on being a corporate research blogger

| 3 Comments

I got an email this morning from a friend who was critical of my recent posts related to Microsoft and Google. The friend said that since starting my sabbatical I've seemed to be unfailingly critical of Google and positive about Microsoft in my posts, and that I needed to be more aware of my online voice. There was more, particularly on the issue of whether I was somehow damaging my objectivity as an academic by allowing myself to become so publicly supportive of a company.

Lovely way to start a weekend. But after I got over the hurt feelings, I started thinking about the larger issues underlying my new role as a corporate pawn. (Should my blog have a big caveat at the top that says "I've been pwnz0rzed!"?...) While I don't agree completely with this friend, I can't dismiss these criticisms out of hand, nor can I assume that view of me isn't shared by others.

I started out by combing through my blog to find and point out the times when I've criticized Microsoft's products and practices, and acknowledged the ability of companies like Google and Apple to delight consumers in a way that Microsoft consistently fails to do. (In fact, during my keynote speech at Internet Librarian I explicitly told the audience that I thought many--if not most--of Microsoft's products sucked--and did so while proudly sporting my 17" powerbook.) But that's not really the point, is it? It's perception that's at issue here, and perhaps I need to more be aware of that perception.

There are a lot of great researchers who work for research labs--Microsoft Research and Google Labs and Yahoo Research are full of them, as are the labs at HP and PARC and IBM. Very few of those researchers have blogs, though. Perhaps it's because it's so very hard to strike a balance between bias and objectivity when you're in this in-between world, and talking too much about your day to day life in the belly of the beast exposes more of that tension?

Where I may be erring on the side of transparency, it's been primarily an attempt to avoid erring on the side of opacity. Once you take a job working for a company--rather than doing grant-funded collaborative research--you change your relationship to that company. Perhaps I was wrong in thinking that I should be up front about my experiences and reactions to working here...but I'd like to think that there's more good than bad to be gained from my transparency.

My critic felt that my blog posts here undermined my validity as an "objective" academic, but I'm not sure that I agree. If I were presenting my blog as unbiased research, that would be one thing. But research has to stand on its own in terms of methodology and conclusions--and besides that, is there really such thing as an "unbiased" researcher? For me, knowing the biases of the researchers makes the research more credible rather than less, because I don't feel as though I need to look for hidden motives. Also, my identity as an academic has always been tied up far more in my teaching than in my research (a function of being a professor at a teaching-focused institution)--and I suspect that my students are far more influenced by the Powerbook I carry, my intense dislike for Microsoft products Powerpoint and Windows, and my use of GMail than they are by any blog posts describing how much I like the people I'm working with at Microsoft.

One of my goals for this sabbatical was to give people a sense of what it's like to be inside a corporation that's often thought of as "faceless," and that's what I've been trying to do. The alternative is to be more opaque, to only write about "big ideas," but that's never been the way I approached my personal blog.

In terms of my recent negativity about Google--there's definitely a mix of things going on there. My basic concern about Google's domination of the search market (particularly in the hearts and minds of kids) predates my employment with Microsoft, and is a concern shared by a number of people in the library profession (as I pointed out in my Internet Librarian notes). In many ways, Google is the new Microsoft--when you get to be the 10,000-pound-gorilla, people start to mistrust your motives. They're not a scrappy startup anymore, and they shouldn't continue to be thought of as such. (But even saying that is to acknowledge how negatively Microsoft is perceived, and for good reason--from its market practices to its often-awful products, MS has gotten its bad reputation the old-fashioned way--they've earned it.) Google's not making the same mistakes as Microsoft, but it's making plenty of its own. Their secrecy surrounding all of their work is to me antithetical to both academic and library approaches. And in the case of book digitization, I though Roy Tennant's criticisms were spot-on. Microsoft may have made--and be making still--a lot of bad, ham-handed, bad-for-the-consumer moves...but joining the OCA was not one of those, and I would have praised that even if I hadn't been an employee.

I don't really want to work someplace that I can't be passionate about. And I don't want to pretend that I'm not engaged in and excited about an environment if I'm not. As a researcher, to what extent should the "rules" (oh, geez, i really hate blogging rules) be different for me than they are for a non-research corporate blogger? At the end of the day, however, I do have to wonder if perhaps I've been sucked a little too far into the "us against them" mentality that's so common inside of corporations (universities, of course, suffer from none of that competitiveness [cough, cough]).

The problem for me right now is that I have only two perspectives on this--mine, and the friend who was brave enough to share a critical view with me. That's not enough to really triangulate with. So...where do you think the balance lies? (I'm going to work really hard to keep from being defensive in the comments, so if you post something and I don't respond, I assure you it doesn't mean I didn't read it; I just want to absorb right now rather than reacting.)

3 Comments

personally.... I'd be wary of anyone that claims the objectivity trope. people aren't, even when they try to be, thus i agree that transparency is better than 'objectivity'. as for negativity/positivity in regards to corporations, their production, culture, and their identity, i think people should have clear and strong opinions about that, because corporations are becoming the locus of many politicized acts, thus taking decisions out of the hands of politics. there are major things happening in corporations that help or harm populations... and we at least need witnesses inside to give us an understanding of why.

I don't think that people generally read blogs expecting objectivity (at least in the ways we used to define objectivity for the news media). I agree with Jeremy that transparency is to be strived for. What I hope to find in the blogs I read is well informed thought on issues I care about, presented by people who have interesting perspective (and hopefully some style and humor).

I don't think your status as an academic should at all imply that you won't be influenced by your experiences in the real world - though there are certainly parts of academia that strive for (and achieve) that lack of connection to reality.

There's definitely a lot of knee-jerk reaction to anything Microsoftian these days, and it's good to be reminded that there are lots of really smart people working hard in Redmond, just as there are elsewhere.

If you want to stick it in an academic bin, I view what you've been up to here as ethnography. In order to make sense of that I benefit from transparency far more than some hypothetical objectivity.

You're a trained and articulate observer inside a culture that I don't have direct access to. To me, it's only reasonable to be far more interested in your observations of that culture than I might be in your perspectives on Google.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on October 29, 2005 5:54 PM.

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