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On Being a Bastard (Cultivating online communities) (shadowcat.co.uk)
18 points by jrockway on Jan 12, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 26 comments

Not impressed. I'm pretty sure being an asshole is more frequently harmful than helpful. I myself have been one from time to time and I understand the motivation to paint it as a strength. It's not. Even pretending that, "We need a few like me to protect all the nice ones," is specious. We must resist attempts to justify our bad behavior with pseudo-reasoning.

While I agree that being an asshole is more frequently harmful than helpful, I don't think the behaviour in question here is actually assholic in nature. Every community needs to have a way of enforcing community values or that community will dissolve. That enforcement can be a police officer, a drill sergeant, a moderator, or just a loud mouthed member of the community that expresses the group's scorn for the behaviour in question.

What is important is that everyone who witnesses the policeman deliver a lecture to delinquent teens, the sergeant chew out a new recruit, the moderator remove a troll or flamebait, or the loud mouth deliver an invective laced screed to the newbie who just doesn't get it, gets the message that "certain behaviours aren't tolerated here" and by extension, other (more polite) behaviours are.

When the policeman gives you the nod on the street corner on your way to work, when the sergeant says, "Nice work", when the moderator uses something you wrote as an example of what a good post looks like, or when the community loudmouth bastard says "SHUT UP AND PAY ATTENTION TO HIM" and you realize he's talking about you - that's the point when you realize you're part of the community.


I do think he makes a good point though that "Your patient, non-bastard supporters are the lifeblood of your community" and these are the people who have to be protected. Whether his approach is the right one is arguably questionable.

It is extremely questionable. However, on the occasions I stopped doing what I do (usually because I felt that I was starting to burn out and be too much of an asshole even for my own tastes) nothing anybody else did helped very much and eventually I got asked to come back by a number of the nice people because the standard of behaviour was sliding and they weren't being listened to because they were, well, being too nice.

So I can't claim my approach is right, only that it works and that in the absence of somebody finding a better one I'll continue to follow it - and I'm reasonably comfortable that in this case the ends -do- justify the means, at least according to my own moral calculus.

Sure, but it's hardly novel: "productive, peaceful people make a good community." Can't argue with that.

I have seen mst in action, and his techniques are pretty effective. I think I have had just as much luck with newbies by being nice, however... but perhaps not.

(My reaction upon being yelled at would be to leave, but this is not the behavior I observe in other people. mst has quite a few fans that started off as "victims" of the techniques he describes in the artice.)

I'm glad that this technique worked for a few people that are now friends with mst, but I think an even better outcome might have been achieved with a gentler approach. Naturally, how mst goes about his business is his own affair, but I think it's worth having the opposing viewpoint especially in an article like this.

The thing is, the people he yells at tend to stick around. There is not some tiny in-group of mst fans.

To be fair, though, you can only have so many msts in a community. When the other people are nice, a dialog like:

  newbie: I'm dumb and can't read, do my work for me
  nicer_person: newbie: good idea... although to be fair, there isn't much to read on this subject
often emerges. Now newbie has a friend in nicer_person; someone who probably wouldn't have said anything if mst hadn't yelled at the newbie.

If you find what I'm saying specious and pseudo-reasoning. perhaps you could outline specifically which arguments you find unconvincing and why; I'm aware that what I have here is very much a working hypothesis backed up only by anecdata, but I thought it was a reasonably consistent hypothesis and any holes you can poke in it would be very welcome.

Thanks for replying. I'm not really an IRC person, but I find that the best online communities are ones in which real names and adherence to real life social norms are encouraged. You're a rare person if you would say what you did to the newbie in your example in real life. Personally, I feel it would be just as good if the conversation went this way:

newbie: I'm trying to parse out the td tags in this HTML and I can't get the regexp right

expert: Please don't parse HTML with regexps - try HTML::TableExtract.

newbie: my regexp is /<td>(.*)</ but it doesn't work

mst: newbie: You can't use regexps to parse HTML. Look at this module: ... Now we've answered you twice. If you ask again, you'll be muted for a few minutes.

Continued persistence on the part of the newbie should be met the same way you would in real life. Tell him if he keeps bothering you, you'll uninvite him from your club, and then follow through. The community's purpose is not to educate outsiders who don't wish to receive an education, but for the enrichment of people who will participate as equals. Establishing a norm of unpleasantness, even on the periphery, for the sake of a dubious chance at helping out is not a tradeoff I'd make.

