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The corporate sanitization of the web

Tweets show the blurring line between free speech and corporate PR

Gulf News

Adria Richards was stuck in a situation that many of us can sympathise with. She was sitting in a crowded room trying to watch a presentation while a couple of obnoxious d-bags, who apparently have never learned when to shut up, kept making comments.

Apparently, when the comments turned sexual in nature, Adrian decided she’d had enough. She took a picture of the two and tweeted it, shaming the pair with the comment: “Not Cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and “big” dongles. Right behind me #pycon”

I don’t know what Richards expected from the tweet, but she’s probably didn’t expect what did happen. She and one of the men in the picture were fired. The man’s name hasn’t been definitely confirmed yet, but Richards was a “developer evangelist” for @SendGrid, a cloud-based e-mail company.

Then, in an all too frequent scene, the Tweetersphere went nuts. There were people who supported her decision to challenge what she considered sexual harassment, and there were the people who, usually in a much nastier tone, complained that Richards was over-reacting and listening in on a private conversation.

Now lawyers are getting involved. This being the US, lawyers came out of the woodwork to offer suggestions and comments. To sum it all up, if all the lawyers had their way, everyone involved would be suing everyone else.

Sadly, there’s not much new there. Lawyers try to make a buck, trolls go trolling, and people say stupid things on social media that get themselves fired.

But there is something different here, and that difference is a little unsettling.

Richards was using her own twitter account — not that of her employer, who apparently sent her to the conference. When her employer did fire her, it was not because of her view point, but because she would no longer be able to do her job as a “developer evangelist” because she was now at the centre of Donglegate.

Why her company didn’t support her is unknown. Obviously, as she pointed out in another tweet, the employer of one of the men showed her support when it fired him. @SendGrid was apparently more afraid of bad PR then it was concerned about her ability to stand up for women. The message was clear. When online, even in a private capacity, you work for us. You sold us your soul, so don’t embarrass us.

But since when did our personal online identities merge with our corporate one? The cynical among you will probably point out that’s its always been that way. Your personal scandals, regardless of whether they’re in the real world or the cyber world, have always had the potential to get you thrown out of the building.

Chilling effect

But this isn’t a scandal. It may be controversial, but the only crime she may have committed was invasion of privacy. However, that’s rubbish. She was not listening in on a private conversation, as some people have argued. The two men were apparently running their mouths — loudly — at a professional conference. They weren’t in their kitchen at home.

The problem is that on today’s social media platforms, it’s all about image. I blame that increasingly on corporations and worse — public relations firms — who more and more want to use social media in an attempt to get us to “engage” with “brands” and above all defend their client’s image.

The problem is that it’s causing a chilling effect on the web. People don’t want to post about the lousy meal they had in your restaurant for fear of being sued, just as Benihana in Lebanon did with a blogger. The company eventually lost that case, but who wants to hire a lawyer to defend online comments about dinner?

This type of online scrutiny by company combined with the hysterical defence of brands is making me considering doing something that I’ve never done before: go anonymous. I’ll — probably — never do it, simply cause I have a life. But this trend of corporate sanitisation of the web makes me want to go online and tell the world why I hate a company’s pizza, why the new smartphone sucks, and why I wouldn’t want to be seen dead in your newly launched car. And, like Adria Richards, I want to tell the world what I think of you, whether you like it or not.

Or companies can accept the fact that people have personality and opinions, and that those are likely to go online. If their views are so extreme that they cause a scandal, maybe the person the company should blame is themselves. After all, they did the hiring.