Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Comment censorship and comment policies V: Selective distortion of debate

with 4 comments

One of the main reasons why I object to comment censorship (cf. earlier entries) is selective distortion of debate. This is comparatively common on “image building” blogs—together with censorship for the purpose of not to having ones “wisdom” or “expertise” questioned.

Those who spend a lot of time in the blogosphere have probably noticed that there are many blogs that are more geared at building the image, brand, reputation, whatnot, of the blogger than at anything else. Usually, the individual entries are relatively poorly written, high on over-use of “you”, and consist mostly of information that anyone could get from an introductory book on the topic at hand—or that is so trite that even the educated layman already knows it. This, however, is presented as the supreme knowledge of a leading expert.

(For examples, see e.g. the marketing tage at WordPress; in particular, entries with titles like “10 ways do X”, “5 common errors in Y”, and similar.)

While I have been a victim of censorship comparatively rarely, disproportionally many cases have occurred on this type of blog—probably, because I often question the content, point to errors in reasoning or fact, show an alternate view point, or similar.

A recent poste that I found on the WordPress frontpage provides both a good example of this and an illustration of why it is dangerous. (It should be noted, however, that this blogger is not a perfect match for the profile above. That he actually tries to give some, if specious, justification for his censorship, is what makes his entry a superior illustration.)

The blog entry, author mrl8nite, contains a legitimate discussion of what formats to use for resumes and the like, ending with the conclusion:

Bottom Line – Stick with the Word 2003 “.doc” format for now, as it is still the de facto standard document format.

My first comment (published):

PDF should be the default, unless the prospective employer explicitly requests something else. For some reasons why we should never send (specifically) MS-Office formats without the receivers explicit consent, see http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.htmle

As an aside, it is important to differ between application and format (although Microsoft has done its best to obliterate this definition): Even if someone has to send a Word-2003 document this need not be done in MS-Word: OpenOffice can handle that just as well (with reservations for some features that do not belong in a resume in the first place, like complex macros).

mrl8nite’s reply:

Thanks for the remarks. I understand your point, and I mentioned some of this a bit in the posting. However, I want to make sure the readers understand that when it’s about a resume, it’s not their choice, it’s what most of the recruiters and job sites and corporations want to receive. We need to make sure that our preferences for “document storing and sharing” don’t get confused with what needs to be done to have the highest chance of getting an interview. While I don’t disagree with your point about Open docs and I respect your preference of PDF (also a proprietary format), it’s about job search success and not diminishing the opportunity to get to the next step in the job search.

So far, a perfectly acceptable and constructive exchange which could be beneficial to the reader who wants to make an informed choice. The problems begin when mrl8nite decides not to publish my following comment. Unfortunately, due to an unexpected browser crash in the interim, the text is lost to me, but the gist, from memory, was:

  1. PDF is the generally recommended standard for exchange of documents and is the “smallest common denominator” to be preferred as a default. (Assuming that plain-text and HTML are not acceptable in the context.)

  2. Those who require a different format have the opportunity to state so.

  3. MS-Word is actually seen as unprofessional by at least some companies. (Due to problems with viruses, information leaks, compatibility problems with different versions, and poor printability.)

  4. PDF (unlike what mrl8nite implies) is far from my first choice: I would go with LaTeX and PostScript or a more “semantic” approach—if I had the choice. The reason why I go with PDF is that I do not have the choice, and that PDF is the safest bet, with regard to compatibility, courtesy, whatnot.

The problem here: It may be that, specifically for job applications, MS-Word is the better choice (mrl8nite repeatedly emphasizes tracking systems and claimed problems, to which I am skeptical, with information extraction from PDF files). It may be that PDF is the better choice. It may be that it is toss-up. However, by cutting off the discussion we are not given the opportunity to find out. Notably, an uninformed visitor reading this page will likely, by default, be convinced by mrl8nite’s position—not because it is the correct one, not because it is better argued, but merely because it is the only one given free reins.

Importantly, we also have no idea how many other dissenting comments by others, using what arguments, were disallowed. As a result, the page is nearly valueless in the quest for the best format. (Just like a sales pitch for X brings very little value for someone wanting to make an informed decision between X and Y.)

