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Piling On on the Web

I have watched a few friends going through some hardships lately with online attacks from folks in the information profession. I hate it when these conversations become a hateful piling on instead of a fullsome discussion to understand eachother’s point of view. It happens too often and I feel the need to speak up about bullying in librarianship – anonymous or not.

I’ve been involved in a number of web incidents over the years. Either I wrote something that someone disagreed with so, irony intended, the measured public response was for all Hell to break out and pile on the closest person to the issue (me), or I was a leader of an association and some event took everyone by surprise (except anonymous commenters who always could have predicted this event) and required a collaborative political or measured reponse within a difficult legal framework. Another way to be set up for being attacked is to propose any type of change in an organization, market, association, or profession and, then, since it sometimes appears that change averse outnumber the risk takers, unwarranted nastiness ensues. And don’t get me talking about name changes! Anyway, the brilliant Pegasus Librarian has written a very wise post that should be must reading for all to gain perspective when you find yourself immersed in any form of piling on, professional bullying, or any event where some minority of folks loses perspective and professionalism for a while and starts to engage in playground behaviours most of us (thankfully) let go of by grade six. Here it is in full and linked:

Anatomy of a Mass Internet Argument (aka “Blog Drama”)
via Pegasus Librarian by Iris on 13/04/11

“Every so often, people in online communities turn their attention toward one thing and argue heatedly. Here’s how it generally goes.

1. Initial controversial statement (This is usually something that can be interpreted as “You and everything you value? It all sucks.”)
2. Initial “Hey, who do you think you are anyway? And by the way, you suck” response.
3. Mass internet pile on

Later, in no particular order

4. Sporadic “That controversial statement wasn’t controversial. It’s been said/done/thought since the beginning of time” interjections
5. Sporadic “That initial statement was spot on” interjections (mostly ignored or decried)
6. Summary blog posts for newcomers to the argument
7. Meta blog posts talking about the experience of the argument (ahem, You Are Here)
8. Argument is named something catchy (usually a catchy acronym or some reference to Watergate)
9. People wax nostalgic about the argument, getting all heated up about it in short bursts
10. Argument becomes point of comparison in the next mass internet argument”

This is an awesome summary of an all too common event.

I think sometimes people forget that these events online create a semi-permanent digital trail. For many years I worked as a librarian who provided research support for professional recruiters for professional, management and executive positions. I am still friends with some of these folks and, recently, we were sharing the tools that professional recruiters use now to filter applicants for positions (since there are so many). I watched as they used their tools. Their custom apps search mulitple sites and social networks at once and creates a simple report about ‘someone’ in minutes. So I had them search some names, issues and identities I knew to see what their online presence and profile would show. In the judgement of these professional recruiters some folks would never make it through the gate to be considered for the position – given their unfiltered behaviour as discovered in the vetting process. In fact, one friend commented that she was appalled by some comments (“by librarians!”) and felt surprised that libel charges weren’t laid, let alone the complete lack of civility in such a public space as FriendFeed, LSW, Blogs, Facebook, MySpace, etc.

I also had her search my name. Luckily there was no real stupendously awful behaviour on my part. She did see the incivility and various attacks and threats against me but said that it was OK since I didn’t react in a way that was unprofessional. She might have been being nice but noted most mid career executives have these sort of events in their profile and they review how they handle them in advance of the interview to form their questioning strategies.

Anyway, the lesson to be learned is, be careful out there.



Posted on: April 20, 2011, 8:26 pm Category: Uncategorized

21 Responses

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  1. Well said! By both you and Iris! How else can our profession progress and grow without critically considering our assumptions (and I don’t mean “being critical”, I mean THINKING critically) — and without change, debate, dialogue and differing opinions?

    Thanks for a great blog post!

  2. The Internetz includes YouTube videos, right? Right? Even of ones taken at Internet Librarian? No one would dare to google that. I do think that video shows a cool fun side to you.

  3. Yep – Mr. Kraus – we all let loose every once in a while. Karaoke rules!

  4. Thank you for a great post on a tough topic

  5. Hi Stephen,

    I’ll save you some trouble compiling your dossier on me.

    My posts that are relevant to the most recent “pile on” are as follows:

    A letter to Patrick Deane, President, McMaster University

    McMastergate in chronological order, or, Do libraries need librarians?

    Preliminary thoughts on McMastergate, or, Why so touchy?

    More generally, to make it easier for you to monitor what I’m thinking and talking about, here’s a list of the social media sites where I’m reasonably active:

    Confessions of a Science Librarian (old site)



  6. OK John:
    1. Exactly where did you get the idea that I am compiling dossiers on people? Is there someone out there who doesn’t know that employment recruiters do background checks? I was just intrigued by the software used now and how quickly it pulled up a profile. I was using known names and events to test a software as any librarian would do much like you’ve done with your dossier on the McMaster situation(s). I think one would have to be a hermit to not be able to think up a search that would show what the software app can do. For those who have talked about the issue(s) on their facts, that’s great. For those who act like sixth grade bullies in the playground, that’s their choice but they shouldn’t think that many don’t think much less of them as a result.
    2. I already follow all your links (along with thousands of other librarians in my RSS feeds so don’t get any more paranoid). Block me if you need to if you think that this librarian following your tweets and blogs is “monitoring”.

  7. Just an update from Stephen: I remain amazed but not surprised at the number of people who are against my plea for greater civility in debates in library land about current issues. I find it interesting that so many people think I was talking about MacMaster when I was really focusing on the HCOD situation. Anyway, I do find it sad that there are professional librarians who deal with our key issues by engaging in name calling and threatening behaviour rather than debating the issue.
    Quite a few people on FF and LSW last night said that their potential employers should just take them how they are. That’s obviously their choice. My philosophy is that I just try not to be too nasty and keep professional discussions about the issues and not ad hominem attacks with a patina of foul language.
    I also try to have a few different ways of behaviour depending on the situation.
    A few defended their right to be uncivil and foulmouthed (which I love to be too) which is, actually, their right. I still try not to be personally nasty – I fail sometimes – but I try not to make a philosophy out of it.

  8. The anatomy sequencing misses the part where Nazi Germany is brought up, usually toward the end of any coherent discussion.

  9. Pam Ryan said

    Hi Stephen,

    I have to admit when I first read your post I thought: “Whoa, is Stephen saying keep your mouth shut, Big Brother is watching you and won’t hire you if you have an internet record showing you have had an opinion on occasion?” I do now see that you were trying to limit your caution to the worst of the behaviours but it took a couple reads to see it.

    Of course bullying is wrong and should be named and called out as soon as it rears though it’s presence doesn’t mean that the actions, words or values that the name-calling is in response to are visionary or right. Sometimes things are simply wrong and people lose their heads in needing to express their strong reaction to it. It also doesn’t warrant an automatic charge of fearing change; positing that it does just shuts down important conversations and provides a far too simplistic wave of the hand on complex issues.


  10. So true, Shawn. I’ve gotten several comments about things I left off that post. I think I smell a second edition. 🙂

  11. Thanks Pam. Maybe it does take a few reads. I was just encouraging more civility in professional conversations about library issues online. I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of people advocating for wider range of behaviours but I am a bit alarmed at the response to this post so far.
    As you know I’ve been on the sharp end of the stick a few times but I stay with the debate. I really regret the number of people who have exited library conversations by stopping blogging or tweeting etc. due to the abuse by a few. Expressing our opinions in our field shouldn’t result in name calling, death threats, nasty letters to our bosses, or other impacts on our loved ones. Sadly, this hasn’t been the case often enough.

  12. Stephen,

    First of all, in reference to the McMaster situation, in my experience I really don’t think any of the bloggers who have commented have really crossed the line from contructive to bullying. Sure, strong words in reaction to provocative ideas, but mostly quite civil. Mostly, I think, stuff people would be willing to say to the principles in person.

    I didn’t follow the HCOD affair quite as closely (and there was vastly more commentary as well) but again, didn’t really see anything that was beyond the pale.

