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Let’s all grow up

A few days ago I wrote a comment on Hacker News. Here it goes.

I hate how being harsh has become fashionable. Whatever happened to manners?

This spontaneous reaction was in response to a blog that attempted to be humorous by using the word “fucking” multiple times in reference to Adobe’s UIs which were perceived as lacking a native look and feel.

I stand behind those words. Acting bitter on the Internet seems to be increasingly gathering the popularity amongst an audience that’s used to being amused and entertained by cheap attacks. Concepts like respect, courtesy, or civility – let alone class – appear to be all but forgotten.

It’s worth caring about this toxic environment, where nastiness and negativity are not only tolerated but to a certain extent encouraged, because of its effects on the community. A community that can be as big as the whole blogosphere or as small as the Ruby world, depending on which particular case you opt to focus on.

By simply fast-forwarding one or two days, we find Michael Arrington’s emotional article about an upsetting encounter with a conference attendee who spat on him, only to quickly leave, hiding himself in the crowd. In the same article he also mentions the serious death threats that he has received due to his popularity through TechCrunch.

You may disagree with Michael’s analysis of the so-called Web 2.0 world. You may also dislike his attitude, but disagreement amongst intelligent individuals has nothing to do with downright psychopathic behavior. Sure, the guy who spat and the wanna-be-murder are two extreme cases, but I feel that these are fomented by a large crowd that considers such acts as being acceptable – and even willingly indulges in verbal hatred against Michael every time he feels like writing about something.

Don’t think that Michael and I are good friends. He probably doesn’t even know who I am, and I have in the past expressed the opinion that sometimes his news coverage is far too gossipy and lacks technical substance. Yet, I felt really bad in hearing about the attacks against him. Such incidents are truly uncalled for.

Arrington has every right to write about what he wants, however he wants to – and to do so without being harassed by the community. As a matter of fact, he made a “small fortune” thanks to his writings, and his achievements cannot be ignored. But if you don’t like his style or his articles, go read something else. If you consider him a “jerk”, don’t visit his site. People have no right whatsoever to be abusive, opting to often hide behind the anonymity and lack of accountability that has become typical of the Internet.

The “irony” behind these forms of cyber-bullying is that the people perpetrating them are often “nerds”, guys who have been bullied in real life. Yet, in front of a keyboard, in the comfortable glow of anonymity, they feel powerful and type away their anger and desperation.

Michael Arrington is just one victim of the results of this high-school like behavior, and this episode is bound to become as popular as Kathy Sierra’s misadventure. Those two are high visible cautionary tales but there are other smaller (or less publicized) occurrences every day.

Despite being virtually unknown, I’ve had my share of negative comments. Because of my technical articles and opinions I’ve been called all sorts of names (and this from a community that’s supposed to be comprised of highly educated professionals). Some have gone so far as to say “I hope you die”. This is, if you ask me, ridiculous. Yet I could write “the sky is blue” and I would get hate emails about it. It’s really hard to have faith in humanity when you are a blogger. Mine was slightly restored by switching to comment moderation, a wise choice that I now consider paramount to any site where I blog.

I also dislike how all this criticism ends up creating prejudices against individuals before people have even had a chance to learn more about them. Case in point: a while ago I heard all sorts of bad things about Gary Vaynerchuk. The most common adjectives seemed to be “jerk” and “douchebag”. So I decided to find out more about him and started watching some of his videos. Guess what? I honestly think that the guy is awesome. He is energetic, has a passion for what he does, and shares his knowledge and love for wine and life with others. He puts himself out there in a very honest and straightforward manner. I find him contagious, funny, a morale booster, and definitely not an unlikable person. Had I stopped at what the critics said, I would have missed the opportunity to learn more about wines and this terrific person.