While I, obviously, do not know what the degree of censorship was, others were censored too. I quote a private email (in response to a “reminder” comment from me, wanting to eliminate the risk that my second comment was simply stuck in the spam queue or similar):

> At the time of writing, my comment from “August 23, 2010 at 9:16 pm” remains unpublished. I kindly ask you to correct this.

Thanks. I am working through numerous replies. I am also trying to make sure that the discussions remain beneficial for my core readers and provide a clear guidance on the resume/jobhunt process.

Further, the concluding comment by mrl8nite (my emphasis):

[…]

I haven’t approved all of the feedback, as just another “thanks for the article” posting, while appreciated, would deter from the good discussions taking place here. Also, I’m trying to keep the discussions focused on helping job seekers and as such have limited extended discussions where we might confuse the job seeker, avoid commercial advertising, or get us too far away from the key point (yes, I think PDFs are a good alternate choice; yes, I like Open products; yes, Word files have limitations; yes, I like html resumes; yes, update your LinkedIn Profiles; yes…).

For this post, the focus of the article was, based on my research and feedback from many recruiters, that Word 2003 .doc files are still the most accepted, the lowest common denominator [stealing a formulation I used to refer to PDF in my unpublished comment], the most beneficial to recruiters/managers, and thus the best choice (for now) for you to share your resume when a file needs to be sent. […]

From the above, it is clear that mrl8nite had a very clear agenda of pushing his pre-formed opinion—with only marginal room for discussion. This is, obviously, contrary to the spirit of good blogging and the (ideally) productive discussions, back-and-forth, refinement of opinion, etc., that is an integral part of blogging.

In the end, the readers that mrl8nite claims to want to help are the biggest losers from his distortive censorship.

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Freshly Pressed. Yes, I woke up the prior Monday morning with my blog featured on Freshly Pressed (no clue why!) and my inbox was full of notices indicating that I had comments to approve…over 45 by noon and almost 100 by Tuesday. Thank goodness that my page was only up there about 24 hours. While many were obviously SPAM, there were a good number of meaningful posts.

    Prior to that Monday, my blog was a quiet little area where I wrote resume and networking tips for the many people I mentor locally through their career search. While I’ve had a few comments on my blog, most of the people that were my readers knew my e-mail address and would just send me a note when they had a question rather than posting a comment. Still, I got many “thank you…nice post” comments over the last year on my blog (that I never approved — see http://wp.me/PuGHZ-2) which I responded to directly through e-mail. But with my blog being featured on Freshly Pressed, I figured that I should reconsider my usual deal-with-comments-offline policy and try to respond to people while trying to stay true to preferred blogging model.

    Your post was appreciated, but I sensed you were a bit off topic. You wrote only about document issues (not mentioning resumes), referenced a website that talked about .DOC/.DOCX limitations, and you emphasized that the readers need not use MS Word, but could use OpenSource editors instead (note that I did not advocate using Word, just saving it in .DOC format). I almost didn’t approve this post since it seemed to be just an advocate for OpenSource and not really in-tune with how to improve a job seekers chance to get an interview. Still, I decided to accept it since it might trigger other questions on the .ODT format.

    “The problem here: It may be that, specifically for job applications, MS-Word is the better choice (mrl8nite repeatedly emphasizes tracking systems and claimed problems, to which I am skeptical, with information extraction from PDF files).”

    This is the exact point. In the job search arena, most major outplacement firms, corporations and government agencies rely on the use of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) to extract and maintain data from resumes. Many companies have older ATS platforms that require expensive add-ons for importing formats other that .DOC, .TXT, or .RTF. Many can’t import a graphical image, which is one style of PDF output I’ve had to deal with myself. Other formats, such at .WRI, .ODT, .WPS, and other word processor output files are equally challenging for these systems. And of course, trying to feed an ATS a web-based resumes, with all the imbedded HTML markings, is even more difficult.

