How a 'PeasantGate' mindset comes to exist
|NEWS - NEWS ANALYSIS|
How does Big Business end up thinking like that...?
Along with about 1.3 million other people, I just received an e-mail from Gawker media informing me that an account I set up a few years ago in order to comment (in my case, just one time at io9.com) has been compromised, and I subsequently went to watch the political 20-car pile-up on the news streams. A long-simmering street-fight between Gawker Media - which hosts web behemoths such as Lifehacker and Gizmodo - and the 4Chan image board finally erupted into about as thorough and dedicated a hacking victory on the part of 4Chan as could be imagined.
Though it's likely to have been removed by now (it has already been deleted and re-uploaded once) a torrent containing the entire Gawker Media database, including the cracked user/pass combosof the aforementioned 1.3 million registered accounts has been put into the wilds of Torrent land, from where nothing ever returns safe and sound. Yes, 4Chan were really pissed off with Gawker Media, leading to a root-level hacking of the company's server and most intimate files.
What's causing more controversy even than the breach of security is the Instant Messaging conversation between Gawker's Hamilton Nolan and Richard Lawson. It's a hard thing to hear for users who have provided a site with its power base to hear themselves being referred to as 'Just the peasants'...
This reveal of a chat from Gawker's Campfire Team collaboration utility can't help but bring back to mind the damage that was done after cheap-jewellery magnate Gerald Ratner's speech to the Institute of Directors in London on April 23, 1991:
"People say, "How can you sell this for such a low price?", I say, "because it's total crap". ”
Ratner then commented that the chain-store's earrings were "cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich, but probably wouldn't last as long". A few off-hand words that wiped £500 million off the value of the Ratners' group in one disrespectful evening. The company took years to recover from Ratner's insouciant contempt for his own customers, and Signet Jewelers Limited (formerly 'Ratner's') still has to live with the fact that 'Doing a Ratner' entered the PR damage-limitation lexicon as a type of 'Defcon 1' scenario.
Gawker has unwillingly 'done a Ratner' on the scale of a Hanoi-Jane napalm drop; and yet I am surprised to see how early the rationalisation has kicked in, presuming that the posters over at Reddit don't contain any Gawker PR agents.
"It's sarcasm people. If you've ever been in the startup/web world, I guarantee you that you've seen the same thing. Users are an abstracted entity - it's nothing personal."
I think the fact that it's 'nothing personal' is actually likely to be the problem. And as for this...
"I can't be the only one who thinks "peasant" is obviously tongue-in-cheek. You honestly think anyone would seriously use the term peasant as a serious description of their users?"
...I wish that TheMadThinker was alone in this notion, but I'm guessing that he or she has never been to a board meeting where millions of users are discussed in these terms. I have. I've not been to many of them, since signs of Bolshevism in me ultimately stood against me in this respect, but I've heard such things said at such lofty levels.
The kind of disassociation that leads a power-broker to refer to those who provided his or her power-base as 'peasants' may be an inevitable syndrome in companies that were started by enthusiasts and ultimately bequeathed (or otherwise passed on to) bean-counters and main-chancers.
Some years ago I remember being in the office of a successful business concern that was decorated with a big picture of Bugs Bunny on which had been etched a speech-bubble: "I'm a subscriber!". It occurred to me that one uploaded photo of that bit of home-spun humour in situ would probably have had a Ratner-like effect on the business.
But such potential PR gaffes are well-concealed behind the non-disclosure contracts of the office workers who pass it every day, and in general, the janitors and security staff don't really care anyway, or even bother to read such things.
Since there are very few thoughts in my head that don't end up analogised in terms of movies, Gawker's 'PeasantGate' controversy recalls to mind the speech that Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) makes in Jurassic Park (1993):
"I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility... for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [bangs fist on table] you're selling it!"
Very little so adroitly encapsulates how a business concern evolves - if that is a suitable word - from a grass-roots concern where the founders engage and empathise with their growing clientele into a carousel of career ladder-climbers who weren't there at the start and don't have any understanding of or interest in what it took to establish the big building that they were so impressed by on their first day at work. As they don't remember the hard times, they can scarcely conceive of the concern they are working for in those early terms; for these newcomers, The Company is like IngSoc in Nineteen Eighty-Four; it always existed, and it will always exist. Until a Gerald Ratner comes along to prove otherwise. They feel security where there is actually very little security. There isn't anything much that will ever provide such security except following a few basic rules; such as 'Don't get into a grudge-war with hackers'.
In the meantime, don't be surprised if those who smile and take your money are making your ears burn in your absence. Particularly not if they're from the world of journalism, where job-security fears and intra-office paranoia is the norm even in boom times, never mind during a recession. And be comforted that they're stabbing each other's backs long before they get round to we faceless peasant hordes.
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