posted 7/25/03, with a special note 12/26/06
There's a site on the web you've probably never heard of. Called officer.com, it was, until June, 2003, one of the largest and most-respected web resources for law-enforcement officers worldwide. It offered an extensive directory of departments and agencies, manufacturers and vendors, news sites, and more. It also had a forum, where LEO's and civilians could meet and discuss, well, anything. Run by a police officer, it was the most open, free, and largely noncommercial site of it's kind.
All that changed in late June, 2003. A large media conglomerate, Cygnus Business Media, purchased the site for an undisclosed sum. I was a member of the officer.com forum at the time, and read with interest Cygnus' announcement about their purchase. They had grandiose visions - a full-time staff of five, part-time help, the web's only dedicated law-enforcement news team. Oh yeah, and money.
Cygnus paid lip service to the existing members, making wonderful promises about how nothing would be changed, and the site would remain the officer.com we'd all come to know and love. It was just that, though; lip service. They immediately began making changes, including adding a plethora of advertisements to the site.
Many of the members of the site were upset, both by the changes, and the intrusion by the site's new, civilian, administrator into the restricted, law-enforcement-only areas of the site. Others were upset by the promised changes, worrying that it was going to be turned into an ugly, advertising-covered clone of the company's other sites, such as firehouse.com. Some, such as myself, questioned their claimed commitment to the users, when their apparent focus was on advertising, both their own products and others.
Dave Iannone, the representative from Cygnus, lied freely and with abandon, denying the obvious and insulting everyone's intelligence. A number of moderators resigned from the site it protest over the new commercial interests. Their farewell messages were deleted by Cygnus; an enormous number of messages and threads critical, questioning, or otherwise unsupportive of the new ownership were deleted or edited without warning or explanation. When the issue of censorship was raised, Mr. Iannone first replied that he, as administrator, would censor any posts critical of himself, Cygnus, or their advertisers, and went on to suggest that any messages that were not happy and upbeat might also be deleted. Apparently following his own advice a little too well, he later deleted that message, as well.
I was one of those who was openly critical of Cygnus and their commercial interests in officer.com. I posted a message entitled "Some Minor Thoughts on the Nature of Communities". The title was an intentionally belittling attempt at humour; I can't guess how many got, or appreciated it.
This post - a single post, written off the cuff, without revision - had a remarkable effect on the people of officer.com. The lines, by that point, were becoming drawn in an us-versus-them battle between some of the members of the board, who felt that they had been betrayed and violated by the new owners, and the owners, who were intent upon doing as they pleased, no matter what. Many were, at that time, undecided, harboring a "wait and see" attitude. By posting this article, I had very clearly thrown in my lot with the officers who were against Cygnus. It also polarised the undecided community, with the majority of them deciding against Cygnus.
In the hours, days, and weeks after posting the message - which is reproduced below, in it's entirety - it was emailed, copied, read, and posted to and by dozens, if not hundreds, of others. I'm told it was, itself, a topic of conversation on several other law-enforcement boards. It was, in it's own special way, the most influential piece of writing I've ever produced, websites, stories, and articles included.
The now-infamous post is reproduced here; it has been edited only for to correct a few typos.
As a very broad generality, a forum, BBS, or message board is a place for individual participants to willingly engage in a free exchange of discourse and information. Simply by visiting and participating, they become a part of the whole; a democratic community, without formal membership, or a specific charter. Through their actions, a bond is formed between the individuals and the community, with each giving and receiving something to the other.
In the individuals' case, they contribute their thoughts, opinions, ideas, and feelings; they receive feedback, criticism, support, and new ideas. Yet there is a more subtle exchange taking place, a shadowy, never-vocalised trade that takes place: expectations.
Through interaction with the community, one learns about it's behaviour, and develops by instinct expectations about it's behaviour, and that of it's constituents, and perhaps one's self. While everyone's instincts and expectations do not agree to the last decimal place, they hold broad expectations at the subconscious level. These expectations are by logic not objectionable to the participants; they would not remain part of the community if they felt uncomfortable.
Too, the presence of these expectations in no way inhibits, and may actually increase, an individual's enjoyment of the community. Just because one thinks they know how Mike TX, or Fastie, or myself, are going to reply to something, doesn't prevent them from posting it; the anticipation may actually add to the enjoyment even more than the actual response.
I have never met, and to the best of my knowledge never spoken or chatted with the much-respected Sergeant Meredith who created officer.com and gave birth (or at least means and opportunity) to it's community. I don't know what his dreams, expectations, ideals, or motives were when he created this site. Perhaps he did it for the social interaction, or the opportunity to meet some truly wonderful people; only he can speak to his interests. I expect that he is in part responsible for officer.com's community being as it is, through the creation of some or all of the forum rules and policies, among other things, and deserves more credit than he has received for this. In it's recent guise, the site was, to a very large extent, noncommercial, and this fact contributed significantly to the expectations and assumptions of the community. Not only the expectation that they wouldn't be assaulted by scores of flashing advertisements, but others as well.
Chief among these, I believe, were the subconscious knowledge - right or wrong - that Sgt. Meredith, a well-liked, much-respected fellow officer, was in control, and that his interests were the only ones behind the site. Another expectation, closely tied to the last, was that of free speech. Though there were, and are, clearly-drawn lines of subjects that cannot be discusses (drug law, for instance), the assumption and expectation existed that any other reasoned, reasonably polite, and otherwise nonobjectionable speech would be permitted.
That expectation no longer exists.
