Presenting questions as a burden

December 2006

I don't like the attitude condoned by 'How to ask questions the smart way?', an article that at the same time I can see is useful and well-intended but that makes me distinctly uncomfortable because to me it feels like it subtly validates lots of unpleasant as well as counter-productive behaviour. If you build up expectations that people to have reverse-engineer a piece of software to work out how to use it, then the instructions will never get improved.

I was reminded of this both by a discussion I had about a specific Java-related open source community (that I haven't had any interaction with myself) and by Kathy Sierra's post today on user communities and encouraging people to answer questions. The advice for people asking questions on her site, Javaranch, is so much more inviting I think.

It really puzzles me why so many communities end up so vicious - you can have an intellectually rigorous discussion and be nice at the same time. I think this is partly because you don't notice the people who don't engage - they don't kick up a fuss. They just go and find another community, or real life. The people who stay are by definition the people who like conflict and that thick-skinned. And then everyone starts assuming that anybody who isn't thick-skinned isn't worth dealing with. Having to cope with criticism can make you stronger, but that doesn't make the provision of such experiences as excusable.

Maybe people are so desperate for good developers that they'll overlook rudeness or that developers are more likely to be the type of people who feel a need to prove their cleverness no matter what. But another post today by Slow Leadership got me thinking - the nasty behaviour is basically just contagious. As soon as you let one or two people be nasty, other people will start to gravitate in that direction. If you don't cut things in the bud, you're pretty doomed and it takes quite a bit of leadership to do that. I think this is one of the reasons I prefer blogs to forums - I get to choose the company I keep much more.

Things do get exacerbated online too I guess. It's easy to forget that the people writing things are actually people of flesh and skin. Sometimes I'll worry that one day I'll forget. There are posts that I've wanted to make but deliberately decided not to I have to confess. There's a lot of rubbish out there it'd be fun and easy to rip to shreds, but I must remember to always resist and put my energy into either doing useful stuff or pointing out all the wonderful stuff that is out there. It's not the critic who counts, as the Roosevelt quote goes, and leading by example is a good start, being the person you want your students to be. But as with providing feedback in a safe environment, encouraging people is worthwhile too and shouldn't be written off.