Laid off? Share the pain
When Ryan Kuder lost his job last week, everyone knew it. That’s because he chronicled the experience of his last hours at Yahoo Inc. through a stream of electronic dispatches laced with gallows humor.
Using Twitter, a service popular in Silicon Valley that allows users to broadcast short messages to an unlimited number of people, Kuder posted periodic updates of his final, caffeine-fueled day as a senior marketing manager at the Internet company, starting with his last commute to the Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters and ending with margaritas at Chevy’s.
“Ironic that I just got my PC repaired yesterday. Won’t be needing that anymore.”
“This is a serious downer. Trying to drown it in free lattes. Which I will miss.”
“Dear BlackBerry, What great times we had. I’ll miss you. At least until tonight when I stop on my way home and buy an iPhone. Love, Me.”
Like so many other personal experiences transformed by the Internet, getting canned need no longer be endured in quiet, isolating shame. Technology is allowing people to turn a traditionally private trauma into a quasi-public event, drawing quick moral support and even job referrals. “This is something that used to be shared over the dinner table. Now the whole world can watch and participate,” technology forecaster Paul Saffo said.
As the pioneering Internet portal wrestled with an unsolicited takeover bid from software giant Microsoft Corp., Yahoo proceeded with previously planned cutbacks. It’s saying goodbye to 1,100 employees, including 236 at its headquarters, 91 in Santa Clara, Calif., 111 in Burbank and 52 in Santa Monica, according to a notice the company filed with the state.
The event transfixed the high-tech community. Most people who work in Silicon Valley, with its booms and busts, have experienced a mass layoff.
“The appeal of this is that some people are watching with morbid curiosity, and all sorts of other people are wondering whether they will be next,” Saffo said. “In the Internet business at times, there seems to be only two kinds of employees, those who have been laid off and those who haven’t yet.”
Twitter is a service that notifies your friends, by mobile phone, instant message, e-mail or on the Twitter website, what you are doing at any given moment. These messages of 140 characters or less, called tweets, are sent to anyone who subscribes to or “follows” your Twitter stream. Though it hasn’t broken into the mainstream, Twitter is popular among the technorati: Nearly 1.2 million users visited Twitter.com in December, according to ComScore Inc. But Twitter, which is owned by San Francisco-based start-up Obvious Corp., doesn’t disclose how many subscribers it has.
Kuder, one of the laid-off Yahoos, began the fateful Feb. 12 as just a regular tech guy with 87 people tracking his tweets. Soon word spread of his brief but entertaining updates on meeting with human resources in a conference room called Lucy, bidding friends farewell and handing over his security badge (“Will I be able to get a latte for the road. . . . ?”) By the end of the next day, he had become a minor celebrity, with a following of more than 400.
Self-broadcasting what is usually a private experience gave Kuder more than 15 minutes of Internet fame. It gave him solace, and, more important, job leads. The San Jose husband and father of two was flooded with “positive tweets” offering support as well as connections via social networking services such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
“I thought the reaction would be a couple of ‘Hey, good luck’ messages, and ‘Let me know if I can help’ from people already following me,” Kuder said. “Instead, it got picked up around the world. There were even blogs written in Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Spanish. It was fascinating to watch how things spread like that. My wife keeps saying I planned this. I wish.”
That sense of online community has become pervasive as more people venture online and the technology advances, said Vanessa Fox, features editor for SearchEngineLand.com and an entrepreneur-in-residence with Ignition Partners, a venture capital firm.
“The Web has given us a way to connect with others. So we put our thoughts out there so others can read and identify with them, but also for the possibility of response,” Fox said. “With a place as large as the Web, we’re bound to find others who have gone through and who understand exactly what we’re going through, and many deem it worth the trade-off of putting ourselves on public display to become part of that.”
No one knows that better than Susan Mernit, who was a product team leader at Yahoo Personals with a strong background in social media. One hour after she was laid off on the same day as Kuder, she decided to test the power of such tools. She posted the news on her blog, added a tweet to her Twitter stream and updated her Facebook status. In five hours, her experiment delivered immediate proof: 100 responses from friends, colleagues and strangers who, as readers of her blog, felt connected to her.
“I had no idea that it would be communicated as broadly or quite as publicly as it was,” said Mernit, who lives in Palo Alto. “Social media accelerated the reach and the speed with which I could communicate what happened to me.”
The outpouring moved Mernit. It differed starkly from the isolation she felt after being laid off by AOL four years ago. At the time, she lived on the East Coast, had fewer ties to the tech community and did not blog. But shared values and interests and her popular blog have united her with a broad community that closed ranks around her when she needed it.
“It was a very positive affirmation of my standing . . . of the support of the work I have done and of my reputation,” she said. “It definitely helped me feel better about the layoff.”
Like Mernit, Kuder is treating the job loss as an opportunity to start over, perhaps in brand marketing for a start-up instead of an Internet giant. Recording observations of his final day at Yahoo helped him cope and move on, he said.
“I have gone back a couple of times to look at my tweets from that day to remember what happened,” he said. “When you read coverage of layoffs, you don’t recognize these are people with kids, families, who are going through a big change. This puts a human face on it.”