Whose voice is it anyway?

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.

First, the full story. 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 and the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Mainfesto posted on a website for everyone to view and comment. 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.

I published the an image on Flickr showing the dropped note depicted on the poster replaced with the logos of Movable Type, WordPress, Blogger, UserLand, and Blojsom. I picked these companies because they represent the new printing press and the new medium of communication causing fear and excitement simultaneously from varied audiences.

I pinged a few people over IM after I posted just to make sure I was not being too strong or offensive. A coworker contacted me to let me know he thought some people viewing the image might not comprehend my message and may take offense, but I like art that elicits a point of view. When I got to work I met with my boss to hear his opinion and I talked about my view on the image and the historical contexts. He pointed out to me that others might not see the image as my own work and opinion, but rather as a Technorati opinion. I was convinced this may be true for him, a company executive, but not for me. He expressed concern there was not even a disclaimer in the image description to designate the work as my own. I republished my original post and Flickr entry and added a disclaimer of individuality thinking it would be enough.

So what changed? Towards the end of the work day I find out Technorati received some feedback about the image. I was surprised since no one had contacted me directly or left a comment on Flickr or on my weblog. What I had previously perceived as corporate paranoia became a reality as I saw the feedback channel did not pass through me.

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.

My interpretation of Technorati’s current blogging policy is an attempt to make sure employees are aware of the weight their words carry in this new medium and new industry. It is a really difficult thing to communicate and I am still not sure how to communicate this message effectively to new employees. I will give the issue of corporate blogging some more thought and post again soon with my experiences and observations. It is for this reason it is recommended that Technorati employees seek the opinion of a coworker if they are unsure of how a post might be interpreted by others, to lend a fresh pair of eyes and an experienced mind to your intended message. Technorati subscribes to the idea that markets are conversations. We are all about a direct line of communication to our users and I intend to help facilitate those important conversations.

I am willing to answer any questions about what’s going on with Technorati or general issues of blogging within corporations. An important aspect of any conversation is for both sides to speak with a human voice. I am human, I made a mistake, and I hope to continue to have open and honest communication.

17 comments

Commentary on "Whose voice is it anyway?":

  1. Tony Gentile on wrote:

    Hey Niall –

    Whew boy, you definitely know how to stir the pot! ;)

    I’ve updated my post to reflect this post (or, at least the first version of this post, LOL).

    No trackback, hope you don’t mind the comment link.

    t —

  2. Shelley on wrote:

    Niall, this is a thoughtful and gracious note. I hope that those who are ‘outraged’ on your behalf read this post and respond appropriately; the topic is one that is worthy of rational and calm discussion.

  3. Halley on wrote:

    This is always a tricky subject, isn’t it? When I wrote the piece “A Blogger In Their Midst” for Harvard Business Review in Sept 2002, I had to imagine how much hot water a blogger could get into when she wrote from the shop floor about her company, pissing off the corporate communications head, the lawyers, the HR people, the marketing guy and ultimately the CEO. I was guessing back then, but in the meantime, we’re all living it.

    Some days I think that we’re changing the corporation more than they are changing us. Some days I don’t know.

    How transparent does your parent ever really want you to be?

    Thanks for writing about this so well and sharing this rollercoaster ride.

  4. amorson on wrote:

    Mixing personal and organizational views is very dangerous. Just because a person is an employee does not mean each and every one of his opinions is the same as the organization.

    Does it mean that individual employees can’t have opinions other than the organizations? Where exactly is the line?

    I do not understand why anyone would feedback the organization a person works for about a personal view.

  5. Dave Vogt on wrote:

    Shelley raises a good point. I was reasonably upset when I read about your situation from kottke.org, but for the first time, an employee (you) is taking a rational view on the matter. Now I feel like I’m moving away from angry and reactive towards seeing both sides of the issue.

  6. R J Keefe on wrote:

    This story has reached a frontier, between censorship and common sense, that blogging is going to render hazy and contentious. I haven’t seen the modified poster, but Niall’s description makes itsound almost libelous, and it could be said that Technorati did him a big favor by suggesting that he take the posting down. But the idea that an employee acting as a private person can still be deemed to speak for his employer is noxious, and corporations had better figure out less blunt procedures for handling responses such as the ones generated by Niall’s poster. Niall’s initial proposition remains absolutely correct: corporations have come to depend upon fear as a motivator.

  7. Mike on wrote:

    This article strikes close to home, as I had the exact same thing happened to me the other month. I published a parody of a letter that I had received from my ISP, unaware that my ISP partly owns the company I work for.

    As with you, the channel of feedback did not flow through me, but culminated in a meeting with my boss. I was threatened with serious consequences as well. Unfortunately I am a low level worker in a low level job, I am easily and quite readily replaceable. My boss took it upon himself to read the remainder of my weblog and quite literally made fun of me for some things I had written.

    It instilled in me a sense of censorship on my personal life, and in reality it made me extremely mad, uncomfortable, and stressed out. Moreso than I usually am for sure.

    I had to change my registrar info on my site and remove my resume and any links to other websites. I had to, because I don’t want to be personally identifiable anymore.

