Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Internet Is A Megaphone

The electronic computer is to individual privacy what the machine gun was to the horse cavalry. ~ Alan W. Scheflin and Edward M. Opton, The Mind Manipulators: A Non-Fiction Account, 1978

Let me tell you a little story.

Years ago, I was working for a company that had an excellent local reputation for having high wages, great benefits, and a wonderful work environment. It turned out that it was true that they paid well and provided excellent perks. It was also a nice clean factory with pleasant offices. It was also true that they used up people and threw them away, confident that they could easily replace them because, after all they did have all that other good stuff to draw in more applicants.

On one occasion, the company put out an employee survey to find out how they could improve morale, because they recognized that people were getting a little tired of being used up. It was supposed to be an anonymous survey, but the survey was handed out in small groups and had an ID number on each one. When someone pointed this out, the Human Resources manager, who was personally administering the surveys, said something about the number not meaning anything and we shouldn't worry about it.

We all said, "Do you think we were born yesterday?" Of course, we said that silently.

The moral of the story is that management doesn't like criticism from the ranks. Companies in general don't like being badmouthed or embarrassed by employees, internally or in public. Especially in public. Almost every employee manual has some sort of "good behavior" and "keep your mouth shut in public" clause.

Believe it or not, notorious free-speech fanatic that I am, I'm fine with that. It's a condition of employment that generally doesn't interfere with my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I can even write blogs about most anything under the sun. As long as I don't get stupid and advocate something illegal or immoral, I don't expect to get hassled about what I write (and so far never have been).

Yet, we are regularly treated to articles like this one, in which we find that a third of employed people blog about their employers and 39% of those posters have written something that "could be potentially sensitive or damaging about their place of work, employer or a colleague".

And this doesn't include the geniuses who post nude photos, admit to drug use, or otherwise implicate themselves in activities embarrassing to family, friends, and -- of course -- employers.

Listen up, people. It's about time that you came to understand some things about how the computing world works.
  1. A few billion people can potentially read everything you write. It's not a problem that I have, to be sure, but what with Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, and bazillions of bloggers looking around the Internet for content, the possibility exists of lots of people looking at something you've posted. If that something is stupid, the odds rise exponentially.

  2. There is no such thing as anonymity on the web. You will be found out. The more hints you provide, like pictures, detailed references to coworkers, and so on, the more likely you'll be checking out the unemployment benefits in your location.

  3. Setting up "friends" or "private" areas won't help. Once someone is in, they can blab about what you said. And they'll do it in a public place. Or worse, in a private place, like your boss' office.

  4. If you wouldn't want to see something on a billboard on the most heavily trafficked thoroughfare in your home town, you shouldn't post it in a blog or a forum. Especially when it comes to photos.

  5. The Internet is forever. Stuff posted on the Web may not be immortal prose, but it can be persistent. Caching sources like the ever-popular Wayback Machine can ensure that the photo of you drunk out of your mind displayed on the MADD website is still available.

  6. Anyone can use Google (TM), Yahoo (TM), or Any Other Search Engine (TM; hey, you never know), especially prospective employers. You know that really hilarious posting about the boss messing around with his secretary you posted in your blog? Or how about that rant about how unfair everyone has been toward Adolf Hitler? Might be that the person thinking about offering you that high-paying gig has found it, too. And he or she might not be a big Hitler or infidelity fan.
Don't say I didn't warn you.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Let the Reader Decide

If you dismiss blogging as the blatherings of the Internet elite, you will miss the most significant transformation in communications since the arrival of the Web. ~ Chris Shipley

Well, there are more writers of blogs right now than there are readers, so that's clearly a vanity phenomenon.~John Doerr

I admit it. I find the whole blog phenomenon to be grist for the mental mill. I've written a veritable plethora (like this piece that also has links to others) of pieces about blogging. Why? Maybe maybe I just don't have enough imagination (a distinct possibility), but it's also because the blogosphere is always talking about itself. It's a veritable perpetual-motion machine; when everyone runs out of things to write, they'll just write about each other's blogs.

The other thing that I find fascinating is the love-hate relationship that mainstream journalism has with bloggers. They seem to have no problem lifting material from blogs, and most news reporters have blogs of their own. On the other hand, they seem to frequently complain about the blogs as though the bloggers are somehow usurping their territory. This was brought into sharp focus in this article in which Andrew Thomas, using World Press Freedom Day as a hook, rants about how bloggers aren't journalists.

Frankly, I don't think many bloggers who don't already have full time jobs as reporters, editors, and/or publishers, actually think of themselves as "journalists." They're just offering their comments about this and that, sometimes with vivid vituperation. But, that is the essence of free speech; as long as one doesn't resort to slander or libel, one can say pretty much anything one wants. There may be consequences (like getting fired) to doing that, but that's the risk of freely expressing opinions.

But, Mr. Thomas goes a little overboard. He says:
Proper journalism has to involve more than one person. There's the editor who sets the news agenda and the publication's general stance on various topics; the news editor, whose job is to shout at the journalists; and the hacks themselves, who generally have to do as they're told. With a blog, all the editorial controls, the objective reasoning and, above all criticism that goes to make a national newspaper readable, goes out of the window leaving just a stream of drivel. It's vanity publishing at its worst.
A bit later:
One of the keynote speakers at today's World Press Freedom debate in London is described as a 'political blogger'. What right does someone who can't even get a job on a local newspaper have to pontificate about international journalism?
And his kicker:
Press freedom is a laudable aim – let's try to make sure it includes the freedom to be spared the spittle-flecked rantings of a million blogs.
Now just wait a minute. First of all, a political blogger has the "right" to "pontificate" as much as he wants to about anything, including "journalism". We have the right not to read it or agree with it, but he has every right to say it.

As far as "freedom to be spared the spittle-flecked rantings" of bloggers, I've read the work of a lot of so-called journalists that were pretty spittle-flecked, if one comes right down to it. Anyone who lived through the persecution of Sam Sheppard by the Cleveland Press has seen some serious journalistic rantings.

I sent the link to Mr. Thomas' article off to Paul McNamara, one of my favorite journalist-bloggers and he sent me a note back. After chiding me for calling him a journalist, he distilled the issue down to its simplest terms. The are good blogs and bad ones (he used a stronger term than "bad", but this is a family blog; I don't know whose family it is). Unfortunately ,he also points out quite correctly, that there a lot more bad ones than good ones. But, ultimately, he says, "Readers ought to be able to sort this out."

Now, if Mr. Thomas was making a case that people don't know the difference between good blogs and bad ones, he'd still be wrong, because they have the same problem with journalists. The fact is, it's the reader's choice to make, and saying that bloggers don't deserve the same rights as newspaper hacks is taking that choice away.

Evidently Mr. Thomas is afraid of the choices the readers might make.