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Something Broken: Tell the Webmaster

Date:  10th June, 2004

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I added some significant revisions to the comments handler, I tested, they went live.

But, it was the end of a long day and I hadn't tested as thoroughly as I should have. I didn't realise that the comments handler wasn't working...

What Went Wrong?

The comments handler has two modes of operation. The first (guest mode), used by the majority of my visitors, is for those users who haven't created a user account, or who haven't logged on. The second (subscriber mode) is activated when a registered user is logged on. Subscriber mode dispenses with the Captcha and identity fields and offers the user the option of posting a public or a private comment.

All of my (limited) testing was performed in subscriber mode. Guess which mode the bug manifested itself in? Naturally it was the guest mode.

Therefore, the majority of my visitors were denied the means to post comments for about 40 hours!

I Can't Fix It Unless I Know It's Broken!

I know it's my responsibility to make sure that everything is working properly. I know I've only myself to blame for the fault. But several hundred people hit the comments handler during the 40 hours of down-time. Guess how many of them contacted me to let me know that the system wasn't working? Just one, 40 hours after the system went live.

If my content was focussed on knitting, cats or butterfly collecting, then I could understand the silence. But it's not - my audience consists mainly of webmasters and programmers. I know you are clued-up, technically savvy, intelligent people and rightly or wrongly, I would've anticipated being alerted to the problem much sooner.

So how come nobody dropped me a quick email to point out my error? I can think of three reasons:

  1. couldn't find a way to get in touch
  2. SEP
  3. apathy

1. There's a "Contact" link at the bottom of every single page of this website (excluding the home page).

2. SEP, or "Somebody Else's Problem" is an acronym first defined by the late Douglas Adams in "Life, the Universe and Everything" as " something ... our brain does not let us see, because we think it's somebody else's problem."

3. We're all so used to the instability of the web (broken images, database errors, 404s, server errors, etc) that we just move on when we come across a fault. After all, there are billions of other pages to see so we're not going to waste time with the broken ones.

Report the Error

If you come across something that's broken on a website, I urge you to contact the webmaster and let him or her know. Where there is no obvious email address or other contact information, an email to "webmaster" at the domain in question will usually get to the right person. Trust me, he/she will appreciate your efforts and it only takes a few seconds to write an email.

I take my hat off to Mike Papageorge. Thank you Mike for bringing the bug to my attention. (It's ironic that Mike recently wrote two articles about "contingency design", both of which I read - pity I didn't pay more attention to his advice!)

Valuable Lessons I Have Learned

  • Don't test development code on a production server (without sandboxing)
  • Don't release code when you're half asleep
  • Always test with the lowest common denominators