Friday, February 02, 2007


Seth Godin points to this blog post, where an anonymous blogger (whom I'll call Jane) recounts an exchange with Lycos customer service. The nutshell is that Jane was using Lycos's free e-mail to store "hundreds of e-mails"; but when her account was left inactive for 30 days, Lycos emptied its contents. Jane complained and got several rude replies.

Jane posted excerpts from those e-mails on the Internet along with the alleged full name of the Lycos employee (Mike J____) who wrote them. Predictably, this juicy exchange was promptly picked up by MetaFilter, Digg, et cetera, and the blogosphere proceeded to drag Mike through the mud — although to be fair, there's an equal backlash aimed at Jane for blaming her negligent mistake on Lycos, whose terms of service are perfectly clear:
1. Description of Service. Lycos offers subscription and unpaid versions of its electronic mail services (the "Service"). Lycos reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to limit the amount of storage space available per user and to delete materials stored for an excessive period while the user's account has been inactive, or for violation of this Agreement. Specifically, Lycos reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to delete any materials (including emails) stored in connection with an unpaid Lycos Mail account if the user's account has been inactive for thirty (30) days. If you subscribe to Lycos Mail, you agree to be bound by the subscription agreement.
I'm sorry that Jane's e-mails were deleted; and assuming her excerpts are accurate, then I agree that Mike was inexcusably rude. But the question now becomes whether the punishment fits the crime. For practical purposes, Google is permanent. We've seen a hundred news articles about employers (to say nothing of friends, family, and dates) using Google and MySpace and Facebook to research potential hires; so in the case of someone with an unusual name, you can potentially cause serious harm. Oddly, Jane replied to suggestions that Mike should be fired by writing:
I don’t think the guy deserves to be fired for this. Repremanded, sure. Taken off customer support, sure. But being fired sounds - again - like the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
In other words, Jane doesn't believe Mike deserves to be fired from this job, but it's OK to pollute Google and possibly cost him future jobs. Because that's exactly what's going to happen when Mike's next potential employer plugs his name into Google and gets three pages of results announcing, "Mike J____ verbally abuses customers."

Jane might regret her tantrum next week, but it's too late. Even if the original blog post is edited or removed, dozens of other websites are circulating Mike's name. Put yourself in his shoes. Yes, his e-mails were unprofessional, but he didn't commit a murder or rape a child. I managed a record store for 3 years; and although we ran a tight crew and boosted sales, I can think of a couple anecdotes that I wouldn't recount during a job interview. Do a couple of impolite e-mails warrant a persistent campaign of vengeance?

There's an interesting postscript, which is that although Jane's blog is unsigned the Consumerist has republished the story and attached a first name (not Jane). Using that name and the title of her blog, it took me exactly two searches to find her full name. She apparently writes for a newspaper and works at a state university. According to Google, her name is more unusual than Mike's, which means she's just as vulnerable to the kind of Google-bombing that she's doing to him.