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Information control


The path the CA - now renamed as Which? - took after Sheila M’s untimely death was that of increased information control, inextricably linked to tighter governance and management by a largely unelected elite. Several things took place in quick succession, so it’s worth looking at those events.

• Paul Kitchen (Head of Online) left the CA in May 2004. the same year as Peter Vicary-Smith was appointed as new Director of the CA.
• Shortly after, Dave Roberts, Fergus Smyth and Kim Lavely were gone. These had been the forum instigators and those most dedicated to the oriunal aspirations of Michael Young.

• Vicary-Smith moved to rename the CA "Which?", and adopt the title of "Chief Executive". He also ensured that almost no mention of the Consumers' Association would be found on the web site.

Many have speculated on what happened when, who did what and how it has changed the nature of the CA. There are, in fact, two interlaced strands that run throughout the organisation from the mid-90s to the present, so it’s important to understand what effect these strands have had on the institution and how we might expect them to affect it in the future.


One reason why we have spent so much time on this site examining the historical aspects of Which? and its creation of an ISP, content-rich web site and the forum is simply to demonstrate that the CA was well ahead of the game in terms of both technology and communication. In many ways it was game-changing, dazzling in its daring and flamboyant in its prescience. Yet under PV-S it sought to throw it all away. For what?

To see the strands in context it’s necessary to re-visit the Which? timeline in the mid-90s. In 1994 Which? moved to its new testing and research laboratory in Milton Keynes, Sheila M was appointed as CA Director and - in 1996 - Which? started its own ISP and Online Forum. Any one of those moves was extremely challenging, but all three pushed the boundaries of achievability.


The forum, ISP and web-site were set up with the biggest budget the charity could afford, but it was already funding the testing and research lab operation, and few - even in the commercial telecoms sector - fully understood the financial implications of creating an ISP, or a content-rich web site, let alone the ramifications of a fully fledged forum. Add to this the bravery espoused by the pioneers of the project in encouraging members to take part in debates with the CA’s leaders and contribute their own ideas and help and the overall task verges on the incomprehsible.

The irony in all of this is that the forum actually worked superbly in its initial aims. So what happened? For much of what follows we are indebted to John Bennett, the unofficial Which? forum archivist.


• On 27th April 2005, the forum software was updated. The general look and feel was pleasant enough, but a sign-on or register panel had been added at the time of the normal login to the Which Online area. This panel simply reappeared no matter what input was supplied. It turned out that it could be ignored.

It was hard to escape the conclusion that within the management of the former Consumer's Association, at the level which was responsible for Which Online there was hostility to the forums, and that above that level what appeared to be complete indifference.

Nothing much seemed to change within Which Online in the months up to July 2006. There was little hard information about plans for the forums. Promises continued to be made; a revamp of Which Online in the summer of 2006 was mentioned. One constant, however, was that the reliability of the forums seemed to decline. There were several failures, often at weekends and significantly, it appeared, at the long weekends of bank holidays. The failures came in several flavours:

• The WebX software simply failed - "Web Crossing off".
• One of the "" servers seemed to stop; this resulted in unpredictable failures to access the forums (and often Which Online) at the point that a web browser was started, so a user might find that one browser worked while another did not - restarting the browser might or might not allow the user to access the server.
• A message "licence limit exceeded" would occasionally appear; this would mean that the forums were inaccessible until the following midnight. This failure was ascribed by the Which Online staff to the effect of a "spider", a program making many automatic accesses of the forum pages. It was hinted that this was possibly a hostile intervention. The daily limit on page accesses was set at 50,000; we are told, frequently, that Which Online has well over 100,000 subscribers.

At the same time, following the disastrous attempt to introduce “Newwol” members were told that only Customer service staff would now interact on the forums with the members, thus completing the demolition of the founders' aspirations.

These failures created considerable annoyance to forum users, and this annoyance was intensified by the lack of any proper scheme to provide information about the failures. Sometimes the Which Online spokesmen were unaware of the failures.


The interesting case of Steven Malone

In December 2006 Steven Malone posted in a forum (and it's worth quoting in full, as it was at the time encouraging):

My name is Steve Malone and I'm the Web Site Editor.
I joined Which? Online about a month ago and you have my apologies that I haven't gotten round to saying hello in these forums earlier but, its been kinda busy getting my head around the various bits of Which and how the web sites operate.
Here's my tuppence about the forums. The forums *will* continue as I believe forums and other methods of communication with the readers (that's you) are one of the great advantages of the web. In fact I hope to be able to expand the various forums of two way communication as we develop.
OK, that's the good news. Because the forum software is fairly antiquated we will need to upgrade it some way down the line. This may mean new software and it may mean ditching the historical postings. I hope not, but we might have to.
I hope to be dropping into the forums on a regular basis to see what you are saying and address any problems.
I shall also be setting up a separate thread to hear what you think we could do to improve things. See you over there.

