Back to previous post: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Massive Anglo-Saxon hoard found

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

September 29, 2009

How to lose a war
Posted by Patrick at 10:52 AM * 38 comments

Commenting on the Washington Post’s new “guidelines” for their employees’ use of services like Twitter and Facebook, New York Times media blogger David Carr observes:

Mainstream outlets who gag social media efforts are unilaterally disarming in the ongoing war for reader attention.
The same could be said about, for instance, New York book publishing conglomerates that restrict what parts of the internet their employees can look at from their desks, a subject Farhad Manjoo touches on here.

As I’ve said a whole bunch of times, the “competition” for those of us in traditional media industries—book publishing, broadcasting, newspapers and magazines—is no longer other book publishers, broadcasters, or newspapers and magazines. Instead, our “competition” is now the plain fact that, even if you stipulate that 99.9% of the for-free internet is worthless nonsense, the remaining 0.1% is large enough to absorb anyone’s attention full-time for the rest of their life. For anyone with an internet connection, running out of interesting things to read is completely a thing of the past.

Like it or not, that’s the world we live in now. Media companies that make it hard for their workers to get up to speed in it are, as Carr says, unilaterally disarming. I’ve been to Google’s New York City offices. They don’t tell their employees what they may and may not do with social media tools, and they don’t impose net nannies on their internet surfing, either. They’re also winning.

Carr’s conclusion is also pertinent:

There will be stumbles and missteps on the way to a hybrid future, but if you can’t trust the women and men who put out your newspaper to use their keyboards wisely regardless of platform, what are they doing working for you?
A point that could be extended to other media outfits as well.
Comments on How to lose a war:
#1 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 12:44 PM:

Curious, does Tor censor it's Internet connections?

#2 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 01:23 PM:

the remaining 0.1% is large enough to absorb anyone’s attention full-time for the rest of their life

Oh, that is just so damned true. It's the ultimate monkey trap.

I have to say, though, your experiment with serializing Cory Doctorow is really working on this monkey, at least. I'd like to put in my vote for more of that, please.

#3 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 02:43 PM:

"I’ve been to Google’s New York City offices. They don’t tell their employees what they may and may not do with social media tools..."

Based on numerous interactions with folks who work for Google, I'm pretty sure Google is rather specific and strict about what they may and may not say in public about what they're doing at Google.

Which includes what they say using social media tools. Google's staff are tech-savvy enough that they might not need to be reminded specifically about that medium, but folks in less tech-savvy groups might.

I don't find it objectionable per se that certain organizations, including newspapers, might impose limits on the public statements of their staff. (For instance, some news reporters are prohibited from endorsing candidates for offices they might cover, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.) I haven't seen the full set of the Post guidelines, but general guidelines for news reporters to avoid taking political sides in public aren't unheard of. (It varies by publication, of course; what might be appropriate for a reporter for a partisan weekly might not be for the anchor of a national general-interest news program.)

Trying to control what you can *read* online, as opposed to *say* online, is more dubious, but I didn't see any sign that the Post was doing that. If your employer is doing this, my sympathies.

#4 ::: Kelley Wegeng ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 02:53 PM:

I understand Ockerbloom's point but because I agree with Patrick's premise that the internet is the main competition for traditional media I cannot help but question whether a traditional media outlet has any business employing anyone who is not tech-savvy enough to responsibly understand the repercussions of the actions they take on social networking sites. If an employee doesn't understand their industry why would anyone pay them to be a part of it?

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:00 PM:

That was pretty much David Carr's final point.

#6 ::: Hank Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:18 PM:

> running out of interesting things to read
> is completely a thing of the past.

Yeah, but I'm afraid that may just be because my personal standards are so low compared to the very best attention that can be paid by the people on whose shoulders I'd really rather be standing, so I can see what they see.

I suspect they're not reading the advertisements, for example, or most blogs.

Monkey trap, yes.

#7 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:28 PM:


It's all just an extension of literacy. Why is that so hard for people to understand?

#8 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:33 PM:

It's not just media companies. Any company that restricts access to information an employee may need to do their job is shooting themselves in the foot.

