Google to Tone Down Message Board After Employees Feud Over War in Gaza

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

Memegen has been a place for employees to offer blunt critiques of their bosses, to share gallows humor about job cuts or to joke about getting notes from their parents to excuse them from returning to the office after the pandemic.

But Google executives, after watching employees snipe about the war in Gaza in recent months, are making big changes to turn down the temperature on their company’s beloved message board, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times.

One of the most significant tweaks to Memegen will be the removal of a virtual thumbs-down. Well-liked memes rise to the top of Memegen based on those votes. Unpopular ones quickly disappear from view. Another change will be the removal of metrics that allow people to see how popular other employees’ memes have become.

Google said it was making the changes, which take effect later this year, based on employee feedback that said thumbs down votes make workers feel bad, and the metrics made the message board feel too competitive. But some employees said they worried the changes would censor their free expression and turn Memegen from a real-time gauge of worker sentiment into a dull corporate message board.

Google’s message board debate reflects long-simmering tension between Google’s opinionated employees and executives trying to tame the company’s sometimes freewheeling culture. More than 4,000 employees liked a recent post summing up why they’re so protective of the forum: “The 5 minutes I spend on Memegen before starting my work are the best 2 hours of my day.”

A Google spokeswoman said in a statement that “as the team has transparently shared with employees, they’re 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 besides displaying memes (funny images with pithy text on them), it helps employees make or generate them. Using their work user names, employees can select or upload an image, type a message over it, post it and wait for the replies to roll in.

Christopher Fong, a former Google partnerships manager, recalled that more than a decade ago, during Google’s all-hands meetings, known as T.G.I.F.s even though they were often held on Thursdays, employees rushed to Memegen when executives like Larry Page and Sergey Brin were talking. They offered live commentary on whether they agreed or disagreed with the remarks, and voted, forming an informal poll — a scrolling corporate id. People still use the forum for real-time reactions under the current chief executive, Sundar Pichai.

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

Employees loved Memegen for being a community hub that felt uniquely Google. Even executives who got roasted there from time to time liked it. Eric Schmidt, the company’s former chief executive, wrote that Memegen “succeeded wildly” at letting employees “have fun while commenting acerbically on the state of the company” in his book “How Google Works,” co-written with Jonathan Rosenberg.

“In the fine tradition of Tom Lehrer and Jon Stewart, Memegen can be very funny while cutting to the heart of controversies within the company,” they wrote.

Over the years, the tone of employee chatter has grown testier, echoing shifts on social media and in broader society. The bickering grew worse when staff started posting about the war in Gaza last fall. Employees engaged in spirited arguments about the war and down-voted posts they disagreed with, which made them harder to find, said two people with knowledge of the exchanges, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

The company’s internal moderators said in a February memo viewed by The Times that they considered coordinated down-votes a “bullying tactic.” In the second half of 2023, they added, they saw a drastic increase in complaints about the content employees were sharing. In February, the company started the effort to remove scores and down-votes.

When the changes are fully in place, employees will still be able to use Memegen to post and comment. Ribbing the company and its policies is still within the rules, as long as the posts aren’t attacking individuals or using abusive language.

But some employees are skeptical Memegen will maintain its quirky character. The changes “will kill Memegen,” one recent post said. “Which is, of course, the point.” That post was liked by more than 8,000 employees.

Debates on Memegen have been a problem for the company before. In 2017, a Google engineer, James Damore, wrote an internal memo that criticized 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 dropped the lawsuit 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 an overjoyed game show contestant showered with confetti. The text said, “Got caught sexually harassing employee.”

In 2019, Google introduced community guidelines meant to set boundaries on internal message boards. The company stressed the need to be respectful: no trolling, no name-calling, no politics.

“Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about nonwork topics,” the company told employees at the time.

Most of the time, employees don’t talk about war and other grave issues on Memegen. Jokes about working at Google are perennially popular, though sincere tributes to the message board have recently struck a chord, like one wishing Memegen a happy birthday: “You make Google truly special.”

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