Write a letter to the editor, and it’s forgotten in a day. Call a phone-in show, and you’re history in a minute and a half.
But post to a blog, and – unless you delete them yourself – your words live on as long as your blog does. They can be read by anyone with an Internet connection*. And they’re just a Google search away.
All of which means a new, and not always welcome, level of accountability for the things you say – one that stretches, these days, into the workplace.
Last Friday night I posted a modified poster originally created by Albert Dome in 1942 for the U.S. government’s Office of Facts and Figures. The struggle of corporations to come to terms with a printing press at the fingertips of every employee is very interesting to me and as a history enthusiast I decided to express these curiosities through visual imagery from another era, an era of fear that the consequences of any action might be more than any individual would like to bear.
The content of the image isn’t necessarily germaine; the main point is that it offended some of the more easily-offended types out in the blogospheriverse, and threw his boss, David Sifry, into a maelstrom of criticism. (You can read his account, and the outcome, here.)
Reread that paragraph. It wasn’t Kennedy who was attacked; it was Technorati, and Sifry – first because of the image, and then because of the perception that he had censored Kennedy.
It’s just the latest incident** in a series of conflicts between employers and employees – many far less senior than Kennedy – over their blogs:
- Joe Gordon was fired in January from British bookseller Waterstone’s for his personal blog’s unflattering comments on working for the company. (Hat tip to Erin.)
- Mark Jen lost his job at Google after critical posts about the company appeared in his personal blog.
- Ellen Simonetti maintained a semi-fictional diary of her work as a Delta flight attendant. She was fired in November, ostensibly because she posted photos of herself in uniform that amounted to unauthorized use of Delta’s visual identity.
- Joyce Park’s blog Troutgirl cost her a job with social-networking company Friendster. Her criticisms appeared to be mild at worst.
- Temp Michael Hanscom blogged a few photos he shot of Apple G5s being unloaded at Microsoft headquarters. Deeming the incident a security violation, Microsoft had him escorted from the premises.
- Perhaps the best-known case is Jessica Cutler, who lost her job as a U.S. senator’s mail clerk after she was outed as the author of a blog detailing her sexual exploits – with, among others, a married member of the Bush administration.
In many of these cases, the employer had no policy on employee blogs, and acted without warning. As so often happens when new technologies hit the real world, those who are caught unawares – and who feel threatened, and who have power – react with overwhelming force.
Blogging and other forms of online publishing won’t go away just because employers will it. And that raises, in the words of the Guardian’s Jane Perrone, some knotty questions for companies:
Should companies allow their bloggers to say absolutely anything on their personal blog in their own time? Is there a line to be drawn at, say, racist or anti-semitic postings? What about staffers who reveal company secrets, or criticise the products sold in the store in which they work, like the blogger who writes My Life as a Morrisons Employee. They recently wrote of a line of the supermarket’s suitcases: “they are cheap and crap and last time we sold them we got loads back because of the stitching and locks … so don’t buy them, they’re crap”.
But that gets dangerously close to the 24-hour regulation of employee’s lives. If Nike were to learn that one of its workers had told a friend that, frankly, she’d be better off getting a pair of New Balance sneakers, would they be justified in taking action? (What if it’s a few friends? A book club?) Are we getting into Jennifer Government territory?
On the flip side, one possible development is that a company’s blog-friendliness could become part of their employer branding, or even a factor in rating their level of social responsibility. There’s already at least one list of “blogophobic” employers out there.
A few other resources:
- Morpheme Tales’ Statistics on Fired Bloggers
- Naomi Branston’s exploration of some of the legal issues involved in the U.S. and U.K.
- Stowe Boyd’s analysis of the central question Kennedy raises: can you express yourself as an employee, even if your comments could be confused with your employer’s official position?
* And a reasonably open-minded government.
** In Kennedy’s case, he posted his image to Flickr, an online photo sharing site. If you want to get fussy, they’re not exactly a blog… but they offer the same convenient kind of push-button publishing, and the broader implications still hold. Check them out, by the way.