Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 134 / OCTOBER 1991 / PAGE 108

Censoring the fun out of Prodigy? (Prodigy's online bulletin boards and editorial policy) (Special Anniversary Issue)
by Orson Scott Card

A few columns back I talked about the online service Prodigy. All the good things I said are still true; It still has the simplest interface I've seen for allowing complete novices to access everything the service offers. But in one area, at least, Prodigy has succumbed to the principle that guides far too many software companies: "Do it my way, you poor ignorant user."

Oddly, the area where Prodigy is blowing it in a big way is with one of its best ideas: editing the bulletin boards.

The bulletin boards are major sources for online entertainment. A witty few engage in scintillating conversation while others listen and think and occasionally interject comments of their own. It's the electronic equivalent of the general store.

People often post "public conversation" that should have been private, so when you sign on, you have to wade through mountains to meaningless personal trivia. Prodigy had the right idea when it installed editors for the bulletin boards to weed out messages that ought to have been sent privately. When you browse through the board, you're given a menu of all of the possible subjects and can take a look at any that seem interesting. You waste far less time trudging through things that don't interest you before getting to the things that do.

Alas, there are problems.

First, when Prodigy returns a message to you, its explanation is cold and impersonal and tells you almost nothing about why your message was deemed unworthy. It can be frustrating when a message you spent time composing is rejected without an apology.

Second, it has run into a standard problem with all editors everywhere - Correction Anxiety Syndrome: The editor is reading along and hasn't corrected anything in a long time and gets more and more nervous (what mistakes am I missing?) until finally he starts correcting things that aren't wrong at all. When I talked to a Prodigy troubleshooter (a person without authority whose job is to listen patiently until the complainer feels better), I was told proudly, "After all, more than 26,000 messages have been posted." "Out of how many?" I asked. "More than 28,000," he said.

Since Prodigy is rejecting almost 8 percent of the members' postings, practically everyone is going to have a message rejected for every dozen postings.

Third, its rules are too rigid. For instance, some users were playing games they had invented in the Writing topic of the Arts Club. Under subject headings like "12-Word Love Stories" and "3-Word Stories," they were inventing clever and resourceful phrases and sentences that implied whole novels of characters, relationships, and events; many were screamingly funny.

Suddenly Prodigy wiped out the game, rejecting all new postings to those subjects. Why? Because the Writing topic was "not meant to be used for posting original literature."

How absurd! These people weren't posting the stories and poems they meant to mail off to magazines. They were playing games together, and the games were killed because the editors didn't understand them.

Here you have an entertainment network that sells advertising time for public conversations, many of which are wonderfully clever and entertaining and informative.

Then, as if it entirely missed the point of its own enterprise, Prodigy hires people to step into the room and, with almost no understanding of what the conversation is about, say, "You've gotten off the subject. You'll have to talk about something else." Or, "We never thought of anybody's using this topic this way, so stop it."

Prodigy, you've got a great thing going. All you have to do to make it perfect is to tell your editors to lighten up.

Let your users create entertainment for themselves. Keep on rejecting the truly private conversations, but let the rest of the messages through.

If you don't, I'm afraid you'll find the best and most creative of the conversationalists going to some other service, and you'll soon find Prodigy - both the good and the bad - dead and buried.

I hope other services are looking at what Prodigy is doing right, because if they learn the right lessons and avoid the "Do it my way" principle, we will eagerly embrace those services the way we've tried to embrace Prodigy.