Marie Connelly

Marie Connelly is an online community manager working for in Boston, trying in some small way to make health care a little bit better for everyone. She is also the blog editor for A List Apart. When she isn’t writing about online community building in a strictly non-guru capacity, she’s carefully crafting her playlist of over 200 songs that have handclaps.

Marie has two Twitter accounts, which she agrees is probably a little awkward, but just go with it: @marieconnelly for all things health and internet, @eyemadequiet for complaints about public transit and other ridiculous things.

Published Thoughts

How’ve you been?
Busy, busy, you know. Busy is good, though.

How many times have you had that exchange? I can’t even count. I say it reflexively, as if I’m playing a game of word association. Busy? Good.

When you say this, people just nod. Yup, busy is good. I mean, it’s right there in the word business isn’t it?

Fun fact: busyness and business used to actually be the same word. “Business” meant more of what we now think of as “busyness,” but we started spelling it with a “y” to distinguish from when we meant, you know, work. Still, today, it’s hard not to think of these words as largely synonymous.

Just a few years ago, I wore my busyness like a badge of honor. I was immensely proud of how busy I was, of the long hours I worked. I felt needed. Important. I would compare notes with my friends working in similarly time-consuming professions—it was less about camaraderie and more about patting ourselves on the back. Our ability to push through the long hours and hectic schedules was proof of our worthiness, a sign that we deserved to succeed where others faltered. They just weren’t putting the time in, you know?

We were insufferable, really. Maybe that’s just the nature of being 23, I don’t know, but I’m embarrassed to admit it now. At the time, I was so resistant to the idea that it could be any other way. Sure, maybe other people could get away with being less busy, but not me.

These days, I feel the toll of busyness in a way I just didn’t appreciate then. I feel the struggle to make big, confident, decisions after being worn down by making smaller ones over and over again. I see, belatedly, all the things I’ve let slide, and feel guilty for not being able to focus on it all. I find myself falling into bad habits. Lying in bed at the end of the day, refreshing Twitter and checking my email, unable to resist the pull of new information, and the idea that something might be happening that requires my response.

To be clear: this is both absurd and self-inflicted. With very few exceptions, there is nothing that requires my response at midnight on any given evening. I’m just not that big a deal.

This may just be my line of work (though I suspect it’s not) but often, that sense of busyness comes from constantly reacting. To that new email, or chat message, or Twitter mention. Just always being “on,” waiting for the next fire that needs dousing.

It’s easy to get seduced by the busyness of reacting. Even though it runs you ragged after too long, in the short term it feels so good, like a sugar rush. After the immediate gratification, it dangles a larger promise, ever out of reach: if you’re busy enough, you can actually do all the things. Maybe, if you can do all the things, you really can have it all.

So often though, busyness is just a process measure, and a poor one at that. We kind of assume that if you put enough in, something good will come out. What you’re busy with matters less than how busy you are. We allow ourselves to put aside the question of whether our busyness is leading to something better, or whether it’s just leading to more somethings.

It’s tough to let go of that rush, the importance that can come with that reactive sort of busyness. It’s easy to focus on the times when you jumped in quickly and saved the day. Harder to remember all the times you jumped on something that could’ve waited. Harder still to picture what you could’ve done, the things you could’ve built, if you hadn’t been reacting constantly.

I’ve never been one for resolutions, but my hope for 2015 is to reset and refocus, to let go of the busyness of these last few months, to do more and react less. If anything here sounds familiar, I hope you’ll join me.

I’ve been reflecting on this tweet from Erin Kissane for several weeks now. It’s a message I have seen echoed across Twitter, as the level of harassment people are experiencing, and the platform’s inability to control it, becomes unbearable.

The canary in the coal mine. I was reminded at a conference last year1 that it wasn’t the canary’s death that first signaled trouble, it was when the bird became restless, when it stopped singing. Silence was the warning that the mine wasn’t safe, that the air had become toxic.