The last example I’ll give is a very touchy subject, but I feel it nicely wraps up this series of thoughts. After attacking some leaders of the Rails community, Zed Shaw has become a hero in the development community. People love the tough guy who makes them laugh by attacking people they don’t like (and sometimes don’t know) in the first place. This to me is sad. For me Zed is a “hero” for coming up with Mongrel at a time when deploying Rails reliably was problematic, not because he decided to vent his frustration publicly. He deserves respect for the code he wrote, not for attacking people. I saw a few videos of him presenting at conferences. He is highly informative and entertaining, a truly likable person it would seem. For that he commends respect from fellow developers and a beer if I ever meet him, not because he made it fashionable to bad-mouth Dave Thomas or DHH.

The fact that the smart people in the development community fail to see this is discouraging and speaks volume about the petty nature of many humans. As I strive to become a better person and genuinely offer my best to the communities I belong to, my wish is for my fellow Internet denizens to do the same.

Let’s all grow up.


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56 Responses to “Let’s all grow up”

  1. Michael says:

    Thank you for posting this so I didn’t have to sit and write a similar post. Your call for a civilized developer culture reflects my own thinking perfectly.

  2. I think that this point is central:

    “Acting bitter on the Internet seems to be increasingly gathering the popularity amongst an audience that’s used to being amused and entertained by cheap attacks.”

    The question is: why is it increasingly popular?

    The answer imho it’s strictly related to the concept of Eternal September: the people aren’t changing, but the internet usage and so the community is growing, and with usability improvements the bar is lower too.

    “More people” doesn’t mean just the mathematical consequence of crowding and the statistical evidence of more bad apples, but also that the original guys, with an higher cooperation level (to build something you have to cooperate) are overwhelmed by the larger number of normal people… and bad mannered people.

    That’s the world, coming. Sad as it seems.

  3. Citizen Snips says:

    This is a good article, Antonio. Touché on the irony of the bullied becoming bullies.

    There is some software based on the idea of fostering respect in online communities, http://www.savingtheinternetwithhate.com/. Not sure if it’s ready yet but I like that people are thinking about identity, reputation, respect and retribution in the online space.

    I have had run-ins with people on IRC – and when we’ve met they’ve turned out to be normal, socially aware people with no hint of the insolence they show online. It’s funny when that happens, and it definitely points to something being wrong – inherently non-human – about our relationships online.

  4. Andrew Stone says:

    Praising something requires understanding and most just don’t take the time to learn. No one and nothing is perfect therefore attacks are always easy to find. Unfortunately, easy is what most people shoot for today.

    Great article and I’m happy to see you’ve brought attention to this negative trend.

  5. Jim says:

    I think Penny Arcade expressed this phenomenon rather eloquently.

    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/

  6. Grant Austin says:

    “the people aren’t changing, but the internet usage and so the community is growing, and with usability improvements the bar is lower too.”

    Creative, technically-minded folks always seem to flee to an exclusive refuge. In the Italian Renaissance it was into Art, during the Enlightenment it was into Reason, in our age it has been into computers and the Internet. Where’s the next stop?

  7. john delano says:

    bravo for an excellent write up. however, i can’t help but note the irony. mike arrington, a guy who has been aggressively rude & obnoxious toward lots of people he has deemed to be “the enemy” is now getting payback in the same coin. it’s appalling that he was being stalked and threatened. but nobody will ever convince me that he’s one of the good guys.

  8. Rudyard K. Prab says:

    Are you sure that visceral negative reactions aren’t a symptom of an immune response to the social posturing that web 2.0 and blogging have introduced to the technical community?

  9. I’m pretty sure Zed did what he did with a sense of irony that that is what it takes to get noticed online. If I was one of the people he attacked I’d be angry about, but as a bystandard I think the truly sad thing is how people latch onto those vitriolic statements even if they have no relevant personal experience with the targeted individuals.

  10. Martin says:

    I dunno, you talk a lot about professional, but you also mentioned that you were on a hacker website…

  11. Zed Shaw is a good guy. He really is. And Arrington is not. He deserved the spit in the face. He earned it on his blog, many times over.

    He didn’t deserve the death threat, and neither did Kathy Sierra, but there’s a huge difference between getting some spit on your face and getting dead. You can wash spit off with soap. You can’t wash off dead.

