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Roadkill on the Information Superhighway
© February 14, 1995 - Warren P. Harris
Warning: Some adult language content.
Imagine for a moment that you're tooling down the road in your car, minding your own business (or so you think), and another driver flips you off, honks their horn, spews a string of epithets at you, tries to force you off the road or otherwise intimidates you - because of some unintentional offense committed on your part. Sound familiar? Probably. This has happened to most of us at one time or another - or we've at least witnessed it. We may have even been the perpetrators of such antisocial behavior in a moment of weakness (or righteous indignation). How often have you seen this happen on the sidewalk, in the mall or in a department store? Almost never, right?
Why is it that we will behave like schoolyard bullies in our cars but not in a face-to-face situation? The answer is fairly obvious. The odds of actually having to physically back up our "attitude" are virtually nil, as we are insulated by two tons of steel and the ability to quickly distance ourselves from our adversaries aided by hundreds of horsepower a mere muscle contraction away. On the other hand, making derogatory references regarding someone's parentage, intelligence or relationship with their mother could easily result in painful on-the-spot reconstructive facial surgery if spoken face-to-face. Insulting someone from the relative safety of our cars is much like a child hiding behind his mother's skirt while making faces at a playmate. It infuriates the victim, but what can he do? No one else saw the offense, so the burden of proof lies with the victim - and he would have to get past "Mom" to exact his revenge. Now that we've officially entered "the information age", what happens when we take these same behavior patterns and adapt them to electronic communications?
We've been hearing quite a lot about The Information Superhighway lately. Are you as tired of hearing about it as I am? It is becoming a bit trite (and tired), but nevertheless, like it or not, it is the phrase of the nineties. From the White House to the weekly tabloids, the buzzword of the hour seems to be the same: The Information Superhighway - otherwise known as The Internet, or 'net to those who regularly avail themselves of its many offerings. The 'net has much with which to tempt the technology addict. From e-mail to the World Wide Web (WWW), once you're on the Superhighway, the sky's the limit when it comes to information and "connectivity" - that ability to communicate with virtually anyone, anywhere, anytime you want. But this freedom and power sometimes comes with a stiff price.
The Superhighway metaphor is perhaps more appropriate than it would appear on the surface. Not unlike the freeways that we have become so dependent on for our physical transportation, The Information Superhighway provides us with similar mobility from a standpoint of communication and the exchange of information. However, it also poses even greater opportunities for childish, vindictive and destructive behavior than its physical counterpart. While merrily cruising down the Internet, we can be flipped off, sideswiped or become the intentional victims of a cyberspace drive-by-shooting, left to bleed to death in the freezing cold of a virtual wilderness. And all of this without ever leaving the comfort (or discomfort) of our home or office. Unfortunately the Internet doesn't have the metaphorical equivalent of paramedics to rescue and attend to the injured. You are on your own in cyberspace. There are also no "driving schools" for The Information Superhighway, at least not in the conventional sense, so learning the "rules of the road" is generally a matter of trial-and-error. You may be fortunate enough to encounter a friendly 'netter or two who will advise you regarding "netiquette" before you "crash and burn". On the other hand, you're also quite likely to run afoul of more than just a few people who could be said to be in need of an attitude adjustment. One unpleasant fact: They can access you anonymously if they're cowardly enough.
For those not yet familiar with the anon.penet.fi "anonymous" service, it's one of many re-posting servers (this one is located in Scandinavia) that assigns an anonymous id to the account enabling someone to e-mail or post to a Usenet newsgroup (by routing the message through the anon.penet.fi server first) without their identity being known. Posting to technical groups via the anonymous service is a practice that is openly discouraged by even the server operators. There are actually some legitimate uses for the "anon" service. The original intent behind the creation of the anonymous servers was to enable those participating in "adult" (read sexually explicit) newsgroups to hide their identity, and this is still a valid application for the "anonymous" servers around the world. However, they are all too frequently used to flame someone without really putting anything "on the line". Since the use of a reposting service guarantees your anonymity, no one knows your real name, and all they can do is rant at your assumed identity. Taken to one extreme, you could conceivably be courteous and civil to your next-door neighbor in public and slam him with vitriolic rhetoric all night long on the 'net - and he would never be able to determine the source.
