The middle of the road is a difficult place to be on any issue online for a number of reasons I've written about elsewhere in the past. One reason is because of the very negotiability of free speech in an online context - we have to fight for our right to be heard, and since it is easier to define what the extreme positions are, those on the extreme ends of an issue will be the first to recognize each other and the first to gather and thus be in a position to gang up on their opposition. The political lunatic fringe put that fact to good use during the last few decades, and powerfully bad experiences do tend to reinforce certain behaviors. One of them can be summed up by a quote from a troll I've mentioned before.
"Nuance. It's what I don't do."
Nuance is something that many have learned to shy away from, with the result that now almost everything seems to be a hot button topic, one waiting for an explosive confrontation of passionately expressed extremes, from those who've become accustomed to seeing the mere refraining from offering condemnation and hostility itself be responded to with aggressive confrontation. "If you stand in the middle of the road, you'll be run over". But if nobody ever does that, then there really never is any discussion to be had, never any real communication.
This is a very bad development, but one that self-reinforces, because the expectation that an extreme position will be taken becomes so ingrained, that when one does anything else, some may perceive reversals where they do not exist, and feel betrayed, should they have offered support. One has to worry, sometimes, about whether or not this has happened.
On April 29, before I heard that the Microsoft takeover was old news, if indeed it will remain so (thank you, Mr.Icahn?), I wrote a post over on my old 360 blog entitled "The post you never expected to see (#35)" in which I urged some who had been posting over on the 360 team blog to tone down their rhetoric a little, and understand that a lot of work wasn't going to get done because many Yahoo employees, understandably and rightly, probably were making lining up new jobs their first priority. Yet here I am, urging you to go over and help vote for the 360 team blog in the race for "worst blog of all time" on the Blog Awards site. and sharing a story about a memorable foulup on the part of Yahoo's staff. What gives? What is my actual position and when will I stop waffling?
The answer to the second question is that I'm not waffling, but merely refusing to embrace either extreme. At one end, we have the "Yahoo can do no wrong" crowd and on the other, the "Yahoo is evil incarnate crowd"; one finds oneself, sometimes, called on to hold the employees to be above criticism or beyond the possibility of compassion, and with the posting of the deservedly infamous Evolution of Yahoo! 360 post on the Yahoo 360 team blog, we found how quickly some could switch from one camp to another, going from singing hosannas for the team they would not let anybody question, to screaming for that very same team's blood in almost the same breath. One actually got to see users expressing amusement over the thought of Yahoo employees ending up out on the street holding tin cups, bringing us to one reason why that cliche about the dangers of standing in the middle of the road is a terrible one.
This sort of thing is what happens when extremism becomes instinctual: if those who are unrealistically idolised are ever perceived to have slipped, the response can not be anything less than savage, because the basic humanity of the expression "nobody's perfect" becomes that which can no longer be conceptualized. In following the path of least resistance, the members of the community find that at some point, they've left their compassion and willingness to forgive and understand behind, and reasonability can not survive that discovery. However one may go into denial about the thought, in such a merciless setting, each must ask who will be the next to become a target for the wrath of the mob, and know that if he ever retreats from a position and is seen to be imperfect, that the back the bullseye will end up being painted on may very well be his own. At a time when what people need to do is start listening to each other, really doing so becomes precisely what nobody dares to do, and far from self-correcting, the breakdown in communications will only feed upon itself. Fanaticism becomes an end in itself, able to make its appearance on any issue, even ones that in saner times would have been seen as being unworthy of any real level of drama, and sometimes somebody needs to be the one to tell people to calm down and suggest that maybe, just maybe, that even if we ought not approve of overtime parking, that cutting off somebody's thumbs for having let a meter expire might be a little excessive.
Or something like that.
If one has ever experienced long-term unemployment, especially in a compassion-free zone like the present day United States, where having been unemployed for a long time is viewed as being legitimate grounds for being refused employment, with the result that the briefly unfortunate can easily become the permanently dispossessed, one knows that the words "living death" are no exaggeration when applied to that state of being. One is scarcely viewed as even being human by those around one.
In response to such an extreme reaction, one is left with one of those forbidden, politically incorrect questions that we are supposed to be too hardnosed to ask
"Does the Punishment fit the crime?
Well, does it? Does it seem fitting that somebody's life should basically be over, sometimes at a relatively young age, merely because one is not happy with the performance of the company for which he works? How do so many people convince themselves that this would not be unjust?
In part, perhaps because of the "kill!kill!kill!" response I allude to above that comes as the concept of a happy medium is lost, and perhaps in part because of something spoken of in Monday Never Comes. In the West, we tend to speak of a company making a decision or a company doing something, or for that matter some other collective entity like an organization or a country doing so, and forget that this is at best a metaphor, a convenient conceptual shorthand for a vast array of individual choices and interactions so complex that we have trouble taking it all in. We speak of Yahoo or some other company as if it were a person, going so far as to make that fictional personhood a legal reality, but it is a fiction. Failing to remember this leads to muddled thinking when, for example, one argues that a company clearly wouldn't do this or that because to do so would clearly not be in the company's best interests. Perhaps not, but it may well be in the perceived best interests of some well entrenched employee who is not above twisting the system for his own purposes and so some of the true believers in the Utopian possibilities of the free market will be most unpleasantly surprised from time to time and sometimes, as now, will be left with the bitter rage of somebody who has been made to feel foolish, but doesn't feel free to speak of this problem openly. At Yahoo, I think, we've seen one of those moments, as users have forgotten that Matthew Warburton, the VP responsible for the Universal Profile concept, and Yahoo are not one.
