Thursday, February 19, 2015

Conor Friedersdorf: King of the Open Letter to Nobody

Back in early 1990s, when I was still an un-defrocked technology guy, the corporation I worked for was aggressively courted by an East Coast technology company.  Among the many earthly delights they showed us during the pitching of the woo, was, at the time, a genuinely startling revelation about what kind of personal information was available on public and subscription databases, and how detailed and personal a profile of almost anyone could be built up by cross-referencing the right files (I remember our president was visibly discomfitted at the sight of how much detail on her personal life could be deduced from the available data pool and, upon reflection, I am not entirely sure that what we witnessed wasn't both of a dazzling display of cutting edge technology and a genteel threat leveled at our carefully-closeted boss because who knows what else we know about you?)

Since then, the situation has gotten ever so much worse at an exponential rate by search algorithms which have reached near-sentient sophistication and hundreds of millions of social media users' who have been suckered into (and have pressured their peers into) backing their personal lives up to the digital trough and dumping terabytes of shockingly personal stuff into the web.

So you can imagine what a hearty and refreshing laugh at Young Conor Friedersdorf's call for a New Birth of Internet Freedom, in which corporations neither bow to outside pressure nor use the tools with which the times have provided them to pry into your private life and use that knowledge to your detriment:
Meanwhile, I propose a new social norm. My strong suspicion is that we'd all be better off if Americans developed a broad aversion to people being fired for public missteps that have nothing to do with their jobs. That norm would do more good than bad even if you think some people deserve to be fired. Sure, I'd advise against taking flip photographs at a military cemetery. But whatever one thinks of that error in judgment, there's no reason it should cause a woman to lose her job helping developmentally disabled adults.

An insensitive Halloween costume may justify a dirty look or scolding or even shaming. It should not deprive someone of their livelihood! It's strange when you think about it, this notion of getting sacked as a general purpose punishment that an angry faction of the public demands of an at-first-reluctant employer. The target, the mob demands, should have to find a new job, or go on welfare, or move back in with their mom, or perhaps starve. It's not even clear what's meant to happen. Let's rethink this.

People should usually feel ashamed of themselves for thinking, "I should get that stranger fired." Companies should be left alone when one of their employees does something offensive while "off-duty." Since some Internet trolls will break that rule, here's another: Companies should expect to get more criticism for caving to the demands of trolls than for letting a briefly unpopular employee keep performing his or her duties, even amid an episode of obsessive public shaming. After all, these things always blow over, the attention span of the Internet being short, while losing one's job is, for many, a setback with consequences that last years. And have any of these firings achieved any social good? I defy anyone to produce hard evidence to that effect.

Here's what corporations should say in the future: "Sorry, we have a general policy against firing people based on social media campaigns. We're against digital mobs."

But note the one exception built into what I propose. Sometimes people do stupid things in the public eye that relate directly to their jobs. If, say, a DEA agent writes a Facebook post bragging about how many innocent black people he's going to lock up for drug trafficking next month, then it's obviously legitimate to demand his immediate termination. But generally speaking, Americans ought to be averse to the notion of companies policing the speech and thoughts of employees when they're not on the job. Instead, many are zealously demanding that companies police their workers more, as if failing to fire someone condones their bad behavior outside work. Few general standards work out best in every last circumstance. But the one I suggest would be better than what we've got.
I feel for anyone who has been whacked because of a digital mob which, like the wind, "...blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes", but comtemporize, man!

In a very real sense, Young Conor, this is the world conservatism made. A world in which corporations have been encouraged to systematically erase any concept of "off the clock".  Where you are always on screaming, white-hot deadline.  Where assigning you to do more in a week than you can possibly get done in a month is the new normal.  A world of "What do you mean you haven't had time to finish the Gundersen presentation yet? You sure seem to have plenty of time to stay up until all hours arguing tax policy online! "

A world where peeing into a cup, polygraphs, credit checks, criminal background checks and a deep dive into your online life have become SOP in HR.

Where "at will" employment laws have been created specifically so employers can sack your ass for any reason or no reason at all.*

And since our dominant corporate culture has all but abolished the boundaries between home and work, this is now a world where anything you say or do anywhere at any time can be sufficient grounds for termination or never getting the job in the first place.

This is the world that emboldened corporations and gelded labor protection have created, so stop sending letters to imaginary people who will never listen to a word you say* and enjoy the fruits of conservatism's labor.

