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Tips for Having Positive Interactions Online

I enjoy conversing with random netizens about the topics that interest me — power dynamics, ethics, etc. Unfortunately, seeking out productive discourse is an activity fraught with peril, since every second person online is MAD about whatever issue preoccupies them. (I don’t object to the anger, but I often object to how it’s expressed.)

I’m not an expert at avoiding pointless arguments full of hostility, but I’ve developed some useful heuristics. They started as coping mechanisms inspired by political flamewars on Facebook. I’ll give you the tl;dr first:

Above all else, be kind.

I love these dorky yellow humanoids. Image by Kate Ter Haar.
I love these dorky yellow humanoids. Image by Kate Ter Haar.
  1. Assume that people are speaking in good faith until they demonstrate otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.
    • Train yourself to choose the friendliest interpretation of someone’s statement. I’ve found that expecting the best from people has a much better failure state than the alternative.
    • Ask lots of questions about what people mean. It’s easy for someone’s comment to be confusing or misleading by accident.
    • Reign in your snark; amp up your earnestness.
  2. Different people have different communication modes.
    • On the internet you will bump into many people who don’t share your cultural assumptions — and remember, culture is not just an ethnic thing — or who naturally have different defaults. Keep an eye out for this.
    • When someone’s interjection seems socially insensitive or rude, remember that their version of normal may be very different from yours.
  3. It’s fine to disengage if the conversation is distressing.
    • Remember the golden rule of self-care! Like they tell you on the airplane, secure your own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else. Prioritize your mental health and wellbeing — burnout helps no one.
    • Being upset is okay. It’s one of the many natural reactions to conflict that humans can experience. Anyone who says “it’s just the internet” or something along those lines is trying to minimize your feelings.

Obviously I am not 100% perfect at any of this — I’m a jerk online way too often — but I’m striving to communicate with people respectfully. Keeping these heuristics in mind helps me do that.

I may or may not update this list if more tips occur to me. Let me know in the comments or on social media (Twitter + Facebook) if you have feedback! Suggested additions are also welcome.

Hostility & Online Discourse, Round Two

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s somewhat controversial post about politeness.

My thesis consists of these points:

  • Expressing anger respectfully is more useful to any movement you happen to belong to than expressing anger viciously.
  • Lashing out at well-meaning but uneducated people is counterproductive. (Note that this does not apply to people who’ve had ample opportunity to be coached — however, identifying these people without knowing them beforehand is difficult, so I think it’s better to default to being kind. This also doesn’t apply to, for example, unsolicited dick pics or equivalent acts that are themselves way outside of respectful norms.)

If your goal is to convince people to agree with you, berating them whenever they try to start a conversation is not the best strategy. If your goal is to repel those people and make them think the subculture you belong to is full of jerks, then this is exactly the type of response you should have. Crucially, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve heard their question a million times before — they will still think, “Yeesh, lighten up.”

I made this argument about feminism yesterday, but it applies equally to any other belief system or cause that’s trying to recruit. Just to throw another example in the ring, open-source software development is often chastised for being awful for newbies. And if you look at any community that is explicitly trying to boost their ranks, the evangelists never begin their spiel by saying, “Here are the reasons why you suck, along with everyone who fits into a category with you.”

Those Christian missionaries who show up at your door don’t open with, “Hey, if you weren’t such a shitlord you would already be researching ways to avoid the eternal hellfire of divine condemnation.” Instead they say something friendly like, “Good morning, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?” Their uninvited sales pitch is still annoying, but it doesn’t make me think, “Wow, people who identify as Christian say I’m a terrible person. When I ask them to help me figure this out, they say I’m an even more terrible person for not reading the Bible on my own. I don’t want to interact with Christians. Whenever the topic of Christians comes up amongst my friends, I’ll warn them that Christians are jerks.” (Whether or not certain groups of Christians qualify as jerks for other reasons is beside the point.)

As an example from the opposite side, vegan activists are notorious for being judgy and aggressive. I’m sure this is frustrating to reasonable vegans who just want to explain their ethical stance and share recipes with people. And it does exactly zero to make people want to experiment with veganism. PETA’s shenanigans have had the opposite effect in at least one case. An explanatory approach like Food, Inc. is much more inviting.

Various people told me I was tone policing yesterday, and after having thought about it more, I agree that I am. According to the Geek Feminism Wiki:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issues raised. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

I fundamentally disagree that holding people to high standards of discourse is equivalent to “effectively shutting them down.” I believe that people can argue without resorting to verbal abuse — and if they can’t, what is the point of arguing? No one who doesn’t already agree with you will be swayed.