    The law already protects Arrington and Sierra from death threats. Maybe it doesn’t protect them enough, but it’s a legal matter and there are legal things in place to deal with it. There’s nothing about the world of blogging that needs to change there. If a death threat is credible, it’s a matter for the police, not a matter for bloggers to wring their hands about. You can’t save the world from crime with a blog.

    But as far as spitting on Arrington, in Germany (where it happened) that’s only a misdemeanor, and be honest, he’s been spitting on people on his blog for years. I can understand that he didn’t enjoy it, but I can’t understand at all how it surprised him. I can only even explain the surprise with either a failure to understand cause and effect, or a sense of entitlement so monumental it includes the assumption that he can abuse strangers, but strangers can’t abuse him. I mean seriously, how many people were really surprised to see this happen? It was only ever a matter of time.

    I feel sorry for Arrington, but I also find it funny. I feel sorry for the spitter, too. I feel sorry for anybody who pays attention to Arrington. He’s disgusting, and disgusting people are drawn to him. Some of them are drawn to him as allies, and some of them are drawn to him as enemies, but you can’t be that horrible without attracting horrible people. Karma 101.

  12. geedee77 says:

    This is exactly the sort of thing I have been saying for quite some time about the industry. Thank you for being the one to finally say it out in the open (somewhere it’ll be read).

  13. Shimon Amit says:

    Thank you Antonio. Needless to say that eventually, the culture in the tech blogosphere hits the offices and work places. The growing trend of snide remarks, cynical, negative feedback, and foul language is disappointing and I’m happy to see others are thinking the same.

  14. Agree that we need to encourage positivity and creativity. Negativity has only destructive results on all levels, as you say – on the small scale (ruby community) as well as the large scale (entire blogosphere).

  15. @Martin: I’m not sure if you are trolling or are serious, but in this context the word ‘hacker’ means ‘programmer’ as you can read on Wikipedia. :)

  16. Hongli Lai says:

    Agreed.

  17. Terry says:

    I can understand your point but Arrington really is a jerk who goes out of his way to be obnoxious and disrespectful to folks in the articles he writes. However, this doesn’t make it ok for folks to engage in negative behavior either. Two wrongs never make a right. As for Kathy, well she is a very positive person who deserved none of the harassment she received.
    My point is Arrington exhibits many of the characteristics that you describe in your post.

  18. John Bender says:

    Its easy and fun to blast people for small mistakes/inaccuracies/comments even if doing so in person would be laughable.

    It was a pleasure to read your article and I fully agree that civility is rare in the development blogosphere.

  19. KoW says:

    It seems that the more communication possibilities there are (i.e. Web 2.0) the more incommunicado we become.

  20. +1! Nice post Antonio… thank you.

  21. Vic says:

    I’ve recently started to get picked up by a lot of the larger social aggregate news sites (Hacker News, Reddit, etc.) and the amount of hateful comments to the amount of helpful comments is pretty interesting.

    I think sometimes people forget they can simply downvote an article rather than leaving something hateful regarding it. And this isn’t criticism. Every software developer needs to learn to take criticism, especially if they produce something Open Source, but there’s a difference between criticism and downright hateful speech.

    The truly great software developers will hopefully rise above this to create great, open communities where information can freely be distributed and ideas openly discussed to provide the best result possible.

  22. Adam says:

    For a similar perspective in a different field, you might like this bit of Dave Eggers on cynicism.

  23. Tordek says:

    “All but” is equivalent to “not”. So, you’ve said “Concepts like respect, courtesy, or civility – let alone class – appear not to be forgotten.” Please, avoid butchering the language, even if your fellows do so too. If you meant “They appear to be forgotten”, say so. If you mean “almost forgotten”, say so. Don’t say “all but forgotten” unless you mean “everything except forgotten”.

    Otherwise, I aggree with the post.

  24. Penguin Pete says:

    I’m afraid you can add me to the list of people saying that Michael Arrington reaps what he sews.

