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This Entry Is Full of Silent Failure

by Joe Loong on March 19, 2009

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For most of this morning, my inbox was free of new messages, so I was trucking along fat, dumb, and happy, thinking things were going pretty well as I went about my business.

It took me until late morning to realize that, of course, I wasn’t in the middle of an unusually long lull, but rather my e-mail client had decided to stop working. Worse, it had petulantly decided not to let me know with any error messages. So it was a silent failure.

(Any actual programmers out there, feel free to smack me if I’m playing too loose with the terminology, but apparently there’s a distinction between silent failure and fail-silent. Failure lingo is pretty interesting, even if it’s been clichéd to death by kids today and their wacky FAIL memes — you’ve got fail-safe, which became a nuclear war movietwicethree times, really. Although I think the movies actually demonstrated fail-deadly behavior.)

So what’s this have to do with social media?

Um, that’s a very, very good question. I’ll torture this metaphor to bring it around to what’s now an old social media chestnut: The conversation is happening, whether you’re a part of it or not. It’s part of the nature of communication — silent failures on the receiving end have to be among the worst, most insidious kinds of communication failures, because someone’s trying to talk to you and you don’t realize anything’s wrong. You end up missing out on the conversation, and the other side gets pissed off because they think you’re blowing them off. It leads to heartbreak all around.

(In another example from fiction, in Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, a stray piece of tractor-feed printer paper silences the dinger on a “hotline” printer, causing the heroes to miss out on crucial information. That one was a literal silent failure.)

So how do you avoid silent failures in social media? Well, you could continually send out a stream of “Is this thing on?” pings, which would have the added effect of annoying everyone else into blocking you, which I guess is one way of solving your problem.

A better solution would be to be aware of the communications channels people are trying to use to reach you, monitoring all of them, and maintaining a steady stream of genuine communication. By keeping up the flow, you’re sending messages that you expect a level of response from, and if you don’t get that expected level of response, you know there’s something you should look into. (It’s like when you talking to someone face-to-face — even if you’re doing all the talking, you expect some level of feedback — grunts, nods, gestures — that indicate they’re still listening to you.)

Whether it’s willful, ignorant, willfully ignorant, or accidental, your failure to receive communications is still failure. So here’s to failing at failure.

Are you receiving? Feel free to leave a comment and close the conversational loop.

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    • http://www.chrisgrayson.com art_director

      Nice.

      Shashi Bellamkonda sent me here from a link in his Facebook status.

    • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

      The silent failure is a serious one. Looking out for them can have really pleasant side effects though. When you reach out just to test the connection and make sure nothing is wrong, people realize that you care about them. A silent success if you will.

    • jp

      I think the cost of doing “is this thing on” would be larger for a failed communication campaign, but sometimes it really is necessary..

      overall.. let me give out this formula:

      cost of communication failure
      plus
      the cost of cheap communication (which failed)
      equals
      cost of successful communication.

      DO NOT SAVE UP ON MARKETING!!!

    • jp

      I think the cost of doing “is this thing on” would be larger for a failed communication campaign, but sometimes it really is necessary..

      overall.. let me give out this formula:

      cost of communication failure
      plus
      the cost of cheap communication (which failed)
      equals
      cost of successful communication.

      DO NOT SAVE UP ON MARKETING!!!