At Vault.com, you can "bitch about your boss" -- or so the advertisements for this "insider career network" like to boast. The site provides anonymous bulletin boards for disgruntled workers at thousands of companies, offering a "safe" place for them to congregate and discuss workplace issues ranging from the goo being served in the corporate cafeteria to the dwindling value of their stock options.
In the name of egalitarianism and free speech, Vault.com even provides a public, anonymous community area for its own employees. But right now, it seems that Vault.com's employees are more interested in complaining about one another than in bitching about their bosses. Among some of the choice epithets currently being bandied about on the Vault.com bulletin board are "When is the last time you got laid?"; "You people are fucking ridiculous. Do you have lives? Live and let live mother fuckers"; and "You don't have the guts. Pussweed!"
Vault.com was founded on the premise that defending the principle of free speech can be part of a business model. There was also a chance that the company could do some good, that helping staffers anonymously air their grievances with their higher-ups would improve workplace environments around the world. But turning a cubicle bitch-a-thon into a v.c.-backed dot-com with an eye toward an IPO is a dangerous and difficult path to tread. Vault.com is learning this the hard way. Over the past six months the company has fielded accusations of hypocrisy from its own employees, some of whom went as far as setting up their own Vault.com-style gripe site at Bitchvault.com. Today, the sniping has degenerated to the point that the FBI has become involved in the company's internal bickering, and is investigating an alleged attack on Bitchvault.com that occurred last August.
The founders of Vault.com are strong supporters of the right to anonymity. This makes ascertaining what, exactly, has been happening behind the walls of the company in the last year a bit arduous. As I reported on the schism between Vault.com and Bitchvault.com, not one person at either organization was willing to go on the record, not even the official Vault.com spokesperson. The mess is a dyspeptic mix of utopian idealism mixed with the ugly mudslinging of anonymous online communities: When you take a world of flame wars, petty workplace grievances and "common man vs. authority" angst and slap it with a brand so you can turn it into a business, it seems inevitable that you'll eventually face your own favorite demons.
Vault.com was founded in 1997 as the realization of an idealistic vision held by three young men: Mark Oldman and Samer Hamadeh, who co-wrote "America's Top Internships" in the early 1990s, and Hamadeh's brother Hussam. Originally called "Vault Reports," the company provided "insider" insights into the workplaces of many of America's most prominent companies. Today the site publishes daily news reports on companies ranging from BBDO to Chase H&Q to Kenneth Cole, and also publishes how-to books for workers. But the company truly exploded in 1998 when it began providing free, anonymous bulletin boards on which employees could share war stories and complain about inner-office politics.
Then, in 1999, Vault.com's heady idealism and value to the downtrodden workers of the world became abundantly clear in the wake of the Christian Curry scandal at the investment bank Morgan Stanley. Bank employees eager to talk about why this gay African-American employee had been fired began visiting the Vault.com boards to discuss discrimination issues; but when Morgan Stanley officials discovered the debate, they blocked employee access to the site. Vault.com countered by parking a movable billboard across the street from the Morgan Stanley office and broadcasting new, unblocked Web addresses for the employees to use to visit the discussion boards.
"That's the core of what Vault Reports stood for -- we're providing this open-access message board for you to post openly and freely. Tell us what it's really like where you work -- people, management, perks, everything. And they defended everyone's right to say what they wanted to say as long as it wasn't outright illegal and slanderous," explains a former Vault.com employee who later went on to launch Bitchvault. "But as the story unfolds, as soon as it takes a turn in their direction, they all of a sudden got very nervous and got a taste of their own medicine."
The Curry incident brought Vault.com attention and accolades: Suddenly, it was the champion of the downtrodden worker. Shortly thereafter Vault.com opened up a public forum for its own employees to mouth off on its Web site -- seeming proof that Vault.com was willing to stand by its own operating principles. Staffers flocked to the bulletin boards there and began, anonymously, to air their grievances against the company. The comments, for the most part, consisted of petty bickering and dot-com disgruntlements -- nothing more objectionable than normal office politics.
Soon one particular complaint began surfacing again and again: Numerous posts were apparently being deleted from the forums. Vault.com's terms of service do specify that the company will remove posts that include slurs, obscenity, proprietary information and trade secrets, advertisements and "irrelevant or non-constructive content." But according to former Vault.com employees, "management began silencing certain things that didn't come under the auspices of things that were slanderous or off topic." Bitter employees complained, both on the Vault.com boards and off, that company officials were trying to portray a "sugary environment," perhaps because they were concerned about scaring off investors and infuriating the board of investors -- especially as the dot-com market cooled during the darker days of 2000.
In response to the alleged censorship, on Aug. 15 two Vault.com employees (one current, one former) set up the alternative bulletin board at Bitchvault.com. The site invited Vault.com employees to come chat in an open, uncensored environment.
"We were concerned about the hypocrisy," explains one of the two Bitchvault.com founders, both of whom say that they are unwilling to have their real names used. Instead, they prefer to be referred to as "Bitchmaster" and "A. Vaultie." "There were topics being discussed that at the time were good -- compensation and benefits, management qualifications, things important to Vault.com's own employees. But though a few unflattering posts were being left up, the most critical posts were removed."
Even before employees of Vault.com had begun to take full advantage of the alternative bulletin boards, Bitchvault.com was attacked. On Aug. 17, an unknown party gained access to the Bitchvault.com server and redirected the front door of Bitchvault.com so that visitors to the site would end up instead at the press release section of Vault.com -- specifically, a press release touting Vault.com's $10 million in funding.
