Solana Beach, summer 2002. A job interview. “So you like to post on the Internet a lot,” said the human resources person. “Yeah,” I said. “How do you know?”
“Did some online investigating.” The term “to google” was not yet widely used. “I came across your two blogs and some posts you made on news groups, and there was a listserv. And something about you posting under a pseudonym at UCSD.”
“Do you always do this?” I asked.
“We do now. A lot of companies are running Net checks during prescreen.”
“I see,” I said, wondering if anything embarrassing, scandalous, or plain stupid had been uncovered from my early years as a keyboard cowboy.
“Tell me, would you ever blog about your work environment, if you were to be hired here?”
“Not at all,” I replied.
“Even in code?”
“I’m sure I would have better things to blog about,” I said, waving my hand as though it were nothing. I quickly added, “You know, life, concerts, politics, the weather…”
“Have you ever blogged about previous jobs?”
“You tell me,” I said jokingly. “You read my blogs.”
My interviewer’s face was stone-cold straight.
I had, but that blog no longer existed. “No,” I responded. I knew the interview wasn’t going any further. I was told they would call me within 48 hours. The call never came.
Was I pre-dooced?
Urbandictionary.com defines “dooce” as “1. To be fired from your job because of the contents of your weblog. 2. To get fired from your job because you post about your job on your weblog.”
In 2002, Heather B. Armstrong, now a wife and mother in Salt Lake City, contributed a new word to the global lexicon when her blog, dooce.com, was the reason for her job termination. (“Dooce” was a common typo she made for “dude” when chatting online.) At the time she was living in Los Angeles, exploring a new life free of the restrictions of the Mormon faith she’d left behind, dating actors, and working as a Web designer. In her blog, she chronicled her life, which included talking about her job and coworkers. Her firing sparked an online debate about blogging subjects, First Amendment issues, privacy concerns, Internet tyranny and control, and systematic censorship. The debate jumped from her blog to newsgroups and finally the media. This occurred at a time when the political sector was discussing whether bloggers were journalists, with the same protective rights as reporters.
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Another word for blogger is “escribitionist,” “a person who keeps a diary or journal via electronic means, and in particular, publishes their entries on the world wide web,” according to Wikipedia. “Escribionist” was conceived in June 1999 by Erin Venema, an “online diarist,” in an email to a list of “web journalers.”
Local escribitionist Chris Morrow, a former spokesperson for livejournal.com, once one of the largest blogging sites, says she was dooced before the word existed and has faced stigma because of her online presence. Her website, gigglecam.com, has been visually recording her married life with her husband Marty since 1998. They were pioneers of online reality programming. The website once attracted hundreds of thousands of voyeuristic visitors, fans, enemies; there were write-ups in magazines and guest spots on radio and television talk shows. The webcams followed them from Dallas to the Gaslamp Quarter to their loft in Little Italy, shut down only when moving; otherwise, the cams run 24/7, available online to anyone who wishes to view the couple watching TV, playing with their dogs, or entertaining guests.
“We’re not so unique anymore,” Morrow says. “Everyone has a cam up. But when we started, no one else was doing this sort of thing.” She concedes that catering to people’s fascination with peeking into the private lives of strangers has its downside. There was the stalker.
He started off as an Internet friend that she never met in real life. “He got weird, wanting my attention more and more,” she says. “I clipped him and then started to receive letters from the Calvin and Hobbes attorney. I published the comic in my chronicles. The cease and desist letter said to take it down. I also got a letter from Discovery Channel. I had an agreement to display their cams in my chat room. This guy sent them a letter saying I was a porn site and how appalled he was that the Discovery Channel was associated with porn.”
The individual contacted her employer next. “I was working for a dot-com start-up, CU Shopper. This was in 2000. The stalker sent them letters and said I was writing about work in my Web journal. I wasn’t. I was writing about me. They called me on it, and I was let go.”
