But, I'm coming to the tech world after having worked in the health care industry for 15 years. And, I studied art for 6-7 years, thinking that I could make a career out of it. So, I guess that I have a different perspective on the geek/hacker culture. And, something about hacker culture that never really set well with me was this--the nastiness.
Paul referenced it in his article, referring to the trolls. I just don't understand why people troll like they do. I didn't understand why people were so up in arms about Paul's trying to write a new language and offer it up for public consumption. I don't understand why people have been so quick to criticize Y Combinator. I don't understand the hating that goes on in language flame wars, or OS flame wars.
I understand that people are passionate about technology, and passionate about their language of choice, or OS of choice, but... really. Do people really need to get nasty about it? Why aren't people able to have a discussion about the merits of a language, or strengths and weaknesses without getting personal or mean about it. I just don't understand.
A great doctor that I worked with, was explaining to me why he got out of teaching at a medical school. What he said struck a chord with me: The reason that there's so much back-biting and politicking in academic medicine is very simple--it's because the stakes are so low.
Which leads me to ask the question--Are the stakes really so low in the technology world, that people are so nasty? I have a hunch that for many trolls, that's really true.
I know that shortly after reddit got purchased the trolls made camp and set up a small troll swamp. There are a few cool sub-reddits, though. Why did that happen? Because the stakes became so low.
We hackers are just dying to let others know how smart we are. It's what makes us tick.
So we come here (and other forums and blogs) because most of us have trouble finding peers who even understand what we're talking about. Add in a lack of writing style and the anonymity of the internet, and our puffing and strutting APPEARS to be nastiness.
Put us in a room together to discuss the same subjects and I'm sure it would be much more civil.
Honestly ask yourself. Whenever you heard someone else getting a compliment for being smart, (Alan made the Dean's list!), (Joe is a great chess player!), (Fred wrote the best program I ever saw!), don't you get JUST A LITTLE BIT JEALOUS. You almost want to scream out, "Hey! What about me? I'm smarter than that!" We hold back in person because we're polite. But we don't hold back here, because most of us understand. Sometimes I think that if you DON'T think like that, maybe you shouldn't be a hacker.
Reminds me of an old story that Rabbi Harold Kushner told about a young man trying to temper his competitiveness, so he joined an ashram in Japan. He wrote to his father, "Dad, this environment has helped me evolve to the point of enlightenment where I no longer have to compete with others to achieve my bliss. The meditation has done it. I'm one of the top 5 meditators here, and hopefully, by next year, I'll be Number One."
[UPDATE: I just read the comments about this pg essay on Reddit, and realize that it's different over there. They ARE nasty. What's happened to Reddit? Whatever it is, I sure hope it never happens here.]
I also don't get a really nasty vibe from Hacker news, like I do on Reddit. I was referring to the Hacker culture at large when I was referring to "nastiness". I believe that there is a lot of bravado and competition in Geek culture. But there's also a lot of nastiness, too. In fact, we are developing the English language by devising new language for people being assholes online: griefing, trolling, powning, flames, flamewars, Greater Fuckwad Theory, Godwin's law, STFU, RTFM, STFW, etc... It's only a matter of time before these terms hit the mainstream to describe asshole behavior offline.
Even though he doesn't say it, I believe that Paul has been rather hurt about this often enough several of his last essays have referred to these people as "trolls". Steve Yegge has had enough problems with this, that he's turned comments off on most of his blogs. Pmarca also thinks that this is enough of a problem, that he (to my knowledge) never turned on comments on his blog.
For instance, I went to a boarding school for a year, and was in a dorm with 45 high school boys. There's friendly competition, and then there's getting 64 wedgies like I did that year. (I was the youngest kid in the school, and quite a nerd). A lot of time, putting your work into the intarweeb slipstream of geek/hacker culture is like walking around with your fruit-o-the-looms sticking 2 inches outside of your pants at a boarding school. It's only a matter of time before some asshole gives you a wedgy. And, then you have brown streaks.
My question is this: why do we (not Hacker News, but Geek culture in general) tolerate that behaviour? There is no need for it. If you want to prove how smart you are, make something cool. Or, explain String theory in a way that mere mortals can understand. But, walking around saying that Arc sux because of this and that, or Yegge is a wind bag, or what was J Gosling thinking when he designed the turd that Java is... This isn't productive.
If people make these comments maybe it's because their stakes are so low.
Paul probably only visits Reddit to read comments about something he's done. I left the chatroom #lisp because of the assholicism. (Leaving was an excellent decision. Everything about Lisp can be learned from CLHS, SICP, On Lisp, gigamonkeys.com/book, other books, and Google. It takes patience, but you'll learn far more than by asking someone.)
Communities are a source of power - if you've built a strong one, you can usually get rich. But they require huge amounts of time. Unless you're working toward a specific goal, it seems best to be a lone wolf (or part of a small team) and to operate without considering what everyone else has to say, or to offer you.
I learned to program almost exclusively by asking people and experimenting. It was a mistake to ask people how to do things. You can learn orders of magnitude faster by reading manuals and books than by trying to get someone to help you. Hacker culture isn't necessary, except to feel good about yourself, which isn't necessary. John Carmack knows so much because he spent most of his time in quiet isolation, meditating on problems, not hanging around communities.
On a tangent, is competition necessary or even beneficial for progress? The world today seems to be founded on this idea, but things would be much different if people didn't believe competition was important. Competition makes products ego based, and I don't think ego based products are the best. People have to aim beyond themselves and the felt needs of others to make something truly excellent.
It's the anonymity. Combined with a 95% male audience. If each reddit commenter had to sign with his full name, and his picture would be shown next to his comments, the tone would be quite different.
My experience is that this is a limitation of communication without subtext, inflection, etc. I don't have a whole lot of time right now for details, but I have noticed a few tendencies that exacerbate emotions in online discussions:
- Deprecating humor seems especially biting without the wink and smile, and the inevitable response from others then appears like an attack
- Posters lump all critics together, and tend to forget who made which argument (but are especially sensitive to having their points glossed over, misinterpreted)
- Often those within technical circles don't realize that different people weigh evidence differently (i.e., two parties may reach separate conclusions simply because they have differing views of which facts are important). Unlike in the math world, discussions and conclusions cannot be reduced to a few simple axioms--there's always the experience of the observer necessary to interpret data.
- There's a tendency to skim critics posts and respond to individual sentences/words (rather than the sum of what was actually written).
"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."
As for why trolls exist at all, I think it is because it is so darned easy to be rude and generally small-minded and full of self-puffery when the troll has such near-anonymity and therefore no sense of responsibility. I also think that geek communication tends to be brief, and it is easy to be rude with a few short direct words... in the real world, such behaviour is not tolerated but in forums, the troll can just keep posting, and posting, and posting.
As readers, we also absorb rudeness better, and remember the smallest slights, whereas we skip over the fluffy bunny comments where someone chips in with a happy "me too!" or "hug" and a row of smiley faces.
What it boils down to is reputation. Trolls seek only to reduce the reputation of his victim.