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Google to tone down message board after employee dispute over Gaza war| GuyWhoKnowsThings

For nearly 14 years, an online message board called Memegen has served as a virtual water cooler for Google employees.

Memegen has been a place for employees to offer blunt criticism of their bosses, share dark humor about job cuts or joke about receiving notes from their parents to excuse them from returning to the office after the pandemic.

But Google executives, after observing employees snipe on the war in Gaza In recent months, they're making big changes to lower the temperature on their company's beloved message board, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times.

One of the biggest Memegen tweaks will be the removal of the virtual thumbs down. Popular memes rise to the top of Memegen based on those votes. The unpopular quickly disappear from sight. Another change will be the removal of metrics that allow people to see how popular other employees' memes have become.

Google said it was making the changes, which will take effect later this year, based on feedback from employees who said downvotes made workers feel bad and that the metrics made the message board feel bad. too competitive. But some employees said they worry the changes will censor their freedom of speech and stop Memegen from being a real-time indicator of workers' sentiment on a boring corporate message board.

The debate on Google's message board reflects a long-simmering tension between stubborn Google employees and executives trying to tame the company's sometimes troubled ways. free culture. More than 4,000 employees liked a recent post that sums up why they are so protective of the forum: “The 5 minutes I spend on Memegen before I start work are the best 2 hours of my day.”

A Google spokeswoman said in a statement that “as the team has shared transparently with employees, they are experimenting with some common industry practices similar to what other internal and external social platforms have done.”

Memegen was created in October 2010 by two Google engineers, Colin McMillen and Jonathan Feinberg. McMillen has since left Google. Its name is short for Meme Generator because in addition to displaying memes (funny images with concise text), it helps employees create or generate them. Using their work usernames, employees can select or upload an image, write a message about it, post it, and wait for responses to arrive.

Christopher Fong, Google's former head of partnerships, recalled that more than a decade ago, during Google's all-hands meetings, known as TGIF, though they were often held on Thursdays, employees would rush to Memegen when executives like Larry Page and Sergey Brin were talking. . They provided live feedback on whether they agreed or disagreed with the comments and voted, forming an informal poll – a scrolling corporate ID. People still use the forum for real-time reactions under current CEO Sundar Pichai.

People wrote what they were “thinking, but were embarrassed or afraid to say it,” said Fong, who runs Xoogler, a community of former Google workers.

Employees loved Memegen for being a community center that seemed unique to Google. Even the executives who were occasionally roasted there liked it. Eric Schmidt, the company's former CEO, wrote that Memegen “had great success” by allowing employees “to have fun while commenting scathingly on the state of the company” in his book. “How Google works” co-written by Jonathan Rosenberg.

“In the fine tradition of Tom Lehrer and Jon Stewart, Memegen can be a lot of fun while also getting to the heart of controversies within the company,” they wrote.

Over the years, the tone of employee chatter has become more testy, echoing changes in social media and society at large. The disputes worsened when staff began posting about the war in Gaza last fall. Employees engaged in vigorous discussions about the war and rejected posts they disagreed with, making them harder to find, said two people with knowledge of the exchanges, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The company's internal moderators said in a February memo seen by The Times that they considered the coordinated downvotes to be an “intimidation tactic.” In the second half of 2023, they added, they saw a drastic increase in complaints about content employees were sharing. In February, the company began the effort to remove negative ratings and feedback.

When the changes are fully implemented, employees will still be able to use Memegen to post and comment. Mocking the company and its policies is still within the rules, as long as they don't attack people or use abusive language.

But some employees are skeptical that Memegen will maintain its quirky character. The changes will “kill Memegen,” a recent post said. “And that is, of course, the point.” More than 8,000 employees liked that post.

Debates over Memegen have been an issue for the company before. In 2017, a Google engineer, James Damore, wrote an internal memo criticizing the company's diversity policies. Employees used Memegen to criticize Mr. Damore and the memo, and the dispute became public. Google finally fired Mr. Damore. He filed a discrimination lawsuit and dropped the lawsuit in 2020.

After The Times reported in 2018 that Google paid former executive Andy Rubin $90 million In a comeback after being accused of sexual misconduct, one of the top posts on Memegen featured a GIF of a very happy game show contestant showered in confetti. The text read: “I was caught sexually harassing an employee.”

In 2019, Google introduced community guidelines aimed at setting limits on internal message boards. The company stressed the need to be respectful: no trolling, no insults, no politics.

“Our primary responsibility is to do the job we are hired to do, not waste work time arguing about non-work topics,” the company told employees at the time.

Most of the time, employees do not talk about the war and other serious issues in Memegen. Jokes about working at Google are always popular, although heartfelt tributes on the message board have recently struck a chord, such as one wishing Memegen a happy birthday: “You make Google really special.”

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