Microsoft has banned me from covering TechEd

How they make journalism (at TechEd): click for copy at FlickrTechEd is Microsoft’s annual developer conference, and TechEd Australia 2013 kicks off this coming Tuesday 3 September. ZDNet Australia had commissioned me to cover it, from a room much like the one pictured — just like I did last year — but now it’s all off. Because Microsoft has banned me.

On 1 August, I emailed ZDNet Australia editor Chris Duckett to accept his commission. But on 6 August, he phoned me, pissing himself laughing, to say that the message from Microsoft — I don’t know from who or how it was delivered — was a no-go. I’m banned from TechEd for “being aggressive to speakers”.

Now I, too, was pissing myself laughing. I was nearly in tears!

“Aggressive to speakers”? Let’s be clear. Any problems were about one speaker, singular. And this alleged aggression — which I’d characterise more as ridicule, mockery and outrageously hyperbolic violent imagery, as is my well-worn shtick — happened solely via Twitter.

Now I’ve thought long and hard about whether to tell this story. Personally, I don’t really care. I’m happy to avoid spending most of next week in that hell-hole called the Gold Coast, and I’ve got plenty of other things to get on with. And Microsoft does have the right to decide who they will and won’t allow into their event — especially when they’re paying.

But I’ve decided to go public because I’m a big fan of transparency — as reflected in my blog posts from 2007, Releasing the Black Hawk crash video was A Good Thing, Scaring the shit out of clients and Being Real: more notes on radical transparency.

I think you should know about this ban, because it potentially affects the quality of my coverage and analysis of Microsoft as it faces some interesting challenges — more about that another time. I’d like you to be informed consumers of my work, which is why I list all the corporate largesse I receive in my Weekly Wrap posts.

I was also under the impression that any problems which may have arisen were all sorted out at the time. Certainly no-one at Microsoft has ever mentioned any problem to me since then.

Quite frankly, to bad-mouth me to one of my commissioning editors — in an undocumented phone call, no less! — strikes me as a tad defamatory.

And without any communication with me? From an organisation that wants customers to trust it with our most intimate and confidential data? Does this not represent a glaring absence of due process?

So, in the tradition of another 2007 post, “Let’s just write that down…”, I’m just going to write it all down, and put my name to it. That’s what honest people do, right?

Come with me, boys and girls, as I tell you about TechEd Australia 2012’s keynote speaker, Jason Silva, “futurist, filmmaker, epiphany addict [WTF?], ecstatic truth lover [WTFF?], techno optimist”. Check his Wikipedia entry and personal website.

The TechEd Australia 2012 keynotes

Within minutes of Silva starting his frenetic presentation, I concluded that he was an arsehat. My subsequent Twitter stream was relentless. If you want the full picture, I’ve posted all my tweets from the TechEd keynotes, plus a CSV file of all my tweets from the entire month, September 2012.

But if you want to cut to the chase, here’s what I think are my five most contentious tweets, the probable cause of any difficulties.

  • This Jason Silva guy? I’m afraid that I already want to punch him in the face very, very hard. #auteched
  • Yeah maybe cut back on the amphetamines, Jason. #auteched
  • Sorry, folks, but being CONTINUALLY AMAZED BY ALL THE THINGS is not insightful or wisdom, it’s a mental illness. #auteched
  • The feeling that I am feeling right this very moment is the reason why you should not hand me a gun today. #auteched
  • NO DO NOT APPLAUD HIM HE IS A CHARLATAN. #auteched

All of those comments were on-record then, and I’m perfectly happy to put them on-record again now.

To give you a taste of Silva’s presentation style, here’s his video To Understand is to Perceive Patterns.

TO UNDERSTAND IS TO PERCEIVE PATTERNS from Jason Silva on Vimeo.

I’ve never met Silva face to face, or even spoken with him that I recall. I had, and still have, zero interest in doing so.

I did see him a couple weeks later, though, at the opening night party of the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas — we were both on the program — but it was at a distance. He was holding court with a group of fans who gobbled up his disjointed crap. I left them to it.

But the morning after the TechEd keynotes…

The following morning, immediately before a scheduled press briefing, a Microsoft staffer pulled me aside for a little chat. I wish I’d taken notes, or perhaps even recorded the conversation, but I didn’t. My bad. So this is just my memory.

Concerns had been raised, he said, about my tweets. I think the word “tone” was used. He didn’t say who had raised these concerns, and I don’t think he ever gave a concrete description of these concerns. I remember being confused.

Surely there was no suggestion that Microsoft wanted to exert some sort of control over what I said on Twitter? Oh no, of course not, he reassured me. Well good. But I’m still a bit confused, I said. I’m not quite sure what you want to happen next.

“We just wanted you to be aware that these concerns have been raised,” he said.

“Oh, well thank you for telling me then,” I said, and there the conversation ended.

