Wednesday, June 18, 2003

READ ME: Weblogs, Work and Women

The README file in software programs has always intrigued me. It sounds alluring, very appetizing. Just as Alice was invariably being enticed to DRINKME or EATME by various potions in little blue bottles or tiny cookies on tiny plates, which once ingested made for miraculous transformations, the README file always makes me expect something utterly magical and delicious is about to happen. by its very nomenclature.

Alas, the README file is often nearly unreadable – very disappointing for a story woman like me who wants a hero’s quest, a girl meets boy, or a simple whodunit offered up to her voracious reader’s appetite. The README file for those ungeeks who would appreciate an explanation, is usually a last file added to software that will give a user updated information and other important details as current as they possibly can be. It’s simple and factual and technical at a minimum, and overly technical, obtuse and impenetrable at the max – read ‘uninspiring’ to say the least – for mere mortals.

I want to suggest that the weblogging world has gone from its README origins – where mostly technical blogs were dominating the weblogging genre -- to a READ ME! phase where at the other extreme the more personal weblogs full of stories and anecdotes were defining the genre and is about to launch into a new arena where blogs prove their usefulness in business in a myriad of ways … maybe we can call this the "NEED ME" era of weblogs, when they will be needed more and more to create a new level of customer intimacy and business transparency we all need. Here’s what I mean.

Many of the first blogs were written by the blog tool makers – that is, the developers who created the software wrote blogs and for the early years (1995 – 1999) defined the genre. Many, if not most blogs, were daily diaries of bug fix info and patches and even more long-winded diatribes on important developments in the world of software programming. All good and essential and important but not terribly inspirational to those outside that community of very gifted geeks.

I think of it as a bunch of cavemen sitting around inventing the wheel. They loved to talk radius. They loved to talk diameter. They loved their wheel. They painted cave paintings of their wheel on the wall. Looked about as interesting as those pictures that are in the middle of a patent filing.

Then cavewomen came along and were pretty unimpressed with one wheel sitting there being fondled by one caveman. She made him roll it over to her and then told him to leave her alone with it for a while. He let her have the wheel but wanted to interest her in all the diagrams and maps and charts he had scribbled to explain this cool thing called a wheel. She wasn’t interested in the documentation; she just wanted to USE the wheel. She had a plan. She knew where the wheel could take her and she wanted to go there FAST. She wanted the wheel man to go with her, so she told him, “Go take a bath.”

She then coaxed three other cavemen to hand over their wheels and also go take baths. She had plans. She and her girlfriends turned their 4 wheels into a Thunderbird. Now the guys were cleaned up and she invited them along for a joy ride in her new car.

They said, “What the hell did she do with our wheels?” But they didn’t stand around too long because they knew they’d do better to just get in the car and let her take them for a ride.

Around about 1999, a new bunch of blogs started showing up – ones you could really READ – ones that told you stories and entertained you and took you for a joyride. Many of these blogs dutifully thanked the toolmakers for their cool blogging software. Many more didn’t know anything about the toolmakers and didn’t care. They just wanted to publish stuff someone wanted to read. They took the README idea in the Alice in Wonderland direction and published incredible magical strange things … stories people wanted to read. Stories about people. Stories about pets. Stories about their jobs. You could hear them telling stories. You could hear their voices loud and clear in their weblogs. They sounded like people sitting around a fire telling great stories. They are taking us all on a joy ride, showing us how much we liked stories, how much we needed stories.

Of course, I’m being a little facetious here, but this is what happened from 1999 – 2001 in the weblog community. I mention 2001 for a reason. The weblog came into its own on September 11, 2001 when geeky weblogs, not-so-geeky weblogs and every weblog in between spoke the true stories of the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center towers with voices so fresh, so local, so compelling that the weblog genre could well be considered to have given birth to itself on that day. The weblogs stood up on that day and with pictures and text told their truth – some would say “the truth” – about what it felt like to be that businessman coated in white debris staggering up from Wall Street to mid-town barely able to fathom what had just happened.

We were awash in real stories about real people – real tragedy, real heroism, really real stuff. The weblog had a big open heart, big enough to contain and hold these stories with a respectful wholeness. Not to take away from the excellent journalism that came from this period, there was something about weblogs that was perfectly suited to keeping these impossible stories on that impossible day whole, human, vital in all their aliveness and all their lethal At that time, one of the premier editorial efforts by an established newspaper, The New York Times, was their section of the paper that recounted the stories of the people killed in the event, the section called “Portraits of Grief’. Interestingly, The Times also had the good sense to understand the personal narrative genre was best suited to telling the truth of this historic event.

