Forums of Pain

Today, after searching for a technical problem I was having, I wound up in a familiar place: a software vendor’s support forum. I ended up staring at an answer from someone proudly touting their contribution level while confidently pasting irrelevant instructions from some knowledgebase article, while echoes of Jason Snell’s frustration on “Upgrade” played in my head. I could not find a solution for my problem, but it reminded me of the recent troubles in Google Drive.

Bill Toulas, writing at Bleeping Computer on November 27:

Google Drive users are reporting that recent files stored in the cloud have suddenly disappeared, with the cloud service reverting to a storage snapshot as it was around April–May 2023.

That is bad — and it gets worse:

A trending issue reported on Google’s support forums starting last week describes a situation where people say they lost recent data and folder structure changes.


A notable aspect of the situation is that Google’s support forums are backed by volunteers with limited insight or understanding of the cloud service, so the lack of effective assistance in critical problems like this makes it all the worse.

The forum thread was opened on November 22; it took until November 27 for Google to acknowledge the problem. In the meantime, users — including those who pay money for this product — could only ask each other for support on a public discussion board where none of them have any power or internal knowledge. It is, as Snell said about these forums generally, an “abdication of responsibility”.

On November 29, Google said it had “identified the issue impacting a small subset” of users, and would be posting an update “in the next few days”. A full week later, Google has published recovery steps. Unfortunately, some users are still reporting problems even after following these instructions.

There are people out there who will blame users who keep important files in Google Drive or treat it as a backup service. I get that argument, but I disagree — Google is a giant internet company that is not usually so careless with user data, and it is perfectly reasonable to assume this folder in the sky is capable of keeping one’s precious data safe. Do not blame the users.

Blame Google, though, because this whole thing has been a catastrophe. The company failed to safeguard user data and then, when users became understandably worried, failed to communicate or in any way give the impression it was taking these problems seriously. Now, it says it has fixed the problem without any explanation for what went wrong, and some users are still reporting missing files. If I were affected by something like this, I would for sure appreciate a delayed but complete solution over a rushed but incomplete one — but Google has somehow failed to deliver either.

I think Google’s dependence on support forums is a huge part of this problem. The company has notoriously poor service. Only people who pay for a support plan are able to get help from a real person, and not by phone or even live chat. For most people, Google’s primary suggestion is to post on its forum.1 Google even frames it as an instruction to “contact us via our forum” — but you are not really contacting Google, are you? You are contacting some person named Alex who lives in Springfield and has no idea what is going on, either, but says you should try restarting your computer.

Sorry, but that will not do — not for precious files, and especially not for one of the richest corporations anywhere. Google is supposed to be good at internet services — and, historically, it has been — but it is not good at customer service. Google’s abdication in this case should be a reminder that even near-perfect reliability is irrelevant the moment there is a problem as serious as this, and when that happens, a real person being helpful will matter more than anything else. We need to have higher standards. Think about it this way: if the first couple of people to see this problem could have talked to a real person at Google, that person could have escalated this and flagged it as the big problem it is. Instead, a forum thread lingered for a week until someone at Google bothered to check on it.

  1. If you click on that link, the first item actually says “contact us” and requires you to sign in, but after logging in, it just advises you to use the forum or complete a feedback form. ↥︎