    The thing is, some of us blog with a sense of mission: to educate the public about technology, to cure the disease of ignorance that plagues the world regarding computers. So we dedicate our lives to this, and then we find we have to confront thousands of people who have been misinformed by M.A. Arrington irresponsibly shoots off his mouth claiming various mad things that he basically pulled out of his butt, but Reuters quotes him like gospel. We have to devote many extra hours of hard work just cleaning up M.A.’s messes.

    No, spitting on people isn’t right. But, as with the case of the guy who threw his shoes at out-going ex-president George W Bush, sometimes you have to think that the public’s reaction to you just might be telling you something.

  25. james says:

    Fyi, this page renders pathologically on my android. Not sure if you’re interested in fixing it or what, but it’s basically unusable. (The entire page gets compressed into a 40-60 px column.

  26. @Tordek, I’m afraid you are wrong on this one. “all but forgotten” means “nearly forgotten” or “almost forgotten”. It was first used in the 16th century by Andrew Marvell in regards to a similar concern: “Society is all but rude, To this delicious solitude.”. So no worries, the language wasn’t butchered here. Ironically as is often the case when correcting others, you accidentally made a typo. :-)

    @james, Thank you for the feedback. I’m planning to commission a custom WordPress theme, and I’ll ensure that it looks good on mobile devices.

  27. Amen. Thanks for posting this.

    I’d like to add a few points though:

    1. I think there’s a distinction between the usual nasty attitudes we see online and what happened to Arrington’s death threats/Sierra. They were both (Sierra to a lesser degree) _famous_. That will attract a minority of lunatics who make death threats and whatnot. It’s part of the package, it applies to _all_ people who are sufficiently famous, regardless of which community they’re in. I do not think these extreme examples reflect on our community.

    2. The spitting may very well be a product of the general nasty level we see online sometimes. But as Giles pointed out, this is in a different league than the death threats.

    3. This is not a new phenomenon at all, and I don’t think it’s been getting worse. Think about IRC for example. EFNet has had the exact same kind of nasty attitudes for a long time. The disrespect, ultra snarkiness, etc., were there from the get go. Ditto for Usenet.

    4. What I think _is_ new is civil discourse online. So I’d say we’re improving. Blogging with signed comments for example allow some pretty good, respectful conversations. If anything, I think we have more avenues for civil discourse now. Let’s nurture them and take care of them. HackerNews is a great example of this. I think it’s a treasure, and hope it’ll never get ruined.

    @Tordek: http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=all+but – see 21

  28. Kyle Lahnakoski says:

    This post makes Antonio Cangiano sound old: I expected it to start with “Back in my day…”.

    Discourse is not getting less civil. It is our ever-more-refined empathy that makes it *APPEAR* discourse is less civil. Discourse was always uncivil on the internet/newsgroups, just that Antonio never noticed when he was younger.

    The best solution to incivility is to be civil yourself, and politely point out incivility in others. The last thing you should do is have a “senior moment” and lecture about how things were better when you were young.

  29. David says:

    Your article is waaaaaaay off the mark.

    You are really conflating two completely different behaviors: cyber-bullying and mailing list-style attacking. When Linus Torvalds says “No, you are full of bullshit!” in response to C++-flavored trolling, it is perfectly acceptable (flaming trolls into oblivion is mailing list justice). When Kathy Sierra gets death threats on her blog, the situation is completely different—a death threat is a criminal offense in many jurisdictions.

    There are some mailing lists that are surpassingly harsh, for example the Linux kernel mailing list. There is little study of mailing list behavior (perhaps a sociology or anthropology Ph. D could shed more light?) but I strongly suspect that the dominant tone has evolved in order to protect the signal-to-noise ratio and to avoid degenerating into a help desk. Is this a perfect system? Far from it! There are serious problems with this approach: women are almost completely absent from development mailing lists; highly intelligent but more sensitive men will be discouraged from participating; this drift can have a substantial negative impact on the effectiveness of the open source project the mailing list serves. In this particular case, the issue is two-fold: no one could see ahead of time that mailing lists would morph into the beasts they have become, and the major opens-source leaders are middle-aged men who are stuck in their ways. I have some predictions: the failings of mailing lists will become increasingly obvious over the next 10 years; alternatives will be presented; and a major paradigm shift in open source development discourse will occur.

