Sunday, January 4, 2009

POWER magazine tolerates Facebook, then sacks clueless young blogger for anti-work

The dangers of Facebook and other communications in the workplace are rife. Anthony Spaeth of POWER magazine sacked a young woman who, though supposedly a professional journalist, was blogging away on company time-- at a just-launched publication! Here's the link to the original piece.

Do you know what your “Millennial” staffers are doing on their computers all day long? You won’t believe it. This is the "run of the millennial" hack these days, according to an influential editor in Hong Kong.

SARA WAS a very young aspiring journalist with a masters degree from a fine US journalism school. She was ambitious, plugged-in and seemed to fit the job I gave her as a writer at POWER.

But Sara had a secret life, or that’s how I, a middle-aged manager, would describe it. In fact, it was the opposite. Sara wrote a blog.

On her blog Sara detailed all the stories we were working on, months into the future. She derided the people we were interviewing, disparaged the magazine’s management and her co-workers, and ridiculed me. Sara made it clear that after three whole years in journalism she deserved superior talents to work with, more profound story assignments and a city with a better climate.

Sara opened her blog for anyone to read and one of our interview subjects, a Hollywood actor, read it. She dissed the actor. He righteously complained. I fired Sara a few hours later, after the lawyers got back from lunch.

The Power Up column is normally about physical health. This month’s is about the psychology of your staff and a generation gap affecting all offices. In today’s workplace, everyone sits in front of a computer grimacing at the screen and swearing under the breath. In ours, Stephen is laboring over a cover story; Jayson’s rejigging a page design; Robin is sweating out a delayed printing schedule.

Over in the corner, Sara was always glued to her computer screen, fingers flying.

How could we have known that she, like many people of her generation, was doing everything but work?

Sara was doing anti-work.

when i entered the workplace in the 1970s, there was a clear line between work and personal pursuits. If you read a magazine at your desk, anyone could see whether it was Forbes or People. You wouldn’t have dreamt of using the fax machine – the size of a Honda sedan – for personal communications because only offices had them. The telephone was a temptation, especially for young women, and they were stiffly warned against social calls.

Computers have simultaneously brought an unforeseen universe to our desktops – Rotten Tomato movie reviews, instant messages from horny friends – and given each worker a zone of privacy managers can’t easily breach.

As a manager, you already know that because you too surf the Net from the office for sports scores and answer emails from old buddies. It provides a nice break. You think that’s as far as it goes with your employees in their cubicles.

Not if they’re Sara’s generation.

Today’s managers are Baby Boomers or members of Generation X. Our youngest employees are called Millennials because they entered the workplace in the 21st century. For the older crowd, computer communication has replaced earlier forms such as mail, faxes or phone calls. It’s good (who likes licking stamps?) and it’s bad (will these emails ever cease?). But there’s a continuum.

In contrast, the Millennials are “digital natives.” They grew up in front of computer screens and their use of the Internet is more profound than ours. In our offices, they’re dangerous aliens.

Exhibit Number One is Facebook, a social networking site popularized by teens but now used by people of all ages. When you’re “on” Facebook, as the locution goes, you select the friends you want to communicate with and, when you change jobs or email addresses, one message reaches all.
Innocent enough – until it gets out of control. Once you have an account, it’s hard to resist adding more Facebook “friends,” and soon you’re communicating with people you never could abide or high school classmates you can’t recall. I have 157 Facebook friends, and on checking my account this morning, 66 of them have sent me “status updates.”

This could be important: someone may have moved or had a baby. Here’s what’s happening, right now, with my friends:

* Tim M is, unbelievably, almost out of turkey leftovers.
* Peter V can’t wait for this week to finish.
* Dilip C worries that Kolkata was eerily quiet and Delhi dark on return … are we sulking or have we let them scare us?
* Shiraz S hopes both sides will show restraint.
* Andy H is in Trakai.
* Lou B is thinking about his friend James Thomas Anthony Valvano while watching “Jimmy V Week” on ESPN …
* Carroll B has leaky radiators.
* Sheela S is writing like a writing fiend.
* Cecelia W is going to get some herbal tea somewhere.
* Don A is working … and working … and working …
* John K is mellow on the outside.
* Joost A is.

I kid you not, and I could go on. None of these people are teenagers; some are middle-aged. All of them have college educations, careers, lives.
Checking my friends’ status updates took me 12 minutes. And that’s without responding to any. Many people respond. If you care to, you can read the responses. You can respond to them. And then read the responses to your response …

Millennials live for this shit.

When I had newborn children, I took pictures of them, brought the film to the shop and sent copies to my parents and in-laws by snail mail. Email makes it easier to send photos to family and select friends. Social networking takes it to a different plane. You can post cute snapshots of your children for all of your friends to see (including that bozo from high school you can’t remember) and to comment on. Comment they will. You will have to respond. How much time will that take? It’s a pertinent question, because Millennials check their Facebook page first thing in the morning – in the office. And many times during the day.

Facebook is one of many such sites, and social networking is just one manner in which Millennials live on the Internet. (Separate from her blog, Sara had a website that invited visitors to “take a tour of a few of the places Sara has called home.”) Note that I didn’t say, “communicate on the Internet.” It’s a lot broader and stranger than that. Is communication telling people that you’ve eaten leftover turkey or that your radiators leak? That you’re working or that you need a “vay cay shun”?

Joost’s posting hits the mark. He’s telling his “friends” – many of whom he hasn’t seen or talked to in years, if ever – that he exists.
That’s the point for the Millennials.

For Sara, blogging about the frustration of working as a journalist was more satisfying than doing the journalism. I suspect it was irresistibly compelling. Me, my assignments and the less-experienced researcher (by three years) sitting next to her became topics of personal grievance that her cyber-buddies could lavish thoughtless sympathy upon. Instantly! Every morning Sara could look forward to responses from loved ones or cretinous strangers all around the globe to pore over and respond to ad infinitum.

In other words, the swift gratification of talking about oneself over the Net ate away at the life of a real journalist: writing stories about other people for readers you will never meet. Who needs that, or them, anymore? With dedication and labor, journalism offers the chance of accomplishment but that’s not what Millennials are about. They crave constant affirmation. They’ll spend endless hours at the computer seeding clouds in cyberspace and collecting whatever crap precipitates.

In the office, that looks like work.

I’m writing this column at home on a weekend because I find it easier to concentrate without emails, text messages and the connectedness of our working day. My world is through the looking glass from that of the Millennials. Sara’s Internet existence was like a succubus, overwhelming her professional life and intruding into our office. I didn’t pay her to write a self-glorifying and self-pitying blog that would get her fired. But Sara posted it at 7:55 on a Thursday evening. It had a title that was intended to be sarcastic but ended up ironic: “In Words We Trust – Huh?”

Sara’s words taught me about her and her generation. She needed validation from distant friends and strangers reading about the trivialities of her career or Hong Kong’s humidity, and leaving behind their reactions.
This is mine.

Illustration by Aude Van Ryn
Copyright © 2008 Infinity Media Hong Kong Limited. All rights reserved

No comments: