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An Open Letter to Elisa Steele EVP & Chief Marketing Officer, Yahoo Inc. on the New "The Internet is You," Yahoo Marketing Campaign

Dear Elisa:

 

Last month when you announced Yahoo! Inc's new multi-million dollar ad campaign including the tagline, "the internet's under new management yours," I wrote you an open letter. While admittedly the letter was critical and even a bit sarcastic at times regarding censorship on Yahoo's photo sharing site Flickr, I nonetheless was hopeful that perhaps Yahoo was sincere in your latest marketing message. I thought the statement was much better than the last big Yahoo marketing campaign about everybody needing to wear purple clothes or whatever, and as someone who values customer service oriented companies, I thought it was a positive statement for Yahoo to make.

 

Unfortunately, at this point, however, I am going to have to call bullshit on your new campaign. I assume it's ok with you that I'm using such strong language to describe your campaign. Your boss Carol Bartz has built a big reputation as a tough talker with salty language so I'm hoping you'll understand.

 

You see Elisa, despite the fact that seemingly everywhere I turn in San Francisco I see another one of your new ads on a bus shelter somewhere, the message rings hollow. It's doublespeak. It's inauthentic.

 

Yesterday, your Flickr Community Manager Heather Champ destroyed a community on Flickr that was home to over 3,000 hard-core Yahoo users. It was a community of photographers, many of whom have spent years on Yahoo in a group that was rich and vibrant. The group had over 5,000 ongoing conversations in it. It's where many of us lived on Yahoo. The group was in part dedicated to free speech, but it was so much more than that. The group was a place where we talked about music. Where we shared tips on photography. Where we debated about film vs. digital. Where we went to ask each other for advice on what lens we ought to purchase next. It was a place where many of us went to meet each day. It was a place where offline photography meetups were organized. We actually published a magazine together. Many of us became good friends in real life.

 

But yesterday, while we were conversing there, and without any warning or opportunity to take any sort of self-corrective action, your Community Manager went nuclear and destroyed all of that user data. All of it. Every last thread. With a push of a button. Threads that were meaningful and important to us.

 

This was data that did not belong to Yahoo! Elisa. You destroyed something that did not belong to you. You destroyed hours and hours of peoples hard work maliciously and callously. You destroyed a group dedicated to free speech, but more significantly you destroyed a group that thousands of people had put significant emotional energy into.

 

And do you know what your Community Manager was tweeting mere seconds before she nuked this very popular group Elisa? She was tweeting "I hate your freedom."

 

That's right Elisa I, hate, your, freedom. That's the image that I chose to go with this letter to you. A screenshot of her freedom hating tweet.

 

While I'm sure your representative got a good laugh out of that tweet, personally I found it as offensive as the fact that so much user data was destroyed so callously in the first place. You see Elisa, Yahoo already has a problem with people thinking that you hate freedom. Remember when Jerry Yang got called before the U.S. Congress and was brow beaten after you all released private emails to the Chinese Govt which resulted in a Chinese journalist's imprisonment to this day? Remember just last week when rumors (very unfounded rumors I might add) were flying that Yahoo! had released private information on thousands of freedom seeking dissidents to the Iranian Govt?

 

"I hate your freedom?" Really Elisa? This is the marketing message that you as Yahoo's Chief Marketing Officer want to send out to the world as you rip apart an online community dedicated to free speech. It's distasteful and it's offensive.

 

You see Elisa, all the money spent in the world on bus stop billboards cannot make your marketing message ring true when the real voices, real human authentic voices online, ring out that the internet (at least at Yahoo!) is in fact very much not under our management at all. In fact our feelings are not taken into consideration one iota. We, thousands of us, are tossed aside, thrown out like garbage. Our hard work destroyed by you. Not only do actions like this invalidate your message, they create enormous ill will against Yahoo that will stand for many years going forward.

 

A number of help forum threads (now all conveniently locked down by your staff) were created over the destruction of this group. I will quote you the official Yahoo! statement, again from Ms. Champ stated in one of those locked threads:

 

"Flickr is a community with fences. If you want the open range, then unfortunately, what you want to do is beyond what we allow."

 

You see how that reads Elisa? It does not read that Yahoo is all about "you" at all. It's a patronizing statement that says Yahoo is not about what "you" want. It's about what "we" want. I hope you can see how this statement directly contradicts your current marketing slogan that the internet is under new management, you.

 

I'm sure you are familiar with John Gilmore, Elisa, a well respected thinker who co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a quite respected organization that fights for freedom online. John Gilmore once said, "the Internet perceives censorship as damage and routes around it." And that's what many of us have now done. Many of us in the community that was destroyed have now decided that we will no longer use Yahoo for our community experience. Yahoo simply cannot be trusted to not destroy thousands of hours of our work in the future. Instead we will be using community space hosted by one of your competitors, FriendFeed, a site owned by Facebook.

 

You see, despite not having a large glitzy "the internet's about you," campaign, to my knowledge FriendFeed has never censored anyone. They have this really cool feature allowing users to block somebody if you don't like what they have to say instead. It's great. When you do that they just disappear entirely on the site for you. Poof. Magic. Rather than pay for salaries and benefits for a team of censors, they just let their users block content that they don't like and let me tell you, it works *alot* better that way.

 

Interestingly enough Elisa, FriendFeed was founded in part by the very guy who came up with the Google (another one of your competitors) slogan, "don't be evil," -- as a marketing exec I'm sure you realize how powerful of a corporate message that has turned out to be, much more powerful than everybody needs to wear purple.

 

I'd hope that you could see how nuking an entire group over what was a skirmish between maybe two members in the group might not make sense. You used a shotgun to kill a gnat.

 

Many things could have been done to more responsibly address the Yahoo concern in question. Admins of the group could have been warned and given an opportunity to take corrective action on their own, the single offending post could have been deleted rather than destroying thousands of posts 99.9% of which were entirely unoffensive, you could have simply removed what you found offensive and locked the group down, leaving a rich collection of user data to at least exist in an archive format for future reference for those who had created it.

 

It did not need to be nuked.

 

I do hope you take a moment out of your busy day to address this situation personally Elisa because it is damaging to both Yahoo's brand and your own campaign that you are spending significant shareholder money on.

 

And as long as these are the types of actions that you and your management stand behind then your current campaign is very much meaningless indeed. I do also hope that you do not allow your staff to personally retaliate against me by nuking my own flickr photostream for writing to you what is in fact a very respectful letter.

 

Thomas Hawk

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Uploaded on October 13, 2009