Free speech for corporate bloggers

by Robin Harris on Tuesday, 14 August, 2007

Pardon me while I comment on blogging
I don’t find most commentary on blogging to be worth spit, especially the “end of civilization as we know it” nonsense of Andrew Keen.

Blogging is a new media with low barriers to entry. It satisfies a basic human desire to have one’s say. It isn’t so different than the advent of cheap pulp paper and web presses in the 1800’s or the growth of radio in the 1920’s: suddenly many voices that were not heard before had an opportunity to communicate.

This is discomfiting to the folks who already have their say and disturbing to those who don’t want to hear anything new. But we’ve had a regular stream of new media for the last 250 years and are sure to have more, so get used to it.

A lot of what gets said by the newbies is stupid. So what. Have you looked at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page lately?

So what about storage blogging
Last month the Storage Anarchist, a blog written by EMC employee Barry Burke, made some interesting observations about storage blogging by employees of storage companies. This is his comment on tutorial blogs.

Written in the style of a print-media advertorial (a contraction of “editorial advertising,” where ad space is purchased to run an editorial-like assessment of a product or service), the blogutorial is emerging as a new, and so-far unchecked marketing tool. Importantly, truth-in-advertising laws require published advertorials to be plainly marked as “paid advertisements” (usually in tiny font in the header where you might not notice it). Apparently this isn’t so for blogketing (“blog marketing”)- even when done by official corporate spokespersons in the public forum of the Internet. Apparently the blog-world is unfettered by truth-in-advertising rules.

This concerns me, because it allows bloggers to act like the snake-oil vendors of the past, getting away unchecked with unsubstantiated claims and misleading inferences of undeliverable capabilities.

Strong stuff – and wrong in so many ways
My, my, you innocently go to a company website only to be bombarded with hype, fluff and spin. Who knew? The reason you don’t see any “advertorial” tags on company web pages is because the entire site is an advertorial. Same goes for company blogs. How hard it that?

The truth: everyone “accentuates the positive.”
I’ve worked for several storage companies and observed many others. I’ve yet to see a product announcement that did not shade the truth.

Features planned for completion by first customer ship, but don’t make it. Customer NDA’s are a field of dreams. Even the power use asserted on the box is wrong.

We measure disk capacity in powers of 10’s while RAM is measured in powers of 2, leaving legions of consumers to wonder where the GB’s went. Disk MTBFs and AFRs that are never seen in the field – and that array vendors won’t own up to. Array performance specs that bear no relationship to any known application.

Corporate bloggers are a Good Thing!
Any buyer whose brain is not in a jar knows this. So where do corporate bloggers fit into this fulsome stew?

  • Corporate bloggers provide valuable information even when they are trying not to. The attitude of the people inside the company towards their customers comes through in the blogs. It doesn’t matter if the blogger is an officer or a hack detailed to blog duty. Bloggers who talk down in their blogs, or who are rude or dismissive of valid customer concerns, tell us how the top management of a company views customers and competitors.
  • Even unofficial company bloggers, like Barry, reveal more than they know. Their comments reflect their corporate culture, be it combative or comatose.
  • Blogging is a conversation. Maybe not a direct one via comments, but everyone gets to comment on everyone else’s blogs, just as I am today. Rather than get hung up on political correctness I’d rather people called ’em as they see ’em.
  • Bloggers are people. Most are nice. Some are scum. Some are goofy. Some are smart. The great thing about the Internet is that no one knows you are a dog. That is, as I noted in an early email to another blogger, don’t worry about who I am or where I come from. Just look at my ideas. Do they make sense?

Ironically, Storage Anarchist is arguing for a world where “official” bloggers are controlled and “unofficial” but highly partisan bloggers aren’t. Why we’d want this eludes me. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Storage is too important for anything less than full and frank communication
Do we really want an industry where every communication by insiders passes through the corporate-speak homogenizer? Hell, NO!

