Bias and Blogs

Just saw a poston a Microsoftevangelist’s blog that reminded me (however tangentially) ofsomething that I’ve oft mulled over – bias, bothconscious and subconscious, and how it manipulates the things wesay and the image we try to present to the world (and converselythe image the world sees when they look at us, which leads thecynical reader be to cry “Hidden Agenda!” in response to seeminglyinnocent posts).

To draw from example, I was long a resident of a particularlycliquish online community – one where pretty much all of themembers were software developers (or working in relateddisciplines). We’d often argue about industry trends andtechnologies, debate the merits of various nefarious corporations,and so on. Good conversation, and I gained a lot of wisdomand knowledge from the often heated exchanges. I also got to seeone particularly good example of bias, both real and perceived, onthe exchange of information.

It began when one of the more moderate, well-spoken, andrespected members – someone whose voice carried great weight by along history of wisdom, and whose real identity was unknown to most- announced that he had been hired by a new employer. An employerwho he would reveal shortly after the details firmed up. I emailedhim my guess, and learned that I was right: The new employer wasMicrosoft.

I believed that I knew who their new employer was by the markedshift in bias he showed towards Microsoft in the prior two weeks(while the offer was firming up): Suddenly, it seemed, thisindividual was more accepting of Need Any Help With That?historical Microsoft practices, more derogatorytowards Google, more disparaging towards web application, and hadan increased preference for fat clients. Lots of people entirelyunassociated with Microsoft hold these sorts of positions, but itwas the change in position that was so notable to me.Maybe it was just a lucky guess and I was just imagining a changein position: To this day the person in question claims that theirpersona and positions didn’t change. I actually believe them, inthat I believe that they didn’t intentionally or knowinglychange their opinions, but their new alignment towards Microsoftmost certainly did have an impact at a subconscious level, gentlypushing their opinions in favour of Microsoft.

In any case, once this person’s new employer became publicknowledge in the community, they found that their input ontechnology matters was often dismissed by cynics as having nocredible value. To a small degree the cynics were right – It wasimpossible, short of some sort of hypnosis, forthis newly minted Microsoft employee to weigh in on matters that inany way concerned Microsoft’s interests without consciouslyworrying about someone at Corporate Headquarters seeing theircomment and it hurting (or alternately failing to help) theircareer, or on a deeper, more insidious level – their subconscious -feeling the need to offer up goodness towards Microsoft in kind fora paycheck.

Of course this sort of bias doesn’t even require you tobe an employee. One of the most difficult to stomachpersonalities in this industry is theDesperate-To-Be-A-Microsoft-Employee. This sort of personis driven to fight for Microsoft to the ends of the Earth,to clumsily adopt and champion every bowel movement Microsoftsqueezes out, and to coddle up to every appendage of Microsoft(Scoble has a lot of these fawning admirers. He also has a lot ofwell-deserved admirers, but if you ever witness a thread wheresomeone criticizes Scoble, watch for the sacrificial Scobledefenders to ooze out of the DIV tags, desperately hoping thatsomeone at the Microsoft collective writes down their name andsends them an offer). These people, falling back to basic humanpsychology, at least subconsciously believe that if they send sweetlove Microsoft’s way then they’ll get some in return, and theresult is messy for everyone.

Even if you aren’t a Microsoft employee, and you have nointerest in ever being one (for me it really isn’t an option, asthe Canadian operation is almost entirely sales, or pseudo-sales,and I plan on staying in this country outside of an extraordinaryopportunity), if you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into theWindows platform then you will still likely have a bias to defendthe platform, and to deride threats to it. Earlier in my career,perhaps when I had a more narrow range of skills, I found myselffalling prey to exactly this motivation quite a few times. I feltit necessary to defend Microsoft and attack its competitors in somesort of perverted belief that I was helping to maintain the statusquo, ensuring that my knowledge and status weren’t beingthreatened. You can see this sort of status quo bias all the time,with the mainframe guys deriding desktops, DB2 guys endlessly (andfalsely) criticizing SQL Server, and so on. A lot of thenoise masquerading as debates out there are founded onthis motivation, just as most of the political grandstandingfollowing Hurricane Katrina was partisan, biased noise, with everyparticipant taking exactly the position one could have predictedmonths before.

While I’ve picked on Microsoft a lot, it just happens to be oneof the easier examples, but the same sort of forces exist in a lotof spheres. For instance the tech world is awash with Google-Loveright now, with every hopeful Google candidate flooding the boardswith pro-Google rhetoric at every chance. While Google isundoubtedly a technical superstar that is executing ideasabsolutely brilliantly, it is remarkable seeingsuch admiration for what is essentially an internet advertisingcompany. Where was the love for DoubleClick?

The point that I’m trying to make in this rashly authored entryis quite simply that bias is enormously pervasive, and should neverbe underestimated. It drives almost everything we “believe” andsay. It is often a destructive noise that thwarts rational andcritical analysis and thought.