Subtle Silencing in Big Companies

The stifling effect of employment on social media usage

July 13, 2018 · 8 minute read

The gaming community has been abuzz this past week with the news about ArenaNet’s termination of Jessica Price and Peter Fries after a social media incident. My quick summary of the situation is:

  1. Price tweeted a thread about the difficulties in writing the player character in an online role-playing game.
  2. A streamer and YouTuber known as Derior posted a few tweets in response, where he disagreed with some of her thoughts and told her what he thought the team should do.
  3. Prince made a few replies to Derior, which were interpreted by some as an “attack” on him. (For what it’s worth, they seem like pretty normal internet snark to me.)
  4. The Guild Wars 2 community on Twitter and Reddit sprang to Derior’s “defense” and whipped themselves into a frenzy. Fries defended Price in some of these interactions.
  5. The next morning, Price and Fries were fired from ArenaNet. The posting behavior of Price and Fries was referred to as “attacks on the community” by the company president.

If you want more details, I recommend reading:

Price’s final thread on the subject was also informative and had a good takeaway:

The overreaction of ArenaNet and the sexism of this case aside, this leads me to think more generally about social media use, and another (more subtle) form of oppression which takes place when one is an employee at a large and/or influential company – the silencing of your self-expression.

My Reckon

I have a reckon which that working for a large and/or influential company1 has a stifling effect on self-expression, especially on public social media platforms like Twitter, Reddit, etc.

While a lot of companies adopt a social media policy that makes some of their expectations known to employees, many companies don’t have a policy or don’t work to make their employees aware of the policy. In many ways, this can be worse, since the employee can imagine their own worst-case scenario for what the policy is and what the policy means.

Anecdotally for me, the messaging at my employers was basically always subtle. No company ever specifically told me not to tweet about my work, but they did make me sign NDAs to not talk about unreleased products. No company ever told me not to express my personal opinions on social media, but they did tell me “remember, you’re representing the company” when I would talk to interviewees, work a booth at a conference, or if press happened to be visiting the building. No company told me not to write blog posts, but it also was never part of my job. I wouldn’t talk to the press or customers directly – PR, marketing, and community management teams would do that.

Even when applying Microsoft’s blogging policy to myself in 2007-8 while I was working on Zune, it was hard to come to the conclusion that I could speak positively about things like the iPhone. I certainly shouldn’t say that it makes Windows Mobile look woefully outdated (it did), I shouldn’t endorse buying the iPhone since that might lead someone to make what the company defines as a “wrong decision”, and anything I say could be taken as the opinion of all of Microsoft. Oh, and I would need to intuit the opinions of all of my management and know what they would think about my statements. I chose to not talk about the iPhone.

I think that cases like this represent a mental equation that employees of large companies perform constantly when on social media, and it often comes up “don’t post”.

I also believe this leads to a self-reinforcing cycle. If you look up all of your immediate teammates on Twitter and notice that most of them rarely tweet, does that make you more or less likely to participate yourself? If the only people who work on your project that you see talking about it publicly are the community management team and upper management, aren’t you more likely to think that it’s not your place? And as fewer employees talk publicly, every statement from an employee becomes inflated in importance and is more likely to be reframed as coming from the company.

This isn’t universal, of course. Many people2 at large companies are able to do the mental math and come out with “post” more often than I was. I appreciate that, and I respect and admire them for it. It may be because public communications is part of their job, it may be because they had an audience before working for the large company, or it just might be that they’re less fearful than me. But I believe that they are in the minority and that there are far more people who’d like to make their voices heard but are concerned about the possible repercussions.

Why Does This Happen?

A quick aside: I am a cishet white male writing from a position of privilege here. I don’t experience other forms of systemic oppression. In no way do I think that this sort of silencing equates to racism, sexism, transphobia, or other major forms of oppression in our society.

That said, I think it’s an additional smaller burden that gets placed upon people who work for large companies, and I believe that the source of this subtle oppression comes from two main factors:

  • A culture which treats employment as a core aspect of identity
  • The power imbalance between employee and employer

The cultural importance of employment is somewhat US-centric, but it’s so pervasive to define people by their employment. Hobbies, origins, relationships – all of this is often secondary. I personally think that this is a relic of an age where people would often work for a single company for the bulk of their career, but it still persists.

The power imbalance between employer and employee can be pretty obvious, but I think one instructive example is what happens when a company terminates an employee. The employee stands to potentially lose access to shelter, food, clothing, and (in certain locales, especially the US) healthcare. In most cases, the employer only stands to lose some productivity while they search for a replacement. The bigger the company is, the more likely they are insulated against this, and the less likely it is to represent an existential threat to the company.

Culture, Power, and Social Media

Speaking publicly as an employee of a big company perfectly hits this intersection of the cultural importance of your employer and their power over you. Taken in a vacuum by a new audience, the company is the affiliation which people are most likely to identify you by. You can put “opinions are my own” in your bio all you want, but our culture ties our identities so strongly to our employers that it can’t be separated in many people’s minds. Meanwhile, the employer’s massive power over the employee leads to a fear of mis-representing that employer. This fear can weigh on the employee and make it much more difficult to participate in public discussions, especially about products and issues directly related to their employer. And the bigger the company, the more likely it is that everything is somehow related to the company.

So How Do We Fix This?

I don’t know?

This may be an inescapable reality of large companies under capitalism. Classical Marxism would certainly hold that worker alienation and exploitation are systemic results of capitalism, and I think this fear of speaking publicly is certainly a form of alienation. However, I’d hope that there could be a better model of using social media at large companies without wholesale replacing capitalism.

Having a large company which very actively encouraged all employees to express themselves all the time publicly could prove an interesting case study. Would the audience indeed take people as individuals instead of just part of the collective? If employees were publicly disagreeing with each other, would it remove the “one voice” myth? Would having a major company’s social media channels run by a different person every week (like Ireland does on Twitter) make the company seem more of a collection of humans than a faceless entity?

Is there a company doing this? I don’t think I’ve seen it.

But I think the least we could do is to each, individually, treat every person we encounter just as a person. If they work for a large company maybe even be a little more forgiving, since it might be taking a toll on them to overcome this subtle silencing. Unless they’re explicitly trying to, don’t treat them as representing their entire employer or their team. Don’t try to get companies to fire someone because they were slightly rude to you and “the customer’s always right”. Be empathetic and just treat employees of large companies like normal people.

Because they are.

This piece also appears on Medium. If you liked it, please give me a clap over there.

  1. This may be any size company beyond a couple people. And I think this may be amplified in the tech and gaming sectors in particular, but I have even less proof of this.
  2. For just one example, I think that Scott Hanselman does a great job at communicating in his own voice, while also representing Microsoft.