The Big Chill

What happens when a company just prohibits employees from blogging?

Got this in my work mailbox today. Hand delivered.

—– Newspaper policy on personal Web sites and Web logs (blogs)

Editorial staffers (editors, reporters, and photographers) may operate personal Web sites, Web logs (blogs) or chat rooms only with the prior approval of their editor. Such Web sites, blogs and chat rooms may not contain content dealing in any way with the subject areas that the employees cover or reasonably might be expected to cover. The editor may withdraw approval of an editorial staffer’s operation of a Web site, blog or chat room at any time.

It is especially important that editorial staffers do not express personal opinions – on their Web sites or in their blogs or chat rooms – on news subjects or issues that they cover. Such publication of personal opinion casts doubt on their impartiality, ultimately calling into question the newspaper’s commitment to fairness.

Editorial staffers who have their own Web sites, blogs or chat rooms must notify their newspaper editor of the existence and the address of these Web publications. Staff members and correspondents agree that —– Newspapers can access and review these personal Web sites, blogs or chat rooms at any time. Editorial staffers will, when requested to do so, provide reasonable assistance to —– Newspapers in retrieving any archived or deleted materials from such Web sites, blogs or chat rooms.

An editorial staffer who violates this policy will face disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

Have they made themselves perfectly clear? I think so. Did it work in this case? I have every reason to believe it didn’t and I don’t believe most of us would be inclined to meekly comply simply because it is just too easy to circumvent such a policy on the web. Anonymous blogging isn’t that hard to achieve and with a bit of advice from your friendly neighborhood hacker you should be able to frustrate ordinary attempts at discovery. I’m no lawyer, but it would seem to me an unfair dismissal suit would be pretty easy to bring against a company trying to stifle their employees to this extent particularly because there is some indication that the memo was aimed specifically at the blogger involved. From a bit of investigation my surmise (and it is only that) is that the blogger switched to blogging anonymously and that the company chose not to pursue him. In short, I suspect that the blogger was able to successfully call the corporate bluff in this particular case.

I’ve talked before about how Eric Raymond’s book the Cathedral and the Bizarre (available free on line here) tells us how networked media actually work as opposed to say print media. The company above is thinking in terms of the way print media works. Just like monarchs who insisted on licensing and controlling printing presses after Gutenberg invented movable type, this newspaper thinks it can shut down the blogger by simply prohibiting his means of publishing. The flaw in their thinking is that they are trying to shut down a multi node redundant network designed to resist atomic attack as if it were a choke point such as a printing press. This mentality is laughably transparent in another part of the memo which prohibits using the newspaper’s computers.

Editorial staffers who operate their own Web sites, blogs or chat rooms may not use —– Newspaper computers or other office facilities for that purpose. They may not work on their Web sites, blogs or chat rooms during office work hours.

We know from McLuhan the broad reason for the blindness. Emerging media are seen in terms of existing media. Here we have an example of a legacy media company trying to control an emerging medium with legacy tools. McLuhan talked about this phenomena as driving into the future with eyes fixed firmly on the rear view mirror. Applying Raymond we have a cathedral like, hierarchically structured organization trying to control a person with anonymous access to the bizarre like structure of the Internet.

The exact nature of the employers concern is further revealed in this paragraph. .

Editorial staffers who operate their own Web sites, blogs or chat rooms are not permitted to trade on their newspaper positions. They may not link their personal sites, blogs or chat rooms to the —– Newspapers’ Web site nor to —— Newspapers’ articles. Personal Web sites, blogs or chat rooms may not use column names or any other identifying information or wording that connects the writer to —– Newspapers.

They seem to be aware that there might be some kind of synergy between blogs and their product and all they see is competition diminishing their product and damaging their brand. They apparently see no upside, no new potential to exploit, which is exactly the blindness that McLuhan predicts will accompany the advent of any new medium.

So what’s the upside? In this case an employee is writing a column that management happens to disagree with. There is a very simple win win here. Hire him to write it and publish it in the paper. Because this blogger is to the right of the newspaper, I immediately think of the very liberal Minneapolis Star Tribune and their famous right of center columnist James Lileks. It is an old and superb legacy media policy to have a range opinion that differs from the paper’s institutional stance – i.e. editorial page policy. It even has a legacy name: Op-Ed. All I can see that this paper has accomplished is to reduce its circulation potential. It also failed to recognize that the bizarre had, as Raymond predicts, found real talent – right under their nose. Talk about dumb….er…. driving into the future with eyes fixed on the rear view mirror.

I have by no means exhausted this topic of the negative reaction by corporations to blogging and hope in future posts to apply other theoretical ideas to understand the nature of the process of corporations finding their way with this new medium. The role of theory in this case is quite straightforward. Those with something to lose are naturally, and often wisely, wary of the new. Better understanding of what is happening, better theory, can help find a way to take advantage of the new while protecting against the down side.

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