    HarperCollins is a for-profit company and should be well capable of dealing with the fallout of their actions. They should be similarly aware that the modern world gives them a pretty honest, unvarnished view of what their customers really think. That’s got to be more important than taking a few lumps from some bloggers.

    And really, I’d be interested in seeing examples of what you or your friend think is libelous.

    As for paranoia, no I didn’t really mean to imply that I think you are literally compiling a dossier on me. Forgive me some, I hope, innocent exaggeration. What I was getting at, clumsily I see, was that I was a little uncomfortable in seeing your call for civility (problematic at best, google “tone argument” for more information) so closely aligned with a discussion on social media monitoring, dissent and job prospects.

    Also, drop by Friendfeed again. It’s working better now. The LSW group is continuing to discuss these issues in a constructive and, yes, provocative way. Mostly constructive, though.

  13. John:
    I’ll certainly take you at your word. Exaggeration is a very difficult thing to communicate online.

    I don’t have a problem with calling for professional civility and, as an aside, pointing out that uncivil behaviour can affect job prospects. I think it’s odd that a few people think that a pattern of uncivil behaviour isn’t part of the employment process.

    On the HCOD thing I worry that a boycott was organized and implemented very quickly against a major publisher that is trying to work with libraries. You characterize HC as a for profit company that is perfectly capable of dealing with the fall out. That’s an awfully narrow view of the issue since this is just the tip of the iceberg on a much bigger issue and the results will affect all libraries for a long time. I don’t believe that libraries have any clear magic to be part of the e-book world any more than video stores survived the streaming media change. People are focusing on the 26 Circs instead of the license provision to share patron information which seems a bigger issue to me. So far I can’t find anyone who is trying to go after the big publishers who refuse to sell e-books to libraries. That just seems silly. It seems that providing uncivil feedback (which is different than “honest, unvarnished”) isn’t the best way to be invited to the table as a potential player. I have only found one librarian so far who called the CEO of HC to have a discussion and that’s great. My guess is that there are more but most appear to be jumping on the bandwagon based on just crowdsourced information. It seems to me to be a very poor strategy to join a boycott without talking to HC and trying to find a way forward first and failing. In my mind this plays the trump card first instead of engaging in a clear strategy to make a longer term difference. I’d rather watch Michael Porter’s ALA task force work towards a better plan.

    My personal value system is that I try to talk to people directly and respectfully about such things before I take action like writing letters to them or their boss. don’t always meet my own standard but most of the time I find out enough to be better informed and most of the time I need to adjust my original planned actions. I assume that you spoke to Jeff T out of professional courtesy before sending a letter to his boss? I certainly wouldn’t call or write a letter to Cynthia, based on my assumptions about your written comments, without calling you first.

    I am not a lawyer and neither is my friend so I am not qualified to point to libel. But I just think that if it looks potentially like that a line is in danger of being crossed then one should review one’s words. Of course, name calling isn’t unlawful, unless, in Canada, it is hateful.

    And I regret that some folks are telling me that I am trying to limit speech and that’s a crock. If someone makes a choice to be uncivil that’s their choice. I, for one, will likely miss their point though. It is equally my choice to state that I find iincivility less than professional. Why does their right to be uncivil trump and my right to comment about it seem problematic to you? I looked up “tone argument” as you suggested. I am not objecting to their arguments any more than folks are objecting to mine. I guess I am just silly wanting to discuss the real issues without being called a ########.


  14. Stephen,

    Two points.

    First of all, the issue of open letters and such. For me, it’s all about the power imbalance. And there is a huge power imbalance between, say, Mita Williams and I and you and Jeff Trzeciak. You are very senior administrators and well-known and well-respected library figures with the ears and attention of all the most senior and most respected people in Canadian and international library land. Mita and I are librarians with blogs. We attempt to address that power imbalance with open letters. Neither of us were even remotely mean or uncivil in our posts, we didn’t call anybody names, we didn’t insult anyone. We made our points.

    Someone in a decanal-level position is certainly aware of the public nature of their position and should be able to take public criticism. And in fact, civil public criticism and debate is part and parcel with senior academic administration. Drop by a faculty senate meeting anywhere and see.