Storage is an important industry. We are responsible for the retention and protection of an ever growing fraction of the civilization’s information. We exist at the juncture of several trends: in disks; in laws; in networks; in architectures; in software. There are a lot of choices to be made, a lot of ideas to be examined.

Smart people are entitled to their biases, too
I like hearing what Hu Yoshida and Dave Hitz have to say about storage. Not because I agree, but because they know the business, they’re smart, they’re informed and they are readable. They try to tackle some of the deeper issues. They do it from their perspective. The clash of perspectives is what sharpens our thinking.

Am I disappointed that they don’t say negative things about their employer? Not at all. That’s my job. If their posts incidentally buff the image of their employers as savvy storage players, that is all to the good. Hey, it could even be true!

The StorageMojo take
We’ve seen what happens on a national level when debate is stifled by manipulative ideologues: bad decisions. It isn’t good for America and, in our lesser sphere, it isn’t good for storage. If Hu wants to present information and commentary that makes HDS look good, and other people want to poke holes in it, fine.

What I reject is a viewpoint that makes people wrong for voicing opinions or presenting their view of why what their company is doing is a Good Thing. That is where Mr. Anarchist loses me. I think we need more commentary from storage people, not less. Waving phony legalisms like “advertorials” on company websites is designed to shut down discussion, not encourage it.

I’d like to see more storage users commenting about the industry as well. Storage is ultimately the hardest problem in computing because it is persistently anti-entropic. Let’s not make it harder by shutting down communication from those who are closest to the problems.

Comments welcome, as always. Yes, even you EMC guys. Just don’t expect me to roll over.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

the storage anarchist August 15, 2007 at 4:49 am

I think you twisted my position a bit. Perhaps you will allow me to clarify: http://thestorageanarchist.typepad.com/weblog/2007/08/0026-free-speec.html

Tony Pearson August 15, 2007 at 5:36 pm

Robin, well said!

Of course, each company has their own policies on blogging, here is IBM’s:
http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/blogs/page/jasnell?entry=blogging_ibm

the storage anarchist August 16, 2007 at 4:14 am

Great point, Tony. IBM’s blogging policy is in fact an excellent example of what I am trying to underscore. It specifically directs IBM bloggers to adhere to IBM’s Business Conduct Guidelines, to “avoid misrepresentation” and even to treat blogging under the same rules of engagement as the BCG defines for “competing in the field” (the entire BCG can be found here http://www.ibm.com/investor/corpgovernance/cgbcg.phtml).

And I believe that’s a policy that ALL bloggers should follow, not just Corporate-sponsored ones.

But I’m not suggesting doing anything to shut down the free exchange of opinions and perspectives in any manner – this is why we blog. I’m not asking corporate bloggers to spotlight the faults in their products – like you Robin, I enjoy the responsibility to help out with that. Most importantly, I never said anything about curtailing the commentary – you’re putting words into my mouth there.

No, my only intent has been to underscore the importance of playing within the borders of honest and factual depictions of the products and topics we discuss – something most of us inherently do anyway. And collectively we have already demonstrated that we can indeed have lively and useful debate without anyone making false claims about the products they use, sell or compete with.

That’s all!

Joe Shmoe August 16, 2007 at 9:39 am

I agree, I don’t think it’s a first amendment issue, but Robin has a point when he says that even through the misinformation you can gain a useful insight into the storage industry, the products and the marketing.

I think you have to consider the sophistication of the audience. Your readers are either CIOs and IT professionals or storage industry insiders. Anyone without the ability to evaluate a technological claim will be easy meat to any kind of marketing, I don’t think blogs are any worse in that respect than straight advertising.

All that said, I agree with Barry when he says that all corporate communications need to be held to be the same standard of ethics.

Kartik August 16, 2007 at 2:35 pm

Hi Tony,
Thanks for the link on IBM blogging policy – an excellent set of guidelines, reinforcing IMHO the points storageanarchist has been making about the responsibilites of corporate bloggers. As someone who is about to attempt blogging myself, this information is very timely and has helped me gain perspective on what to me are uncharted territories.

Cheers, Kartik.

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