    I have been working with many recruiters over my 8+ years of helping people with their job search. I sent out a quick survey to many of these and received 43 responses back to a rather simple set of questions. It essentially asked if, when they requested a resume to be sent to them as an attachment, which formats would they accept (yes or no) — all 43 said yes to .DOC, 39 said yes to .DOCX, 35 said yes to .PDF, the answers continued the downward trend (.RTF, .WPS, etc.), with .ODT receiving the least at 1. When asked why they didn’t want .DOCX, it was clear that it was a software limitation on their company/government issued PC that was still on Office 2003 (just like my government-issued laptop). As we got to .PDFs, the two issues identified were the inability for the recruiters to extract the data easily into another tool (internal candidate briefing systems) and that many candidates sent PDFs as images and not alpha documents, thus the ATS systems rejected them. Most recruiters had not even heard of the .ODT file format.

    Now, I know the survey is far from scientific, but a Google search for ATS+PDF+PROBLEMS+RESUMES turns up any number of HR managers or recruiters that provide similar feedback, so as a second data point, there was a good trend. If you take time to track down the ATS vendors you’ll also be able to read through their literature that describes the features and limitations of their systems. While being skeptical is fine, a little simple research should provide you enough facts to replace your skepticism with knowledge of the industry. I believe in doing research before publishing and I like to bring research-supported information to my readers — not a better argued position without supporting evidence. And on occasions I do publish my sources (see my comment on my “Myths” post).

    “Importantly, we also have no idea how many other dissenting comments by others, using what arguments, were disallowed.”

    52 other (unpublished) posts…counting your second remark, but not counting the 300-500 SPAMs I’ve deleted since then. And not a single one was a “dissenting comment”, yet many offered alternate ideas and experiences. I guess you’ll have to take my word on it. (Actually, I still have all the real comments sitting in the Trash folder). Most were just as I indicated, another person stating the same thing (“I prefer to send PDFs”, “My college recruiter said to use HTML”, “You should use our software product to develop your resume”, etc.) that I had already responded to or deleted and would provide nothing useful to the few hundred people that are my primary audience for my posts.

    “…it is clear that mrl8nite had a very clear agenda of pushing his pre-formed opinion—with only marginal room for discussion.”

    Yes, you are mostly correct that I have an agenda. To try and get people jobs. (Remember, I do this as a volunteer, not paid for my resume help.) But let’s say it was my “conclusion based on my research”, not a “pre-formed opinion”, as I had expected .PDF to be equally accepted and for some recruiters to not want .DOCs just as you had posited.

    “This is, obviously, contrary to the spirit of good blogging and the (ideally) productive discussions, back-and-forth, refinement of opinion, etc., that is an integral part of blogging.”

    From your remark, it seems that you have a “pre-formed opinion” on how all blogs should work. I reject your stance that productive blogging requires all sites, each with their own purposes and unique audiences, to conform to your conventions. And while I do respect your opinions, I also reject your conclusion. The success of the people I mentor in the job search indicates clearly that what I do for them is giving them an edge in the job search — as my sole measure of the success of the blog is when I am notified that a person following my published advice landed an interview with a winning resume.

    I appreciate the opportunity to share my remarks with you and your readers. I wish you success in your career and your blogging. I may drop back here and follow up on this posting (and any responses it may get), if you so wish.

    Best wishes! MrL8Nite

    Oh…here is your 2nd posting…uncensored:

    Even so: Not all employers are looking for Word documents, many prefer PDF, and a (far too) small minority will be sufficiently aware of the problems with Word to deduct points for its use, feeling that PDF is a more “professional” format.

    PDF is the “smallest common denominator” (apart from plain-text and HTML) and unless Word (or yet another format) is requested, it is only prudent to use PDF.

    (If it were up to me, resumes would be written in a standardized formal format, possibly XML, allowing each employer to extract and convert the data as he sees fit—unfortunately, it is not up to me. Barring that, I would certainly prefer PostScript to PDF, but that too is not up to me.)

    mrl8nite

    September 3, 2010 at 2:03 am

    • Thank you for your long comment.

      First off: I have deliberately kept you in the moderation queue for a while. This in the hope that a practical experience could show you another aspect of the issue. (Trying to find a balance between chance of having an effect and the destructivenss of delaying your response.)