    Senior people calling out or going behind the backs of less influential or lower status people is problematic, as you mention. And that’s because of the power imbalance.

    The other is the issue of public incivility in library blog land, particularly in reference to the HCOD afffair and Jeff Trzeciak’s presentation. You keep saying how we’re all so uncivil and, really, I just don’t see it. Not at all.

    And once again, the power imbalance comes into play. When someone powerful call for those less powerful to be civil, those less powerful will just very plainly see it as a call to silence.

    I’ll only speak for myself here, but really, I need to see what you have such a problem with.

    And I’ll end on a positive note. Stephen, I really appreciate your willingness to engage in these debates and I respect you enormously for your openness and honesty.

  15. John:

    Thanks. I am interested in your POV. For all of my career I never felt that I couldn’t call anyone else at whatever perceived status or level they were at. All they could ever say was no or go away kid and I don’t remember anyone ever doing this. I guess I am naieve and never recognized that as a personal quality that gained access to supposedly powerful people for my entire career. Then again I did not grow up in a pivileged setting and never new the restrictive rules of polite society too well. When I’m talking to LIS students in the future I’ll emphasize not to be reticent abut talking to so called powerful people. I try to be approachable and available myself to everyone – even openng myself up to some criticism which I think I accept very well as the gift that criticism is. Then again I don’t deal well with abusive language or incivilty where the person is attacked on the basis of things other than their ideas and positions (like gender, race, orientation, religion, etc.). It’s too easy to find examples of people dismissing others or not listening to other’s opinions for the wrong (in my opinion) reasons (for instance last night, I was told that my opinion is be heard and treated differently just because I am a white male. In my book that’s sexist and racist).

    In my years of working on cultural audits of organizations at Hay Group it was the norm to find that change initiatives failed due to poor engagement of middle management and the lack of engagement and understandng of the rank and file. Leadership positions often didn’t push hard enough to explain the need for change, to listen, and to engage rather than tell employees. It’s just my perspective and experience but the balance is there – just in different ways. Leaders need to engage folks better and there needs to be two way conversations. That’s why I try to participate in so many discussions and put my points of view out there for debate. On the other hand, I didn’t sign up for personal abuse and I regret so many voices have been silenced by uncivil behaviour. It’s too bad you don’t see this out there and just because you claim (see below) that you don’t do this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen too often.

    It’s sad, if what you say is true. If people think that a call for civilty is a call for silence, then that’s just sad. If people perceive themselves to be so powerless ad that my call for civility is seen as a call to shut up then we’re simply lost as a profession. If people feel that they need the tools of name calling and abuse to make thei points then that’s their choice. That’s when I start to lose respect for the speaker and I suspect that the people these uncivil attacks feel the same so their points are lost or weakened. It may be just me but I don’t give the power to others to silence me. I hear from yesterday’s FF/LSW discussion that some felt quite hurt and silenced by me for expressing my opinion. A few sent notes that I should shut up. You tweeted this item below and said that it wasn’t an lie or untruth just snark:

    dupuis John Dupuis
    @sabram and the #McMastergate Call to Civility: And he’s noting down what we all say, too!

    @dupuisjJohn Dupuis
    @sabram I’ll cop to snark, but lying — no way. I’ll apologize if you think the snark was over the top but I am not a liar.

    @dupuisj John Dupuis
    @sabram Snark, yes, but don’t you think calling it a “lie” is uncivil? There’s a big difference between snark and a deliberate untruth.

    This is an example of what I mean by uncivil behaviour. Snark alone is uncivil and actually doesn’t address any power gap at all. You state clearly in a public space (all of Twitter) that I am keeping notes on people. You assert that you’re just addressing your perceived imbalance in power between you and me and that this is just snark and is necessary to accomplish this. You say that you are not a liar and that this is not a lie. You’re the head of a Science Library in a major Canadian University arguing that you don’t see any incivilty in the current discussions. I’m sorry you missed that. Since you claim that you are not be lying about me, you must have proofs. To accept your position I need to see this evidence. Please provide a list of the names of people and real evidence of any of the files that you say I am noting down. Or is your definition of a ‘lie’ different than mine? It sure looks like a “deliberate untruth” to me aimed at wounding me and in order to take a cheap shot. I think this is unprofessional but that’s beside the point. I know that I don’t keep files or notes on people and you state in a public forum that I am. I think to keep such files (I’ll cop to an address and phone number file!) is ethically dubious and against my values. Please provide your evidence that this isn’t a lie. If you do then it’s a not a lie and I shouldn’t label it as such. I’ll apologize here.