There are situations where it is obnoxious to tone police, and the reasons why people get angry totally make sense (see this comments thread for lots of examples; TRUCEConf is another exasperating example). I am angry for many of the same reasons! However, if someone is slinging around ad hominens or saying things like, “Your comment is trash,” they’re not debating at an object level either. When I discuss an issue with another adult, I expect them to use phrases like “that attitude makes me angry because of xyz” instead of “I can’t believe you fucking said that”. And if they don’t maintain that level of civility, I disengage, because targeted hostility stresses me out.

I think there are appropriate ways to express anger — this open letter to a father who doesn’t pay child support is a great example of what I mean — and ways to express anger that alienate anyone who doesn’t already understand your grievances and share your context. In my view, activists should try to optimize for the former method of expressing rage. This is especially important on the internet, where everyone is talking in public, because random people will see your arguments. Some of them will be totally unfamiliar with your subculture or ideology, and if you’re not calm and reasonable they will notice that and associate it with your subculture or ideology.

This is how I closed my first post on this topic, and it reiterates my two bullet points from the beginning:

It’s true that sometimes people enter conversations, especially about social justice, with ill intentions. But treating everyone as an enemy until they prove otherwise is very harmful — it ends up burning the people who just couldn’t figure out why you were upset without more guidance and more information. Assuming good faith is not always accurate, but it’s a much more useful stance than defaulting to hostility.

Then again, some people take the cynical view that activists’ main function is to generate controversy and stay in the news. But I’m sad to see people who champion causes that I care about follow that pattern.

Hostility & Online Discourse

Unless you really love subculture drama, read “Hostility & Online Discourse, Round Two” instead, or my earlier post about giving and receiving criticism.

Here’s the tl;dr, which gets repeated later in the essay:

Hostility in online discourse is very rarely useful. I understand the rage impulse, especially as a marginalized person trying to explain something that seems obvious to a more privileged person — that was my modus operandi as a sex worker — but it is counterproductive. It does not engender sympathy or encourage people to learn more. You know what does? Assuming best intent and treating people with respect even when you’re disagreeing with them.

Something happened on Twitter just now that illustrates a disturbing trend. (I know, what a fortuitous opening!) Let me establish some context first. Shanley Kane, who runs diversity-in-tech publication Model View Culture, tweetstormed this morning that readers don’t support the indie media outlets they claim to adore (presumably in response to The Toast shutting down).

Her contention is that indie media’s struggles are the readers’ fault, because they don’t chip in, even when given ample opportunity. I don’t totally agree with her thesis due to some ideological differences re: markets and business models, but that’s beside the point. Her tweetstorm was very interesting and I’m glad she spoke her mind.

Anyway, reader Gavin Carothers commented that he would contribute if the sites he frequents offered the possibility:

Kane quote-retweeted his comment with her own: “This is trash”. Her response seemed unnecessarily hostile to me. So I chimed in: “but it’s literally true — e.g. The Billfold never accepted donations” (which I’ve written about before because it frustrated me so much).

Kane responded, “This is a blatant derail. Tons of indie media has literally dozens of ways to financially support.” In case you’re not familiar with the concept, “Derailment occurs when discussion of one issue is diverted into discussion of another issue, often by the group who were being called out about their bad behaviour in the first place.”

Whether or not Carothers’ comment counts as derailing is a subjective judgment, but let’s grant that it is for the sake of discussion. Here’s a way that Kane could have responded (instead of saying, “This is trash”) which would have been much more productive: “I think that’s beside the point since most indie media sites do allow readers to contribute.” Same message, expressed in a way that isn’t likely to alienate Carothers or anyone else who’s not acquainted with Kane’s conversational expectations.

Finally I can get to my point: Hostility in online discourse is very rarely useful. I understand the rage impulse, especially as a marginalized person trying to explain something that seems obvious to a more privileged person — that was my modus operandi as a sex worker — but it is counterproductive. It does not engender sympathy or encourage people to learn more. You know what does? Assuming best intent and treating people with respect even when you’re disagreeing with them.

For example, I’ve talked to numerous men who have very negative feelings about feminism because whenever they’ve tried to participate in feminist conversations, they’ve gotten yelled at. Did they say something insensitive or offensive? Quite possibly. But they had good intentions and all they needed was a good-faith explanation of why whatever they said was considered objectionable.

I have personally changed people’s minds by providing that good-faith explanation. Defining unfamiliar terms, elaborating on unfamiliar perspectives, and asking questions about what the sticking points are. When conversational participants commit to being kind to each other, you can iterate toward mutual understanding. I used to think that no one ever changed their mind in online conversation. Actually, it turns out that no one changes their mind when the conversation consists of people yelling past each other. “Ugh, I can’t believe you said that” or more extreme rejoinders like “fuck off, you evil misogynist” do more damage to women’s liberation than whatever the guy might have said in the first place.

