Tales From The Geek Gap

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Here's an example of The Geek Gap, from the early days of the Internet:

Rod Fournier was system architect at Kmart Corporation, charged with the important task of designing its brand-new web site. He included a signature of sorts, a link to his own web site hidden in a period at the end of a sentence. His site described his life and his family, showed pictures of his pets, and included a link to a page clearly intended to mock some people's obsession with Internet porn: after elaborate promises of naughty pictures, the page showed what appears to be a sexual picture mostly concealed under a black rectangle reading "CENSORED."

Whether this is offensive or not is a matter of some debate, but it certainly wasn't the image Kmart wanted to project. So the company fired Fournier, citing a corporate policy against links to personal pages.

What happened next is legendary. Fournier went home and created a page titled "Kmart Sucks" which recounted his firing and invited others to post their own gripes about Kmart. Unfortunately for Kmart, when they fired Fournier, they lost their employee who best understood the Internet, so he was able to register Kmart Sucks with search engines and directories such that it came up ahead of the company's own site.

Afterward, Fournier and Kmart each said the other should have known better. Kmart stressed that Fournier was told about the no-links-to-personal-pages policy. Besides, it should be obvious to anyone working in business that linking a family-oriented company's web site to anything of a sexual nature is unacceptable.

Fournier counters that it is common practice for a webmaster to link to his homepage on the sites he built--and anyhow the executives who approved his work knew the link was there. Besides, it should be obvious to anyone working on the Internet that links are the norm, and users can easily distinguish between the online identity of a large corporation and the personal web site of the guy who built it.

We believe the real culprit was the Geek Gap, the cultural clash that keeps business people and technology people from communicating clearly with one another. Without this problem, Kmart would have understood Fournier meant to link their site to his, and Fournier would have understood he might be fired for doing so. He could have kept his job--at a time when his wife was eight months pregnant. Kmart could have kept its top Internet expert--and saved itself years of ridicule.

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