She wasn’t going to stop blogging. It was a way of life for her. Not wanting to be fired again, she told potential employers up front what she did online. “I went to temp agencies,” she said, “and told them I had an online journal. They didn’t react well. They said, ‘We feel uncomfortable you do that.’ ”
Cushopper.com, “a California-based provider of direct and online shopping to credit union members,” according to a 2000 press release, no longer seems to exist. The website now lists references to mystery shopping providers.
* * *
“The Internet has changed in many social ways,” Chris Morrow says.
Today, a person can be dooced for any activity on the Web, from posting content, written or visual, on YouTube, MySpace, or Facebook, to podcasting, BBS posting, digital surfing, cyber-villaging, broadband pontificating, Web whistle-blowing, hypergossiping, or speechifying in the data slipstream.
Ellen Simonetti, a former employee of Delta Airlines, maintained a blog entitled “Queen of Sky: Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant.” She claims she kept the blog as a form of therapy after the death of her mother to cancer. Although she never revealed her name, her identity became apparent when she posted mildly risqué photos of herself in a plane, wearing her uniform. She was suspended, then fired. The BBC, USA Today, CNN, and other news outlets carried her story, discussing what right to free speech employees have on their blogs and what guidelines employers can impose. On The Montel Williams Show in 2007, Simonetti advocated for bloggers’ rights, saying that “(1) employers should have clear, unambiguous blogging policies so that employees can foresee the potential for disciplinary action, and (2) the penalty for a first offense should be a formal warning rather than dismissal.” She is currently in court, having sued Delta Airlines for sexual discrimination and retaliation. “Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant” has been published as a book.
Another dooced blogger who has both a book and a show in development at HBO is Jessica Cutler, who shook up Washington, D.C., with revelations in her short-lived blog, “The Washingtonienne.” In 2004, she was working as a congressional staff assistant (“staff ass” is what she says they’re called on the Hill) for then–Ohio senator Michael DeWine. Her blog used initials for people she talked about; she chronicled the half dozen men she was sleeping with, some high-ranking government officials who paid her money for sex. Wonkette.com, a political muckraking blog, discovered her identity and outed her. She was fired for “unacceptable use of Senate computers” and stirred a minor political scandal. The Washington Post headlines read, “The Hill’s Sex Diarist Reveals All” and “Blog Interrupted.” In an editorial in the U.K. Guardian, “Senator Sacked Me Over Tales of Congress,” Cutler wrote: “Imagine dropping your diary on the street somewhere, and the next day, it’s world news.… I posted my diary on a blog…so my friends could read it for fun.” One of her paramours sued Cutler for her blog and book as well as HBO over the show in development.
Global issues have led to doocing. In October 2006, Dutch diplomat Jan Pronk, working for the United Nations in Sudan, blogged about the Sudanese army suffering massive casualties while fighting rebels in northern Darfur. He was declared “persona non grata” by the Sudanese government, according to Doug Merrill at fistfulofeuros.net, and given 72 hours to leave the country.
Doocing in San Diego has not seen such notoriety, yet. One man in Pacific Beach, who asked not to be named, claims he was fired from the Automobile Association of America for blogging, and, in fact, “They fired a number of people a few years ago for the same thing.
“I was stupid. It was obvious who and where I was blogging about, and I used first names,” he says. “I lost friends, was threatened to be sued. Either way, I’ll never make that mistake again. I didn’t think anyone would ever read it.”
The San Diego branch of the Automobile Association of America declined to return a call for comment on the incident or their blogging policy.
Ellen B., who lives in Hillcrest, says she has been dooced “three times for my writing.” The most recent was from a downtown architectural firm; she is limited to what she can reveal because she signed an agreement upon her termination. She asked that her full name not be used. “I was blogging about work, about some of the people there who I couldn’t stand. No one knew about it until my blog was mentioned in a newspaper article. Immediately, the next day, I was told to go on a two-week leave of absence. While I was gone, there were meetings about what to do about me.”
When she returned, she was called into a meeting. “They had printed out my entire blog. There were three boxes full of sheets. They had highlighted parts where I talked about coworkers and the office.”
Although she used nicknames, they were known by her colleagues, and some were not happy about what she had to say.
