Social media versus Oil Can Henry’s

It’s the banal that determines whether social media will succeed in the mainstream, and today I had an experience that I think demonstrates how far away we are from achieving the the ubiquitously useful social media experience we deserve.

Specifically, I got my oil changed.

The epitome of banal, right?

Yeah, except, see, I don’t really know anything about cars (yeah, I’m man enough to admit it… what? What?!), — and so when the Oil Can Henry’s technician suggested that I use synthetic motor oil instead of the conventional stuff I’d been using, I had no idea what to tell him — though the significant price difference definitely put me off.

Famous 20-Point Full-Service Oil Change

Pressed for an answer, I did what anyone in this situation would do (yeah right): I posted to Twitter and CC’d Aardvark (a question-answer service that follows my tweets):

Twitter / Chris Messina: I've got ~26K miles on a 2 ...

Within seconds @vark sent me a direct message confirming that they’d received my query and were on the case:

Twitter / Direct Messages

Of course by now the attendant needed an answer — I was there for an oil change after all — and stalling until I got a definitive answer would have just been awkward.

“Sure,” I said, “what the hell.”

Then the responses started rolling in.

The first came from Derek S. on Aardvark 3 minutes later:

I’m far from a car expert, but my experience with my Honda Fit is that Hondas are generally engineered to run on the basics… regular unleaded gas, regular oil, etc. My guess is it’s probably not worth it.

Hmm, okay, that’s basically what I thought too, but it sounds like Derek knows as much about cars as I do.

Then came the first response on Twitter from Kasey Skala:

@chrismessina synthetic is for 75k+

Hmm, well, that’s pretty definitive. Guess I got punk’d.

But then more answers came in. A total of 17 tweets overall:

Erik Marden:

@chrismessina synthetic costs more, but lasts longer. I always go for it.

Rex Hammock:

@chrismessina For the record, Castrol is 100% owned by BP. Just saying. For the record.

Nick Cairns:

@chrismessina castrol is a bp co

Jon Bringhurst:

@chrismessina If you go synthetic, keep in mind that time between oil changes can jump up to like 10k+ miles, depending on how you drive.


@chrismessina Started doing 15Kmile synthetic on my 98 Honda. Need to read up more, but think fewer oil changes = less oil used.

Mark Boszko:

@chrismessina Synthetic oil is always a good idea, in my experience. I’ve taken cars to nearly 300K miles with its help.

Sam Herren:

@chrismessina Only if you wanna keep synthetic for the rest of the time you own the car.  Can’t go back and forth.


@chrismessina I’ve heard that’s about the time to do it. Advantage = less frequent oil changes but nary any cost savings in my experience.

Frank Stallone (2, 3):

@chrismessina I put only synthetic oils in my cars — check your manual you may find you were suppose to be putting that in from the start!

@chrismessina I just looked up your car – every engine that Honda built for it should use synthetic

@chrismessina I love Amsoil the most but I’ll use Castrol and Mobile 1 any day — very trust worthy brands

B J Clark:

@chrismessina yes, go with synthetic and then only change it once every 5k – 10k miles.

Todd Zaki Warfel (2):

@chrismessina primary benefit of synthetic is if you drive hard or want to go longer on oil changes (e.g. 6-10k).

@chrismessina it’s the only thing I ran in my Mini Cooper S Works Edition (street legal race car)

Osman Ali:

@chrismessina Mobil 1

Christopher Loggins:

@chrismessina Prob too late, but Castrol Syntec is good oil. Good viscocity, temperature range, and zinc. Would use vs conventional.

I’ve captured all the responses here to give you a sense for the variety of answers I received from respondents who were all presumably unaware of each other’s responses.

If you ask me, this is a pretty good range — and is an excellent demonstration of both social search and distributed cognition and illustrates why “social” can’t be solved by an algorithm (this is the stuff that Brynn‘s an expert on).

The reality is that that my social network (including my 22,000+ Twitter followers and extended network through Aardvark) failed me. I probably made a premature decision to switch to synthetic oil — or at best, a decision without sufficient knowledge of the consequences (i.e. that once you switch, you really shouldn’t switch back). It’s not like it’s the end of the world or anything, but this is the kind of experience that I’d expect social networks to be really good at. And it’s not like I didn’t get good answers — they just weren’t there when I needed them.

