How Not To Write Corporate Communication: An Object Lesson In Obfuscation

So Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman has heard the Twitter-patter on his window of the rain of Facebook subscribers deleting their accounts in droves following an exercise in crappy journalism that it appears that The Consumerist has been backpedaling on for most of the day since I pointed out that they had overblown their reading of the new Facebook Terms of Service. Zuckerman, realizing once again what a fragile and delicate flower his social networking orchid is, has boldly marched forward into the fray and declared with all due gravitas and solemnity what the TOS actually means for a Facebook user.

Except, well, he didn't.

Nice try, Mark, but even though your critics might from time to time underestimate the reading comprehension skills of your users, you really ought to have a little more respect for us yourself. Oh, that's right, I'm a Facebook user myself, and I plan on remaining one for the time being, but really you guys have got to get your act together or there isn't going to be much Facebook left to use.

Let's take a close look at what it is that Zuckerman said and why the tinfoil hat brigade (who, I should note, are at this very moment filing down their teeth and stocking up on canned pork and beans and vitamin supplements for the postapocalyptic world in which Facebook's faceless army of attorneys have managed to claim ownership of 88% of the world's intellectual property) are not going to be happy with this answer.

Zuckerman writes:

One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever. When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person's sent messages box and the other in their friend's inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear.

See, this is where I stop believing him. Because I know, deep down in the cynical tapeworm in my gut that has grown fat and happy after many years of being spoonfed corporate communications day-in & day-out, that that last sentence is bullshit. I don't mean to say that it is untrue. I am certain that it is not. But what I am pointing out is that Zuckerman doesn't say "The reason we updated our terms..". he says "One of the reasons we updated our terms..." Which is true. It is one of the reasons. Clearly, however, it's not the only reason. Nor is it even the most important reason. It can't possibly be. Because the most important reason they updated their service is stated previously in this paragraph. Note he says "One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever." Note the passive voice. Note the fact that this question is not, in fact, answered but is instead redirected. We readers in the midst of controversy are to assume that the questioner here is Chris Walters at The Consumerist. If we made that assumption, we would be wrong.

The person who is really asking that question is really a lawyer and/or a marketing exec inside the Facebook corporate hierarchy. They have a couple of different concerns. The lawyer wants to know what happens to comments made on other users profiles if the user deletes the account revoking Facebook's license to display their work. The marketing exec wants to know if he can show screen shots of Facebook pages in advertising and if he will have to check to see if the user has deleted his or her account every time the ad airs in every market he's bought airtime for it. The answer to both of these questions, and the bigger question behind it, can Facebook use your data forever, is that under these terms of service, neither of these problems is a problem. Facebook's license under it's Terms of Service never expires.

Because you see what's happened here is not that Facebook sat down with their expensive lawfirm and wrote out a comprehensive and sensible Terms of Service document in plain English that succeeded in the double tasks of securing all the necessary rights that the service needs to operate and not overreaching to take rights that they really don't need to operate. What happened was somebody with some pull in the company panicked about what would happen under scenario X, Y, or Z when some major class action suit came up and Facebook was sued by all of its former users for copyright violation for more money than it's struggling earnings model will ever conceivably make. And so that person—and let's be charitable here, it's as likely as not that it was Zuckerman or any of the other folks in leadership positions at Facebook—started screaming and yelling at the person whose job it is to make sure such nightmares don't happen. And that person yelled at someone down the foodchain in the legal staff who yelled at someone further Junior who actually makes so little money that they are actually expected to work, and along the way the subtext that got communicated is "The guys at the top don't want us to be vulnerable here AT ALL." Now, Junior Lawyer is probably not all that experienced. Probably Junior Lawyer is way overworked and underpaid, has all kinds of Student Loans on his head, and all he wants is for his boss to not ever have to yell about this particular issue again. So Junior Lawyer, who, incidentally, really isn't that hot on Intellectual Property, and is really hoping that he can dig into some meaty tax law soon and start making the big bucks, yanks out his book on copyright law, or more likely surfs on over to YouTubes TOS page, and writes up a license that covers everything that could ever possibly be held against Facebook as copyright infringement.