Just as there are vast numbers of considerate drivers on our highways, the majority of 'net surfers are also discreet and courteous with respect to their interactions with others in public communications. However, there are, just as on our highways, the occasional encounters with the Socially_Challenged. Not unlike the sociopaths that stalk our unsuspecting citizenry in some of the larger cities, these social misfits, cloaked is relative anonymity behind an assumed identity will sometimes fire thousands of rounds of "virtual" ammunition at anyone that gets in their way, with no regard whatsoever for the consequences to the victim.
Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of communicating on the 'net, is that your "tone" or intent is perceived entirely based on the manner in which you write. You cannot italicize, underline or boldface words or phrases for emphasis. The best you can do is to encase words in *asterisks*, "quotes" or separate_words_by_underscores for effect - AND USING ALL CAPS IS THE SAME AS YELLING, which is not taken lightly by most 'netters. Therefore, the syntax employed is crucial to the point of being a "virtual" life-or-death matter. Any phrase, penned in haste, anger or indignation, once sent can never be withdrawn. Unlike direct person-to-person or even telephone communications, e-mail and newsgroup posts are more akin to postal communications, where you send off a letter and wait for the reply - except that if you realize you've made an egregious faux pas in your letter, you can usually call the recipient before it arrives to correct the problem. With electronic communication all you can do is await the inevitable "flame" that follows.
A case in point: One particular Newsgroup that I frequent deals largely with technical issues (until a discussion gets sidetracked) and has numerous manufacturers who maintain a high profile for purposes of tech support and PR in general. In August or September of 1994 I happened upon a "thread" that had initially begun on a technical topic, but had now turned into a public name-calling and Cyber stone-throwing extravaganza. The target of all of this Cyber-wrath was a well-intentioned representative (we'll call him "MAX") of a professional corporation (referred to here as "*.* CORP" ) just getting their feet wet on the Internet. He was attempting to represent a company position on a particular topic and had inadvertently stuck one foot in his mouth while stepping on several 'netters toes with the other foot. This is actually much easier to accomplish than the image it conjures up would indicate. His naïveté and zealousness had started a ball rolling that was to eventually become large enough to crush him in its path and cause some (perceived) negative repercussions for the company itself.
I was curious as to just how all of this sniping had started, so I took the discussion off-line and e-mailed MAX directly. He informed me of the details wherein he had attempted to provide a corporate presence and some Internet-based technical support and had gotten caught up in the fray. MAX could probably have handled the situation better, since some of his public posts indicated a less-than-patient attitude, but in all fairness, his initial post was appropriately civil. It should be noted that MAX had been the section manager for the company's forum on Compuserve and had a sterling record for tech support there. In fact he maintained that reputation right up until the day he left the company. His patience was tested time and time again on the Internet and apparently finally folded under the strain of what appeared to be unending assaults on his motives and knowledge of the subjects at hand. There were some issues, that if addressed in a more understanding "tone", would have been resolved quickly and quietly. But like many of us, he reacts to input and produces output. In a one-on-one discussion, this is not a problem, as both people involved simply adjust their communication styles until they reach a point where they are both "in sync". This same procedure takes much longer on the Internet. And sometimes the synchronization never occurs.
While many of the participants in this particular newsgroup behaved like adults and conducted themselves in a reasonable manner - even in the cases where they were leveling criticism at the unsuspecting contributor, not all were content to merely discuss the issues. Several individuals turned the entire thread into a personal campaign to publicly deride MAX and cast aspersions on the quality of *.* CORP's products - based primarily on the content of their dubious "contribution" to the newsgroup. The entire discussion looked like it had finally died an overdue death in early October '94, with only the occasional shot being fired, generally to the effect that it would be nice to get the group back on track and off the "*.* CORP-bashing" permanently. Then, just when things were starting to return to normal (as normal as the 'net ever gets) one unknown participant (since he has declined to make his true identity known we'll call him "SQUID") started posting some highly insulting messages to the group through the anon.penet.fi service regarding MAX's character and behavior.
