Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Hidden Spam

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 30, 1999

Posted to Jesse Berst's Anchor Desk 30 June 1999

Item: Jesse Berst writes about the new danger in today's workplace, the "hidden spam" of jokes, haikus, and other personal email which crosses your desk.

So, he says, watch out. Your company may be monitoring your email, and you may find yourself facing a pink slip for that ascii pink flamingo you sent throughout the office.

My response? I would quit before allowing any company to (a) monitor my email, or (b) threaten to fire me based on the content of my email.

Email is person-to-person communication. Monitoring or regulating email is like monitoring or regulating hallway conversations.

A company that is so focussed on so-called "time theft" is one which has no idea how to run a productive organization. Interchanges of ideas or work-related communication need to be punctuated with jokes, haikus and other breathers.

Such communication is what transforms a group of people from being powerless drones to an effective and integrated team.

Moreover, people can decide for themselves what consitutes appropriate interchange between them. One person's joke email can become another person's inspiration.

While developing an online learning application, for example, I can recall receiving the much-circulated 'Windows Error Messages in Haiku" message. For a while I and a number of colleagues seriously considered writing our own system error message in haiku. We didn't, but we did decide to lighten up our messages a bit.

The company that stifles communication stifles innovation. Such a company is no safe place to work, either for job enjoyment or job security. A move is clearly in order.

Berst only accepts short comments, so my message ends here. But let me take this opportunity to respond to some of the discussion around this issue. The entire thread is here.

Laura Santullo writes,

They aren't quick notes, but long messages that obviously took a some time to write. One woman sent a long list of things she wanted for her wedding shower. Another was running freelance jobs from her desk - a definate no-no.... Whether or not they confront the situation there's a very good chance that your boss knows what your up to... and its the kind of thing they remember at review time.

Well - I'm reading and writing this on the job. Will it show up at review time? It's posted on my website, so there's not exactly any secret about my activity. But if they come back to me and say, "You wasted our time," my response has to be, "But did I get the job done?"

The complaint about non-work use of email lies in the assumption that the only way a person can get their work done is if they do nothing at work but work. But this is false! People are more productive if they take breaks, get things off their chest, joke and jostle with their colleagues, and all the other little things which make human existence worth while. It's real simple: I can design one web page in two hours if I do nothing but design web pages through the course of my day. I can design one web page in an hour if I spend half an hour messing around on the net first. You do the math.

Not everybody is like that, of course. Some people may actually spend too much time on email. But the way to determine that is not to start monitoring and regulating email. It is to look at whether they performed their job.

John Karper writes,

My employer pays for an internet connection so I can help make a profit or provide a service, not so I can play with my friends.... If you want private email, get a personal ISP and do it from home.
I pay for a home internet connection and to house and feed my brain so that I can play with my friends. Yet I read and reply to work-related email from my home, and I spend a lot of my off-work time thinking about on-the-job problems.

I don't charge the company for its use of my home internet, or its use of my brainpower on weekends. This is because I recognize that you can't easily draw a line between work and home; the one moves into the other's space.

A reasonable employer knows that the half hour I spent at 3:00 a.m. drafting an organization chart for the next day's meeting is fairly compensated by a half hour reading Berst or sending haikus to my friends.

Oh can you tell - I like haikus. Simplicity and elegance of form is important in all aspects of design, including verbiage.

Annette Hamilton, a Berst writer, replying tom a comment, wrote,

And presumably pays for your time. Why shouldn't anything you do on its nickel or with its equipment belong to the company? My mother is fond of sayingÂ… never put anything in writing you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper. Or, in the case of company equipment, on your boss's desk.
Does a company own my lunch, which I brought to work, or my waste, when I go to the rest room? Does it own the exhaled air, my thoughts on the cultural relevance of the Simpsons, or the lint on my glasses? Obviously not. There is much about myself which even when I am working for a company remains my own.

When I am employed by a company, I am exchanging a particular set of services for a certain amount of money. I am most emphatically not selling myself into slavery for a certain period of time.

I realize that some employers believe they own their employees lock, stock and barrel. But they could never make that stick in court.

As for Annette's mother - a very wise women, who provides advice we should all heed, but who does not provide (nor intended to, I'm sure) the basis for company legislation.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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