Thursday, July 6, 2006

Online Anonymity is Good, But it Takes Work on Everyone's Part

Here I sit, in the same public space where two years ago, about this same time, connected to public wi-fi, I created and shot out two initial posts and then a third noting the web feed URL. Whew, that July 2004 was a busy month! And it has been a hell of an uphill ride from there... I've learned a lot and I feel like a lot has been accomplished at Microsoft, along with sharing and discovering information in and about Microsoft that have helped countless Microsofties.

How's the score? Microsoft sure has gotten bigger, with no end to expansion in sight. Mini-Microsoft 0, Maxi-Microsoft 20,000.

Nevertheless, given that lots of good changes are emerging (first LisaB and now Sinofsky world), I've put away the pointy stick and have pushed the mental pause button here. It seemed, however, some kind of news event happened every week... so I put up a matching post for discussion: Scoble leaving, Gates 'retiring,' Vic leaving, etc etc. But between that and no mini-essays, the commenting sort of meandered along. And the comments got a bit nasty, not helped by my mis-approval ability.

So I've now cranked up the comment moderation quality gates.

Anonymity check. Is anonymous commenting a good thing? Is anonymous anything a good thing? Why is the EFF so passionate about anonymous rights? Hmm. It's a good discussion to have. My immediate answer is an affirming, "Yes, anonymous protection is a good thing. Judge the content on its own merits, not by the speaker." Other people's immediate answer is "No way! The message is ignorable without a person standing by it!"

While TDavid has been ragging on me for a while, recently Scoble flipped the bit and ripped through the commenting here, basically saying:

  • Anonymity is cowardly, especially backstabbing co-worker anonymous commenters.
  • No worthwhile content can come from unsigned, anonymous sources.
  • I'm being used by the commenters here with their anti-Microsoft agenda.
  • This blog is now harming Microsoft more than it's helping.
  • Non-Microsofties frequently pose as Microsofties to post as part of a subtle, intentional tear-down of Microsoft via Mini-Microsoft.

Surprise! It was as if I switched on the TV and saw Scoble's face pasted over Kanye West, saying, "Mini-Microsoft is bad for Microsoft!" Oh, and Dare jumped on that bad wagon, too, also hedging that this blog has jumped the shark again (third time's a charm, I guess).

Counter to this, Adam Barr also weighs in with Scoble vs. Mini (nice! reasonable!).

Now then, Scoble was coming off of a totally justified reaction to the harsh comments posted around his former team, Vic, and the newly designated leader. Doug Mahugh has a follow-up on that and anonymity: Doug’s World » Response to Robert Scoble. But, damn, when Scoble's bit gets flipped, it really gets flipped.

So he's in the very anti-anonymous world right now. Anonymity bad. Cowardly. Useless. And Scoble signs out of Mini-Microsoft land for good. Hmmph. Maybe he's pulling a Dvorak here, or this is an indoctrination into the crazy uncle club. On one hand, since I respect Scoble a super-great deal, it gives me a good bit to think about (and thus this post). On the other hand, it makes me want to proclaim Tuesday July 11th 2006 as "Be Robert Scoble Day" and sign your posts and comments across the web and blogosphere as Robert Scoble so that everything you write has a proper name associated with it. To quote Scoble, "Heh."

As for Microsoftie-posers contributing comments here: duh. Sorry I can issue forth anything more intellectual than that, but I'm sure it happens. Which posts, though? I have my suspicions, but I can't be 100% sure, so I break out the salt. Scoble quotes a reliable-kept-anonymous source as being quite in the know of all these posers here. The same source likes to spread similar FUD about how it's no more than thirty-some people rotating through various roles posting comments here. And how folks here are all a bunch of whiners. I know, we live in the age of saying it makes it so. I can't invoke divine wisdom on every Microsoftie post to clearly understand if it's blue-badged or not, though somehow this Agent Smith can. Take two grains of salt in search of your own opinion in the world of grey here.

One thing I can rely on is the community that's part of the conversation here to call B.S. on things that are suspicious, or when something gets through that shouldn't. Do you think a particular comment looks suspicious? Call B.S. on it an explain why. Your B.S. calling doesn't make it through my newly modified highly fortified comment filter? Link to that post in your own blog calling B.S.

As an anonymous blogger, it would be wrong for me not to extend the same to the commenters here. I have to. But I've heard everyone's feedback, too: the moderation quality has to be better. And please whip out the B.S. stamps and let me know when it's not.

