Niall Kennedy’s ‘offending’ poster
I read with interest Tom Zeller’s New York Times story about Niall Kennedy, a Technorati product manager (the latter is, crudely speaking, a blog search engine service). Apparently, Kennedy published a post containing a poster that combined WWII U.S. spy propaganda with the logos of some of the major blogging services like Blogger.
Unfortunately, Zeller doesn’t bother to explain the point behind the graphic so it’s hard to figure out what Kennedy meant by the poster and why his employer was upset and why others complained about it leading to Kennedy’s decision to remove it.
But luckily, Niall does explain this so now we know:
Every time I read stories about fear within organizations about employee weblogs I think of historical parallels and how society eventually moved on. The 95 theses of Martin Luther nailed to the Church of All Saints…The struggle of Johann Gutenberg as he mass produced bibles in Frankfurt and the fear of the church that their authority would disappear as the ink no longer flowed directly from their quill to the eyes of the people. Control is usually exerted through fear, and propaganda posters from the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War epitomize a culture of fear and dire consequence awaiting you at every corner. I have talked about wanting to remix the themes of old cultures of fear represented by these propaganda posters with the new culture of fear emerging from corporate board rooms. I modified Albert Dome’s image to show this culture of fear in a medium most people are familiar with as being over-the-top and reminiscent of an Orwellian world we would never like to experience.
The verbal argument here is strong and unimpeachable, but I don’t find the image conveys his message nearly as clearly or powerfully. In ‘reading’ the poster, you certainly get a sense that its theme is the danger of "blabbing." But blabbing what and to whom and why is it so dangerous?
Use of the Blogger.com, Movable Type and other logos really takes you away from his message. If he meant to say that blogs were the modern era’s Gutenberg printing press and as such, a threat to the "established order"–well, that’s an excellent point. But the graphic doesn’t convey that. I am a writer by avocation and one of the things that some writers do when poorly executing their ideas is to take a big idea and collapse the sentence so that it omits major parts of the idea it’s attempting to articulate. This is not the best example but: "The nation went to war. The war ended." Well, what happened in between?
If I’d been designing that poster I think I would’ve substituted the logos of companies which have fired or disciplined workers for blogging (Delta, Microsoft, etc.). And I might’ve used another WWII spying slogan: "Loose lips sink ships." Instead I might’ve said: "Loose lips sink ships [and careers]." Again, perhaps not the most elegant phrase, but at least it begins to convey the idea behind the image.
The Times article quotes a technology journalist troubled by the Technorati incident. He has the sanest analysis of it I’ve read:
"I would have expected that some of the louder, more strident voices on the Internet would have risen up in a frenzy over this," said Stowe Boyd, the president of Corante, a daily online news digest on the technology sector. "But that didn’t happen."
In Mr. Boyd’s opinion, everything about what Mr. Kennedy did was protected speech. The use of trademarks was fair use in a satirical work, Mr. Boyd said, and it seemed unlikely that the company would be somehow liable for the off-duty actions of an employee, as Technorati executives argued. It was, in Mr. Boyd’s eyes, an indication that corporate interests were eclipsing individual rights.
"I don’t know what else to say," he declared. "I’m astonished."
As I said, I’m with Niall all the way until…he goes all wobbly on me. David Sifry, Technorati’s CEO apparently gets a call from the CEO whiner and the former than proceeds to talk to Niall explaining to him the birds and bees of corporate culture: every employee, no matter how lowly represents the company in any public setting and must think about their speech and how it might reflect ill on the company. And Niall, chastened by this talk decides he’s done a bad thing by including the blogging service companies’ logos in the poster and he takes the post down.
Then he goes and apologizes profusely for letting the home team down, and all the fans, cheerleaders, even his mom and dad. The list seems endless:
I have since realized the imagery was in bad taste, especially to the organizations involved. I used the logos of other corporations I felt represented the printing press at the fingertips of the masses and associated those companies with an image of a dying American soldier, a rifle butt, and barbed wire. It is not the type of image I would want associated with my business. I apologize to the companies and open source projects pictured. I see you as leaders in the space and empowering the conversations I love to see happen. At some point in my blogging history I have used every piece of software pictured.