  30. planetmcd says:

    Excellent Post. Thanks for sharing.

  31. John Gresir says:

    Thanks for censoring all the comments who disagree with you.

  32. @John: You are mistaken. Read the comments above and you’ll notice that several are from people who disagree with me. The only people whose comments are deleted are those who bluntly swear without making a point, and in one case a very strong attack against Arrington. And it wasn’t a simple “Arrington had it coming” either.

  33. gobblegobble says:

    Im genuinely interested in hearing specific examples of Arrington’s abusive or ridiculous behavior that should have “deserved” this type of reaction from the internet crowd…

    Anyone care to mention some?

  34. Nachik says:

    It’s increasingly difficult to filter angsty teens out of big sites, especially since they promote each other.

    Some sites like reddit can manage a bit thanks to having less popular subreddits about programming, science, particular programming languages… but if something hits front page the onslaught is unstoppable, and karma only helps to a point.

  35. Pim van Riezen says:

    The sarcastic style has always been popular among techies. The BOFH stories started in 1992. It’s probably not even really restricted to techies or the internet. I think we’ve collectively grown to love the rant. The world as a whole and technology in particular are scary places that are more complex than we can imagine, consisting of such a vast number of interactions that we can at best hope to grasp a minute part of it all and use that as a raft to steer through life.

    Life just seems out to get us and we’ve lost many of the natural means primitive man had at his disposal to get rid of excess aggression, while the complexities of our frustrations have only grown. Being worried about getting cold and finding food is no walk in the park, but it’s fairly easy to understand what must be done under those circumstances.

    Modern life asks a much larger toll. Take the industrialized world, borne for decades by frustrations. Then add a medium that allows them to vent their frustrations anonymously. Behold, the Internet Tough Guy is born.

  36. This is a complex issue, but politeness in communication is usually a good thing. Many people could certainly wield the pen with a lot more finesse and fairness than they use now.

  37. Cameron says:

    Thanks for your article. Much appreciated.

  38. I am glad other people feel the same way I do. I am already tired of indecent behavior I see on the web. I think you will see less of this when people realize the Internet is not as anonymous as people believe. If someone want to find you, they can. Now that is something to think about before you act like an idiot.

  39. mufasa says:

    All you people that think programming is just a job should think again. Go back to your fucking sales position and go back to flipping burgers. Coding is an art form — NOT a FUCKING JOB!

    Growing up is a necessity here — for those of you who will not and can not perform to the standards required of and worthy of being a coder.

    Apologies to the audiences’ aural receivers of this comment as I do not intend to degrade you, however all these people that do not respect coding as an art form need to leave the premise — it is cultural mockery and should not be taken lightly.

    Jobs such as these did not exist a century ago and can not be compared fairly to any others. This is an entirely different breed of work and like any master of art and skill one WOULD be offended by such remarks inclusiveness as those portray sometimes.

  40. anonymous says:

    Thanks for deleting my comment that gives readers some actual *insight* about one of the many reasons Arrington is hated! If he claims he isn’t racist, then why did he have to apologize publicly to many people about some offhand comments that he said? Censorship is a joke, people will always say whatever they want, and there are real world consequences for that. Hopefully Arrington realizes that.

  41. Timmy Jose says:

    You know Antonio, if I had stopped at the first paragraph I would have had something really nasty to post here but having read the whole article, I feel that most of the points (read reasons) that you put forth in support of your opinion are valid. A well-balanced blog in the end. Good work d00d and thanks for not pontificating.

  42. @anonymous: In your first comment you strongly accused Arrington of being racist and invited me and others to look it up. I did some quick research and found that there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to support your claim. I only found one person who was upset with him and this was about Michael not covering his startup. At that point, it would seem, the entrepreneur played the racial card.