    Yesterday I scoured archive.org for my site’s past entries, to make sure there wasn’t anything offensive on there.

    You said

    “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.”

    I have always assumed the opposite. When you work on low level jobs and are easily expendable, you are reminded almost daily of this unfortunate circumstance. You are not praised for any job well done, you are only punished for mistakes and reminded that you are a representative of the company and have a responsibility to uphold the company’s mission ALL THE TIME. This includes inside work, outside work, and probably even after you’re done working for the company.

    The culture of fear is alive and well, there’s no more free speech, not for me. Good luck with your situation.

    Let’s try to get our free speech back.

  8. Rogers Cadenhead on wrote:

    I do not understand why anyone would feedback the organization a person works for about a personal view.

    For the same reason that a boxer hits below the belt: Because that’s where it really hurts.

  9. John Dowdell on wrote:

    Howdy, I’m sorry there was the friction… such problems can be disorienting, I know from experience. This whole area of “being an individual who works with a group” is still adapting to today’s faster communication methods, and it’s trickier still when external stakeholders are numerous and have varied reading skills.

    “…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.” You don’t get to define it by your metrics — each reader defines it by their own metrics. They also get to define what your message “really” meant. They’re customers; the company must respond to their understandings.

    “Technorati received some feedback about the image. I was surprised since no one had contacted me directly or left a comment on Flickr or on my weblog.” Yup, someone who misidentifies the individual as the group can offer circuitous feedback too. I suspect that external pressures rather than internal pressures are the bigger threat to “corporate blogging” longterm….

    I had hoped to catch you at Mobile Monday last night, to see how it was going for you… whenever, I’ve got the next beer, okay? 8)

    jd/mm

  10. Robert Scoble on wrote:

    Niall,

    Great note, thanks for the transparency and the humbleness. It makes me a bigger fan of you.

    I hope I can be so gracious and demonstrate learning ability.

    Robert

  11. Vanderleun on wrote:

    A good and interesting post. However, to say “Technorati’s current blogging policy is an attempt to make sure employees are aware of the weight their words carry in this new medium and new industry.” is sort of silly. The ‘great weight’ of “Technorati” is only gained by scraping off the content of millions of blogs. Without that it has no weight whatsoever. Even with that its weight is more slight than its business plan.

    To pretend otherwise has long been a pose of Technorati but that doesn’t make it true, it just makes it marketing.

  12. Scott Johnson on wrote:

    Like many of the others commenting here, I also appreciate the transparency in this post. But it’s a sad day when a good blogger allows his employer to censor his art, his hobby, or even just his life.

  13. Thomas Hawk on wrote:

    Niall,

    It’s difficult to comment now that I can’t see the modified art, but WTF?

    The best art in the world is social commentary and you were making a point. Who cares if the point is right or wrong or whatever, by caving you give in to the thought that making a point is only legitimate and permissible when the point doesn’t offend corporate sensibilities.

    If the marketing hacks and corporate types of tech companies find it distasteful to have their logos associated with death and war so what. We are all adults and can understand art as political commentary.

    Sometimes extremism is used in art to make a point. I don’t think that anyone really thought that you were suggesting that these companies were responsible for war — especially with your further clarification.

    The only reason this apology post was written was because the image grew larger than you probably initially suspected it would. All the more reason to maintain, establish and emphasize the point you were trying to make.

    A picture truly can say a thousand words and sometimes words can obliterate a thousand pictures. I suspect what you did by removing the art and apologize is make it that much harder for the next guy to create an artistic political statement without fear of their employer coming down on them.

    Certainly it’s nice getting the “feel good” accolades from folks for “doing the right thing,” but your text was political. And we all know that political speech is protected speech despite logos and the like.

    Again, I haven’t seen the art but it was probably pretty good to illicit such a response from the community. And you probably made a few people think — a GOOD thing Niall. I suspect that deep down your thoughts on the rights and wrongs of controling today’s publishing tools still remain unchanged.

    Personally I’d like to see you put the art back up or at least point us to a mirror somewhere on the internet. Artists have a special responsibility in the society in which they operate to create their art despite the unpopularity of their ideas or the adverse reactions. It’s a shame that it would appear that one cannot pursue both an artistic calling and a corporate calling at the same time.

  14. Phil Wolff on wrote:

    There’s something to be said for not blogging at all. I mean, if you have to censor yourself, or worry about hurting your friends, or lose your job or make a scene, is it really worth it?

    You have a case of something small getting blown up with scads of attention. And you really weren’t ready for it. You’re not thinking like Oprah or Marth Stewart

    Don’t blog.

    I even have a whole blog about it.
    http://dijest.com/dontblog/

  15. Jon Garfunkel on wrote:

    “The struggle of corporations to come to terms with a printing press at the fingertips of every employee…”

    Seems that this was a very quick struggle. Or you worded it backwrads. The struggle of employees with a printing press at their fingertips to come to terms with their corporations…

  16. Josh on wrote:

    Nice coverage today in the Times. Sorry to hear Technorati was acting like a poopyhead about all this.