This was welcomed with some enthusiasm, and the promised topic was created. It ran for some time with forum members giving feedback. However, an aside in an email to one member by Steven Malone was interesting: "I was warned not to go asking the forum members what they want" Steven only made one more post to the forums, until in February he stated that he would no longer be active in the forums.
As the months progressed this silence was noticed and commented on.
Around this time Robert Pickard replaced Brian Yates as chairman of the CA Council.
As the time since a post from Steve Malone continued to expand, astonishing information became available that he had been specifically forbidden from contributing to the forums. Since his job title was "Web Site Editor" this seemed, on the face of it, unlikely. Interactions continued on his topic, including a lot of dissatisfaction.
Eventually, after a series of posts regretting the cessation of Steven Malone's initiative, on August 16th 2007, this was posted:

Concerning Steve Malone, I would just like to inform everyone that Steve left the organisation earlier in the year, which is why he has not been visible in these forums.
Jack Customer Services

A later post, from Malcolm Coles said:

"... there is nothing sinister in Steve Malone's departure. He was brought in on a contract basis while we recruited someone permanent to that position."

In a post detailing the suspension of legal advice in the forums, Malcolm Coles gave his job title as "editor, online". What’s curious about this is that a Council Member had posted “Just a quick note - I have made an appointment with Steve M (the breath of fresh air next door) for the end of Jan” so as a Council member he was obviously unaware of the ‘temporary’ nature of Steve’s appointment, yet this particular council member’s prime interest was the forums and software engineering.

Alan Stevens, one of the joint pioneers of the Which? online forum, is now a world-renowned media consultant. In his regular blog ("The MediaCoach Report", at”) , some time ago he wrote this:

Back in 1994, I was asked to lead a team to create a content-rich Internet Service Provider for the Consumers' Association. The service - Which? Online - was launched in time, within budget on 4th November 1996.

One of the most important aspects of the service was a way for consumers to link up with each other, share consumer tips, and join together to form "buying groups" to buy in bulk (even cars) and negotiate better deals. Somewhat to our surprise, it worked. Looking back on it 13 years later, it's clear we had created a rudimentary social network.

What made it work? People taking action. That's the only thing that ever works, in my opinion.

Alas, far too many people just "get involved" in social networks. They build up huge lists of followers and contacts. They then start promoting their products and services like mad. Then something amazing happens: nothing. That's because they were social notworking. Trying to sell to people who don't know you, taking before you give, or sitting back thinking abundant thoughts won't work. That's social notworking.

No-one will pay for your expertise unless you demonstrate it. You have to build a reputation before you can sell anything. You have to give more than you expect to receive. You have to offer your own help, thoughts and advice. That's social networking.

Shortly after, Jan 13, he penned this blog which has some uncanny echoes from which the former CA could learn:

To no-one's surprise, the last chain of specialist camera shops, Jessops, has clicked its final shutter and closed their darkroom door. 187 shops and 1,370 jobs are no more. As a camera enthusiast, I'm saddened. As an observer of business, I'm annoyed. Jessops failed to react to market trends and paid the ultimate price. The popular argument for their demise is twofold. Firstly, the presence of a camera in every smart phone meant that people no longer needed to buy cameras at all. Secondly, Jessops became a showroom for shoppers to view and try out cameras before buying them online. 

Let's consider the first point. Yes, most people have smart phones with cameras of excellent quality. People take pictures all the time. Yes, sales of digital cameras have fallen by 29% in the last five years (source: Mintel research) to a mere £598 million in 2012. So there's still a market of nearly £600 million for sellers of digital cameras, not to mention the lenses, tripods, memory cards and other accessories. Despite a potential market of nearly a thousand million pounds, Jessops has thrown in the towel.

OK, maybe it was the second reason, online sales. There's no doubt that consumers use retail shops as places to browse and select goods before buying them at lower prices from online retailers. Maybe that's the real reason for Jessop's closure.

Which brings me to ukuleles. To be more precise, it brings me to a small shop just off Brick Lane in East London called the Duke of Uke. To no-one's surprise, it sells ukuleles, ukulele music and ukulele accessories. That's about it. It's very easy to find and buy ukuleles cheaper online, yet the shop thrives. Why? It's because of how they treat the customer. I visited the shop with my teenage daughter just before Christmas because she wanted a ukulele as a present. When we arrived, a couple of young women were singing beautifully while a chap behind the counter accompanied them on a large and sonorous uke. We waited until the song was over, applauded, and then sought advice. The staff couldn't have been more helpful. They explained the different types of ukuleles, let us practice with them, and gave us advice on tutorial guides and sheet music. In short, they were brilliant, and gave us a level of service you couldn't get anywhere near on a website.

So back to Jessops. Faced with a shrinking, but still huge, market, and competition based on price, they did nothing. My experience with them was that staff were poorly trained, had little knowledge of what was in the shop ("if it's not on display we haven't got it"), and weren't very skilled at using the cameras they were selling. They did re-launch their customer training program (Jessops Training Academy) in July 2012, but reports from attendees were somewhat mixed. In short, Jessops unlike the Duke of Uke, failed to become the Sultans of SLRs. What a great pity.

Perhaps his innate ability to understand what made organisations successful in their interactions with their clients or members was what made him so successful in Which?. One can only hope that they might even learn from him.


Even now it would be possible for Which? to reintroduce the forum and the approach they'd adopted in the early days. Whether they will ever regain the goodwill that made it such a special place, however, is uncertain.




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