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Friday, April 20, 2012

Poking Life's Zombie Hamsters in the Eye

Hamster Coffin

I had amazing parents. Truly. But any good, self aware parent will tell you there are things they wish they had done differently. The blooper reel, if you will. I know exactly what my dad would list:

1. Forcing me to go to one of my first grade basketball games, even though I said I didn't feel good, then having to clean massive amounts of vomit out of his truck. Although, he will say grudgingly, "You didn't even play." (Football Player Dad. What are you gonna do?)

2. Making me go to Lexington Traditional Magnet School, because my sister went there.

3. Handling the discussion about death.

The latter is probably more connected to the other two than it may at first appear, but we'll get back to that.

My parents first opportunity to help me come to terms with the concept of death was when my beloved Papa Greene died when I was about 7. It's a long story, but it includes tornado sirens, flash flooding, mockery, and the blunt assertion that we may have to find a boat and rescue my grandfather's floating corpse.

It could have gone better.

Their next opportunity came very shortly after in the form of that favorite of disposable childhood pets: a hamster.  Specifically, a hamster named Cupcake.

Cupcake was my first pet that was truly my own.  My sister had HER hamster, and I had MY hamster.  I loved Cupcake, and cared for him like a baby: feeding him, playing with him, even bathing him regularly, which I'm pretty sure is not part of standard rodent care.  My mother hated him, and Dad was probably only vaguely aware that we even owned hamsters.  But what they lacked in affection for Cupcake, I made up for in spades.

Then one day I went to get Cupcake out to play.  He didn't run shrieking from my bony hands, as he normally would.  In fact, he didn't move at all.

"Daddy, something is wrong with Cupcake!"

Dad took one look at the limp ball of fur, and said, "I think it's dead. Go put it back and we'll bury him later."

I spent the rest of the morning hovering outside of my tiny body. What did this mean? Cupcake would just be in the ground, all alone, with no one to love him or snuggle him or play with him ever again?

It was too much to bear.

Then my cousin Justin showed up.

In Justin's defense, the boy now has more degrees than a thermometer, and could construct a multilevel house out of all the books he owns and has read.  He is literally the smartest person I know. On this one occasion, however, he may have whiffed a little.

"Maybe he's just hibernating?  Most rodents go through an extended period of sleep.  I'm sure hamsters are no different," Justin offered.

That settled it.  There was no way I was going to let Cupcake be buried alive.


Three months later, Dad approached me about "the hamster situation".  Only he could tell you what prompted him to bring it up again, but something needed to be done.  I looked dolefully at him.

"But, Daddy, what if he isn't really dead?  What if we bury him and he comes back to life and he's all alone in the cold and the dark?"

This time Dad was prepared with the words of compassion and comfort that every child needs to hear when they are forced to confront the concept of mortality.

"Ann, that thing hasn't moved in 3 months.  It's dead.  Put him in a shoebox.  We're burying him."

Weeping, I lovingly arranged Cupcake on a bed of tissue inside a shoebox.  When I brought him out on our screened-in porch, Dad was ready with the shovel.  Then, something caught my eye inside the box.  At least, I thought something caught my eye.

 "Wait!!!  He moved!!  He's not dead!!  He's not deeeeeeeaaaadddd!!!!!"


Three months later, the shoebox still sat on the back porch.  Again, Dad will have to tell you why that particular day was the day he decided enough was enough.  I'd say my mother probably had something to do with it.

"Ann.  That hamster has been dead for 6 months.  He hasn't moved, eaten, or drank any water.  It's time to get rid of him."

Defiantly, I pointed out what I'm sure many of you are wondering about, "But he doesn't smell dead.  He's just sleeping."

"That's it.  We're calling a professional."

Dad dialed the vet's office.  Standing in our dining room, I watched intently as Dad listened to the voice of reason on the other end of the phone making affirming "mmm hmm" sounds and pursing his lips.  He hung up the phone.

"Go get the hamster.  We have to poke it in the eye."

Evidently, the medical diagnostic test for confirming death in a hamster is by poking it in the eye.  If it flinches, it's alive.  If it doesn't...well, you get the idea.

So there I stood, with a slightly stiff hamster, odd blue ring around it's mouth, and watched as my dad jabbed his index finger straight into his permanently-adhesed-through-death eye.

Cupcake didn't flinch.

To say that in adulthood, I still have trouble letting things go is a gross understatement.  I have an unwavering belief in my ability to fix things and change people, dangerously coupled with a paralyzing fear of failure.

In recent weeks, I have become painfully aware that I am surrounded by dead hamsters.

Good and dead hamsters.

Here's what is so hard about letting things go: the idea of life without something that we once believed so strongly in or that meant so much to us or that gave us such security blinds us to the real worst case scenario.  We think the worst case scenario is that we'll feel lonely, disillusioned, and insecure.  That's not the worst case scenario.

