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Pornographic intranets

This article appears in the issue October 1999 [Volume 8, Issue 10]


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Pornography is fascinating by definition: It draws our sexual gaze even though we know it shouldn't. That's what differentiates pornography from erotica; pornography is always "dirty" whereas erotica is pornography we tell ourselves isn't dirty.

What the blazes does that have to do with intranets? Absolutely everything.

Pornography is all about drawing the line between the public and the private. Acts we do in private would be pornographic if shown on the titles-of-films-are-not-shown-in-your-bill channels in hotel rooms across the land. Pornography is about crossing the line that's been drawn.

Clearly, the line that we draw is at least to some degree arbitrary. We've seen the line drift over the past 20 years, for example, even on network TV. Even so, the line continues to serve its main purpose: to exist so that there can be a private and a public sphere.

The problem with pornography on the Internet is only secondarily the ready availability of it to children. The real threat is to the line itself. You may be a minister in the Divine Church of Abstinence, but you'll still eventually receive obscene offers via e-mail. Mis-type a letter in an URL and you'll find yourself staring at pictures of twisting genitals. Go to a Web page with an innocent-sounding name, and you may discover positions you didn't think were possible without hip surgery. The Internet routes around censorship, but also around decency. And privacy.

The Internet isn't just moving the line. It's changing the nature of the line. It's making line the line permeable, osmotic. And that means that the nature of being public and private is changing.

Intranets, by definition, are about drawing lines. An intranet uses passwords to keep some people in and most people out. And what's so private about that private realm? Not dirty pictures or unusual sex acts. What's private is the truth about the business: The products are not on track, there's disagreement about how much to spend on marketing, a big customer is unhappy, no one is yet quite sure how much to invest in a Linux, the industry standard the company lauds publicly is considered internally to be nothing but a dumb waste of time. Those are the types of secrets intranets preserve from the eyes of the "public."

There is, of course, a realm of genuine secrets a company needs to keep, some for legal reasons and some because it would actually hurt if competitors found out. But those are the exception as the line becomes osmotic. Customers are finding direct routes into the organization. Employees are refusing to insult customers by handing them a canned corporate response and are instead engaging in conversations where doubt is permissible and certainty is arrogance.

We are--thankfully--approaching a time when the intranets are the same as extranets. Already on intranets, permissions vary from person to person: Joe in the HR department can access salary information but cannot access the list of possible acquisition targets, whereas Carla in engineering can see the bug database but not the list of possible acquisition targets. Why not treat "external" folks, your partners and customers, the same way? Let them onto your intranet but keep them away from the information they really shouldn't see. But presume openness. Let them eavesdrop on the marketing conversations about which features are going to be in the product and which standards deserve nothing more than lip service. Let them listen to engineering discussions about the trade-offs that may have to be made. Let them do more than audit: Let them join in the conversation. They are going to anyway, one way or another.

The line is becoming osmotic because the Web makes connections so easy. Your choices are either to fight a losing battle to patch all the holes in your roof ... or to learn to enjoy driving with the top down.


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