That night, he and I spoke over beers, as is the fashion at these corporate events, and that’s where I assumed the matter had ended.

Reflections on those tweets

Yes, “punch him in the face very, very hard” and “you should not hand me a gun today” are violent references. Der. But they’re also statements about my state of mind, not threats. Nor are they inciting others to acts of violence.

Even the most cursory glance through my Twitterstream over the last six years would soon reveal to any intelligent, language-aware reader that this is all, as I said, part of my shtick. I used the word “punch” ten times that month, for instance, although one of them was about “punch cards”.

“If someone starts talking to you like a pirate, it means that they want you to punch them in the face,” was one real example.

Stabbing was popular too, in tweets such as: “Phrases that should be grounds for stabbing PR folks: ‘accelerate your path to X.’ Only morons actually speak like this.”

Heck, I regularly call for people to punched, stabbed, shot, drowned, impaled on spikes, disembowelled in front of their own children or otherwise mistreated. I do believe that on more than one occasion I’ve called for George Street, Sydney, to be doused in nerve gas. And only last night I noted that genocide has a bad rep, sure, but you shouldn’t let that “history” cloud your judgement.

Just how thick would you have to be to take any of that seriously?

My TechEd Australia 2012 coverage

I produced two articles and a podcast:

I also made the following observation in that week’s Weekly Wrap:

Microsoft’s event, like all major vendor conferences, began with an intense burst of frustration thanks to the inevitable series of overly-long overly-staged buzzword-saturated propaganda events — “keynotes”, the industry has decided to call them — designed to hammer the new technology’s marketecture into your head while preventing the opportunity for critical thinking.

And, like nearly all others, it eventually settled down into something sensible once all the vice-presidents and managing directors and pointlessly-animated PowerPoint presentations and bass-heavy music had been stage-managed out of the room and actual engineers and designers and other geeks started talking through specific details.

Again, regular readers will know that my frustration with these bullshit rituals is a long-running thread in my writing. I’ve always thought that intelligent, well-educated communications professionals would notice when they’re parroting meaningless buzzwords. I thought that understanding and writing for your audience, rather than dribbling out a few clichés, was the very basis of the craft?

But I digress…

So what happens now?

For my part, now that I’ve disclosed Microsoft’s ban, and told you that I think it’s hilarious, we can all take that on board when interpreting my work. It’s not like I’m going to stop writing about Microsoft or doing my best to present factual reportage, fair analysis and my genuinely-held opinion.

As for Microsoft, well, I think if there’s a problem then they need to talk to me about it, and maybe we can figure something out. That’s Conflict Resolution 101. It’d also be kinda nice if it were expressed in concrete terms, not mealy-mouthed passive-voiced evasiveness.

But, Dear Microsoft, if we’re talking about allegations of conduct that you reckon prevents me from attending your events and doing my job, well, that’ll have to come to me in writing, on letterhead, and with a specific individual’s name and signature at the bottom. And if you can’t do that, then surely the only logical alternative remaining is to provide me with a written apology?

After all, it’s not like your PR teams, both internal and external, don’t already know my style. It’s not like they don’t already know that when I’m presented with a dose of bullshit as concentrated as Mr Silva’s that I’ll let rip. And it’s not like they don’t already know that while I may slam Microsoft when it gets things wrong, I also give the company due credit when it does good things.

For bonus points, Microsoft, you might like to have someone tell me what’s really going down here, because to be honest this smells to me like some mongrel species of bullshit corporate politics and scapegoating. If the problem is really something else, and my tweets during Silva’s keynote are just a cover, then I’m happy to have an initially off-record conversation to help clear the air.

For triple bonus points, send me Jason Silva’s head on a spike.

[Photo: The media work room at Microsoft TechEd Australia 2012.]

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34 comments

  1. Milorad Ivovic’s avatar

    Jason Silva is often perceived by small intellects as being some kind of genius with rapidly firing neurons who only seems like an arsehat because we’re too slow to keep up.

    In truth, he’s a shameless self-promoter with zero substance who fancies that deluded description of himself and cashes in on it among Tony Robbins-loving Americans. His penchant for needless repetition and endless circular reasoning is only matched by his fan’s ravenous hunger for bullshit.

    They’ve done you an incredible service by banning you from his sphere. You may find it a bit more difficult to report on MS’ future and that’s a shame, but you will doubtless have at least one fewer ulcer.

    Thank you for posting this. It’s nice to see how pervasive American self-victimising culture is, even outside its own borders.

  2. Rod Trent’s avatar

    Despite your valid feelings over the speaker and the subject matter, I think there’s better, more creative and more professional ways to present those. There are ways, particularly as a writer and supposed industry columnist, to express feelings and beliefs without the violent references. While you may mean those in jest to submit an opinion, no one can really see emotion in text. We’re all constantly learning. Just take it as a lesson and move on.