Technically speaking, the redirect was a minor incident, and one that was remedied within hours. But the Bitchvault.com team took it very seriously -- especially after examining the site's log reports and discovering that the culprit came from an IP (Internet protocol) address that belonged to a Vault.com machine. In order to make the changes, the visitor tested a series of passwords before finding one that worked. That password, "Bitchmaster" says, is one that the Bitchvault.com creators used before they left Vault.com; it would have been easily accessible by Vault.com employees. So, crying censorship, the Bitchvault.com founders went to the FBI. "We think a crime was committed, and we wanted the opinion of a professional," says Bitchmaster.
The FBI wouldn't release any details of the case, but a spokesperson for the Computer Crimes Division of the New York bureau would confirm that "there is an open case on that right now." According to eyewitnesses at Vault.com, two FBI agents came to the Vault.com office on Jan. 4 and interviewed at least one Vault.com employee. Also on that day, Vault.com laid off 33 employees, sending another spate of angry Vault.com staffers to the otherwise quiet Bitchvault.com bulletin boards.
What could happen to Vault.com if it does, indeed, turn out that a staffer maliciously broke into the Bitchvault site? According to attorney Jennifer Granick, who runs the law and technology clinic at Stanford University, stealing a password and using it to change a Web site without the owner's permission is a felony punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison. If a Vault.com employee hacked the site of his own volition, Vault.com wouldn't be held liable; but if he did it at the direction of his superiors, the company could be heavily fined. But, she adds, it's still a minor offense: "It does seem like an internal bickering, and as long no one was hurt and nothing got seriously broken I don't think it's criminal."
As for Vault.com, the company is keeping quiet. An official spokesperson wouldn't comment on the Bitchvault.com site or the FBI investigation -- since it involved former employees, he said, "legally, we're not allowed to." He was happy to speculate about the situation anonymously, but he prefaced every sentence with "this is totally off the record," refusing to have his name or even the general gist of what he said published.
Nonetheless, it's safe to say that not everyone feels that Bitchvault's FBI investigation was merited. There are plenty of people both inside Vault.com and outside its walls who say that Bitchvault is being run by disgruntled former employees with an ax to grind. Bitchmaster's "motives aren't entirely admirable," says a Vault.com employee who lost his job during the layoffs in January. But, he adds, "Vault.com shouldn't have paid any attention to [Bitchvault.com], and instead someone was stupid enough to take the bait ... The whole thing is ridiculous and they are acting like children."
Says another former Vault.com employee, "Regardless of whether or not we agree about how important Bitchvault is -- and I believe it's a good site, it's necessary -- the harm done by the hacking is not sufficient to warrant an FBI investigation. The FBI has better things to do."
Regardless of what the FBI finds, what could have been a relatively minor incident is blowing major holes into the modus operandi of a struggling dot-com company. After all, Vault.com was banking on its image as a place for disgruntled employees to mouth off. The idea of egging on corporate America by letting downtrodden employees play fast and free anonymously with their accusations and vitriol -- an activity, Vault.com employees seem to agree, that was always encouraged by the site's founders when it came to the companies they covered -- is a different matter altogether when that lens is pointed back at you.
The Bitchvault staff and disgruntled Vault.com staffers, on the bulletin boards and off, are not the only naysayers crying foul when it comes to Vault.com's so-called free-speech belief system. Jason McCabe Calacanis, editor of the Silicon Alley Reporter, recently had a run-in with Vault.com after he named it one of the top 100 Silicon Alley companies of 2000. Vault.com happily reprinted his story (without permission) on its Web site -- but only after removing all the less-than-rosy references and criticism from the text of the article, including a reference to the Bitchvault.com debacle. Calacanis instructed his lawyer to contact Vault.com executives to demand that they remove the edited article from the site, which was promptly done.
"I'm not so much concerned with people linking to our articles, but if you do reprints from a magazine you pay for them," says Calacanis. "But what was really egregious about it is that they decided to eliminate the part that was critical ... It's extraordinarily hypocritical that a company whose reason to exist and supposed mission is to be honest and truthful edits their reviews. It's extraordinarily stupid and I expect more from them."
Which brings us back to the Vault.com and Bitchvault.com bulletin boards, where users continue to angrily hash out the events of the past few months in increasingly nasty terms. Although Vault.com's terms of service forbid posters to bash others by name -- except for public company executives -- the angry posters often get away with calling the Bitchvault founders by diminutive nicknames like "Dreadboy." The editors may in fact be judiciously "censoring" anything they find objectionable to Vault.com's bottom line, as the bulletin board members believe, but they seem to have few objections to nasty one-line epithets.
Ultimately, the fracas at Vault.com is strikingly similar to the posts that fester at FuckedCompany in the Happy Fun Slander boards. Like Vault.com, FuckedCompany also hosts free and unfettered forums where former and current employees -- along with mere rumormongers and juvenile pranksters -- routinely bash companies, their co-workers, executives and foolish investors and discuss the plight of the dot-com worker. The rhetoric employed, in turn, is simply a continuation of the nastiness and flame wars that take place every day on countless Usenet newsgroups, Web bulletin boards, mailing lists and other forums that are coated with a layer of anonymity and a lack of authority.
But unlike FuckedCompany, Vault.com has a staff, a board of directors, monthly bills and the myriad trials of a struggling start-up trying to be taken seriously. The world of anonymity and flame wars does not cotton well to corporatization; and the behind-the-scenes anonymous name-calling that I witnessed is just proof positive that anti-corporate antics are perhaps not the best basis for a business model.
"Bringing flame wars into the office is a bad idea," says one former Vault.com employee who, like many, is simply weary of the whole thing. "You're just not going to stop people from being stupid."