On professional communication and vendor relations

Last July, while traveling home from the AALL Annual Meeting, I had a layover in St. Louis. During this travel break I checked Twitter from my phone to see if anything conference-related had happened while I was in the air. Well, the best I could find was a vendor who had used a hashtag that some of my friends and I had used to identify our clique that week. In response, someone used the anonymous @aallsecrets account to criticize the vendor for co-opting "our" identifier, and I quickly fired off a couple tweets of my own belittling the vendor, even calling him a not-so-nice name. By then it was time to board my flight to Los Angeles, so I turned off my phone and forgot all about it.

While waiting for my luggage at LAX a few hours later, I checked Twitter again. My name-calling hadn't gone over so well. Someone called me out for rudeness from the @aallsecrets account, while the vendor in question explained that he used the hashtag as a way of inviting all of us to a party that evening, something I might have realized had I bothered to pay much attention to the content of his tweet. Nevertheless, I was angry at being called out. While crafting what I thought was a witty 140-character evisceration of anyone who disagreed with me, my phone battery died, leaving me unable to crush all opposition.

Before I could publish this brief manifesto, I discovered the airport police had towed my car from the long-term lot. By the time I made it home several hours later, my self-imagined feud with this vendor felt absurd, and I was ashamed of what I'd said. So when I did finally power up my laptop and return the internet, the first thing I did was email an apology to the vendor.

That episode of name-calling wasn't the first time I'd used the web to express self-righteous anger. By then it had become something of an art form for me. Any time I disagreed with someone, it was easier to tweet something inflammatory (and passive aggressive) than to communicate directly with the person I imagined I was feuding with. In the best of possible worlds, I'd raise an issue in the most condescending tone I could muster and start a revolution of re-tweets and replies that carried my message well beyond my own meager reach.

In the days following the namecalling incident, I decided I had some growing up to do and promised myself I'd stop making everything so personal in my communication with colleagues and vendors. Anger would not be my defining emotion and hyperbole would not be my preferred writing style.

My record since then has been spotty, but improved. I've only made a handful of passive aggressive tweets about AALL (one of my biggest targets in those heady pre-AALL 2009 days) in the months since, and I believe my blog writing since last summer has become more measured and logical than it was in the past.

But I'm troubled by the overall tone of our profession's communication of late. Now, flame wars are nothing new. The law-lib listserv has seen more than a few blow ups between librarians with differing opinions over the years, and Twitter might be unrecognizable without its piles of overreaction. (Just ask Scott Baio.) Nevertheless, I don't always understand the motivations of librarians who attack one another on a personal level and generalize vendors as evil empires with illegal intent. (Yes, any statement that a vendor is trying to bribe a state employee is an accusation of criminal behavior.)

The last week has seen some intense debate regarding vendor swag and librarian ethics. One need look no farther than the comments to any of Sarah Glassmeyer's posts on the subject (here, here, here and here) to see that there is a wide array of opinions on the matter and that we have no hesitation in challenging the moral integrity of one another in the process. Those that disagree with us are labeled "biased" and "trolls" rather than just a person with a different opinion. Exaggerated conflagrations become the norm on Twitter, with educated and influential legal information professionals questioning the character of our entire profession while providing no concrete evidence of our moral decay. And when an alleged employee of Thomson Reuters Legal (TRL), the grand villain in the eyes of so many librarians, posts a comment defending the company's marketing strategy without identifying herself as a TRL employee, there is an automatic assumption of so-called "sock-puppetry," with no consideration that the alleged employee might like her place of work and decide on her own to defend it. Instead, we feel compelled to unmask her treacherous ways in the most humiliating manner possible with no concern that we might put her job in jeopardy. (Never mind that IP addresses can be spoofed.)

There is, of course, the possibility that the commenter was a sock-puppet, and that's a troubling possibility that deserves investigation. As do many of the ethical questions raised in the last week.

But within the social media wing of our profession, vendor hatred has become a badge of honor. On the announcement of new products, sight unseen, we state publicly our suspicions that vendors designed such products to increase profits at the expense of effective research, never considering for a moment that maybe those two ends aren't always in conflict.

The inflammatory rhetoric lobbed at TRL, LexisNexis and others is sometimes well-grounded, but we've reached a tipping point where any opinion short of "West sucks!" is dismissed by many. We become outraged when a vendor attempts to bypass us in their marketing, as West did with a promotional email last year. Yet if vendors talked about librarians the way librarians talk about vendors, we would be up in arms.

I understand a great deal of the anger. I find myself regularly frustrated by the decisions made by many vendors, be they marketing, pricing or design decisions. But at the end of the day, we still have to work with these vendors. We have contracts to negotiate, products to vet and dollars to allocate. Sometimes the products are good, sometimes they aren't. (More accurately, sometimes parts of a single product are good while other parts of the very same product are bad.) Sometimes we are charged too much, sometimes we aren't. Sometimes we buy the product, sometimes we don't.

But we also have choices in how we respond to our anger, even the most justifiable anger. What law librarian interest is served in publicly shaming a vendor over a disagreement?

Society loves its villains. Tiger Woods can vouch for that. So can NBC. But what did Conan O'Brien accomplish by announcing via press release his rejection of NBC's time slot change other than winning public opinion? As much as I support Conan's decision to walk away from "The Tonight Show," I can't help but notice that even after the press release, he still lost his job and the jobs of his staffers and faced a contentious negotiation with the executives at NBC. Maybe if he had called Jeff Zucker and privately said, "No thanks, Jeff," instead of speaking to the "People of Earth" he might have obtained better severance packages for his staff, a larger payout for himself, a shorter non-compete period and the rights to some of his show's recurring characters. Perhaps not.

Intelligent people can disagree on just about anything, yet they can do so in a civilized manner. That's the kind of career I signed on for seven years ago when I decided to become a librarian. Since then I've been something less than perfect in that regard, but I'm trying. And when I arrive in Denver this July for the AALL Annual Meeting, one of the first things I'll do is buy a beer for the vendor I insulted last year.

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