I failed to comprehend the effects of my actions on Technorati. I have always operated under the assumption that until I reach executive status at any company I work for I remain an individual voice and do not represent the organization. Just as weblogs and corporate transparency changed the world we love to interact with daily, it has also changed the way we see corporations. We establish relationships with companies through their engaged employees for better or for worse. The voice and actions of individuals become associated with the companies and organizations of their employ.
The past day has been a huge wake-up call. I see now that the voice of a company is not limited to top level executives, vice-presidents, and public relations officers. It is a huge responsibility on the individual and a bit difficult to fully comprehend until you have seen the effects of an economy of conversations. I need to be more aware of my actions as they are perceived as the actions of Technorati.
I’m sorry Niall for the excessive sarcasm above, it really isn’t warranted. I know you’re a very thoughtful and serious blogger and human being. But I’m steamed that you were such a relative pushover. It almost sounds in your statement above as if you’d been to some corporate re-education camp to purge you of your "bourgeois" ideas about individuality and absolute freedom.
Listen to Stowe Boyd. If you truly believe in the full freedom of information on the web and that blogs can be a revolutionary means of communicating with our fellow humanity, then live your ideals.
Every employee who likes their company naturally wants to please their boss. Every employee, when they hear a complaint from said boss wants to put the matter right. If I liked Technorati as much as Niall apparently does, I might consider doing the same thing.
But after giving the matter further thought, I would’ve challenged Sifry after he walked into my office to put all of these issues in a much broader context. Because after all, should corporate communications policies (including the rights of employee bloggers) be made at the whim or kvetch of an outside corporate chieftain? No, they should be deliberated, discussed, debated and then CODIFIED.
From the following comment, you’ll see that this thought has never crossed the mind of Technorati officialdom. And to an extent, that’s Niall’s fault because he hasn’t challenged them to think through ALL the ramifications of their actions. I would hope some really bad publicity from this incident might rouse Technorati to consider amending its attitudes toward employee privacy and personal blogging.
Technorati’s vice president for engineering, Adam Hertz, responded: "It would be antithetical to our corporate values to force Niall to do anything in his blog. It’s his blog."
Yet with the spread of the Internet and of blogging, Mr. Hertz said, it would be foolish for companies to not spend some time discussing the art of public communications with their employees, and even train and prepare lower-level staff for these kinds of public relations situations.
That said, Mr. Hertz stressed that the company had no interest in formalizing any complicated policies regarding an employee’s activities outside the office.
"I had a high school teacher," he recalled, "who used to say ‘I have only two rules: Don’t roller-skate in the hallway and don’t be a damn fool.’ We really value a company where people can think for themselves."
That’s all very nice, Mr. Hertz. But it completely begs the question. What really happened here is that the CEO of one of the blogging services (who was it, who was it!! for my money, I hope it was Blogger.com’s CEO because it would only confirm my already low opinion of the company and its product) whined to David Sifry about Kennedy’s use of his corporate logo. Then Sifry had a good "talking to" with Kennedy. What would you have done? It’s hard to stand up to your CEO in a situation like that. Most people would’ve caved as Kennedy appears to have done. So, Hertz’ claim that no one at the company would dream of telling Kennedy what to do with his blog is disingenuous at best. Kennedy understood what Sifry wanted even if the latter wasn’t explicit.
And for Hertz to add that he saw no need to codify the rules about employee blogging begs another question. When you allow another company to dictate your personnel decisions, you’ve in effect created a corporate policy even if it’s only applied to a single employee. That’s why Technorati ought to get off its duff and think this through more deeply and more clearly.
Here’s what my corporate policy would be: "Let ’em blog & leave ’em alone."