*  Fixed!


Neo Tuxedo said...

This is the world that emboldened corporations and gelded labor protection have created, so stop sending letters to imaginary people who will never listen to a word you say and enjoy the fruits of conservatism's labor.

I don't think that URL goes where you meant it to go.



Mike Lumish said...

Which brings us back to the hysterical ninnies of the Daily Kos, who in the summer of 2013 during the Snowden Wars went on a merry rampage of clubbing and rabbit punching against any good Leftist who was foolish enough to say in public "government spying is an important problem, along with other important problems like unchecked corporate surveillance and mass deportation of people of color." For those who do not play, that was Markos himself - founder and owner of the alleged Maximum Blog in the leftie ideosphere - and for his pains he was brutalized by such intellectual luminaries as mister "two shits" JesseCW who inverted that reasonable statement into "did you hear? Markos thinks NSA spying is OK because it's being done by white guys!" Laugh if you want, because it's the stupidest fucking thing in the world, but this really happened.

So between the hysterical ninnies at the Kos and at FireDogLake, and useless idiots like young Conor here, and masses distracted by endless breads & circuses, I have pretty much lost faith that we are going to get a handle on our difficulties any time soon.

But we gotta' keep trying, right?

dominictemple said...

Good post but the link at the end goes nowhere and did you mean to leave that "And" at the bottom of the post?

OBS said...


What, I'm dying here!

nestor said...

Someone please think of the douchey techbros!
So, is Conor going to roll this up into the 'Non-Aggression Principle' or do I have to file separately?

Conor Friedersdorf said...

This post doesn't actually seem to be disagreeing with my argument that people shouldn't be fired for saying something dumb online. Rather, it seems to posit that I am partly to blame for various bad things in the world because... well, I don't exactly understand why. But I will say that free market capitalism and corporations were pretty damned good for leisure time away from work, historically speaking, and that the shift back to "always on duty" has more to do with the rise of Internet technology than corporatism.

driftglass said...

Welcome Young Conor,

First, posting open letters to Teh Internet is just...lazy. It's an open letter to God about cold weather in Chicago in February. If you wanted to step into the middle of a rich and full discussion about the raising on online mobs at a time when it might have made a dent in anything, this would have been a good time:

Perhaps you really hung it all out there back then and I just missed it?

Second, since you're a person of strong opinions on the subject of the genre of Open Letters to The Abyss, I am surprised you had nothing to say about this?

Perhaps you just missed it?

Third, having lived through 30 years of working in all kinds of non-writing-editorial jobs out in the Real World, and having observed and endured every species of management fad and labor-theft along the way, I can attest to the fact that while 'the the shift back to "always on duty"' was certainly abetted by internet technology, it was always about ever-more aggressively and intrusively wringing more hours out of fewer people for less pay.

milegrinder said...

"But I will say that free market capitalism and corporations were pretty damned good for leisure time away from work, historically speaking, and that the shift back to 'always on duty' has more to do with the rise of Internet technology than corporatism."

'Scuse me while I wipe my posterior with that pithy observation, which stands for the proposition that a disembodied "internet technology" just up and one day snatched away our free time, while the corporations that benefit from such snatching have played no role whatsoever. I'll back away from the snark and merely observe that this is unadulterated crap.

Fritz Strand said...

I worked for a multinational corporation who constantly bragged about how female friendly they were while over the course of years firing every single female mother who worked in my division.

The message was clear - Our problems are your problems, your problems are your problems and don't them ours.

OBS said...

But I will say that free market capitalism and corporations were pretty damned good for leisure time away from work, historically speaking

[blink] [blink blink blink]

I didn't just read that, did I? This has to be a Poe, you can't be serious.

Or, if you are, how 'bout an example? Or, are you just gonna leave it at the unsubstantiated "I will say..." formulation? Cute.

Maybe you could tell us all about how corporations and the free market were secretly really behind the push for the 40 hour work week, child labor laws, safety laws related to hours worked and fatigue, etc., and on and on?

I'll be waiting patiently.

Neo Tuxedo said...

OBS skrev:

I'll be waiting patiently.

In the words of a great American poet, don't hold your breath 'cause it'll make you blue.

Cliff said...

But I will say that free market capitalism and corporations were pretty damned good for leisure time away from work, historically speaking

Said the white man who is paid a handsome sum to sit on his ass and batter at the keyboard.