And it’s all the more funny because I actually tweeted my plans two hours before I left… why didn’t the network anticipate that I might need this kind of information and prepare it in advance? Better yet: why didn’t my car tell me its opinion (I’m half serious — it should be the authority, right?)? Surely the answer I sought was out there in the world some where — why didn’t my network tee this up for me? (And no doubt I’m not the first person to find himself in this situation!)

The network responded, but only after it was too late. So the next time I’m confronted by a question like this, what’s the likelihood that I’ll turn to my network? What if I didn’t work on this stuff for a living?

Out of curiosity, I submitted this question to Fluther, Quora, and tried to cross-post to Facebook (since Facebook is working on its own Q&A solution) but that failed for some reason.

So far, I’ve received three responses on Fluther, none on Quora, and two on Aardvark. I also posted the full text of my question to Google and Bing but amusingly enough, only my Fluther question came up as a result.

My takeaway? We’ve certainly made progress on the accessibility of social networks in aiding in question answering, but until our networks are able to provide better real-time or anticipatory responses, caveat emptor still applies.

Then again, YMMV.

12 thoughts on “Social media versus Oil Can Henry’s”

  1. What’s worse–the one person who would have had a definitive answer for you (me, your girlfriend) didn’t see your tweet in time to respond fast enough! I had been through this exact situation before (I had the knowledge you were seeking), but our technology didn’t connect us fast enough! (I was out of town during said oil change.)

    This is a great write-up though. There’s a lot that can still be improved in our social search experiences, and these stories help illustrate where the need lies.

  2. Hey Chris, so look…

    I agree with all of your observations about social search, the importance of the network, the fact that it let you down (and you have a massive network – although that will create more noise, a different issue) and that the car should tell you.


    For me a question like this isn’t a question for social search and your experience reflects that. Social search, for me at least, is there (/will be there) to answer indefinite questions like “what film should I watch tonight” or “where should I eat tonight in Seattle” – ones that are relative to my tastes and likes, which should be reflected by my peers. The answer would vary based on who my peers are

    What oil to put in your car is more of a definite answer. The true answer doesn’t really vary based on your peers. Ok in this specific example there is a little wiggle room for opinion, 20k-50k is thought to be the time to switch to synthetics, but if you were asking what weight of oil (yes oil has weight grades too) then there is only one answer for a Honda Civic – 5w-30.

    Everyone reading this could ask their social network and get a different response back but that is the only right answer. You see my point?

    And for these latter type of questions, the definitive ones, this is where algo-based searches will always win because the results are pooled and ranked from all documents on the internet. Wisdom of the crowds and all that.

    In this example a simple search for honda civic oil type returns top results that answer your question.

    Now ok, perhaps you really don’t know much about cars and didn’t even know there were different types of oil, just searching honda civic oil returns useful answers at the top of the SERP.

    BTW, I’m curious… knowing you, is it a Civic hybrid? :)

  3. @Brynn — indeed! Which is why I chose a shotgun method to ask my network, rather than a targeted one since I didn’t know that you had this knowledge in your head already! The weighting that I did was something like: I could ask Brynn but risk that you might not get back to me in time, or that you might not know, or try my network to see if there was any kind of consensus (or Civic fanatics) among them. Had I called or SMS’d you, there was a chance that I’d end up with less than one response (albeit it would have been the *most* important response of all!) which would have left me defenseless against the attendant.

    Sigh — a nice hybrid of “must asks” and “extended network” might have worked better.

    @Ben: Yeah, I get the distinction you’re making — where whether to use synthetic oil or conventional oil isn’t necessarily a subjective question — but as you can see from the responses I got — it absolutely *is* subjective! At the very least, if I had a question about any of the Twitter responders’ answers, I could have followed up and asked for their reasoning… with organic SERPs — it’s never a guarantee that someone will be waiting to clarify what they’ve stated.

    I’d also add that I conducted this entire search on my iPhone on the EDGE network. It wasn’t like I was going to pull up a half dozen tabs in my browser and then compare all the answers. That simply would’ve been far too frustrating, especially when I was able to tap my network.

    Furthermore, the first three results for “honda civic oil type” that I see relate to changing your oil, forced induction in Civics (?), and a seemingly useful page that instead says to check the “stickers underneath the hood or on the radiator” (!). Admittedly the first response has the most helpful information, but is unqualified for me since I don’t know the author. Does this guy know what he’s talking about? At least the first Aardvark respondent was honest about his knowledge.