We had been inebriated on story. We were drunk on personal tales. We had, as a tribe, sat in a circle and told the harrowing stories of our wayfaring members and I think we would never be the same.

Historically we were also at an unusual time in business. We were just entering a big downturn after having been in a giddy euphoric boom economy from 1990 through 2000.

There were other edifices being toppled rather silently at this time. In August of 2001, just as the terrorists were planning their lethal attack on the gleaming business towers, there a woman named Sherron Watkins at a company called Enron, who was writing a memo demanding the truthful story of that company be told. No more hiding behind complicated accounting fantasy language, no more obfuscating the reality of what misdeeds were going down in the name of business at her company, she wanted the real, plain, unvarnished truth recounted. It didn’t seem a lot to ask. It seemed the right thing to do. She wanted the whole story told.

She wrote a memo, just words on a page, that would bring the entire company to its knees. She told the truth and a lot of people at her company were not ready for that level of transparency.

Other women did the same and strangely, the Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2002 was not a male captain of industry, not a male leader of peace in the free world, not a man who invented a new technology or cured a disease, but instead were three women who had insisted on telling the truth in the places where they worked – Cynthia Cooper (Worldcom), Coleen Rowley (FBI) and Sherron Watkins (Enron). They told the stories of what had been going on in their lives. Those truths brought down many more gleaming skyscrapers than the terrorists did on September 11th and changed the way business would be done from that moment forward in radical ways.

Time Magazine was showing no gender bias, preferring to pose three women, instead of three men on their cover in recounting the whistleblower’s tale, but we have to ask why it happened to be women who were gracing the cover of that historic issue.

Talking about women and business is so full of landmines, I can barely step in the right place without getting blown out of the water from making the suggestion that the three whistleblowers could ONLY have been women.

They could only have been women because women have finally gotten deep enough into companies to see up close what was going on and they could only have been women because women are still on the “outside” despite being on the inside. I mean, no matter how deep inside a business organization women gets, they are still not brought into the room to enjoy the spoils of business war. They are still routinely cut out of the highest, most powerful, most lucrative jobs. They are still a miniscule force on corporate boards. They are still not treated fairly. They are still unable to be in on the party.

Even in the booming economy of the 1990’s, they were still fighting to take part equally with their male business school colleagues. Many are still doing majority of the grueling work at home of caring for their children, their husbands and their households while trying to succeed at work. Most know you can not succeed at work when you’re up at 5:00am to breastfeed babies, put in another load of laundry, make school lunches and get to a weekly sales meeting at 8:00am since the school bus comes at 8:00am and their husbands, for the most part, are already at work and are not juggling the non-negotiable truth that family life and corporate life are next to impossible to integrate. They know this truth, it is their truth and all the books and magazine articles and other propaganda about work/life balance being pumped out of the business book factory they see right through and know it for what it is – baloney. They know they are running a race at work with their male colleagues and they are losing. They went to business school with Andrew Fastow and Jeffrey Skilling, for God’s sake, they know they are just as smart if not smarter than those guys. They all started on the same starting line at the corner of Soldier’s Field Road and Storrow Drive right outside of Harvard Business School. After twenty years, most of them are way behind. Did they have a cerebral accident and lose brain cells while their male counterparts gained wisdom? Are they just not good enough to cut it? Are they not as good as men?

They knew they won the vote in 1923, but something about equality was escaping them. They knew as African Americans knew in the 1960’s that the Civil War was over, they had all the rights they deserved on paper, but that an uncivil war for civil rights had to happen if they were even going to sit next to whites at the lunch counter. If women were ever going to sit next to men on corporate boards, in corporate suites, on corporate jets as equals, something had to give.

They wanted to tell their stories. They knew the game of business was rigged. They knew the rules of business are fashioned to favor men. They knew men knew it. Their husbands knew it and weren’t their husbands just the same as the guys at work? Didn’t that mean the guys at work were in on the lie too. And then when the economy got bad and their husbands were getting laid off, wasn’t it even more obvious that if women had been treated fairly and paid equally, the families now supported by her salary (and not his) would be in better shape. Their husbands began to notice the inequality they had been a part of. in their own companies and that it had come back to bite them in the ass, as they tried to live on their wives limited salaries.