    So there’s the answer to your question. “I’ll only speak for myself here, but really, I need to see what you have such a problem with.” First, I have a problem with fellow senior professionals posting lies about me. You say that’s justified because you perceive a power imbalance ad must snark as a strategy. We have very different philosophies and that’s OK. I try not to knowingly lie, post speculation as fact, snark in a public and hurtful way, or be uncivil when I disagree with someone’s ideas or positions. You do.


  16. HI Stephen,

    Yes, snark. I do truly apologize if you find my snarky tweet over the line. It wasn’t my intention to deliberately insult or hurt you.

    But your original post:

    “So I had them search some names, issues and identities I knew to see what their online presence and profile would show. In the judgement of these professional recruiters some folks would never make it through the gate to be considered for the position – given their unfiltered behaviour as discovered in the vetting process.”

    You’re talking about searching people’s names online in the context of making a call for civility and talking about job search prospects.

    No, you’re not literally saying here that you’re keeping files on people but I do draw the implication that you do watch people and what they are saying in online context and keep track of what you perceive to be negative comment.

    My tweet was an exaggeration but not without some basis.

    Was my tweet over the line? I own what I say and if it was hurtful, I apologize. I felt angry and frankly a little threatened by what you wrote and I overreacted.

    On the other hand, like I said in my later tweet, I do truly believe that it’s time to take this offline and we’ll only compound our ill-feeling by continuing to talk past each other here.

    If you want to meet for coffee or a drink or whatever, I’d be happy to.

  17. I guess I am naive and never recognized that as a personal quality that gained access to supposedly powerful people for my entire career.

    I think that realizing that other people may not have been able to do this, or (and this is often the case) tried and were punished rather than rewarded for it, is very hard. Just as it’s nearly impossible for some people to imagine — truly know in their bones — what it would feel like to have their thoughts taken seriously by those in positions of authority, it is equally difficult for those who’ve been able to make this work for them to really feel what it must be like to have that not only not be an option, but to be actually detrimental.

    In fact, it’s so difficult that kings used to employ court jesters, whose roll was, essentially, to snark. Court jesters functioned to tell people in positions of power what others who lacked that power could not say for fear of retribution. You say that “snark alone is uncivil and actually doesn’t address any power gap at all,” but I see that as one of the key functions of this kind of pointed exaggeration.

    Granted, it doesn’t always go well, and sometimes the court jester gets beheaded (please don’t behead John!), but that doesn’t mean that some of these other modes of expression are actually outside of and intruding on the discourse.

  18. OK, My wife says I must disengage from the Internets for the rest of the weekend.
    We are still mourning my Mother-in-law who passed this month and she loved Easter so we’re just going to do family for a few days.
    I agree that these issues are better discussed in person and many misunderstandings arise in web communication.
    I just don’t know any other way to test/trial a people search engine that using names and am surprised that some folks find this kind of testing personally threatening.
    Let’s leave the whole thread up to experience.
    I am on the road from for almost every day through Canada Day now in Denver, Australia, CT, NS, PA, LA, etc.
    So if you’re at CLA we can sit down there or maybe in July.
    Either way I am going to obey my family and reduce my web activity for the rest of Easter weekend.

  19. Role, even. *sigh* Those courts jesters probably did some rolling, but that’s not what I meant. 🙂

  20. I’m very sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. I hope you can have a happy Easter.

  21. Adam Lauder said

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for posting my comment. I appreciate your honest and thoughtful response. Thanks also for sharing your personal experiences.

    From the sounds of it, we could all benefit from at least one conference . . .I just hope that panelists will be representatives will be representative of the profession as a whole.