    1. Milorad Ivovic’s avatar

      In addition to the comment by “Required fields”, I wanted to add that social media is about engaging with people, not robots churning out links to blog posts. To do twitter successfully you have to be a genuine human.

      Those tweets were emotionally honest and utterly human. To call them inappropriate is an indictment upon a culture which values form over substance. Apparently as long as you contain yourself and your tie is always straight, you’re fine… but shame on those who dare openly criticise and comment, if they should occasionally do it honestly and without filters.

    2. Required fields are marked *’s avatar

      I call bullshit, Rod.
      Stilgherrian writes well. And by that, I mean he writes to the audience of the medium he’s using. If it’s an industry rag, his pieces are (I think, at least) written to the standard of an industry rag. If it’s Crikey, it’s… well, not so technical. His blogs and podcasts are a different style too. And his Twitter stream is different yet again.
      Demanding an author to stick to one style of writing forever, particularly when there are so many publications/platforms these days and they all pay rubbish money to contributors anyway omg won’t somebody think of the writers, is arsehattery in the extreme.

    3. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @Milorad Ivovic: Well, Silva was last year’s keynote speaker. I haven’t bothered looking to see who’s on this year. But I agree that he’s a prime example of that “Oh wow, so many insights!” school of presenter.

      Paul Wallbank and I have spoken about this a few times. My guess is that triggering connections between concepts in the brain caused a nice little dopamine rush, or whatever, and you feel that it was just so fucking great — but if you’re asked the next day what it was actually about, you’ve got nothing.

      @Rod Trent: I completely reject the idea that “professional” communication is about using a certain limited range of registers. That’s just dull conformity, and it’s why so much corporate material is boring as batshit and, as a result, quite ineffective communication.

      A professional communicator should, in my view, be able to confidently use the full range of tools available. Sometimes breaking out of a stereotypical style is precisely the spark that’s needed.

      @Required fields are marked * I was going to write something along those lines, but for you more complimentary version, thank you.

      Indeed, the ZDNet Australia stories from the event were done in straight news style, because that’s what they want. My current column is analysis and opinion, though, so I have a little more freedom to play with style. My Twitter feeds from events were well established as melodramatic, the same sudden surges of rage, introspection and so on as HG and Roy did so well, and the Doug Anthony All Stars for that matter.

      I did talk about using the full palette just then, but every artist has their preferred subset.

    4. Sathias’s avatar

      I remember seeing Silva on Q&A and his performance was laughable. His answer to every question, no matter how unrelated, was “technology”. It got to the point where sections of the crowd were outright laughing at him. He seems like the sort of futurist who would only be insightful to technology illiterates and I’m surprised and disappointed Microsoft put him on stage at an event like Teched.

    5. simon Sharwood’s avatar

      Banned or not offered an invitation? I ask as I wonder what would happen if you paid your own way.

    6. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @Simon Sharwood: “Banned” was the word as relayed to me by Duckett, but of course that was in the context of a dialog about being the ZDNet Australia journo attending the event at Microsoft’s expense.

      Moot point, though, as I don’t have the budget to pay my own way, and I’ve now completely filled next week with other things.

    7. Jake MacMullin’s avatar

      A bit of feedback for what it’s worth:

      Personally, whilst I enjoy much of what you write and the obvious thought and personality you put in to it I don’t enjoy the violent references in your tweets. Actually I find references to punching, stabbing and guns off-putting and I’ve occasionally thought about calling you out on it.

      I’ve met you a couple of times and you seem like a nice, non-violent yet opinionated person. So I do assume you’re not being serious when you make these references. But I still find them unpleasant. And there are people who use similar language on Twitter in a way that is intended to cause people to feel hurt.

      I’m not providing this feedback with any expectation that you’ll change anything. You’re free to express yourself however you like. I just wanted to let you know that there may be some people who enjoy your work and strength-of-feeling but who don’t like the violent references.

    8. Snipergirl’s avatar

      Oh god techno-futurist weirdos. I think you probably did everyone a public service by calling him out. And any idiot can see that the “violence” was clearly not. Microsoft has problems with reading comprehension. And maybe they’ve also drunk the Kool-Aid.

    9. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @Jake MacMullin: Thanks for taking the time to set out those thoughts, because you’re far from the first person to raise those issues.

      Here’s the overly-simplified response. You deserve better, but I’m trying not to let this thing soak up too much time. There’s three threads.

      One, there’s a long, long tradition of hyperbolic violent imagery used for comedic and satirical purposes — everything from the anvil-on-the-head splatter of 1950s Warner Brothers cartoons and the slapstick violence of The Three Stooges to the almost murderous rage that Paul McDermott used in the Doug Anthony All Stars. It’s a genre that deliberate pushes into the usually suppressed emotions — not just rage and violence, but that’s what we’re talking about here. Some people find it unpleasant, even unsettling. That’s acknowledged.