Artwork by Tommaso Meli.
Artwork by Tommaso Meli.

True, providing the basic good-faith explanations over and over again can be emotionally exhausting. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with providing a 101 space. It’s also perfectly acceptable to say, “I would love to go into more detail, but I’ve explained this a bunch of times before and I find it tiring to discuss. Do you mind Googling around a bit and seeing what other people have written about this?” Often it’s helpful to clarify explicitly, “Just to make sure it’s obvious, I’m not angry and I think your curiosity is awesome!”

I know some of you will say, “It’s not marginalized people’s responsibility to educate privileged people. They should take the initiative to do that themselves.” That’s an idealistic stance and it gets nothing done. Without active advocacy, there is no education and there is no change. Saying that men who don’t understand feminism should educate themselves about feminism is akin to saying that children under ten should teach themselves about the importance of hygiene. They’re fundamentally not equipped to do it.

It’s true that sometimes people enter conversations, especially about social justice, with ill intentions. But treating everyone as an enemy until they prove otherwise is very harmful — it ends up burning the people who just couldn’t figure out why you were upset without more guidance and more information. Assuming good faith is not always accurate, but it’s a much more useful stance than defaulting to hostility.

Updating on 5/5/2016 re: reaction to this piece.

Affect Conf says I violated their code of conduct, which you can read here. I disagree -- perhaps more snarkily than I should have, I admit -- but of course it's their prerogative to decide who gets to attend their event.

Affect Conf says I violated their code of conduct. I disagreed — perhaps more snarkily than I should have, I admit — but of course it’s their prerogative to decide who gets to attend their event. These are the screenshots I attached in my response:

Some of Shanley Kane's commentary on this post.
Some of Shanley Kane’s commentary on this post.
More of Shanley Kane's response to this piece.
More of Shanley Kane’s commentary on this post.

You can read all of Kane’s responses to what I wrote (at least all the ones I’m aware of) here, here, here, and here. (Those links aren’t in order, but Twitter is usually a cacophony anyway.)

I don’t know if this needs stating, but please do not harass Kane about this or use this as a justification for harassing her. There is no need to even bring it up — as far as I know she’s said everything she wanted to on the matter.

Giving & Receiving Criticism

We need less harshness and more humility.

It is extremely difficult to deliver criticism productively and equally difficult to receive it productively. This is basically because most critiques boil down to “You’re doing something wrong,” which people tend to automatically interpret as “You are bad and I want you to feel bad.” Sometimes the intent is actually to shame, but I believe that most of the time people want to improve the world and their critiques are put forth with a genuine desire for mutual betterment. The problem is execution, on both sides.

I’ve struggled with this personally. It took me at least ten years to realize that hostility and defensiveness were not a good reaction to being criticized, and even longer to stop manifesting defensive hostility despite this epiphany. I haven’t perfectly mastered this — far from it! — but I am much more likely now to react to criticism calmly than I used to be.

The mindset that got me here was a focus on productivity or perhaps constructiveness rather than rightness. Effective communication that furthers your goals is way more satisfying than the fleeting glee of driving home a point. The well-known irony is that an obsession with being right is a sign of intellectual insecurity, whereas openness to changing your opinion is a sign of intellectual strength. It’s healthier to view criticism (assuming it’s delivered with basic respect) as an invitation to collaborate rather than the opening blow of a fight.

Even when a critique is offered unpleasantly, the only two productive reactions are 1) neutral curiosity — e.g. “Can you tell me more about why you say that?” — or 2) complete non-engagement. Far better to ignore someone whose critiques annoy or offend you than to blow up at them. (I know this because I’ve burned bridged by doing the latter! It stinks for everyone!)

Geoff Greer on Twitter: "How to substantially improve Internet discussions: Next to every comment box, have the reminder, 'Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?'"
Geoff Greer on Twitter.

I’ve also gotten a lot better at delivering criticism, thanks to the people who critiqued me right back. It’s an ongoing struggle, because I default to bluntness and I love feeling witty, which is usually not conducive to productive discourse. (I am constantly trying and failing to suppress my desire to mock other people’s ideas or efforts when I perceive them as ill-advised or substandard. Basically all of my deleted tweets can be attributed to gleeful jerkitude and immediate remorse.)