It’s hard for me to describe the impact that Twitter has had on my life, because honestly, it sounds ridiculous. Since I signed up in 2008, I have met some of the kindest, most amazing people through this platform. I’ve been to weddings, baby showers, visited people in the hospital, met them for dinner in foreign countries, and for drinks just down the street. I’ve also had incredible opportunities (including writing for this project), that I simply don’t think would have been available to me if Twitter didn’t exist.

I honestly don’t know that I would be who I am today, if Twitter didn’t exist. I have been exposed to voices and ideas that I may not have found without this network, and through those connections, have been encouraged to share, to speak up, to find my own voice as well.

This all sounds very Utopian Ideal of the Internet, I know. And sure, you can make the argument that if Twitter didn’t exist, something else would have come along to take it’s place—maybe we’d all still be using Plurk or FriendFeed or Posterous, and this post would be about one of those networks. I don’t know.

What I do know, is that more than any other network I’ve used since the day I signed up for a LiveJournal in 2000, Twitter has facilitated serendipity and discovery. This was always easiest to see in contrast to Facebook; Facebook was the place for the people you already knew, but Twitter was the place for the people you wanted to know.

This wasn’t all built into Twitter-the-platform from day one, but through sites like Favrd, manual retweets, the occasional meetup, the snowball effect of following interesting people, then following the other interesting people they talked to, and sometimes working up the nerve to talk to those people myself, I ended up with a community. A community that has supported me and inspired me. A community that I continue to learn from every single day.

I question whether any of this is really possible today, though. If I hadn’t joined Twitter in 2008, but instead, tried to sign up in 2014, would I still be able to build the kind of community I have? Would I still be able to find the interesting people I’ve somehow connected with over the years? Or would I be steered toward people I already know, or celebrities and brands I might want to “engage” with?

Perhaps most importantly, will the people I’ve learned so much from still be willing to take the considerable heat that comes from simply talking in public about the experience of being a woman, a person of color, a part of the queer and trans community?

So many people are leaving, or thinking about leaving, or sharing less, because of the harassment that they receive. Because of the inability to do anything about it. Because Twitter makes it easier to report accounts as spam than to report them for abuse. Because we all fear the Koolaid point.

This is not an “online vs IRL” issue. It is not an “anonymity” issue. It is a societal issue. In a recent event at Eyebeam, Erin Kissane, Sydette Harry and Melissa Gira Grant spoke to this much more eloquently and knowledgeably than I can. Listen to them. As Harry says, “Online harassment happens because offline harassment happens.” Period.

So, what can we possibly do? How can we make the internet safer for women, for people of color, for trans and queer people, when we can’t seem to do much to make the world safer for them either? I wish I had answers. I wish I had a 10 step plan. I don’t.

I do know that we, as an industry, have been far too willing to accept the status quo, to go along with the notion that for some, this is simply the price of admission for public participation on the web. That assumption is, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Paul Farmer, a failure of imagination. I have to believe that we can do better.

When we talk about platforms, about social networks, we often focus primarily on the technology. Yet in my time as a community manager, I have found that community is rarely about the technology itself—a platform is nothing without the people who use it. And right now, we are losing people. We are losing people who have wisdom and insight and so much to share, because public participation on the web has become increasingly more dangerous.

The impact of this cannot be understated. These are people who inspire, who change minds and change hearts and encourage others to join, to contribute, to do more and do better. When these people begin to fall silent, it’s a warning to us all that the air is becoming too toxic to breathe. Networks can be more fragile things than we realize—once you lose too many people, things fall apart and the center cannot hold.

Twitter has given me so many incredible opportunities, and I have learned so much from people that I may never have found otherwise. I don’t know if Twitter is fixable, and perhaps the nature of the web means we’ll all be someplace else a few years from now anyway. But I do know that if we can’t figure out how to build safer networks, platforms that take these issues seriously from day one, spaces that are willing to challenge the assumption that this is simply how things have to be, we’re all going to be a hell of a lot worse off for it.