This is how large corporations work, for those of you who have had the good fortune to never actually work for one. Decisions are not made in the service of Machiavellian schemes that will pay off some decades down the road when the Bilderberger's finally implement the One World Government under the leadership of the Trilateral Commission. No. Decisions are made in a panic. They come under the urgent directive of someone whose job is probably going to be axed any day now if the economy doesn't turn around because the Board of Directors, who are not nearly as rich as they once were what with the repeated stock market crashes and everything, need start seeing some goddamn ROI for once or they won't be able to keep the G5 or the Ski Lodge in Aspen anymore.

Or to put it another way, Facebook fucked up. They, at some point in the not too distant past, realized that they didn't know if they were free and clear in some aspect of their TOS. Somebody high up in the food chain flipped out. And they fixed it quick and dirty and hoped nobody would notice that they had taken a twenty seven inch chainsaw to a problem most properly addressed with a scalpel. "Don't worry about that corn on your pinky toe, Mr. Smith, we'll just take the leg off right below the hip and it'll never bother you again." That sort of thing.

This is, of course, all speculation. It's based on reading between the lines of what Zuckerman isn't saying in his blog post. It's pretty typical of corporate communication, honestly. Rare is the representative of a business who will admit to his customer that the corporation fucked up. Guys in business school have to take classes on how to avoid admitting fault even when you know you're totally wrong. Seriously. It's the only rational explanation I can come up with for how common this kind of bullshit is.

And this, honestly, is what's wrong with corporate culture today. It's what's caused the seizing of the fnancial sector and the pitiful state of the stock market and the endless scandals over the last few years. Because the thing is, it's not that we didn't know all this nonsense was bullshit before, we just usually got away with pretending that whatever it was that the corporate schills were lying about, it wasn't really something that could hurt us. Except that sometimes it does.

And make no mistake, that is precisely what Zuckerman is saying here. He is saying, as directly as is possible for a schill like him, that no one should worry, whatever our fears are and whatever rights Facebook actually claims, they would never do something that we the users didn't like with our content. And he's saying that because it's a classic dodge of a direct question. "It doesn't matter what powers we have, we would never abuse them. You can trust us."

Which sounds so amazingly sinister that really only a corporate schill could still say something like that with a straight face. You half expect a YouTube video to immediately surface showing Zuckerman in a top hat and tails rubbing his hands together and twisting the end of his handlebar mustache while cackling like a lunatic.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I read Zuckerman's statement. It's so anachronistic, so Leave it to Beaver, so "Go back to bed, America, Your Goverment is in control," that I find myself mildly amused that a member of my generation like Zuckerman who really should be more media savvy really thinks he can get away with that particular brand of bullshit.

If anything, these sorts of reassurances only serve to make people more uneasy that you're up to something you don't want to tell us about because you're afraid we won't like it and you won't be able to get away with it.

Which is to say, Marky Mark. Zucky. Bubeleh. Just come clean. Say you fucked up. Say you overreached because of a hypothetical system wide fire drill you were worried about and you're going back to the drawing board to create some cleaner TOS that will be less grasping and more in keeping with your philosophy that users control their content. Because that's a good philosophy. You should be proud of it. It should not be merely some poor legerdemain used to misdirect your users' attention from crass, mercenary nonsense that is really to no one's benefit. Which you have to admit, now that this has all blown up, it isn't going to do you any good to try to hang on to those rights you don't really need. As of right now, whether you like it or not, that sleight of hand is precisely all of what you're showing at this point, and it is not inspiring in us the trust you are asking for. If you don't knock it off, you will go the way of and Don't say I didn't warn you.


Zuckerman? Really?

Zuckerman? Really?