Most legitimate contributors to newsgroups take a dim view of anonymous posting and many of the "regulars" made their opinions publicly known - and no doubt sent a fair amount of private messages to the offender as well. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to let this hit-and-run artist know exactly where I stood on the subject of 'net_snipers. Unfortunately, SQUID was in no way deterred by the group's opinions on his (or her) behavior. He redoubled his efforts, occasionally posting new and more inflammatory messages to the group, and even got into a private flame war with MAX on the side. The off-line (and subsequent on-line) discourse between MAX and SQUID quickly turned into a virtual yelling match which include statements (names substituted to protect subject's identities) like:
------------------------ Excerpt from public post by SQUID----------------------------
>> > Didn't your boss tell you to "tone it down"?
>> Sorry to dissappoint..I am my Boss.
>Aha. So you are the top boss at *.* Corp. I thought xxxx was
>> You have alot of nerve accusing me of distorting the facts.
>And you have a lot of nerve e-mailing me obscenities:
>> Subject: Sorry to dissappoint you ASSHOLE !
>> BITE ME>>>FUCK OFF AND DIE >>>GET A LIFE >>>>FIND A JOB>>>GO PLAY ON THE FREEWAY>>>>GROW UP>>>>>>GO TO HELL>>>>YOUR COMMENTS ARE REDICULOUS AND ACCURATELY DESCRIBE A REAL WANNABE WITH NO ONE TO TALK TO EXCEPT HIS COMPUTER SCREEN>>>>
>Please answer these 2 questions:
>1) Is the above text an official *.* Corp reply?
>2) Do you mind if I mail printed copies of your messages to your "colleagues" xxxxxx and xxxxx?
------------------------------------- End Excerpt-----------------------------------
As above, the content of these messages usually amounted to reposts of alleged private e-mail from MAX to SQUID, containing threats, insults and long strings of capitalized epithets. SQUID would then tack on his own comments, to the effect that this was no way for a professional representative to behave, and that everyone should know what kind of person MAX really was, adding statements like "wouldn't it be interesting to see what the owner of the company thought of this kind of behavior?"
If it had ended there, this story would probably never have been written. It did not end there. SQUID made good on his threats to take all of his complaints directly to the CEO of the company. On December 27, 1994 I received an e-mail message with the following basic details:
Essentially, MAX told me that he was no longer employed at *.* CORP. It seemed that SQUID had followed through with his threats to send MAX's original e-mail messages along with some forged e-mail messages to the owner of the company. Apparently the company had already conducted its investigation, which included contacting other companies that use the Internet, to get their opinions and had determined that the overall impact of the entire issue was creating a negative image for the company. In addition, SQUID was threatening to send copies of the real letters as well as the forgeries to several magazines, which would further exacerbate the problem.
MAX had assumed that since this was essentially all groundless ranting by some unknown crazed flamer with an ax to grind, he would be vindicated in the end. Unfortunately, *.* CORP did not see it the same way. Since only his replies, both real and forged, were sent to the company he had no evidence at his disposal to defend his position. The anonymous poster had gambled (successfully) on the fact that most of us don't save copies of our e-mail and public messages that we send. It was very easy to make MAX out as the criminal by not providing the original messages MAX had been responding to. If this had been an actual court trial, the charges would have been quickly dropped once all of the evidence had been made available to the jury - but corporate politics has nothing to do with justice. MAX was never given the benefit of facing his accuser and had no time to gather the comments of others who witnessed the entire exchange unfold. Unfortunately, MAX is not one to save copies of all his communications, so he had no proof to substantiate his side of the situation. In a surprising turn of events, MAX's employment with the company was abruptly terminated.