The insane worry of HR problems is a big driving force, that and PR issues. I've found that the companies that seem to be doing the best are the ones that are trying to work with the new stuff, not destroy it.

Regarding twitter though, I agree with some of what John stated. I can understand a newspaper wanting their reporters to avoid taking political stances on stories if they aim to be neutral reporting sources.

If you have a public voice there is, imho, a responsibility to use it wisely. I think the following quote really nails it though.

"There will be stumbles and missteps on the way to a hybrid future, but if you can’t trust the women and men who put out your newspaper to use their keyboards wisely regardless of platform, what are they doing working for you?"

You should be able to trust your people, and these guidelines? They are there so they can fire someone with cause if they say something.

#9 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:38 PM:

Larry @ 8
"... so they can fire someone ..."

Ah, yes. Whenever an organization does something that doesn't quite make sense, it's usually about reinforcing the power structure. In favor of the powerful.

How could I forget that rule of thumb? Has years of reading paranoid Sci-Fi taught me nothing!?

#10 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 04:26 PM:

Reading the article, it looks like the Post had a quite reasonable complaint about one of their editors going public with a political position, and "he ain't supposed to do that". Even the restrictions quoted in the article (I haven't read the guidelines themselves) seem pretty reasonable, amounting to not publicizing the paper's internal business. (Remember the squabbles over "hot news"? Still an issue.) The Times apparently did pretty well too, when some reporters got overexcited and tweeted an internal meeting. (Carr is a little smug about that.)

So, who's "gagging" their workers?

#11 ::: Rick York ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 05:00 PM:

This demonstrates a classic conflict which the internet has exacerbated. Every organization wants to control its image and message. WaPo is no exception. Easy access to social networking tools has heightened many organizations' anxiety. Anyone can basically say whatever they want about any thing or person.

Remember the stories in the late 90's and early 00's about idiots using their company email accounts to attack fellow employees and supervisors? You don't hear much about that anymore. Darwin at work. You either learn to use the new media with discretion or, you lose your job.

Restricting access to parts of the web is foolish. You are limiting the tools available to your employees. But, use of that access to say something inappropriate is equally foolish.

Every organization should give its employees unrestricted access to the Web. But, the organization needs to establish guidelines for using the Web and insure that their employees understand them.

In the end, Darwin always wins. And, the battle for free speech never ends.

#12 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 06:28 PM:

The day I was laid off, the workplace's firewall/nanny software started blocking access to sites identified as "humour". The first sign of this, of course, was that people couldn't look at "Dilbert" to start their day as usual.

We were assured that it was a bug or glitch and definitely just a coincidence.

I'm told that the blocking was moderated within a day or two.

#13 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:58 PM:

[Deleted by JDM. Repeated a link that had already been posted.]

#14 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 10:02 PM:

Joel Polowin #12: The day I was laid off, the workplace's firewall/nanny software started blocking access to sites identified as "humour". The first sign of this, of course, was that people couldn't look at "Dilbert" to start their day as usual.

Back when I did Win95 support at Unisys, cube decoration was restricted, but Dilbert comic strips were specifically mentioned as allowed in the employee handbook.

#15 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 10:02 PM:

I can't find a link to the WaPo's actual guidelines, but I'm guessing they only apply to employees. The owners are presumably free to say whatever they want, even though I suspect that the biases of the owners affect news coverage at least as much as those of employees.

According to this Editor & Publisher article, the WaPo guidelines do include the claim "we don't use new media to get into verbal fisticuffs with rivals or critics, or to advance personal agendas." No, of course not. That's what the old media are for. Anyone else remember the '96 presidential race, when Bob Dole said something nasty about the NY Times, and in response the paper started printing Dole's words verbatim, without the usual editorial smoothing process (taking out verbal missteps and false starts, "uhms" and "ahs", that kind of thing).

#16 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 12:27 AM:

Avram, #15, Katharine Weymouth, the current publisher, has made some really awful mistakes where she's had to apologize on close-to-the-front pages. You'd think her uncle, Donald Graham, would have trained her better before she got the position.