The worst case scenario is waking up and realizing you've been sleeping in the same house as a dead animal for six months.

Whether it's a friendship, a job, a marriage, or a belief system, there comes a day when you just have to poke it in the eye.  If it doesn't flinch, it's time to let it go.  Furthermore, in most cases, do we even really want it to flinch?  I can't think of a single movie where poking something that is 99% probably dead, then having it be categorically NOT dead, worked out for the poker.

I am very much going through my life and poking dead hamsters in the eye, right now.  So far, it's been very depressing, but necessary work.

Do you have any dead hamsters that need poking in the eye?  Have any of them flinched? 

I'd love to know that I'm not alone on this one.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Corporate Censorship and Other Reasons to Fire Your PR Agency

Once upon a time, Steve Yegge had a very bad week. A programmer at Google, Steve wrote an internal memo ranting against the company's service platforms.  Once he was done tidily deriding his employer, he sent his internal the entire reading public.


See, Steve had done something we've all managed to do at least once.  He did the blog equivalent of hitting "reply all".

Steve decided to take down the post, but the damage was already done.  His rant had gone viral and copies were all over the web and media.

Fortunately, for Steve, Google isn't the kind of company that censors it's employees.

"I contacted our internal PR folks and asked what to do, and they were also nice and supportive," he later wrote. "But they didn't want me to think that they were even hinting at censoring me -- they went out of their way to help me understand that we're an opinionated company, and not one of the kinds of companies that censors their employees."

So once the media dust settled, what kind of punishment or reprimand did Google dole out to their opinionated employee?

None.  They just listened to him.

"Amazingly, nothing bad happened to me at Google. Everyone just laughed at me a lot, all the way up to the top, for having committed what must be the great-granddaddy of all Reply-All screwups in tech history... But they also listened, which is super cool."

In this situation, the employee in question never intended for his post to be read outside of the company. 

But what if he had? 

What if on his personal blog, on his personal time, he had written the exact same post and unabashedly hit the "Post" button?  Would Google's response have been different?

I don't think so.

Because Google is smart.

Companies are finally realizing that social media is not going away.  For every one CEO that is rushing to their HR department to see about hiring a creative, talented person to harness its power, there are three other CEO's rushing to their HR department to see how fast they can write a policy limiting what employees can and can't do online.

Even more disturbing, there are still PR agencies advising paying clients to commit censorship tactics.

While expecting that employees not write disparaging, pornographic, or false information in their online activities is perfectly reasonable, trying to police, muzzle, and otherwise stifle the organic expressions of people who work for you is counter productive, unethical, and just plain stupid.

First of all, forcing people to take down posts about industry happenings just because you don't agree is the corporate equivalent of closing your eyes, covering your ears, and humming loudly.

Just because you can't see the very real opinions that people have, doesn't mean they don't exist.  All you're doing is deluding yourself into believing that you are in control of your brand and its message.  Let me clear it up for you.

You're not.

If your PR Agency tells you that you can control your brand's image and message by censoring people or ignoring public opinion, then...

Fire them.


Second of all, to think that asking employees to remove posts or otherwise limit their speech will somehow abate the PUBLIC'S negative opinion of something your company is doing or has done is to fundamentally NOT get how social media works.  If your PR Agency recommends, for example, policing employees' personal blogs, planting positive commenters on your social media feeds, or trying to bury negative commentary with fluff content then, again...

Fire them.


Not only are they going to categorically fubar your social media efforts, but it's probably a sign they don't know much about technology in general.

Finally, believe it or not, if your employees are writing about something going on in your industry that is controversial it is a good sign.  It means they give a damn.  And if the public sees that your employees give a damn, then they'll give a damn too.  That said, there is no faster way to make an employee stop caring, than to tell him to shut his mouth.

So the next time you are tempted to tell an employee they have to delete a tweet, or take down a blog, ask yourself this question:

Am I mad, because he wrote it? Or am I mad because it's true?

If what the employee wrote was true and fair, then your time would be better spent fixing what they are writing about than making them take their post down.  If your PR agency advised you to ask them to take it down, guessed it...

Fire them.


Find a PR company that will spend the very expensive time you're paying them for to do something more productive than web stalking your employees and getting their panties in a bunch over a message they're obviously failing to counter.

Could Google legally have fired the mouthy programmer?  Probably.  But all that would have accomplished was ensuring that everything the programmer continued to write was negative, added fuel to the public fire, and STILL not fixed the issues with the service platforms.  It also probably would have caused the programmer to get snatched up by a company interested in employing someone who obviously knew what they were talking about, while Google would have effectively put up an electric fence between themselves and any knowledgable, creative, expressive, and caring potential job candidate within a 1,000 miles of Silicon Valley.

Of course, you could be like those other large, successful companies that DO censor their staff and employ PR agencies that use denial and cover up tactics to build their brand.


I can't think of any....