1. This whole video is great, particularly if you’re interested in health care, but the bit about canaries comes in at 45:12.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I don’t know. That’s probably a natural reaction to spending three weeks in a country where I don’t speak the language, but still. The list just starts at Italian and goes on from there. It is not a short list, obviously.

Not knowing is scary. Especially when your whole industry is literally billed as part of the “knowledge economy.” Part what I do every day as a community manager is actually referred to as knowledge management, so how can I just not know so many things?

For me, knowledge has always been deeply connected with independence. If you don’t know something, don’t have the answer, or can’t do something yourself, well, that makes you dependent on someone else for help.

This is obvious, I know. That’s basically the underlying tenet of human society, right? We need each other.

Sometimes though, that’s still weirdly hard to accept.

Back in January, I wrote about how we’ve got to support our colleagues to push the web forward. Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking on that story of Chris Hadfield and his colleague who wanted to learn how to pilot the Soyuz. Earlier this year, I had focused on how remarkable it was that Hadfield said, “Sure, let me teach you,” even though it meant more work and longer hours for himself.

These days, I’m almost more impressed with his colleague, Tom Mashburn, because he asked for help.

Most of us, in theory, like sharing what we know. It’s easy to picture ourselves as Hadfield in that story, right? Magnanimously putting in the time to help our colleagues learn new skills? Sure thing.

Talking about what we don’t know is harder, though. And often, asking for help is the hardest thing of all.

It’s easy to feel like not knowing is failing. For probably the entirety of your education, that was literally the truth. But now? As Kristina Halvorson reminded us earlier this year, “when it comes to the great wide world of digital, we are all making it up as we go.”

It’s easy to get isolated in our not-knowing-ness (it’s fine, just add “words” to the list of things I don’t know), to assume that everyone else must have the answers, must have already figured this out. Sometimes that’s true. More often than not though, we’re all grappling with the same questions.

The biggest thing I learned at the first conference I attended was that everyone was struggling with the same things. It really was like a weight lifting up off my shoulders. I didn’t have to know! Nobody knew!

It was glorious, and also terrifying. I’d been going along thinking there were answers out there and I just had to find them, but then I learned there was no silver bullet, and no answers just lying around, waiting to be discovered.

That’s part of the fun though. It’s part of why we do this work. We get to make the answers together.

But we can’t get there if we don’t talk about what we don’t know and ask for help when we need it. It’s not that some of us get to be Chris Hadfield, sharing our wisdom with Tom Mashburn and making the web better for everyone. To move the web forward, we all have to be both.

Share what you know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Last month, Anne Gibson wrote an exceptional piece here, outlining an alphabet of accessibility. If you missed it, you should go back and give it a read, but here’s a quote to get you started:

Robin Christopherson (@usa2day) points out that many of us are only temporarily able-bodied. I’ve seen this to be true. At any given moment, we could be juggling multiple tasks that take an eye or an ear or a finger away. We could be exhausted or sick or stressed. Our need for an accessible web might last a minute, an hour, a day, or the rest of our lives. We never know.

I’m writing this from my couch, with my right leg propped up on some balled-up blankets and a pillow. My knee is aching again. It’s not excruciating, just a constant presence, somehow dull and scratchy at the same time.

This has been going on in fits and starts since January, but I’m only now starting to realize the toll it’s taken on me since then. It’s been a long year.

I do all the things. I rest, I ice, I NSAID, I talk to my doctor, I go to physical therapy, I do my exercises, I stretch, I brace, I tape.

Some days are better than others. Mostly, it’s frustrating and slow and any forward motion is of the one-step-forward-two-steps-back variety. The sort of thing that would be a montage in a film, only I don’t get to hit fast forward on my life to get back to the point where I can run again, or even just walk without pain.

The last month or so though, things were getting better. For the first time since January, I was no longer afraid. Afraid that something was really wrong. Afraid that this would never get better. Afraid that it was a signal of worse things to come. I hadn’t realized how heavily all of that was bearing down on me, until I was marveling its absence.

