In a recent piece on the new Project Blackbox, I used some coarse language, in an idiomatic way, not giving it much thought. The consequences were surprising.

Nick Carr wondered about this, then an obviously-bored Martin Veitch had a little fun with the episode; his little gem being picked up as far afield as the Malaysia Sun’s Technology News page. Out of public view, the Sun internal bloggers alias exploded, opinions ranging from those saluting me as an exemplar of New Age Marketing and Proactive Transparency to others who felt my mouth ought to be washed out; one person related that he’d heard from a Sun shareholder who was going to sell as a consequence.

Dave Douglas, our VP of Advanced Technology, who’s one of the prime movers on BlackBox, was surprised enough at all this that he wrote a thoughtful piece entitled Tim’s Bomb.

My Take · Well, I could be flippant and quote Barnum about how I don’t care what they say as long as they spell my name right. And in point of fact, my little BlackBox piece got way more traffic than it probably deserved. But I really don’t think of it that way.

The pro and con of this are not that complex or subtle. On the one side, there are people who are genuinely and unaffectedly offended by coarse language; for them, my doing this devalues my message and even perhaps by association, impairs their image of my employer. On the other, I think that there is substantial value in the transparency and honesty that characterizes the blogging medium in general and ongoing in particular. I am keenly aware that I am not a great writer, and that the range of subjects on which I’m sufficiently expert that my opinions ought to be taken seriously is pretty narrow. Given that, if I don’t offer 100% complete unvarnished honesty and transparency, what am I offering? And when I express myself naturally, my language includes a certain amount of coarseness; nowhere the Tarantino-screenplay level, but somewhere around the engineering norm. So I’m reluctant to do anything that makes ongoing read less like the way I really sound.

Surprise · The real take-away is deeper. Let me start here: I was surprised at this little flurry, because coarse language has occurred regularly here at ongoing. But not that much, because I’m used to surprise at the reactions to what I write.

I long ago learned that carefully crafting a piece to get some particular person’s attention, or to get it on Slashdot, was futile. Lovingly-crafted essays on subjects that I think are important sink without a trace, while three-paragraph squibs touch off Minor Internet Memes and get hundreds of thousands of reads. Pieces that I think are lightweight and humorous offend people, and edgy war diatribes bring me warm waves of supportive email.

As to the effect of what I write on the people who read it: I don’t know. I really, totally, absolutely, have no idea. So what I do is write the words that ask me to write them. Then I read them again and decide whether they say something that needs to be said, and if so I push the “publish” button.

So, to anyone who was offended by my language: I’m sincerely sorry. But that’s really what I’m like.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: David Megginson (Oct 22 2006, at 15:55)

I read your original posting about Sun's data centre in a box (to me it looks a bit like a dumpster, unfortunately), but I didn't notice the profanity. I was puzzled by your new posting until I followed the links to your refs, and saw that they were talking about the phrase "fucking cool".

How low do people have to turn their mental squelch for something like that to register when they're reading stuff on the web? Lower than mine, obviously.

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From: John Minnihan (Oct 22 2006, at 16:00)

Yep, the word 'fuck' or 'fucking' can get some otherwise rational folks bent into some pretty peculiar shapes pretty rapidly.

The word has been in the popular, non-offensive (at least not intentioanlly offensive) vernacular for at least the past fifty years (probably much longer...)

Why all the fuss?

To all those so easily offended by a **word**: How about everytime I say 'fuck' and its offends you, you make a contribution (time, money, or resources) to some reputable organization that is out to positively change the world. Then you take the moral high ground.

I can fuckin' live with that.

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From: Michael (Oct 22 2006, at 16:26)

That link to the yahoo search doesn't seem to recognize the site:tbray.org portion, so the search is just for 'fuck OR fucking OR fuckbrained'. This search string works better:

http://www.google.ca/search?q=fuck+OR+fucking+OR+fuckbrained+site%3Atbray.org

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From: Ian King (Oct 22 2006, at 17:56)

Tim, you might want to change that search query to Google instead of Yahoo -- the results from Yahoo contain no ongoing obscenity, but lots of adult links.

On the question of language, I'm amazed that folks made a big deal of that off-hand remark. You'd think this was the first time an engineer (or a computing enthusiast) ever swore. I expect most blog postings -- especially those written by people who aren't flacks -- to be casual, with the odd diction, idioms, and swears that casual implies.

(Besides, I'm sure that Scott McNealy dropped the F-bomb in public a few times when he was Sun's CEO...)