There are excellent reasons to dislike Mr.Warburton at present, or at least such is the impression one might very reasonably have. There are also ones that are occasionally terrible, one of which we saw on display a few months ago in the comments section on the Yahoo 360 blog.
At a time when a company such as Yahoo is under impending threat of a hostile takeover, to fault either management or staff for the slow pace of repairs made is unreasonable, because, as I pointed out elsewhere, many in the staff will, with very good reason, for reasons management itself should have no trouble understanding, be spending much of their time looking for alternative positions elsewhere. One certainly can't blame labor for seeking to avoid the aforementioned living death of long term unemployment, or management for such reasonability it shows in understanding that. Reasonability is, in moral terms, a very good thing. Even after the threat has passed, as this one probably has, despite noises made by Carl Icahn, one might not be able to legitimately blame management for poor service, for management may find itself left primarily with the worst members on its staff, those who nobody else wished to hire, the best, brightest and most responsible employees having fled to more secure positions, leaving their former employers and us to think about silk purses and sows' noses. One can only make use of the resources one has. One might even reasonably ask whether or not one can blame the would-be raider whose attempted takeover might do such damage for raiding under a system under which the big corporate fish can so easily gobble the smaller ones. One grows or dies, and so one does what one can to grow, maybe in part because one is bad, but certainly because the system is extremely bad.
But if we start arguing that it follows that nothing is anybody's fault because nobody could have done anything other than what he did, that's nonsense, because the world is as Man chose to make it. There is always somebody making a choice. When legislators choose to make the funds borrowed to finance a leveraged buyout tax deductable, giving the banks an added incentive to take part in such efforts and unbalancing the playing field in favor of those attempting takeovers, that's a choice. While the employer of a firm may find himself stuck with those employees whose work attitudes are not the best, the attitude is something that the employee has built up through a lifetime of decisions made, and that's a choice. And when a incoming executive at an Internet firm chooses to heedlessly pursue a pet project that is guaranteed to alienate and ultimately drive off the users, cutting into the company's ad revenues and in no way strengthening it in its fight to maintain its independence merely because he has an ego driven desire to make his mark, that's a choice, one which we might rightly condemn.
Note that, at a time when Microsoft has announced that it was backing off on the takeover attempt, and so much of the pressure to relocate in a hurry was off the remaining employees, that I did not push the nonhelpful employees in support to give me back the ability to change the profile photo I mentioned in my May 19 post, the one which had been so offensively changed without my consent. I didn't even insist that they change it back. I would have liked either, but I would have settled for just having them delete that picture from my G rated profile, something that can be done by them with the push of a button, requiring no in depth maintenance work be done. How much time could complying with such a simple, reasonable request have taken? Any more than it took them to frustrate a user who their foulup has caused great difficulty by doing no more than sending him a few useless form letters? They decided to be unhelpful just for the sake of being unhelpful, and there's nothing understandable about that.
Nor is there much to be said for the practice of encouraging users to work on their blogs on a given service a mere two blog posts before announcing the closing of the very service they were blogging on, having refused to answer all questions about rumors of that closing for months, months in which those users who still trusted one's company could have established themselves at new locations. Any company whose core business, whose first business, is the running of a search engine, should know why that is a terrible thing to do to a user, how a sudden change in url, with no opportunity to link from the old location of a site to the new location, can sink a site in the rankings for years. If the service ceases to exist, even if Yahoo should keep its promise to move everything to this mysterious new service and lose nothing, how does the user place anything at the now vanished old url to help the spiders find their way to the new place? There is no sign to be seen that Mr.Warburton cares about the damage his brainchild will do, nor any that the writers of that blog were concerned by the likelihood that they would be misleading their readers into thinking that rumors that would be of reasonable concern to those readers were not true. Having thusly betrayed the trust of their audience, those select few administrators writing the Yahoo 360 team blog then infuriated their user base by claiming to be listening and valuing their input, while ignoring the fact that almost with one voice, they were asking Yahoo to please not proceed with Mr.Warburton's planned "universal profile", the users almost finding that their wishes had been almost universally ignored by their provider. Economic need can not explain such behavior.
The few are not the many, and the many are not the few. The many who have worked at Yahoo, maybe not under the best of circumstances, may defend their choice of employer by saying that beginning a career is very difficult, and that one can't always be very selective about where one gets one's first job, in an economy in which ever getting that first job is far from being a given. If so, they have my sympathy and understanding, as I know the truth of what they are saying all too well, and that sympathy and understanding for the many will not go away because of the obnoxious actions of a few of their present or past co-workers. Certainly, they won't go away because some of those people found themselves working for cretins; I think that most of us know what that's like. But conversely, my sympathy for those who haven't forfeited it doesn't carry over to those few who have, and if I seem to hold low expectations of the current Yahoo, that's an observation far more than it is a moral judgment.
Where there is no volition, there can be no imperative. Moral judgments I reserve for individuals, not for abstractions like institutions, because only the former can make choices. I hope that this cleared up more confusion than it created. More importantly, if you spoke in support of my request that a little more sympathy for the frightened yahoo employees and now wonder if I've left you politically high and dry by reversing myself, I hope that this will clear up any misunderstanding. Philosophically, I tend to diverge from the mainstream enough that those can be a problem, but I never play my friends, and I hope those friends will always know that.
Posted to Multiply on May 21, '08 at 12:30 PM.