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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Conference: Day 1. Great success. It’s a tech conference, which is not exactly my cup of tea, but it is a surprisingly non-technical tech conference. Sure, there’s some coding blah blah blah, and I nod along and pretend to find State Machines absolutely fascinating, but there is a lot that is applicable to merely existing in a technical world, which I do.

One talk in particular resonated with me and I wanted to share it because it’s good life advice for anyone who lives in a tech world. Or not in a tech world. Or in any world at all.

Basically, if you’re a human in the world, it offered good advice. And it is this: be nice.

You don’t have to be around the internet for long to realize that it harbors and showcases the worst of humanity. The best, too, but too often the worst of the worst.

And that’s not even the worst.

The worst is the insidious unhelpfulness, the subtle mockery, the putting people down, the proving just how clever you are by belittling others.

A couple of weeks ago, Ralph was looking through some developer forums for an answer to a question. Ralph is not a stupid person. Ralph is incredibly smart and resourceful. He’s not the kind of person who would, say, continue to sit on one side of a beanbag if the tag was constantly poking him in the face.

So when Ralph asks people for help, it is because he has already spent about 27 billion hours reading, researching, troubleshooting, and trying to figure something out.

I’ll give you one guess as to what happened when he posted his question on the forum – a forum, mind you, specifically for developers to go and ask questions.

You may think back to the last time YOU posted a question online. Or maybe read an answer to a question someone else posted.

It usually goes something like this:

Me (or maybe you): How can I do this thing?

Other person: There’s no reason to do that thing.

Me (OMY): Ok, but if I want to do this thing, how can I?

Other person: Google it.

Me (OMY): Ok, but I still can’t figure out how to do this thing. Does anyone have any ideas?

Other person: It’s the easiest thing in the world, I can’t believe I keep having to answer this question, just put the config in the sys bat and reroute the encryptions. If you can’t even do that then you shouldn’t exist.

In other words, it often does not go well. This is not unlike what happened to Ralph. He was, at various points, told to figure it out, that he was stupid, and that he didn’t ask the right question, among other things.

No answer was forthcoming. And once other people see someone being mean, it’s like piranha in a pool of blood. Everyone has to out-clever each other in their quest to make you look as stupid as possible.

So when a woman got up on stage today and said BE NICE it rang loud and true.

It was almost as if she had been on that forum and decided that enough was enough.

She made the point that nobody has to answer a question on forums. It is purely voluntary. In fact, you can spend your entire life using the internet and never interact with another human being at all. So when you choose to interact, it is exactly that – because you choose to. And if what you choose to do is be rude, mean and unhelpful then it begs the question: why?

Why make that choice? You are not responsible for helping out a stranger. You can just, I don’t know, say nothing at all?

The alternative to “be helpful” isn’t “be a jerk.”

Her point harkens back to everything your parents probably ever taught you: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

You do not have to prove how smart you are by proving how stupid someone else is, especially when it’s likely that the person you are berating is not stupid at all but merely looking for help.

It is also possible that there is a language barrier. It’s the WORLD WIDE web, after all. You may be speaking perfect sense but if someone doesn’t understand your idioms or sentence structure it doesn’t make them stupid.

Or maybe they are stupid. Maybe they should go live in a cave and play with rocks. But is it your job to tell them that? To make sure they know it in full, adjective-laden detail?

I think not.

Imagine, as today’s speaker said, if we simply gave people the benefit of the doubt. Imagine if we assumed that people were coming at us from an honest place with an honest question. Imagine that we could answer in as nice and helpful a way as possible.

The internet would probably implode.

There would be such a vacuum of words that entire forums, probably all of Twitter and at least half of Reddit would collapse into a black hole.

The woman who gave the talk is a programmer. She is also a native Czech speaker, a proficient English speaker, and is conversant in French and Slovak. But when she asked a question on a forum, she was told in many clever words just how stupid she was. And how she should not be attempting to do what she was doing because she didn’t know enough.

To which she said: isn’t the entire point to learn? To attempt the hard things and get better, expand your skills and improve? Should we be relegated to tying our shoes in knots because it’s the only thing we know how to do and never seek answers to bigger questions?

Sure, there are lazy people who won’t bother to figure anything out, who will use you as their own personal Google and want you to paint them a masterpiece while they sit back and reap the rewards. But that is not the majority of people. The majority of people are simply looking to the communities they think they can trust and trying to learn. To engage. To be part of something.

And if you are so worried about wasting ten minutes of your precious time answering a question for someone you’ve decided doesn’t deserve it, then…

shut up.

It’s that simple.

In the end, Ralph did not get an answer to his question but he did tell the Unhelpful Person that it wouldn’t have hurt him to be nice. Unhelpful Person continued to object for a while, but Ralph persisted in nicely reminding the other person to be nice. And Unhelpful Person actually backed down – and apologized.

Maybe we can’t fix everyone, but a little honey is often better than a bucket of vinegar.

I know the internet isn’t exactly a “safe space” and if you throw yourself into a lion’s den you should probably expect, occasionally, to lose a limb. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe we could all approach the faceless ocean of people online as actual people, people who need other people.

And maybe instead of assuming they are annoying, stupid and obnoxious, maybe we could treat them with dignity. Maybe we could just…. be nice.

And if we can’t do even that, then do what today’s speaker said and just say nothing at all. The world and the internet would be a much better place.

Photo: today’s conference full of people who have been, thus far, very nice.