Google tone down forum after employee feud over war on Gaza

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

Memegen was a place where employees could 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 watching employees criticize the war in Gaza in recent months, are making big changes to lower the temperature on their company's beloved forum, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times.

One of the most significant changes to Memegen will be the removal of the virtual thumbs down. The most liked memes rise to the top of Memegen based on these votes. The unpopular ones quickly disappear from sight. Another change will be the removal of metrics that let people see how popular other employees' memes have become.

Google said it is making the changes, which will take effect later this year, based on employee feedback that negative votes make workers feel bad and that metrics make the board seem too competitive. But some employees said they feared the changes would censor their freedom of expression and transform Memegen from a real-time indicator of worker sentiment into a boring company forum.

The debate on Google's message board reflects long-simmering tension between opinionated Google employees and executives trying to tame the company's sometimes loose 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 starting my job are the best 2 hours of my day.”

A Google spokesperson said in a statement that “because 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. Mr. 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 work usernames, employees can select or upload an image, type a message over it, post it, and wait for responses to arrive.

Christopher Fong, Google's former partnerships manager, recalled that more than a decade ago, during Google's all-hands meetings, known as TGIFs even though they were often held on Thursdays, employees rushed to Memegen while executives like Larry Page and Sergey Brin were talking. They offered live comments whether they agreed or disagreed with the observations and voted, forming an informal poll: a scrolling company ID. People still use the forum for real-time reactions under the current CEO, Sundar Pichai.

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

Employees loved Memegen because it was a community hub that felt uniquely Google. The executives who were roasted there from time to time also liked it. Eric Schmidt, the company's former CEO, wrote that Memegen “did a great job” at letting employees “have fun commenting scathingly on the state of the company” in his book “How Google Works,” co-authored with Jonathan Rosenberg.

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

Over the years, the tone of chatter among employees has become more inflammatory, echoing changes on social media and in society at large. The arguments worsened when staff began posting about the war in Gaza last fall. Employees engaged in heated discussions about the war and rejected posts they disagreed with, which made them harder to find, said two people familiar with the exchanges, who requested anonymity because they did not they were authorized to speak publicly.

The company's internal moderators said in a February memo seen by the Times that they considered the coordinated downvotes a “bullying tactic.” In the second half of 2023, they added, they noticed a dramatic increase in complaints about content shared by employees. In February, the company began removing negative scores and ratings.

Once the changes are fully in place, employees will still be able to use Memegen to post and comment. Disparaging the company and its policies is still within the rules, as long as the posts don't attack individuals or use offensive language.

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

Debates over Memegen have already been a problem for the company. 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 feud became public. Google eventually fired Mr. Damore. He sued for discrimination and dismissed the case in 2020.

After the Times reported in 2018 that Google had paid former executive Andy Rubin $90 million in severance after he was accused of sexual misconduct, one of the top posts on Memegen featured a GIF of a competitor overjoyed by a game show showered with confetti. The message read: “I was caught sexually harassing an employee.”

In 2019, Google introduced community guidelines intended to establish 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 work we were hired to do, not waste work time debating non-work topics,” the company told employees at the time.

Most of the time, employees do not talk about war and other serious issues on Memegen. Jokes about working at Google are perennially popular, though heartfelt tributes to the forum have recently struck a chord, like one wishing Memegen a happy birthday: “You make Google really special.”

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