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Respect is Per Community

... and it has to be earned.

Thu Jun 11 23:00:00 2009

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Respect Is Per Community

So, once again I find myself compelled to write by hearing something on IRC for the umpteenth time. Well, at least the second time in a couple of months, and it's something that really bugs me.

The comment that inspired this post is:

<name_elided > Yes but you're forgetting that people just dont care about IRC like you might do.

So, well, sure, lots of people care about IRC a lot less than I do. They don't co-ordinate open source projects and client projects alike through a few dozen channels for group conversation and a few hundred persistent private conversations for one on one discussion. And they certainly don't spend their free time helping out new users and gardening communities by educating (where possible) or excluding (where not) people not contributing to the signal.

However, the context of this was a conversation about communication and people's reputation and how it affects the responses they achieve, and it's symptomatic of a pattern I see far too often.

- person arrives on IRC and asks what appears to be a stupid question

- person gets responses asking for the question to be clarified

- person goes "huh? my question is fine"

- person gets more requests for clarification and some snarking

- person gets upset and says "there was nothing wrong with my question"

- person is given explanation that this is IRC, and we do things certain ways, and that if they want a good response they need to learn how to ask questions in a way that comes across clearly

- person says "but I don't really care about IRC"


Now, my first reaction to people behaving like that is to link them to this wonderful demotivator poster but that's usually a way to summarise what would otherwise be a swearing jag to save me the energy and it doesn't do anything about getting them to the point where they'll actually get useful help out of IRC.

Worse, it doesn't do anything to help me understand why these people are reacting like this and how to solve the root problem so we as a community can educate them into getting value out of their interactions with us, and hopefully in some cases bring them to the point where they want to be a part of that community and help us create value as well.

So the only thing to do was to go away and think about it.

The key thing that kept coming back to me was: when these people first got negative responses to their behaviour, they had absolutely no idea why. To a man, when I've grabbed somebody who's acted like this in private message after they've crossed the line too many times and had to be excluded (i.e. banned) to explain what happened and why, they still had absolutely no idea why they were being treated like idiots. Even more interestingly, most of them actually weren't idiots at all.

And then it hit me.

People forget that the degree to which they're treated with respect is on a per community basis. I've forgotten this too. A couple years back (roughly, I forget exactly) I got involved in a conversation on the mailing list. I behaved exactly the way I normally do on other mailing lists, and yet suddenly I found myself getting amazingly hostile responses, being treated like part of the problem and eventually being LARTed quite spectacularly by one of the regulars, after which I realised I had no choice but to shut up before I made even more of an idiot of myself.

The important part of that was "exactly the way I normally do on other mailings lists". Other mailing lists where I've been posting for years. Where I'm well known to all the regulars and when I'm my usual delightfully tactful self, other people will clarify my points if somebody looks to have taken them the wrong way.

Of course, the list regulars didn't know me from Adam, so when I waded in on a topic I felt strongly about I just looked like an arrogant cock who felt entitled to be heard on a subject he wasn't qualified to speak about (and those of you who know me well can stop sniggering at the back, it was the "wasn't qualified" part that was unusual, I know, I know ...).

So I gave it a few months for people to have forgot what an idiot I'd been, returned to the list and was much more careful and much more circumspect, and managed to get productively involved in a few discussions. If I said the same things now to the same people, the responses would probably be significantly different - although I'm still not well enough known to push it as far as I do the places I'm a regular, of course.

The experience was enlightening though - if you're a reasonably clueful techie, then anywhere you've been hanging out for a while, people are used to your personality quirks, used to the ways you explain things, and willing to give you the benefit of the doubt because they know you're basically a smart guy and must just be having an off day.

Anywhere you're new to or don't normally turn up to, like a project IRC channel or a mailing list or a forum (or a social circle down the pub even), people will only know you and respect you by how you behave in that setting. So if you manage to come across badly in your interactions with them, people are going to respond badly, and if you do it consistently then people are going to assume you're an idiot because so far as they can see of you, you are an idiot.


The fact that you don't care about that community, culture, and set of standards nearly as much as the regulars do doesn't obviate you from trying to understand it and behave within its rules - in fact, if anything it puts more of an onus on you to act within the rules of the community because you don't have the ongoing relationship with it that'll allow people to say "hey this is a clueful guy who's just having an off day".

Plus, as an outsider the odds are (for technical communities at least) that you're going to be receiving help significantly more than you're giving it, at least to begin with, so given you're asking people to basically spend their time helping you for potentially no reward other than gratitude and the chance for them to feel like a good person, being willing to do things their way in order to take as little of that donated time as possible is just common politeness.

When entering a new community, or a new social situation, you have to attempt to understand the culture and the dynamic and work within it. And showing respect for the means, mode and registers of communications involved is a great way to make the sort of first impression that will lead to the community's members respecting you, and on the basis of that mutual respect you can start to build an interaction that brings value, utility and enjoyment to both sides.

Respect is per community.

Respect the community if you want its members to respect you.

Every first post (or /join) is a first impression.

If half a dozen people all take the same comment the same wrong way, it might be groupthink ... or it might just be you.

Unless it's me that made the comment. Then it's never groupthink. I'm just consistently offensive like that.

-- mst, out. Comments to mst (hyphen) comments (at sign) as usual.