Two weeks ago, things inexplicably got worse. I was completely unprepared for it, thinking I’d made it safely to shore, only to get pulled back under by another wave. I’m somehow still surprised by the tunnel vision that comes with pain. It becomes the lens through which I make all decisions. Will this make things worse?

Even minor pain, when it drags on, creates a steady hum, a background noise to your life that makes it just a little harder to hear the things around you. There’s a frustration that bleeds into everything you do, every interaction that you have. It means constantly confronting the fact that activities you once completed with ease are now more challenging, or simply impossible. I keep trying to remind myself to slow down, to adjust, but I honestly don’t know that I’ll ever get used to it.

I’m not writing this for sympathy (or medical advice), but more as a reminder. Last month, Anne reminded us that we need a more accessible web, but we also need a more human web. These things go hand in hand.

In the grand scheme of things, my knee pain is impossibly small, and incredibly trivial. But it’s still on my mind a lot. Whether I want to or not, I’m carrying it around with me, everywhere I go. It’s taking up a corner of my brain while I walk down the street, or ride the T, or look at my Twitter timeline, or read that article, or try to respond to your email.

It’s so easy to view our own lives and problems in three dimensions, while seeing everyone else in two.

I’ve got my knee, but we’ve all got something, and I’d like to think that most of us, most of the time, are doing the best that we can.

Let’s try to remember that while we’re building this space together.

Last week in sexism

Last week wasn’t all bad, but it was exhausting. Despite the many good things that happened, it was one of the harder weeks I’ve had in a while, and it was hard specifically because I’m a woman.

The most obviously inappropriate thing that happened to me last week was that someone left a love-note on my desk. It was short, fitting in the small, square space on the top of my post-it pad, and unsigned, aside from the XOXO at the bottom. The pen used to write it was left lying casually across the top, a generic ballpoint, translucent blue on bright, matte, neon blue.

I haven’t been able to touch the pen. I just stare at it and feel my stomach turn a little bit. I don’t quite know what I feel. Someone came into my office, which I lock religiously, and left me this weird note. It’s so strange, it hardly seems like it was meant for me. It’s probably nothing. Probably harmless. Maybe a joke, or a prank even. Though I haven’t found the humor yet. I don’t feel unsafe, exactly—until I really stop and think about it, and wonder if I should.

Still, in some ways, it’s easy to deal with. There’s a process. Everyone I work with has been exceptionally supportive through the weirdness, and we’re having all the conversations with the folks who manage our building that we’re supposed to be having. I am both lucky and privileged in this respect—lucky to have thoughtful and kind colleagues, who want to create a comfortable, safe work environment for everyone, and privileged, as a well-off, white, straight, cisgender woman, to have the confidence that my concerns and fears will be taken seriously.

The other things that happened last week were more insidious, and for many reasons, are much harder to talk about. The stories that every woman I know can tell. The casual comments that draw attention to the fact that you’re the only woman in the room. The discomforting conversation with a man who either doesn’t realize, or doesn’t care, that his enthusiasm and persistence reads as aggression and feels inappropriate. The moment you realize your arms are crossed over your chest and your back is against the wall, that your body is radiating “I don’t want to be here,” and yet, seems to be doing so in a language no one around you can read. That was my week.

I am, again, both lucky and incredibly privileged that this was an atypical week for me. Still, I find that these moments tend to bleed into one another. They call back memories that have that same sour taste and heavy feel. My high-school classmates who were certain that the only girls who got A’s in physics were the ones who wore short skirts. The federal employee who saw my “Summer Intern” badge and, upon hearing where I went to college, asked if I was getting my “MRS degree.” The men who hollered at me as I walked down the street toward them, and then hollered some more about my ass as I walked away. The guy I looked up to professionally, who tried to get me to come back to his hotel room during a conference. The time my picture ended up in an article that called women ignorant, apathetic, and lazy for having the temerity to use FourSquare.