#17 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 03:45 AM:

but I thought the only way to lose a war was by having insufficient will to win it.

#18 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 06:11 AM:

Back in the early 90s, when working for the software corporation that has now been reincarnated as a litigation zombie (so I shall not name it), we could always tell when members of the board were visiting, because our managers would be scurrying around the cubicle farm the day before, taking down all the Dilbert strips.

Cynicism, it seems, has always been an offense against corporate correctness -- and being seen to be too cynical in public is probably a career-limiting move, hence the lack of folks willing to talk about this lunacy on the record.

(Patrick is clearly right in his assessment of the situation, in my opinion: old-media operations that ban their employees from engaging with new media are like buggy-whip manufacturers who ban their employees from driving automobiles.)

#19 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 12:00 PM:

Newspapers banning access to most of the Web for their employees? Why not? It can't make them collapse any faster, and it might hamper the employees' searches for other jobs. Sure, it's stupid, but they're already chest-deep in tar pit.

#20 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 12:33 PM:

This fits with what I've been saying for a few years: "Television is a vast wonderland. There is not enough time in a day to watch even just the good stuff."

One reason for that is that the good things on TV come in large increments: just a few chunks will fill up your day -- use tape or a DVR, and the remaining chunks are filled.

The internet, insidiously, comes in blocks of every size, from five seconds to forever, and the odds are good that any given block will tell you where to find at least one similar block.

#21 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 12:35 PM:

(Very much like reading a dictionary, looking up a word that's in the definition you just read, and so on, and so on. Used to work with encyclopedias, too. You kids out there can Google "encyclopedia.")

#22 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 02:38 PM:

Anyone else remember the '96 presidential race, when Bob Dole said something nasty about the NY Times, and in response the paper started printing Dole's words verbatim, without the usual editorial smoothing process (taking out verbal missteps and false starts, "uhms" and "ahs", that kind of thing).

When I was in college we had an English professor who tried to make a mockery of us. The paper's policy was to print letters as sent; no editing; save to remove libels. This prevented people from saying we had twisted their words (as the college had several longstanding feuds going on, about newsworthy issues, the lettercol was a heated place of invective filled debate).

So this prof sent us a letter. We handed it to Elaine, who set it, verbatim. It had a couple of errors. The Prof send us a nasty letter; addressed, formatted as a "letter to the editor". We, of course, printed it. It was sent to the opinion editor, etc. In form and manner it was no different from any other letter.

It was very embarrassing to the prof; as it basically said, "I am an incompetent typist, and don't check my work for errors of grammar, you were supposed to do that for me as a courtesy.

We appended an addendum, explaining that the policy was clearly printed in the "How to submit a letter to the editor, and no one got special treatment.

And the prof upped the ante. Sent us a handwritten mess, so far as we could tell intentionally wretched. Setting it would have been a nightmare. So we ran a halftone image.

Not the nicest thing, and one of the few we actually ran past the advisors for serious feedback (we wanted to make sure we were being more than petty). That was the end of it.

#23 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 07:38 PM:

Charlie Stross: we could always tell when members of the board were visiting, because our managers would be scurrying around the cubicle farm the day before, taking down all the Dilbert strips.

One of the largest venture capitalists in the state did a brief interview some years ago. When they asked about how he screened companies to decide if he'd invest he said he looked for Dilbert cartoons--if he visited a company and there weren't any, or if there were several hundred stuck up in two or three places, he took a nice long look at the books. I used to think about this every time I walked through the IT area of a past employer who had a wall that was over 12 feet of daily Dilberts.

#24 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 09:12 PM:

My company has the typical "only the PR department or executives can speak to the press on our behalf" policy. Internet pundit Bill Stewart can say pretty much anything he wants under his own name, but $Corporation employee Bill Stewart is supposed to refer the press to the PR department.