    I’m not saying you’re necessarily wrong, but I think the right answer is that a blend of information resources would be have been more helpful here — where the Twitter responses could have been corroborated by, say, related organic web results.

    Fundamentally this was a question about trade-offs: should I pay more money for synthetics, which clearly the attendance has an interest in selling me, or should I save my money and call bullshit on this guy? I could have just as easily said no to him, only to regret that decision later because it turns out that synthetics do perform better and actually are cheaper over a longer time period.

    While reading over pages of SERPs might have lead me to be generally better informed, given the situation I found myself in, I wanted a qualified answer and trusted my network to provide me with a better experience than going directly to a search engine.

    I might do something different next time, but I’m guessing that many people will increasingly turn to their social networks for help on questions like this.

  4. @Ben Like Chris, I see the distinction you’re trying to make. But I actually think this IS a classic social search scenario. The biggest misconception I try to dispel in my work is that social search is just about subjective queries.

    First, I’ve done two major research studies of everyday search experiences (total of 300 users). The vast majority of search events in which people reached out to their networks were non-subjective search questions. Our networks have a ton of latent knowledge that we tap into every day — sometimes out of convenience or proximity. I don’t see anything wrong with that, especially because it’s often faster to ask someone directly than sort through Google queries when there’s no guarantee you’ll find an answer on Google in the first place.

    Second, as Chris pointed out, his query was actually quite subjective. His question was: do I purchase the synthetic or not? His decision has to be made based on a number of issues — not just the raw facts. And so, a knowledgeable network can help in the decision making process by knowing him (the questioner) as well as some of the pertinent facts.

    Plus, on-the-go questions are a classic place for social search queries. We come up with tons of problems in the real world that having quick access to our networks might help with.

    Furthermore, one of the interesting observations in this post is about predicting our needs. Why didn’t the Honda — which already tells us when it’s time to change our oil — tap Chris’ network and present a few facts to him, or share the group consensus or a few case studies of what our friends with Hondas have done in the past? This is by no means easy, but it’s an interesting possible use of the contacts we’ve gathered on information sharing networks like Twitter.

  5. We need so many more alert levels on tweets from twitter clients:

    * “/cc @mention” to trigger an alert on your phone (so that Brynn could have been alerted);

    * a link to ‘conversation’ when a post has been answered (oddly, “twitter for iPhone” (aka Tweetie 3) seems to keep the reference of the exact tweet that you answered and manages to build historic conversation (but lot later replies);

    * far more sophisticated stream management: I want to follow
    ** your Favorites, Brynn’s and Tim OReilly’s;
    ** all the tweets including a “/cc @vark” mentions, from an list longer than those I wish to follow;
    ** a set of the URLs mentioned more than once even if they have differents shorteners; etc.

    There is so much work for a fair Twitter client…

    Regarding your oil change, the answers strike me —as an economist— as off the mark: I would have said the oil change is more worth it if the car is more sensitive to it, or you have no budget constrains, or the quality is such it over-comes the price-difference, not just if synthetic is better. It’s a classic bias in behavioural economics to assume that any difference are equivalent, be it in price or quality, and consumers who want to be perceived as savvy fall or that hard. Premium services rake up their price accordingly — so indeed, it is a personal decision. I love Brynn’s idea to have your Honda ask it in advance to your network… that certainly would follow the strong trend of increasingly computerized car & a web of sensors, more importantly, it would add far more value to the car than what it would cost (provided most of the coding is done & tested by hackers & data-porners). Oddly enough, my brother-in-law is in charge of sometgins similar for a large car manufacturer; I’ll send him a link to here.

    Reading about “the sticker behind the hood”, I though: the hood is this massive surface, poster-sized almost flat; you don’t see it unless you are trying some repair — Why no-one has tried to placate basic information there (on a heat-proff surface)? That would probably need a surprising quantity of design and AI, and UX, especially for a non-digital format, but car manufacturer already spend millions on designers, don’t they?

    Regarding BP owning Castro: that’s too big a company for you to want to sanction them all; you’d rather encourage them to use alternatives to drilling, ie. non-fossil sources of raw material. I have no idea what synthetic oil is made of: Wikipedia contradicts itself.