The next line in that conversation is:

newbie: WTF. But I just wanted help with my regexp! Quit being a nazi! You have no right to ban me I'm just trying to ask a question!

or them quitting immediately. Or at least, it has usually been one of the two in my experience. But I'm not going to claim that means the technique doesn't work; just that it hasn't, for me, so far. I should probably experiment more with it but I suspect it will, oddly, come across far more heavy handed than a bout of profanity.

if you took a few seconds to explain why regexp is the wrong solution rather than just saying "don't use it", I'm sure the user would not only leave a lot more enlightened, but would also stop asking the same question.

If only that were actually true.

Well, no, a lot of the time it does work, and I never say a word or I'm the one doing the explaining.

The point of the example is that there's a fairly common pattern where people don't listen, don't become enlightened, and don't stop asking the same question because they've managed to get tunnel vision through staring at their non-working code for too long.

At which point a short sharp verbal slap upside the head often serves to dislodge the cobwebs, at which point they start thinking again, read the explanation properly and become enlightened.


What's wrong in your example is that you supply no reasons to pay attention to you, then fly into a rage when you are not paid attention to.

A better way would look something like this:

Grasshopper: I'm trying to parse out the td tags in this HTML and I can't get the regexp right

Master: HTML allows many variations. Making a regex to handle all possibilities is too hard.

Master: Instead use HTML::TableExtract. You can learn to use it faster than you fix all the tricky problems in a regex.

Sure. And in the IRC channel where that sort of question is common, we have a factoid that points this out, politely, with plenty of links.

However, your point that the example sucks is good; I've fleshed it out somewhat (and still consider it representative of what I'm attempting to describe)

That's more reasonable.

Still, why do so many seekers-of-wisdom do that? Is it fear of the documentation, which can be pretty intimidating for a novice? Are they truly, seriously lazy gold brickers? Are they just thick? If it is the first, what they need is reassurance and a very simple, unintimidating example.

I wonder if there is a market for teaching chatbots? They'd have a hard time being worse than the endless "tutorials" on the web.

"factoid" - one of our best tactics for avoiding non-constructive grumpiness has been to teach the chatbot descriptive but firm responses to some of the most common mistakes.

In a lot of cases, as I note elsethread, I think it's often that they've been locked into tunnel vision over the "solution" they're currently attempting - they have a serious case of XY problem but their self-made blinkers prevent them seeing that.

A much shorter version of this drama gets played out on technical channels when one of us goes "hmm, why isn't this working?", somebody else goes "wtf are you doing that for?" and the first one goes ".... oh, FFS, because I'm an idiot". But it takes practice to be that in tune with your inner idiot.

Thats a particularly easy question to answer, and the answer is convenience. Most people would rather call tech-support than figure out a problem themselves. Which is not unreasonable in this fast-paced results-oriented world we live in.

My thoughts are that "regulars" deserve special treatment over normal users. It creates loyalty, and you want the regulars to be loyal.

Look at airline loyalty programs, for example. Ask a once-a-year traveler how much he likes "Foo Airlines", then ask someone who travels 100,000 miles a year on Foo Airlines. The person who travels 100,000 miles a year will like Foo Airlines a lot more than the once-a-year traveler because Foo Airlines rewards his loyalty with lots of free stuff that "normal users" don't get.

I don't see why the people involved in the open-source community would be any different.

In this case, the regular people are the airline.

That being said, I'm a #perl regular so wheres my free shit. Alright, I'm going to count til ten.........., (wtf).

But in all seriousness, mst is a great developer and community leader, I only know this because I love Perl and always note CPAN authors and contributors of the modules I use. I was (am on occasion) one of mst's victims :) and I can say that when I was a newbie, if my skin wasn't thick, I would have been discouraged by him. Now I suppose Im a fan. That said, I wish we as a community could better cultivate the new and direct them to community projects they can help with. .... I suppose that might entail some stroking.

I wonder how many people are going to use this as an excuse to be a bastard.

Too many. I just hope it's outweighed by people watching their communities die because nobody's setting social boundaries and standing the fuck up and doing something about it.

Luckily, the regulars on IRC can tell the "good" assholes from the "bad" assholes and act appropriately :-)

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