently I was just a 'hater' for answering his direct question honestly instead of behaving like a shill and saying 'Your book's faaaabuloous, dahling'. The sad thing is that I actually think the author has talent, and could have produced a stunning book, if only his publishing company had bothered to get someone to do a bit of technical editing and proof-reading instead of trying to gouge the market by rushing a title to print before it was ready.

Accused of being alone in my opinions, I directed the author to the average Amazon UK review of just two stars (which contrasted wildly with that five star average on Amazon USA - hmmm! I wonder why!) I was accused of having written the three Amazon UK reviews which resulted in this average rating, along with the accompanying justifications from named readers, myself! Yeah, right (rolls eyes)!

When the author had had a few days to simmer down and deliberate on my feedback he came back to me and asked if I'd like to make the next book, intended to cover Silverlight 4, better by co-authoring it. I began to feel better about having given 'brutal, but honest' feedback. But I had to explain that I just didn't have the time. I know that technical book writing is a LOT of hard work. It pays peanuts and is really only recommended for those who want to boost their profile as a trainer or conference speaker, or help towards getting an MVP - I have no interest in either of these things! However I said that as a favour I'd be more than happy to help with technically reviewing the book, and doing some much-needed proof-reading on it.

Unfortunately the author didn't take me up on the offer.

The latest version of his book is now out, and as a simple exercise I decided to select a page at random (page 51) and critique it the way I would if I WERE a proof-reader. I think the results below speak volumes with regard to the current state of proof-reading in the technical book industry:

A page from a published book that I've just proof-read

It's probably unfair to pick on this particular book, because I've seen much, much worse (and initial impressions are that the book is a HUGE improvement on the Silverlight 2 and Silverlight 3 versions, with the author actually having a very natural writing style)! If I'd tried the same exercise on a page from the Silverlight 4 User Cookbook (from Packt Publishing) for example, the snapshot of a page chosen would have made the original text unreadable for a sea of red corrections all over it, even if I ignored the fact the contents really didn't live up to the title at all and just concentrated on the appalling English.

The point I want to make is this: I really cannot understand why publishers spend so much time and expense in printing and marketing such titles without getting a native English speaker to at least proof-read the wretched thing before going to press, even if they can't technically evaluate it. Heck, I'll even do it for free if it stops some of the over-priced, incorrect dreck I've seen getting out into bookstores where it can do a lot of harm and just rips off punters who rightly expect far better value for money than they're getting.

I said about a year ago, I was going to stop making negative posts on this blog (which is why you've seen no comment on this blog about the whole Silverlight 4 vs HTML 5 fiasco that Microsoft have stirred up), but there comes a point where you just have to ask why we as an industry put up with this crap.

Last night I started reading seven 'alpha' chapters from an Apress book dedicated exclusively to MVVM and which I had to pay £26 for to get in electronic form - and it's crap, clearly written by someone who doesn't care about his subject, doesn't have the depth of technical knowledge required, and hasn't got the writing skills necessary to produce something that educates his readers.

What I will say, to try and end on a positive note, is that I've recently read two Silverlight 4 books that, whilst still containing the sort of proof-reading errors I dislike intensely, are well worth the asking price for the technical information they contain and the obvious passion the authors have had about writing a good book that genuinely educates and even entertains. Those books are Silverlight 4 in Action by Pete Brown from Manning Publications, and Pro Business Applications with Silverlight 4 by Chris Anderson from Apress.

So far as I'm concerned, anything else with the word Silverlight in the title is pretty much an 'Avoid' and 'Don't waste your money on this' right now. No wonder illegal free pdf downloads are the first thing you see when you do a search on a Silverlight book title these days! :-(