And over the last 30 years, we've gone from not having censorship on our uucp connections (but computer games being turned off before 5pm) to an HR-driven panic that they might get sued* if employees look at inappropriate pictures at work to occasionally-overly-aggressive set of internet censorship that sometimes interferes with real work. Perhaps they're blocking livejournal because of its questionable content or perhaps because it can turn into an all-day time-sink. On the other hand, blocking computer security sites that have "hacking tools" or "criminal skills" can be counterproductive for my current project developing firewalls.

(*We're a big company, we get sued for lots of things, but we got our ass handed to us in the 70s for discrimination and they really don't ever want that to happen again, as well as actually caring about diversity these days. On the other hand, the first internet censorship I saw at one part of the company was that web page requests for got redirected to; I think that bothered the trademark lawyers far more than the HR people...)

#25 ::: Shalanna Collins ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 12:30 PM:

Why would any corporation limit access to the WWW and the 'net in general? I suspect they're simply terrified that some employee will be "not doing work" while on-the-clock. It doesn't matter if the limitation makes the job tougher, because their major concern is that no one gets away with goofing off (although they do anyway.)

Everywhere I've worked, management has been convinced that everyone sat around all day trying to goof off or figure out more ways to goof off, and this sent them into a micromanaging panic. Even though we had to do daily status reports telling what we had spent the day doing, and we had to meet the milestones set in the schedules (meaning we had to do something on the work every day in order to make the schedule), and they made the rounds to look over your shoulder regularly, they were still suspicious that somebody was Getting Away With Something.

I don't feel that a salaried employee who checks his/her horoscope, the weather, the headlines, or something like that has sinned against the company for spending a few minutes looking at that. Yet I can kind of see how someone surfing the 'net and reading LiveJournal for several hours during the corporate workday would be frowned upon. The problem is that people don't have the sense to know the difference, or they're not taught right from birth and usually think, "What is the right action? Whatever you can get away with." So maybe people at those companies WERE wasting the day looking at flickr sets of people's vacations or borderline porn (!), reading "Overheard In New York," or writing to their friends on Facebook. The companies didn't want the time to be taken away from what the company was paying them for.

After all, many of my cohorts when I worked as a software engineer did netsurf in addition to using the 'net as a resource for finding upgrades, free code, fixes, and so forth. There was some time wasted. I chalked it up to mental health and a feeling that the Man was not breathing down their necks; I also saw the same employees working late and spending extra time whenever they were asked to. It was a trade-off. Nobody went overboard surfing.

But they COULD have. So I can see where management (which is generally concerned that someone is Getting Away With Something Right Under Their Noses, remember) might be paranoid and nanny away too many places. It's simply as case of not trusting reporters and writers to do their jobs instead of goofing off, I guess.

I understand cutting off the access to LJ, Facebook, Amazon, IMDB, the Sudoku site, and the like, because they are too tempting for the employees with little self-control or sense of responsibility. Employees will play, unless you play the nanny, would be the idea.

Or am I missing something?

#26 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 02:49 PM:

Shalanna Collins #25: The problem is, that can rapidly descend into "the whippings will continue until morale improves!"

Also, that sort of micromanagement represents a gross failure of genuine management -- cheap brute-force constraints, instead of actually paying attention to your people.

#27 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 02:52 PM:

At my first job, I was in the lunch room reading the comics page, and the VP Marketing came in and asked what I was laughing at. I said, "Dilbert is particularly funny today" He replied, "You techs really seem to enjoy that. I don't see what's so funny."

And he really couldn't. And, of course, that's what was so funny. There's a reason that project was only not Deathmarch because a) it finished (350% late) and b) with people still at the company (about 1/3 of the size it was when I started, but).

#28 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 03:49 PM:

Shalanna Collins @ 25: One reason for restricting employees' use of the net is if the organization's bandwidth is limited, or is paid for by usage. I've heard of cases where some people's work-related net usage was bogged down by too many people using streaming media, or otherwise doing non-work-related high-bandwidth stuff. (And of cases where poorly-implemented restrictions, intended to limit the non-work usage, messed up the work-related usage.)

#29 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 09:54 PM:

The last company I worked for was primarily manufacturing; most of the employees were hourly, not exempt professionals, and it was felt that the internet needed to be screened because otherwise they'd waste all those hours the company was paying them for.