The new owners of officer.com have made it clear that the existing community, their thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and xpectations, are worth little to nothing. By their rapid changes, the first of many promised, they have made clear THEIR motives and interests in this site, and they are purely and entirely commercial. Whatever Sgt. Merideth's interests in this site were, Cygnus' are entirely about making money, through their magazines and their advertising. It is, simply put, not in the best interests of Cygnus to permit the relatively unimpeded free speech that has existed in the forum. With their eyes focussed firmly on the bottom line, they have extremely strong motive to forbid, remove, or excise comments critical of advertisers. It is not impossible that, bowing to the almighty dollar, recommendations and referrals to the competitors of advertisers will also be removed.
The thousands of expected new visitors, if they materialize, will likely have no difficulties creating a new community amid this 'new world order', for they will have not known it any better. If such a community is created, it will be significantly different from that which existed recently. While there are likely many who will not chafe under the commercialized control of Cygnus, there will not be many of the current community among them.
Change can be good. The forums have slowly evolved over the last two years, the last year, the last six months, and the last month. But the takeover by new ownership only interested in self-promotion and income potential is to this community as a comet is argued to have been to the dinosaurs.
Under Sergeant Meredith's ownership, the site was controlled and administered by a group of law enforcement professionals who volunteered their time, effort, and love, into creating and maintaining this creation. Perhaps they even feel paternal; I couldn't say. They did it because they chose to, because they wanted to, and because they presumably liked it. We, of the community, have looked upon their work and seen that it was good.
Now it is to be administered by a company, with commercial interests, and their paid employees. An ex-PIO and the daughter of an officer, both as yet unnamed and, apparently, unhired. Their apparent administrator, an illiterate ex-EMT; and reportedly others. Are they doing it for the money, or the emotional reward?
Their mouthpiece has come into these forums, made pretty speeches, told pretty lies about the community being valuable and important to him. It's a farce; Polaroid's advertising dollars speak more loudly to him than the complaints, suggestions, and opinions of many. And, by his own admissions, if they can be believed, these are the first of many changes. His oily promises, his bleated protestations ring false upon our ears. Change, it is a-comin'; big business is here.
Officer.com's forum was, at one time, the largest, openest, most free noncommercial message boards for law enforcement. It will not be much longer.
I am displeased, and I am not alone. I am displeased with the falsehoods, the evasions, and the condescension that Cygnus' Information Minister has shown towards the people of this community. I am displeased with the badly cluttered "new look" of this site, and the performance penalty it introduces. I am displeased with the universally unwanted and excessive advertising throughout the site. I am displeased by Cygnus' apparent belief that we are all feeble idiots and will not notice what they are doing.
I do not begrudge Sgt. Merideth for selling officer.com. I do not begrudge Cygnus for buying it, and wish them all the best luck with running it, because they are, in my opinion, sorely going to need it. Cygnus and their way of doing things is here, and they're here to stay.
The King is dead! Long live the King.
I'm packin' up and leavin' the kingdom. September 1, 2003 is the announced date of officer.com's "complete makeover". I'll be gone before then, and I don't think I'll be alone. Despair not, fellow members of the community that was, there's thousands more coming to replace me. You have Cygnus' word on it.
This message proved to be sadly prophetic. Many, polarised by this message and other events taking place, left the site; some wound up at the National Traffic Enforcement site, or the Policehub law enforcement forums. Nearly every moderator resigned, and censorship quickly became the norm, followed by the deletion of scores of users critical or unsupportive of Dave Iannone. The officer.com we knew, and loved, was, and is, no more.
In the days after the message was posted, I received over twenty emails and private messages related to it. The majority thanked me for speaking out, or for having the nerve to stand up and speak my mind. Some congratulated me, though I'm still a little unsure why. A few people accused me of being a "ringleader" of a "conspiracy" against Cygnus; I was accused of being un-American, a socialist, and anti-capitalism.
I was not a ringleader; there was nothing to lead. A whole bunch of people came to the same conclusions, made the same decisions, as I did. Few expressed themselves so openly, or in such intentionally inflammatory rhetoric. Few who weren't there can understand the anger Cygnus' selfish actions produced; people were outraged, frustrated, and in tears as Iannone and Cygnus trampled rough-shod over the site.
I've put this here as a tribute to the Community that Was, the many faces of Officer.com. I hope it'll clear up some of the confision and misinformation about what took place. I believe in what I wrote, and hope that others can benefit from it, as a warning or lesson, as the case may be.
A note, December 2006: Dave Iannone has contacted me, some three years and five months after this page first appeared on the internet, suggesting that I remove some of the "negative comments" about him as "some of those comments are not fair". "I'm no longer associated with that company", he wrote. This wasn't even a page I'd thought about in quite some time - I haven't visited Orifice.com, as I now call it, in over three years. But I'm a fair person, I like to think, and if Dave wanted the opportunity to clear his name, I'd be happy to help. I'm not, after all, in the business of character assassination. I explained that I stood by my statements made above, and felt that if he was really bothered by them, he'd have gotten in touch three years ago. Still, if he'd grown up and felt ashamed of what he'd done to Officer.com, well, good for him, right? So, I tried to feel him out on the making of an exculpatory statement, an opportunity to do some public finger-pointing and shifting of blame for his repulsive actions, but he "really can't answer anything specific" about his time with Cygnus, and still "support[s] the company quite a bit, especially Firehouse.com". Does that sound like the words of someone remorseful about being a mercilessly profit-driven, chillingly censoring corporate flack? Not to me, it doesn't, nor to a number of former users of Officer.com.
Good luck in your new business venture, Mr. Iannone. I hope your business skills exceed your human ones.
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