None of these were big, life changing events, just as nothing that happened last week was a big, life changing event. They were just moments in time, and some were relatively small ones at that. Still, they are all connected in my mind—strung together in a slow, steady drumbeat of sexism and yes, misogyny, that seems to stretch backward and forward in time.

It is not weather, but climate. There are bright, shining, beautiful days, and I am privileged to have more of them than most. But the overarching trend of the region, the region of being a woman in most industries, in most countries in the world, is still heavy and grey.

My story, these moments, they are not unique. I have never shared them with another woman and not heard similar stories in response. Still, it feels like a risk to write this, to add my voice to the chorus of women who have shared their own stories before. Because of course, the perverse irony is that often, to share your experience with sexism and misogyny is to make yourself a target for more sexism and misogyny. Yet, I know of no other way to silence the drumbeat than to produce an equally steady beat of our own, to counter the weight of the air by sharing these moments and affirming that they are real, they are happening. They are happening to women you love, and women you hate, and women you never even think about. But none of us deserve them.

It’s not enough, but perhaps it is a start—perhaps by shining light on these moments, we can eventually change this climate, and create a future with weeks full of brighter days instead.

Let’s Talk About Comments

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard, or said, “Don’t read the comments!” at one time or another. I know I have. It’s usually accompanied by an eye-roll and a heavy sigh, the implication clear: of course you shouldn’t read the comments, surely you know better than to expect anything good to come from this morass of the web now, in twenty-fourteen.

That’s actually how I first began to question the belief that comments were just a sad pit of internet despair. Few things raise my hackles, or my skepticism, like the argument that we should be embarrassed or ashamed for believing things could be better than they are. It’s cynical, dismissive, and downright disdainful of a way that many people use the web.

I’ve written before that at their best, comments are a form of community. Given what I do for a living, I’m naturally loathe to see online communities start disappearing from the web. Some argue that comments are superfluous in the age of social media; now that everyone can have a Twitter or Facebook profile, even their own blog, for free, the comment section is hardly the only place dialogue occurs. While that’s certainly true, it glosses right over the fact that someone might have valid reasons for not wanting to maintain a presence on those platforms, or hell, might want to have a conversation about a particular topic without inviting all of their Twitter followers and Facebook friends into the mix.

More than that, at a time when Google, Facebook, Twitter, and seemingly every other website, is trying to predict our needs and interests, tailoring the web to what they think we’ll like, comments and community offer a refreshing opportunity for serendipity—the unexpected encounter that opens our eyes to a new perspective or idea. The realization that we have more in common than we thought.

Is that idealistic? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen either. When we act like every comment section out there is as bad as what we see on YouTube, we’re dismissing a very real way that a lot of people have chosen to participate on the web, and we’re reinforcing this notion that comments are just inherently bad—that the content and the people who create it are adding nothing to the web, even taking away from it.

A little while back, Frank Chimero shared a talk he gave at the School of Visual Art’s Thesis Festival. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. In the talk, he shares some examples of how Yellowstone National Park has dealt with the unpredictable nature of, you know, wildlife, over the years: when wolves were attacking cattle, they got shot; when bears were eating sandwiches (and destroying cars in the process), they started a “bear management” program, to help people learn how to enjoy the park without tempting or endangering the bears. Here’s Chimero:

“I’m sharing this weird parable about Yellowstone, because it describes both sides of how to approach problems. Some designers want to shoot the wolves, others want to manage the bears. One is trying to make an antidote, the other invests in a process to keep things open and adaptable.”

Most of what I see these days is people killing the wolves—getting rid of comments sections wholesale. Somehow, simply having a place for people to leave comments has not guaranteed that our comment sections will become a place for rich discussion and community—who’d have thought?

Having an interesting, worthwhile, and dare I say, engaging, comment section takes work. It is work to read through all the comments a site receives and decide what should or should not be published. It is work to bring together all the necessary people and get them to agree on what the guidelines will be, and who will enforce them. It is work to remind everyone of those conversations when people test those boundaries and are disappointed to find them enforced.

