Scribd: A Cautionary Tale

In 2010, as I was discovering the joys of fiction writing, I also discovered a wonderful online community named Scribd where I could post my stories, and in workshop fashion, get critiques and responses.  The writers whom I met were people whom I respected and admired then, and today:  poets Dan Essman, Robin Rule, Cheryl Snell, and Barbara Alfaro (whose terrific memoir, Mirror Talk, is a book I love), and others such as Ingrid Ricks and Suzanne RosenwasserSunny Lockwood and Rolando Garcia to name a few.  All of are self-published authors, although some came from the traditional publishing world-- and are well worth knowing.

Scribd was my "go-to" site.  I checked in a few times a day to see what new pieces my fellow writers had posted for me.  I was eager to hear what their comments were on mine.  Some relationships morphed into offline friendships -- telephone calls and meetings.

So what went wrong with Scribd?  It had traffic, it had community, it had a loyal user base-- and then it was a dead zone.

It's a test case in how to get it wrong.

First was the publishing game. I posted to Scribd to get feedback, but that wasn't my end gane-- I expected to submit to literary magazines.  Unfortunately, once I posted on Scribd, it was technically a publication -- and only the magazines that accepted "reprints" would touch it.  That was bad news, and bad news travels.  Scribd should have found a way to position itself with magazines as a workshop, and not a no-no.  But it never played ball, and people like me learned our lesson.

Second, community basics.  There were tensions at Scribd about what the value proposition was.  Scribd had cool technology for getting PDFs, etc., into HTML, but its primary value to users was the community.  And Scribd didn't get it.  It abandoned its commitment to supporting the community.  And guess what, users noticed-- and after a while, there wasn't any community to support.

Finally, customer support basics (and I do mean basic.)  Putting in a request to Scribd was a quasi-existential exercise.  Your post went missing-- too bad.  Your followers vanished -- too bad.  Emails went unanswered, and guess what, users fled.

A sad coda to this story.  I had created collections of "theme-based" Scribd pieces:  Spooky Stories, Funny Stories, Mothers and Daughters, Fathers and Daughters, and so on.  I'd put effort into these, because I valued my fellow writers.  I tweeted these collection so that others could read some of the great stories and essays that I'd discovered on the site. Scribd recently "deleted" my account when I unlinked it from Facebook, and now those collections are lost.  

Things change, and not always for the better.  A cautionary tale for any website.

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