I don’t employ the compliment-sandwich technique (alternately called a “shit sandwich”) but I try to make my positive intentions explicitly clear. Example: “I hope this doesn’t come across as an attack; I am trying to be upfront but I don’t want to hurt you.” I use a lot of massaging words to soften the message. I frame things as questions as much as possible: “Can you help me understand your thinking regarding XYZ? To me it seems ABC, but I’m curious about your strategy and perspective.”

Illustration by Daniel Garrido.
Illustration by Daniel Garrido.

Am I good at this? Not at all. It runs counter to my personality and my natural instincts. But I think it’s worth trying to get better, because communication that feels emotionally safe to all parties is vital to progress of any kind. Working with other people can be incredibly rewarding in terms of both process and outcomes. Humble criticism habits are key! It’s easy to deliver positive feedback well, but delivering negative feedback in a constructive way is also crucial to excellent results and therefore a valuable skill.

My thoughts on this were sparked by the app-pricing debate between Samantha Bielefeld and Marco Arment, which I tweetstormed about this morning.

Kindness Makes Communication Work Better

Niceness is pragmatism.

Tech-culture podcast Exponent came back from its summer hiatus on the 6th. In the most recent episode, hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth discussed Amazon’s work culture in reaction to that now-infamous New York Times article. Their conversation touched on the necessity of soft skills even in creative environments where solid ideas take precedence over everything else.

Successful companies set high standards and enforce them. They must! There is no other way to ensure excellence. Trade-offs are inherent to this arrangement — you can’t care profoundly about your professional results, work devastatingly hard to build something amazing, and still spend plenty of quality time with your wife and kids. The laws of physics forbid it — you can only be in one place at a time. If you’re at the office, then you’re not tossing a frisbee around in the backyard.

office drone lyfe
Illustration by Yue Wu.

More crucially, competitive companies develop and cherish workplace cultures that demand people to identify and demolish subpar ideas. When you prop up bad suggestions to make their progenitors feel good, you guarantee a future of low-quality initiatives. Next stop, loss of market share! It makes sense that brilliant executives want to stamp out the impulse to be nice. Except wait, no, it only makes sense superficially.

Allworth called this attitude “the primacy of ideas”. He pointed out that brutal honesty about the merit of any proposition favors “thinkers” over “feelers”. We INTJs and the like are able to maintain some emotional distance, to take a step back and rationally examine feedback. (Which doesn’t mean we aren’t hurt by criticism — Thompson added that this type of person also views their work as their source of human value. If the output is deemed inferior, we judge ourselves very harshly.)

Allworth explained that a workplace culture hostile to people who prioritize relationships will end up being a monoculture, alienating the voices of potentially useful employees and limiting diversity of thought. Well… yeah. It will.

be well at work :)
Illustration by RSO.

I’m probably reacting emotionally (ha) and not being fair to either Thompson or Allworth, but it was frustrating to listen while they grudgingly came to the conclusion that there’s value in being nice. I can’t help but think that only men would hash this out at length before tentatively agreeing that maintaining relationships is important. I even felt bitter while listening. It seemed like a classic example of “feminine” strengths being devalued, left invisible by default. Of course, the conversation’s outcome was better than if they had decided soft skills weren’t worth anything at all — but did it really need to be debated?

I’m an intellect-first, analytical kind of person. I’m also a woman, socialized to be nice and put up with a lot of nonsense from other people. Maybe the combination of those contradictory tendencies makes it easy to realize that you need to present information in a way that people find acceptable. Intellectual merit isn’t everything — in fact, it isn’t anything without soft skills. Smart people who can’t work with other people aren’t going to get anything done. (To be clear, this is something the Exponent hosts mentioned and agreed on.)

illustration of a good idea taking off
Illustration by Senya Pixelev.

Of course, I went through the same personal-growth phase that Allworth and Thompson also discussed, aggressively wanting to be right and constantly believing that I knew best, before I realized that a good idea you can’t get anyone to buy into has the same results as a bad idea. That’s really my whole point here:

A good idea that you can’t persuade people to believe in is functionally the same as a bad idea.

Even famously brutal tech founders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos had to figure out people-friendly ways to present their plans. We know this happened in part because otherwise Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon wouldn’t be iconic companies.

Luckily, collaborators can give each other straightforward feedback without being cruel. Thompson and Allworth do it on the podcast all the time! (More on this in an upcoming review of Ask a Manager blogger Alison Green’s book Managing to Save the World.) I think that’s why I was so frustrated — the necessity of niceness, or at least courtesy, seems utterly obvious, even if only based on their own dynamic. I don’t think the topic shouldn’t have been mentioned — here I am mentioning it at length — but I wonder why the conclusion surprised them.

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