Obviously, not everyone is up for that, or interested in creating community in that particular way. The lovely folks here at The Pastry Box aren’t, and that’s perfectly fine. Somehow though, the fact that comment sections aren’t miraculously cultivated web-gardens, when we don’t do the work to keep them that way, has turned into this belief that they’re just inherently awful pockets of the web.

Here’s the thing though: comments sections don’t have to be terrible. Folks like Jennifer and her fellow bloggers at Captain Awkward, authors like Ta-nehisi Coates, and the team over at Code Switch—these people write about difficult, challenging topics. They write about race, about relationships, about politics and feminism and whether or not it’s moral to watch NFL games anymore. These are not mundane topics—they’re lightening rods, third-rails of the web.

But you know what? The comments are pretty fascinating. I often learn something new from reading through them, and usually have a hard time pulling myself away. They’re fascinating because people put in the work: because they set boundaries, and then enforce them. Here’s Code Switch reflecting on their first year of conversations about race and culture on the web. It clearly hasn’t been easy, but they’ve found it to be a valuable experience, worthy of the obvious effort they’re putting into it, because they’re creating a place for discussion that might not exist otherwise.

Part of that boundary-enforcing means being willing to step in and remove comments that steer the discussion, intentionally or not, off the topic at hand. Many of us who work on the web have bought in to, on some level, the geek social fallacy that “ostracizers are evil,” and are loathe to play that role, even when it comes to web comments. We’re left with a sort of all-or-nothing approach: either we keep all the comments, except those so blatantly violating our guidelines that they can’t be ignored, or we throw out comments altogether, unwilling to play bad cop on our own sites. The middle-ground, being willing to prune our comment sections, is hard work too—Matt Thompson, at Code Switch, outlines this for their readers:

“So if we delete your comment, it’s not necessarily because we think the comment is “bad” or “wrong,” or because we want to suppress your point of view. Most often, it’s because the comment doesn’t get at the topic we’re aiming to discuss at that moment, in this space. We are trying to curate a discussion that is intelligent, unique, and novel — a discussion that moves us — and that may require removing comments we think are not directly contributing to the focus of the conversation at that time.”

There’s another layer of work that goes into making these comment sections better than the rest: instead of ignoring the comments, or holding them in obvious disdain, these authors actually read and respond to them. People participate, in part, because they’re able to build a relationship with a writer they like and respect. Knowing that someone like Coates may read what you’ve written, and will probably call you out if you’re being a jerk, is a pretty good incentive for people to not just follow the guidelines, but actually share thoughtful contributions.

Seeing comments sections like these, it’s clear to me that there are ways for us to manage the bears, instead of shooting the wolves: we can create guidelines for our comments sections, we can enforce those, and we can engage with our commenters, encouraging them to participate in a way that benefits the community as a whole.

I have a hunch that the recent Open News—New York Times—Washington Post collaboration will provide some very interesting tools to facilitate this, though I suspect they have their sights set on a whole host of issues beyond comments as well. Still, at a time when so many sites are giving up on comments, and so many in our own community view them with contempt, it’s exciting to see smart people invested in improving this part of the web.

Not every site needs to be a community, and community can grow in a myriad of ways, but at its core the web is about connecting people and ideas. In a web that feels like it’s becoming more siloed and restricted, let’s try to keep things open and adaptable. Let’s manage the bears instead of killing off one of our methods for creating community, just because it’s been neglected or poorly executed in the past.

There is, obviously, an irony in writing about this topic on a site that doesn’t have comments. If you want to talk about anything I’ve written in this post, you’re welcome to leave a comment on my own site, where this text has been cross-posted. I’ll be doing my best to practice what I preach here.

I’ve always loved this song, “Joan of Arc”, by the now defunct Actionslacks. It’s a cute little pop song about possibly unrequited love (do we listen to pop music because were miserable, or are we miserable because we listen to pop music?), and it’s got this seemingly obvious line: “The answer’s ‘no’ until you ask.”