    Since the blog comment section is not intended as a place to slander people, I opted to remove your initial comment. When I delete a comment I normally email the person with a reason for why I did this, but in your case, you are anonymous and I couldn’t.

    It’s important to understand that the focal point of the article was not Michael Arrington and why he’s disliked by many. He was just an example, whether you think he “deserves” the negative comments he receives or not (of course, no one deserves to be spit on or receive death threats). The main point was to highlight a negative trend in the industry, and to encourage people to change this by appealing to the mature side of each of us — to refuse to let online abuse and personal attacks become the accepted norm in our professional community.

  43. Stii says:

    Hmmm, I’m not sure. I just don’t trust someone that doesn’t swear.

    Here is a quote from Zed’s final rant:

    “Why the change? Well, I started this incarnation of my blog almost exactly one year ago because I was fed up with people not listening to me when I wrote intelligent essays about interesting topics. Instead, everyone listened to the raving macho asswipes of the internet.”

  44. jb says:

    I can’t believe you deleted my lolspeak comment from yesterday. It was brilliant satire. Ah well.

  45. Tom says:

    I couldn’t agree more!

    I’ve only recently started blogging. I decided to write a couple of technical articles and the odd rant about something that annoyed me (not someone :-P ). I posted a link to an article I wrote to reddit and got ‘author is a moron’ and similar comments. Nothing very encouraging at all.

    It almost makes me want to not bother. But I live in hope that someone may find my writing amusing, interesting, useful or otherwise entertaining.

  46. @jb: I don’t recall your comment, so two things are possible: it accidentally got deleted or it was eaten by the anti-spam filter. Either way, feel free to repost it.

  47. Hi Chris,

    In order for the Ruby driver to work with System i, you’ll need a piece of software called DB2 Connect, which enables PCs and mainframes to communicate. Unfortunately it is not available for Mac OS X at the moment. Within IBM I’m advocating for this to be ported, but meanwhile I recommend that you work with DB2 Express-C locally and then deploy on System i.

  48. Caligula says:

    @mufasa: *Any* job *can* be an art form. They don’t *have* to be, and there are a great many coders that simple aren’t *artists* — just like there are many *artists* who aren’t artists.

    If only artistic coders coded then very little would get done–there have to be technicians, too. IMO your world view is too narrow. Engineering has *always* been about both art and science, since time began.

  49. Chris Lehman says:

    Antonio: Good post, and thanks for introducing me to Gary Vaynerchuk and (indirectly) corkd.com (a cool wine and Rails site)

  50. [...] Cangiano wrote a great post about anonymity on the internet titled Let’s all grow up. I think that it’s an excellent view on how harsh some people have become when masked behind [...]

  51. Harry says:

    Kudos, Antonio.

    Too few people are willing to stand up and take a stand, even though it ultimately affects everyone to some degree. This kind of behavior is a growing cancer, and not just in the online world. I would be interested in how many comments you have declined to publish because the authors couldn’t be civil.

    I had previously criticized you for publishing a political comment, because I thought you should stick to technical matters. Your response didn’t do anything to change my mind, but this has.

    Please condider this my apology.

  52. Hi Harry,

    I appreciate your comment, and even on those occasions when I disagree with you, I appreciate your thoughtful input.

    Cheers,
    Antonio

  53. JD says:

    Thanks!!
    In this age, with tons of blogs telling ‘how-to’s its was good reading you touching a sensitive but an IMPORTANT topic. I agree with you completly.

  54. Hi Antonio, I think that you’d be interested to know that Zed retracted his (in)famous rant, and has got really good points on the page that replaced it, much similar to the ones expressed in your post. Have a look: http://zedshaw.com/rants/rails_is_a_ghetto.html

    I think Zed did the smartest thing he could, because the weight of perception about what people find “written on the internet” is constantly increasing, because the “crowd” is getting larger everyday, and it is full sheeps that love doing what the “tough guy” says them to do.

    It’s such a strange world we live in.. ;)

  55. [...] felt the need to link to a great post by Antonio Cangiano on the lack of respect, courtesy and civility that is sadly becoming more and [...]

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