It didn't seem to bother anyone that the two engineers who were developing IT software couldn't get to half the sites we needed to (they used an especially brain-damaged netnanny). Of course, we just used another internet gateway that didn't have a filter on it, but it was annoying because of the lower bandwidth (it was actually a separate physical connection).

#30 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 10:12 PM:

The company where I work sends out reminders, every few months, that we're not supposed to be surfing the 'net, or using streaming media, while at work. People ignore the notices. I assume that they can see what I do, so I try to limit the places I go. (There is nannyware that blocks some sites, but it seems to be mostly looking for racist/sexist stuff. The suits take equality and diversity seriously.)

#31 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2009, 07:31 PM:

John #3
As someone who recently left Google, I can confirm that employees net connections aren't filtered (a colleague who used to work on net censorship checked here entire list of blocked-somewhere URLs there on her first day and got to all of them), and that employees are encouraged to blog, twitter etc.

That said, because Google is so open internally with information that all employees are subject to SEC quiet periods, and that anything written in public becomes "Google said" people can be wary of speaking or writing online, and the weekly company meetings where L,S+E speak frankly are explicitly called out as "don't discuss".

The other thing to remember is that WaPo employees are professional writers - telling them they can't write online is like telling Google engineers not to work on Open Source projects (which would be completely antithetical to SV culture).

#32 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2009, 10:03 AM:

Here's what I see as the issue:

It's usually the job of HR to monitor employee performance, and there are two general strategies for assessing employee performance in any organization -- focus on employee inputs, or employee outputs.

Inputs are easy: you just measure bum-in-chair time, clock-punching, and assume outputs are averaged overall.

Outputs are easy to monitor in unskilled or semi-skilled roles, but very hard to assess in professional or technical roles because the assessor needs to be able to understand what they're looking at. How does an HR person look at two programmers, both of whom produced 1000 lines of code in the preceding six months, and determine which of them is performing better? (Law of programming: more lines of code != better software. Indeed, frequently less is more.)

So there's a tendency to just look at the inputs, and to an HR person doing time-and-motion on the staff, seeing someone spend four hours a day on blogs or web surfing is a red flag. (HR can't tell the difference between a programmer staying abreast of the latest technologies by reading widely, and a programmer who's goofing off or looking at employee-wanted ads.)

This is where the impulse to censor internet access at work comes from (aside from the liability sock-puppet, which is waved wildly because it's convenient and much less likely to be challenged than an admission that the censorship regime is being imposed because the censors are clueless about what their employees are really doing).

#33 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2009, 09:26 AM:

Why all this is not so black and white as we might wish it was and why Farhad Manjoo is an idiot:

Can you guarantee that the content of such IMs would never contain confidential patient data that could be seen by someone else on the same IM program on that network that has no need, and therefore no authorization to see that data? Can you guarantee that the IM program you want to use would allow for multiple levels of security and access restriction? Do they support SSL and/or Kerberos? Can they tie into LDAP? Do you even know what some of the data leakage issues are for IM in a medical situation, and the time, work, and money required to properly handle them so they don’t get reamed by a HIPAA audit? Does any of that even exist in your world, or is this yet something else you know nothing about, and therefore think there’s no difference between what you do at home, and what is required of the network that doctors and nurses use at a hospital?

#34 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2009, 08:37 PM:

In yesterday's WashPost, the ombudsman comments on this topic. He also talks about it on his blog.

#35 ::: Cadbury Moose spots spam on Regarding Ads ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2009, 06:36 AM:

This moose is suspicious of post 35

It appears to be a twitter bot page.

#36 ::: Xopher Halftongue sees spam attack in progress ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2014, 01:51 PM:

spam tag, delete or leave as convenient

#37 ::: Xopher Halftongue says oops, beat me to it ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2014, 01:52 PM:

Spam cleared before I even finished posting! We have the best mods anywhere.

#38 ::: Cadbury Moose spots spam @ #38 ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2014, 07:25 AM:

Is this thread an attractive nuisance?

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.