The Internet takes "office politics" to the Global level. Most of us who are employed by a corporation have learned the political climate through assimilation. As we become acclimated to the environment, we learn the various personality traits and "hot buttons" of our various associates, subordinates and superiors. It's fairly easy to "read" someone in person, as their facial expressions and body language (in addition to their verbal responses) provide us with almost instantaneous feedback on how we are being received. In conventional office politics there are always those whose opinions will differ from ours and there will inevitably be those individuals with whom we do not get along. We can choose to either "work it out" or sidestep these people altogether based on what impact they have on our careers and how invested we are in the relationship. The Internet puts an entirely new spin on office politics as we move into the next millennium. No longer can we count on immediate feedback and response - and adjust our communication style accordingly. With e-mail the time-delay alone introduces a whole new dynamic - most of us by now have adjusted to that. But with Usenet newsgroups and Listservers we have no way of knowing who will be receiving our publicly posted messages. A current employer, a future employer - or someone with an abundant imagination, a vindictive streak and a lot of free time on his hands could well be monitoring our communications. The entire world is listening - and forming an opinion of us without ever seeing our faces or hearing us speak.
Given the implications and impact of the Internet on our personal and corporate lives, what should we do to protect ourselves from experiencing a similar "career meltdown"? Here are some guidelines for starters:
1 If you're employed by someone else, have your Internet account through your employer and your Internet address contains your corporate domain information, you're in much more jeopardy than if you maintain an individual account and keep your corporate affiliation secret. If you don't have to directly represent your employer, seriously consider obtaining your own account and assume a new identity that doesn't give away your true identity.
2 If you're self-employed and have no stake in maintaining your professional image, I suppose you can say whatever you want, but just keep in mind that anyone you offend today - intentionally or not - just might be your customer or employer tomorrow (kind of makes you think, doesn't it?).
3 If you are representing your employer and maintaining a high-profile on the Internet where business dealings can be directly impacted by your image, keep the following suggestions in mind:
a) All communications on the Internet are essentially "public". Even if you send a private e-mail to someone, it can be forwarded to "the world" in a heartbeat. If something you send in private displays you in even a slightly unfavorable light, you could be in big trouble overnight. A negative comment about someone else could wind up in their inbox tomorrow morning and you could be standing in the unemployment line next week.
b) Always re-read your messages before you send them to check for 'tone', syntax and possible offensive remarks. If in doubt, have someone else proof the message before you send it. This may result in a delay in response time, but what's a day compared to a career?
c) Syntax, diction, spelling and simple oversights are big issues for some people. You might be surprised at how many individuals are ready to take you to task for "sins of omission". All you need to do is leave out one crucial detail in a technical discussion, and there are those who will publicly deride you for passing out inaccurate advice to unsuspecting neophytes. This may not irreparably damage your image, but the "damage control" alone could take weeks of your time. It's not worth it! Take the time to double check your facts and grammar, especially in technical discussions.
d) Always KEEP COPIES OF ALL COMMUNICATIONS! Most of us that have ever worked in "corporate America" have learned that keeping copies of everything is the only way to cover our butts. Well, if you're involved with the Internet, you've just multiplied that carreer_imperative a thousand times. Yes, it's a pain, but would you rather be in MAX's shoes? I can't stress this enough. Save copies of everything and archive it periodically. Save multiple copies. Hell, carry an archive in your shirt pocket at all times, just in case (well, maybe that's just a bit paranoid).
4 If you're self-employed and representing yourself and your company on the Internet, items a) through d) still apply to you, as a negative image on the 'net can have a profoundly negative impact on your business in fairly short order. Remember: Every satisfied customer will tell one other person. Every dissatisfied customer will tell ten other people. Do the math. On the Internet this can snowball overnight in either direction. If you're perceived well, your standing on the 'net can be of great help in growing your business. If you're perceived badly... well, I don't think I need to spell it out.
So before you select "send", make absolutely certain that the content of your message is crystal clear. Sacrifice spontaneity for editorial accuracy. Double-check and triple-check your spelling and syntax just to be absolutely *sure* that your statements are 100% accurate. Have someone else proofread your text just to be absolutely positive you aren't inadvertently offending someone. Save copies of absolutely everything you write or receive - even if you need an extra gigabyte drive to do it. Make every effort to be as politically correct as you possibly can - or you also may just wind up as Roadkill on the Information Superhighway.
Authors Note: At MAX's request I have not contacted *.* CORP for a direct comment. An e-mail request to SQUID for an interview has gone unanswered. The factual details represented in this article are based upon personal observation during the events described, in addition to e-mail and phone conversations with MAX over the last four months. Every effort has been made to ensure journalistic integrity during the compilation of these details.