    And not to be off the mark completely (I assumed the post was more about social search than oil changes):
    I tried to make sense of Facebook Q&A beta test, and it strikes me as an expert signalling ground, not unlike Google’s Knol. They mention millions of readers, third -party links, credibility… It’s nothing like Yahoo!’s “Should I dump the b*tch?”, “Is Steve Jobs Satan?” or “Know any nursery rhym that I could sing to my grand’children?”
    Reading David Kirkpatrick’s book, you kind of have the feeling Zuckerberg is trying every interesting idea that struggled, hoping that adding some “Social Graph pixie dust”^TM will make it work wonders. It would have been a useful tool, like and are now, except it’s connected to social media, ie. you would have found the proper answer on the Facebook page of a garage that you cousin-in-law met at Makers’ fair.

  6. The real problem seems to be that you went to Oil Can Henry, who wasn’t able to explain the differentiation in the service offered. Due diligence is important but if a company that depends on revenue from oil changes for its very existence can not give you a convincing explanation, what in tarnation gives you the idea that the fools in your social network are going to be able to tell you?

    You were hunting with a shotgun for truth best gained with a knife and some patient stalking. (Old-fashioned research.)

    1. Perhaps, but I’d say my network returned a decent amount of information. It just came too late. I’d also not undervalue the act of cashing in on social capital — creating an opening for folks I might not know that well to reach out and share some knowledge that they have with me.

      Had I turned to Google exclusively, it’s not like the “social fabric” of my relationship with the search engine would have been altered; traversing my network, on the other hand, everso slightly enhanced the weak connections that heretofore had laid dorment.

  7. I’d have to disagree with Daniel: sure the provider you have basic information (like in this case) but what about questions from niche aspects of life: is it Casher? Will it mess with the sense of smell of my hyper-sensitive perfume-industry girlfriend? Can you guarantee none of it come from a war-torn country? SourceMap and GoodGuide are trying to help, but you’ll have to get information, support and adhesion through your social network, even in fairly technical cases… If you care about casher, a friend of yours will know there are no rules on oil; that husband of a perfum-expert colleague of your girlfriend will have made the mistake before you did, etc. Like with hashtags that aren’t as good as semantic filtering, they are understood and accepted enough to make local sense and be the best emerging option. Once one of these question is Frequently Asked, well… you have to train your staff.

  8. Chris, I research the problem of development of decentralized open social Internet a couple of years and write on this issue at my blog (unfortunately, in Russian only). Last my post on this topic is “Where is Google going to” . It’s my reply to your last interview “Google will be one node on a vast social web” If my understanding your concept is true, you are talking about multi-hubs open interoperable social Web, where Google is one of the most power social hubs as well as Facebook is today.

    Vice verse, I’m talking about completely decentralized and distributed Web where all big and small sites (social micro-spaces) connect each other directly via “Virtual Common Bus”, sharing content and services. There are all publishers (including bloggers) compete each other in this non-proprietary world as well as service providers like Google do. I’m sure it’s better for Google than building something like “Google Me”. If you are interested I could translate my posts in English, but so far, you could understand what I want to say if read slide #4 of an attachment to my other post about virtual friendship (reply to Google’s Paul Adams).

  9. Hi,

    technically, isn’t there is a similarity of asking a computer to retrieve stored information and humans to retrieve stored information? Similar to using a search engine insofar as the result is dependant on the search terms, etc.

    With regard to the the oil question this is how I understand it:

    1. as you have found out via your searches you can go from a thicker oil to a thiner oil but never the other way – this is to do with the tolerances in the cylinder and the sizes of the particles in the oil

    2. If in doubt I’d consult your hand book or Honda garage(/helpline?). I’d personally have gone for semi-synthetic (if I was sure fully synthetic wasn’t used already) and changed at the specified manufacturers interval (or DIY manual). Though again as above mineral oil may have been fine too. Some cars with hydrualic tappets must have the specified oil

    3. The service interval differs with mineral oil < semi synthetic < fully synthetic. If a car is driven for short journeys the condensation inside the engine combines with nitrates from the petrol (fumes?) and creates nitric acid, this combined with the fine particles that get past your air filter abrade the cylinder walls So a car that mainly does short journeys should maybe change the oil more frequently. Though changing oil at 3k is a relic of the bye-gone days of also going for a Sunday drive to charge the battery and engine braking.

    It could look a little like some people (myself included) sometimes feel that we must be able to get what we want when we want it. If we were a child that may be called 'Being spoilt'. :/

  10. Well if you want your car’s answer RTFM or call your dealer. While social networks are cool tools for crowd sourcing information, they will never be authorative sources, unless of of course your Honda representative and manual search service are a part of your social network.

Comments are closed.