How to make the Internet a nicer place to live

Have you by chance noticed how UGLY online discussions can be?

Look around Twitter, or Facebook, or anywhere people are interacting on the Internet. You will find plenty of ugly stuff:

  • Name-calling
  • Put-downs
  • Assuming bad motives
  • Harrassment
  • Bullying
  • Denigrating accomplishments
  • Stereotyping
  • Insults
  • Ad hominem attacks
  • Threats
  • Sarcasm
  • Accusations

Much effort has been expended trying to give online communities ways to minimize the ugliness. We have upvotes and downvotes and filtering and identity and flagging and moderation. (A notable recent example is that Jeff Atwood has created Discourse, a discussion platform primarily designed to help online conversations be more civilized.)

If you are interested in knowing how YOU can help make the Internet a nicer place to live, read on.

The most important thing you can do

Obviously, the first thing is to not be ugly. But how?

Next time you are tempted to post something ugly, instead, post something "expressive".

Here's what I mean by "expressive": Behind the ugly thing you want to post, there is an emotion. Identify it. And express it.

An expressive statement starts with "I". It describes how you feel. In their basic form, expressive statements are short and simple. For example:

  • I am disappointed.
  • I feel afraid.
  • I am angry.

An expressive statement can (and usually does) include information about the situation that triggered the emotion:

  • I am disappointed that F# doesn't have higher kinded types.
  • I feel worried about the trend toward really cheap software.
  • I am angry that Xamarin's pricing is too high for me to afford.

An expressive statement is you saying something about you. It does not make statements about anyone else or their work. And it doesn't contain any ugly stuff. Putting "I feel" in front of something unkind doesn't change it from ugly to expressive. The following examples are not expressive statements:

  • I feel angry because Joe won't stop lying about the project status. (accusation)
  • I am tired of Jane being such a drama queen. (name-calling)
  • I feel disappointed that web apps are built on JavaScript instead of on a real language. (sarcasm)

At the very least, being expressive provides an alternative to being ugly. And sometimes, it accomplishes even more. Being real and forthright is usually a step toward good communication and shared understanding.

Example: The open sourcing of .NET Core

A few weeks ago, Microsoft released a lot of .NET stuff as open source. Online reactions to this announcement have varied greatly. Some (or dare I say, most) have applauded with vigor and joy.

Others have been, well, kinda ugly.

I'm sure the ugly responses have been frustrating for the folks at Microsoft. In the midst of trying to do something positive, they are receiving sarcasm and accusations of deceit.

Why is this? Why on earth would anybody see Microsoft's move as anything but positive? And even if they have a negative reaction, why would they be ugly about it?

Simply put, there are a lot of emotions in play.

Millions of developers are connected to the .NET platform. There is tremendous diversity, including countless use cases and a myriad of business goals. People have tied their personal and business success to .NET in a lot of very different ways. When the stakes are high, the emotions can be strong.

We should acknowledge the validity of the gamut of emotions people have about .NET. There are good reasons and plenty of history behind those feelings. Surely they give us license to focus on specific Microsoft program managers and call them names, right?

Actually, let's not. :-)

Instead, let's try something more expressive, like one of the following:

  • "I want to be optimistic about this move by Microsoft, but I am not sure I can trust them because of all the times I have felt disappointed about their announcements in the past."

  • "I have been worried for years about the future of the desktop parts of .NET. My business still depends on a good API for desktop UI. I wish Microsoft had open sourced Windows Forms too."

  • "I am worried that this move will increase the momentum of .NET at the expense of the platform I prefer."

  • "I feel frustrated because the .NET team did this instead of addressing the bug I logged."

That's the difference between being expressive and being ugly. Say how you feel. Make it about you.

Aren't I going to look dorky if I do this?

Yes.

Dorky > Ugly

Caveats and exceptions

Broadly speaking, being genuinely expressive is always preferable to being ugly. Or to say it another way, being ugly (as defined by the context of this blog entry) is probably the worst thing you can do online, but in some cases, expressing the underlying emotion isn't going to be all that much better.

There is plenty of wisdom in what they taught you in kindergarten: If you don't have something nice to say, then don't say anything at all.

For example, suppose you go on Twitter or your blog and say "I don't like Zed Shaw". Are you making the Internet a better place by publicly saying that you dislike someone? No. But that expressive statement is a lot less bad than the more popular path of calling Zed names or criticizing his work. He's a smart guy, and he has done some great stuff, but his online interactions are sometimes rather polarizing. You don't have to like him. But when he does something that stirs your emotions, a reaction that says something real about you is a lot better than something ugly.

It is also important to note that not all emotions are appropriate for public expression.

For example, in the tech world, we have a disturbing trend of ugly situations involving online harassment of women. The important thing to understand about these awful episodes that behind every ugly posting there was an emotion. Would those situations have been less bad if each of those ugly postings had been replaced by a public expression of the emotion behind it? Strictly speaking, yes, being real would have been less bad than being ugly. But maybe only a little. For some of those feelings, public expression would still be pretty darn inappropriate.

Sometimes it is better to express your emotions privately. Tell a friend. Process your strong feelings with someone you trust.

And don't underestimate the value of just keeping your mouth shut.

BTW, being expressive also works outside of tech

My primary audience is software developers, so I'm mostly just trying to help people (for example) stop saying "NoSQL sucks" and start saying "I feel threatened by NoSQL because I've spent my career learning SQL."

But just in case it's not obvious, being expressive is a way to avoid being ugly in ALL kinds of conversations about difficult issues.

Race. Gay marriage. Immigration. Israel. Iraq. Syria. Drugs. Religion. Politics. Poverty. The list could go on.

In most cases, online discussion of any of these topics will turn ugly at an alarming speed. And in most cases, being forthright about what we feel is a better choice than saying something unkind.

Want to do more?

If you practice the habit of being expressive instead of being ugly, congratulations, you are making the Internet a better place.

But if you want to do more, you can:

When you see people online being expressive instead of ugly, upvote them.

Being expressive is a courageous choice. There is vulnerability in saying what you feel. Name-calling is safer.

So when you see somebody choosing to be expressive instead of ugly, affirm their choice, even if [you suspect that] they have beliefs that are different from yours.

Want to do even more?

If you can do the previous two things, you are a hero. There really is no need to do anything more.

But maybe you want to be a SUPER hero. You want to be remembered as the Nelson Mandela or the Gandhi or the Mother Teresa of the Internet, someone who made every online community a nicer place just by entering it.

If you aspire to be famous for your good deeds, here is the third thing you can do:

See through the ugly.

When you see people online being ugly instead of expressive, look deeper:

  • Try to see the emotion behind their words, even though they didn't express it.
  • Try to understand their real point of view, not the one that they are articulating.
  • Try to empathize with the perspective they're not showing.

All the suggestions in this article are difficult. This one is by far the hardest. It is basically unreasonable. It asks you to assume the best of someone when they are showing you their worst. Being a superhero isn't easy.

Bottom line

Our online discussions would be so very different if we were all more adept at dealing with our emotions.

In many cases, we could avoid saying something awful by taking a moment to identify the feeling that is driving us, and to express it in a forthright and genuine (and probably dorky) manner.

Try it.