Other commenters recent opinions on this topic (sorry if it seems like a love-fest - if you have differing opinions, submit them or link to this post):

(1) Until Mini came along, Microsoft thought their entire stack of management was super, and very well respected by employees. The reason they thought this is that detractors were tarred as traitors, whispering campaigns were started against them, and they were managed out. This summed up nicely with Ballmer's statement during the recent town hall: "if you're still using Google raise your hands." No, the first amendment is good for something, and nicely applied here.

(2) Not singling anyone out, but if there had been no way to anonymously post during the lengthy "stack ranking" discussion, is it likely the changes seen recently would have occurred at all?

(3) If it means anything, I think you're serving a valuable purpose for fellow employees. Without your forum, there's no sanity check for individual observations.

(4) Mini, if ever you were in doubt about the amount of good or bad that can happen through minimsft blog, I hope those have now evaporated. Although unelected by us and sometimes your posts are fluff:), your blog has provided an avenue for exchanges that were hitherto impossible.

Do not let this go to waste. Several times the site has jumped the shark with the unchecked or poorly checked comments but several times it has managed to come back to relevancy. Like Scoble or not, there is some truth in his remarks above. While I don't believe the era of Mini is over, I doubt my MS is being helped by some of the things you let through on a consistent basis.

(5) I'm an ex-employee and current shareholder. My experience then and now is that unfortunately, in more cases than not, MSFT's leadership responds to pressure vs proactively doing the right thing. When that pressure doesn't exist or can be easily ignored, MSFT often makes no course correction at all. We see this competitively, legally, internally and wrt customers/partners and especially shareholders. Dare's right that some unfortunate comments have made it through the filter and included "character assassination, racism, sexism, fear mongering, unfounded allegations of sexual misconduct, information leaking" etc, but that's not a whole lot different than many conversations over coffee at MSFT locations worldwide - or most other companies for that matter (regretably). More importantly, in my experience, comments like that have overwhlemingly been the exception vs the rule. Again as a shareholder, I think your site has done more than ANY to foster questioning of current management by both internal and external stakeholders and that's a GREAT thing given their penchant for ignoring the numerous and very obvious current concerns. When we get CONCRETE signs that senior leadership is willing and able to make the difficult course corrections (including changing the dysfunctional corporate culture) w/o external pressure, then your site's contribution may no longer be needed. Until then, I hope you'll keep at it and ignore the naysayers.

(6) The vast majority of us (who actually read lots of blogs every day) appreciate what you are doing. Not everyone realizes yet that this site is going to help mold the future of the company and maybe even bring it into the 21st century as far as how the tech world and how employees gather information and share thoughts and mature debate.

Please edit out the random trolls and potential planned posts that seem to be geared to distracting from and discrediting the mini focus.

(7) This blog is awesome simply because it IS anonymous, and people can post without fear of retalliation. Given the cloistered and clannish atmosphere at Microsoft, this is not cowardice or paranoia. It's common sense.

(8) Those in power to make a difference (LisaB?) who happen to read the blog will automatically ignore those items that don't happen to be true and posted anonymously and filter them away as noise. However, complaints that have an objective point and are posted anonymously will be considered on their merits because everyone who *really* works here knows its true. Therefore, ignoring the comment, because its anonymous, is illogical because employees can attest to its veracity and are able to contemplate the argument presented based on the content of the message itself. Moreover, upper management knows that impactful messages resonate strongly with the masses *despite* their anonymity (the discussion about stack rank is a representative example). As such, these anonymous discussions can certainly form the seeds of revolution. Ignore actual employees who post incorrectly because of their error; these are typically corrected later on by another employee and as such, the former's anonymous (incorrect) message has no impact.

So, damn me and cast aspersions upon me, but I'm going to keep keeping on.

Any other thoughts?

Oh, and finally: if some poor potential candidate came to Mini-Microsoft as part of their decision-making to join Microsoft and got scared away, well, great! Who would make such a judgment based on the radical content of a blog slavishly devoted to down-sizing Microsoft? Not someone I want on my team. Instead, I'd expect them to use it to have a challenging conversation with their recruiter and hiring manager so that they could start a job with eyes wide open and savvyness set to eleven.

Updated: corrected spelling of Doug Mahugh's last name. Sorry!

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