Lots of things were changing suddenly. Women starting looking at their lives, telling their truth. They were losing the race because if they are mothers, they were running a race with concrete shoes on. They were losing the race, even as single women without kids because they were not respected at work and they were cut out of the most important conversations at work, they were not able to fully participate in business, they were passed over for promotions, they were excluded from the highest positions of power, jobs where men helped other male colleagues up into the boat.

Being a woman without a wife to help you in business is a sucker’s game. You can’t succeed. Women knew this. They saw it every day. They knew they were even worse off than any guy without a wife. Women knew they were not only without the support of a wife, but most of them were were busy being wives, an emotionally draining and physically exhausting form of sanctioned slavery, taking hours away from the time they could spend being ideal workers. Ideal workers are men. Men who can travel, men who can relocate, men who can sit around at big client dinners until 10:00pm because they don’t have to be home tucking their precious children into bed at 8:30. Why do you think most divorces are initiated by women? We are witnessing a one-woman-at-a-time Civil War and underground railroad to freedom. Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last. Divorce and separation agreements spell out an equal sharing of child-raising responsibilities between husband and wife that women have never been able to negotiate peacefully in marriage. Divorce eradicates wifely duties in one fell swoop and the unhappy faces of men testify to that.

Women are fed up. They are telling the truth about their lives. Changing poopy diapers tends to ground one in reality. Whether at home or at work in a corporate-speak memo about accounting practices, women know shit when they smell it. It makes them a little impatient with lies. They know a kid with strep throat is not a business event that can be rescheduled. They see with the eyes of mothers. They see hunger. They see tears. They see the tears of the husbands and other men in their lives. They deal in the truth. They know when they are being conned. They know they are second class citizens at work. They are not so dumb as they look. They know they are second class citizens at home. They know they are getting ripped off. They know they are raising the next generation of citizens, that no one much appreciates it and they are really exhausted. This makes them lethal. This makes them whistleblowers of the most courageous ilk. They are disenfranchised and therefore have nothing to lose and everything to gain by telling the truth. They want the truth told. They want to know why Andrew Fastow of Enron made $15 million dollars in an afternoon and they made $50,000 a year if they were really lucky.

They have changed the face of business. They have demanded a new transparency at work and in business. Although the three women on the cover of Time Magazine were not bloggers, the women using blogging tools are doing a variation on daily whistle-blowing as they blog. They are using weblogs to tell their truth. Much of their truth has been silenced and not allowed to appear in main stream press which is dominated by men. I honestly don’t believe this is any conspiracy by men, but rather a shocking disconnect from the reality men live in and the reality women live in. Weblogs are not controlled or controllable by any one group. Weblogs are a no-barriers-to-entry publishing phenomenon. Weblogs are giving women a publishing platform unparalleled in history. Women are not self-editing their voices out of existence. With weblogs, women are telling their truth without even noticing. Weblogs are creating a level-playing field for women.

Weblogs sound truthful and give a reader access to a real person’s real voice. They are all about transparency. If someone tries to write a corporate-spin weblog – it sounds like that – and guess what – no one wants to bother reading it.

If someone writes in an honest truthful voice, people are drawn to it like the proverbial bees to honey. Women are doing this every day in weblogs. Women will be doing this more and more in business. The woman who runs customer service will have a weblog where she and her customers write in truthful, helpful voices. The woman who runs sales will invite clients to write weblogs entries next to hers to solve the riddle of how they can all work together better. She will welcome their comments, neatly embedded in weblogs, a standard feature of weblogs that is the software manifestation of collaborative thinking. Weblogs work the way women work, they invite conversation and interaction in order to solve problems. They are not designed with women in mind, but they are all about cooperation, conversation and transparency. They are perfectly suited to a woman’s view of business. “Can’t we all just get along,” per Rodney King and can’t we all just work together and get something done around here?” as most women would say.

Women will continue to erode the business edifice shored up and falsely constructed on the tenuous practices of withholding information or purposefully twisting the truth. There’s no going back on transparency from the corporate board room to the janitor’s closet and everywhere in between. Weblogs will help women do this.

So perhaps we're finally entering the NEED ME phase of business. We need honest voices. We need transparency. We need to tell the truth. Weblogs are ready and willing to deliver it. But are businesses ready to tell the truth?

Like women in business, weblogs in business are the next big thing, and the two will work in concert to make the workplace radically new and transparent. The Net brought transparency to the travel business, to the financial business, to many other transaction based businesses. As for weblogs, the most innovative initiatives will not be in the arena of weblogging technology, but rather the innovation demanded of business as business grows more transparent, more open to the stories of all people who need to tell their stories and need to bring business back into reality and a place of truth.