      Two, “There may be some people who don’t like X” is true for all values of X.

      Three, I do a variety of different things, and people can select from that whichever bits they want and ignore the rest. Or ignore the lot.

      @Snipergirl: The Kool-Aid flows in many technology companies. It only becomes dangerous when they — or their human components — forget that they’re drinking it.

    10. Snipergirl’s avatar

      I couldn’t agree more (Google… hm)

    11. Ben’s avatar

      Microsoft? Are they still a thing?
      Kool-aid, indeed.

    12. gregorylent’s avatar

      some careerists are curmudgeons, some careerists are cheerleaders … just a schtick ..

    13. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @Ben: Oddly enough, that was exactly the title of a podcast around a year ago: Microsoft? Is that still a thing? As usual, most of the commenters couldn’t get past the provocative headline, forgetting what headlines are for, to address the issues discussed.

      @gregorylent: “Careerist”? Me? You really haven’t thought that through, have you. Also, playing the man and not the ball. Yawn. If that’s the level of your debate, you’re not welcome here. [See next comment.]

    14. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @gregorylent has told me that he wasn’t referring to me but to Mr Silva. I withdraw my comment.

    15. Rick Nestle’s avatar

      Schtick or not, it just doesn’t go down with people well.

      As someone who pivots on his public profile, you might of known that.

      Jason Silva also pivots on perceptions. And judging by the video comments, he’s rather better at it. Rightly or wrongly.

      If you are interested in standing as an alternative voice, then best to learn to keep yourself relevant and play nice.

      Since, as much as you “don’t care”, few of the protagonists will be bothered to read your lengthy personal blog post!

    16. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @Rick Nestle: You seem to have missed the point. After more than three decades of working in the media, I think I’m aware that everyone lives and dies on the basis of their reputation, and that we’re in the perception business. I continue to be surprised by the number of people who think this would somehow be a new idea for me.

      I also did point out that Microsoft can choose who they do and don’t pay for, in terms of covering journalists’ costs.

      However it’s extremely unusual for a vendor to reject a masthead’s choice of who they send to cover an event, and it strikes me as most curious that the stated reason is something that, as far as I knew, had been sorted out a year ago. Microsoft has communicated nothing to me, and my concerns are the lack of due process and the defamatory nature of their allegations.

    17. Rick Nestle’s avatar

      Don’t get me wrong, the world is a better place with the Stilgherrian angle out there.

      If your grievance is that Microsoft did not officially contact you, then that maybe is an odd expectation. No hard and fast rules on these things.

      It’s not like anyone gets pre-warned or consulted on the eve of a defamatory Twitter diatribe, deserved or otherwise.

    18. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @Rick Nestle: If an organisation is making a serious allegation about something that prevents me working with them then, yes, I fully expect that to be put in writing, with some sort of resolution process behind it.

      I’d reject your characterisation of what I said on Twitter as “defamatory” — after all this time I have a fairly clear idea of the boundaries — although of course it is pretty fierce commentary. But as for a warning, it was a live event to which the media had been specifically invited so they can report on it.

    19. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      There’s now a story at MuMbrella, Tech commentator barred from Microsoft tech conference after hostile tweets at previous event, which includes Microsoft’s response to them about this issue.

    20. Rick Nestle’s avatar

      Hang on, all that has happened is that they gave feedback at the point where they were approached for your attendance.

      You have chosen to spread that feedback more widely. Why should there be any “resolution process”? It’s their turf.

      Their feedback was contextual to your abrasive tweets. People can make their own minds up how bad those tweets were, and Microsofts feedback was theirs alone. It’s you who is spreading that feedback and making it matter more than it should.

    21. Milorad Ivovic’s avatar

      It seems that all you’ve gotten here and on Mumbrella are yappy propriety police dancing around Microsoft. To extend your Warner Bros analogy I refer you to Spike and Chester for a laugh.

    22. David Hawkins’s avatar

      Whilst i think that a ban was perhaps too far on Microsoft’s part, i do feel the tweets in question were stupid. If you are going to act like a 12 year old girl responding to a negative comment about Justin Bieber don’t expect a large amount of respect to be thrown in your direction.

      The presentation was rubbish you were right when you said that, i shared your annoyance at the “WOW” at everything style! It felt Microsoft was treating me like a kid watching an Xbox commercial not an industry professional. You could have put it 100 different ways and i would have nodded and thought “he nailed it on the head” but when you say “dont give me a gun” all i can think is “what a douche”.

      I didn’t spend the time to check your tweet history but if your usual output is of a similar “tone” it does Microsoft no favors to have you there which is probably why they elected to ban you. Hopefully they don’t ban you next year and you can go back and show that they were wrong.

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