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From: Colin Barrow (Oct 22 2006, at 18:19)

The link to yahoo.com to show previous uses of strong language in ongoing is very broken. Yahoo seem to apply the site: modifier to the individual phrase rather than combining phrases with the OR operators first. It's rather hard to see why this is desirable behaviour but it does give a page of very odd links (none of which relate to tbray.org) - this search does what I think you intended:

http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=%28fuck+OR+fucking+OR+fuckbrained%29+site%3Atbray.org&prssweb=Search&ei=UTF-8&x=wrt

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From: Colin Barrow (Oct 22 2006, at 18:41)

Hmmm - Yahoo usually seems to handle OR and site: in combination just fine:

http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=tim+OR+bray+OR+ongoing+site%3Atbray.org&prssweb=Search&ei=UTF-8&fr=yfp-t-501&x=wrt

but strange things happen with some searches:

http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=jack+OR+white+OR+meg+site%3Atbray.org&prssweb=Search&ei=UTF-8&fr=yfp-t-501&x=wrt

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From: Tim Bray (Oct 22 2006, at 21:53)

Oops. Thanks for pointing out the search breakage. Fixed (I hope).

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From: Robert Sayre (Oct 22 2006, at 22:57)

"fucking cool"

yeah, I'm with Dave Megginson. The "Sun internal bloggers alias" should chill out and start some MySpace pages so they know how the Web presents itself to most people. Also, the Sun Blackbox sort of does look like a dumpster, but it's still fucking cool.

thanks,

Robert Sayre, SUNW shareholder

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From: Thijs van der Vossen (Oct 23 2006, at 00:18)

I had to read your piece on Project Blackbox three times before I had any idea what the fuck you were talking about. :-)

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From: Simon Brocklehurst (Oct 23 2006, at 01:19)

I'm don't think that people who were offended, or who claim to have been offended, about your use of the F-word should be pandered too. The truth is, such people rarely contribute much of value to their work or social communities. Why? Because they're almost always too busy whining to have any time left over to do anything useful.

Thus, the correct response to such individuals is not - "I'm sincerely sorry." The correct response is, "Fuck Off!"

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From: Phil (Oct 23 2006, at 03:38)

For what it's worth, I've just followed the links to the 'lovingly-crafted essay' and the 'edgy war diatribe' & I thought they both said things that needed saying. And the lack of response to the post about excluding women isn't at all surprising - if you'd listened really hard you might have caught the sound of shuffling feet...

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From: Clint Hill (Oct 23 2006, at 05:17)

I for one am thankful. If you hadn't spoken so casually in your pieces, I am not sure I would have continued to read your stuff. I have been reading for close to a year now.

Sometimes a little coarseness enhances the English language. Provides it with legs and makes it run through the mind. While I read yours and others like yours I actually absorb due to the language being so close to what I hear in my head when I read.

It has nothing to do with honesty or transparency. It has every thing to do with effectiveness. "The pen is mightier than the sword"...or something.

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From: Rob (Oct 23 2006, at 05:42)

Uh, and there is this teeny tiny point, that really, the only way to describe the damn box is to use the adjective. Because it is really ******* cool (hell it got boingboinged), though also probably ******* ridiculous, and ******* unnecessarily ******* black, but **** me, it remains ******* cool, and I don't think that there is a better way of putting it, except to say ****.

(Oh, and Tim, your anti spam questions ******* blow. Personally, I actually am more likely to ******* study than dance at a ******* party.)

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From: Ola (Oct 23 2006, at 07:28)

I honestly didn't notice it the first time I read the article. And I guess it's allowed but as I am not a VP of any company, ...

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From: Bill Seitz (Oct 23 2006, at 11:13)

Wow, what a kerfuffle over nothing.

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From: Nick Carr (Oct 23 2006, at 12:49)

<i>So what I do is write the words that ask me to write them. Then I read them again and decide whether they say something that needs to be said, and if so I push the “publish” button.</i>

Tim, you really haven't mastered this blogging thing yet. Step 3 is supposed to come before Step 2.

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From: Chris Cox (Oct 24 2006, at 05:14)

Dude I think thats pretty much the coolest thing - I mean blogging is pretty much the first time that techies and the non-marketing types have got a platform to say what the shit we like, we can be authentic, and actually make an impact. If we have to lie and pretend to be "more than what are" we dilute our writing completely (which lets be honest probably isn't that great to begin with). People read what we write because its authentic, because we're real, human, because what they see is who we are and people can connect.

So be who you are, its the best business choice imho anyway for Sun; and definitely the best personal choice for you methinks...

Peace

Chris

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From: Mark (Oct 24 2006, at 09:00)

As I have stated many times before ( http://www.google.com/search?q=motherfucker+site%3Adiveintomark.org ), a corporate blog is just like a personal blog, except you don't get to use the word "motherfucker".

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From: Meri (Oct 24 2006, at 15:17)

Well, when I read your piece all it sparked in me was total agreement. The black box is super-fucking-cool.

It spoke directly to me because you were talking exactly like me. But then I'm a 24 year old girl geek from South Africa -- possibly not the typical Sun shareholder demographic ;-)

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From: Stefan Tilkov (Oct 25 2006, at 12:20)

You might like this particular link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/fword1.html - it sheds a whole new light on the etymology of the word ...

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From: Michael Thorne (Nov 06 2006, at 06:22)

Some others with opinions like yourself, "Two simple words of passion ...", for creating passionate users.

page@ http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/

image@ http://headrush.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/thatiscool.jpg

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