      To address some parts of your comment:

      o “Your post was appreciated, but I sensed you were a bit off topic. […]”

      This is either an incorrect assessment or a sign that you have defined “on topic” in a so strict sense that it is detrimental to your readers.

      The main topic is “What format should be used?” (or, possibly, “What format has what advantages and disadvantages?”)—which is exactly the issue that I addressed with a dissenting opinion. Notably, my take is highly relevant even to those writing job applications. In contrast, “Spreading my own pre-formed opinion.” is not a topic—yet, this is exactly what you seem to use as the benchmark. Now, spreading your own opinion is not wrong (I did the same), but identifying this opinion with the topic and denying others viewpoint a say with the claim that these views would be off topic is wrong. (For a variety of reasons, including the pragmatical issues discussed in this and previous posts, but also, in my opinion, ethical issues.)

      Also note that, by the very same reasoning, I could have decided to censor your comment here: Indeed, I would have a far stronger case in censoring you for being off topic than the other way around.

      o “This is the exact point. In the job search arena, most major outplacement[…]”

      Says you. You may be right, you may be wrong. Even if you are right, however, it would have been in the best interest of your readers to see a more constructive and complete discussion, allowing them to form their own opinions. A better approach to your post would have been to post an elaborated version of the above, stating what you did, what results you got, drawing a tentative conclusion—and then to invite the opinions of others, including their experiences, arguments, and statistics (should they have any).

      Notably, it is possible that (even if you are right) that e.g. the priorities of the individual reader, or characteristics of the company he is applying to, makes your advice unsound. Assume, hypothetically, that Word gives a 10 % advantage with 90 % of employers, but leads to an immediate elimination with the remaining 10 %. Your post would have been more or less the same; however, it is far from certain that all applicants would have taken your advice with this detail in mind. Ideally, we present our own opinions and arguments, we allow others to do the same, and then we let the reader come to his own conclusion: He is often the better judge of his own situation—and, even when he is not, it is his right to ignore sound advice.

      As for the second PDF issue, this is not an issue with PDF, per se, but with images. The exact same problem exist with e.g. Word documents. Indeed, if I were forced to deliver a Word document, I would probably write it in LaTeX (or even plain-text, should the context allow for the lesser “sophistication”), generate PDF from the LaTeX (or plain-text) file, extract the pages as images, and include the images in the Word document. Correspondingly, you should have warned against using images instead of text—not of using PDF.

      o “a little simple research should provide you enough facts to replace your skepticism with knowledge of the industry”

      “ And on occasions I do publish my sources”

      It should have been your job, as the blog author, to provide the research and sources. Merely making claims and asking others to verify these claims by own research is not a good procedure. This in particular as this research would almost necessarily underly other problems, including variations depending on business area, country, or the size of the company in question.

      o “Yes, you are mostly correct that I have an agenda. To try and get people jobs.”

      I readily accept that this is your big-picture agenda; however, in this instance the relevant agenda was to convince readers to prefer Word when sending job applications—where you should have tried to help them in making an informed decision.

      o “From your remark, it seems that you have a “pre-formed opinion” on how all blogs should work.[…]”

      You miss the point: It is not a matter of whether one has a pre-formed opinion, but whether one is a) willing to let dissenting opinions be heard b) is willing to revise that opinion in the light of others arguments. (Notably, we all have countless pre-formed opinions—this, in and by itself, is a trite observation.)

      o “The success of the people I mentor in the job search indicate[…]”

      If this is the case, I do congratulate you. However: The fact that you are successful in the main does not imply that all your actions in detail are correct. (In addition, you should beware that the character of the feedback could give you the wrong impression. By analogy, if I were to publish a daily recommendation of what roulette number to bet on, and were to count my success only based on emails with “Thank you! I won!”, I could very well come to the same conclusion—after all, I would be right with one advice-following visitor in 38.)

      “Best wishes!”

      And the same to you.

      michaeleriksson

      September 5, 2010 at 12:27 am

  2. […] lied, or was highly naive—and I stand by that comment. The censorship is a good example of the distortion of debate that I have discussed […]


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