“I signed a separation agreement that I would no longer blog about the company or anyone there,” Ellen says, “and they also picked selected entries and asked me to delete them. I did. At the time I was worried — would they give me good recommendations, would I ever be able to get another job in the architecture business?
“When you are being dooced, you feel guilty — did I do something wrong? Did I really hurt someone’s feelings?”
She adds, “I believe I was fired out of fear I might stir up controversy.”
Her first doocing experience was in 2000 when she worked at one of San Diego’s AppleOne temp agency offices. The company was monitoring and recording keystrokes on employee computers. “I wasn’t blogging then. I had an email list. I would tell my friends about my weekend, share jokes. The thing was, every woman in the office was doing the same thing, even the woman who got me fired, my manager. It was when I criticized the way she did things that I was told I was being let go for misusing a company computer on company time.”
Her second dooce was also at a temp agency, “the next job, at Volt,” she says. “A friend told me not to use the computers and email, so I switched to a blog. I wrote about the IT guy. He said he was allergic to something, I forget, so I wrote he was allergic to sex. One of the employees, a former friend, was reading my blog. She showed it to the IT guy.”
Word made its way around the office about the online diary. Ellen was laid off from her job; she was told it was due to a financial crunch and “nationwide layoffs, but I knew it was about my blog.”
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Anonymous blogrings are popular places for like-minded people around the world to write about their jobs. A compilation of blogs can be found at anonworkblogs.blogspot.com. It lists Web journals from police officers, nurses, firefighters, waitresses, and educators on every continent. “The Report Card” is written by a teacher who chronicles the administrative mishaps at his school, assigning code names such as Blonde Bloke, Pompous Ponce, and Talkie, whose mouth gets her fired. “CAD Monkey in the Cubicle Jungle,” the blog of an architect who “sold out” to become a corporate lackey, left the blog July 26, 2006, saying, “I’m done, guys.” The next post is dated May 25, 2008, titled, “The Bitch Is Back.”
“The bad news is that in many cases, there is no legal means of redress if you’ve been fired for blogging,” states the Electronic Frontier Foundation on its page, “How to Blog Safely.” “While your right to free speech is protected by the First Amendment, this protection does not shield you from the consequences of what you say. The First Amendment protects speech from being censored by the government; it does not regulate what private parties (such as most employers) do. In states with ‘at will’ employment laws like California, employers can fire you at any time, for any reason. And no state has laws that specifically protect bloggers from discrimination, on the job or otherwise.”
The foundation suggests using services such as NearlyFreeSpeech.net and Tor software (torproject.org) that will help with anonymity by masking IP addresses and keeping a blog off Google and other search engines. Some sites, like livejournal.com, offer users blogs that can be locked from public view, readable only to permitted friends.
Michelle, a hiring manager at Kearny Mesa’s AppleOne, said the company had no written policy about the do’s and don’ts of employee blogging. “There was nothing in our training seminars that covered that,” she said, “and we’ve never been told to ask potential hires if they blog or not.” At Volt Services, a manager named David said, “That is left to individual companies and their policies.”
Chris Morrow still tells employers that she blogs; she says she will not write about the workplace. Ellen B. now knows not to blog about people at a job or use identifying nicknames or code words, but she feels that as long as she does not blog on company time, she has the right to free expression.
“I can stand on a street corner and shout about how much I think my boss is stupid or how my manager does things wrong, and that’s okay,” she says. “I have the right to do this. So if I write about it online, what’s the difference? I still have the same right. If you are posting private business information, I would think you’re crossing a line, but if you’re posting about your life, it’s your life, not theirs.”
Robert Cox, founder and president of Media Bloggers Association, told USA Today in 2006 that he encourages all bloggers, whether at home, work, or the political arena, to fight back and protect the right of free speech against any action that is taken to “merely silence critics.”
When asked what she feels about her legacy, Heather Armstrong emails the patent answer she has told everyone since 2002: “Never write about work on the Internet unless your boss knows and sanctions the fact.”