When I first heard that, as a high school student, I was like: whoa. Probably because the two possible reactions I was capable of in high school were: "whoa" and rolling my eyes.

Still: “the answers ‘no’ until you ask.” And it’s true, right? One of my mottos as a community manager is: just ask. It’s easy to make assumptions about what the people who are using our websites will or won’t want, what they’ll use, how they’ll react to change. If you’re reading this, you know that you are not your typical user. But how often do we act on that?

A few years ago, I was asked to organize the first in-person meetup for GHDonline, where I work as an online community manager. We’d never hosted an official event for our members to meet one another in person before. As a community for health care professionals working around the world to share and discuss best practices, many of our members aren’t local, and we assumed they’d be too busy, or uninterested in meeting people outside their particular specialty areas.

We also worried that hosting an event in Boston, when so many members live and work internationally, would be seen as insensitive or tone-deaf to the reality of their day to day lives and obligations.

So, when we announced the event, we acknowledged that and asked folks to let us know if they'd be interested attending something similar in their region. The results were surprising: 50 or 60 people wrote in to say they wanted to attend a meetup in their community, and a number of people offered to help host or organize events in the future.

As I was reviewing these responses, I realized I didn’t recognize many of the people writing in. In a community of several thousand, I don’t know every member’s name, but I tend to remember the people who contribute regularly. I started to search our site, and realized that about half of the people who responded had never posted or publicly engaged in our communities before. Still, when asked if they’d meet other members face-to-face, many of them raised their hands.

We would never have known this if we hadn’t asked—wouldn’t have held the first meetup here in Boston, or organized another event that year in Delhi. We also wouldn’t have known that folks with a seemingly tenuous connection to our community actually identified with it quite strongly.

I’ve seen countless examples of this during my years as a community manager, but I’m still surprised by how often we, as an industry, skip this step.

Uncertain if someone will want to participate in your event? Ask.
Not sure how members will respond to a new feature? Ask.
Wondering what will happen if you change your terms of service? Ask.
Worried a new business model might go over poorly? Ask.

Ask ask ask. The worst that can happen is someone says no. Or they tell you they think your idea is a bad one, before you push it out to the world. Basically, the worst thing that happens is you hear something you didn’t want to hear. Which, well, welcome to the internet, I guess?

You’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear no matter what, so better to ask now than be surprised later.

Some of you are probably thinking, “But Steve Jobs! Henry Ford!” Which, sure, I guess. That faster horse line is a good one. Think of it like Pascal’s wager, but for making websites: maybe you are the second coming of one of those men, but if you’re not, wouldn’t it be nice to know what your users think before they start screaming it at you on Twitter?

There are, of course, a few caveats to this mantra:

Caveat the first: Do not ask people for feedback if you’re just looking for a rubber stamp on something. If you can’t, or won’t, make changes to a site, feature, product, whatever, it’s a waste of everyone’s time to ask someone what they think.

Try not to find yourself in this position. Ask before it’s too late not to.

Caveat the second: Ask people you trust to tell you the truth, and who can bring some perspective to the table that you don’t have.

Caveat the third: Sometimes, what you need to ask is: “What can l do for you?”

One of the few things I’ve found to be universally true in my time working on the web is that people on the internet will never cease to surprise you. Sometimes that’s a good thing. So remember, the answer’s no until you ask. The answers may surprise you.

We have this tendency to think things are much simpler than they are. Brad Frost pointed this out a few months ago with his piece here on the Pastry Box about the word “just”.

We say it to individuals, but also to groups of people, to organizations, to entire industries.

"Why don’t you just…"

Fix your websites. Improve this archaic process. Use this new technology.

We’re a community of problem solvers, and that’s a great skill to have. But we can’t solve problems we don’t actually understand. And much as we might be loathe to admit it, problem solving isn’t simply a matter of coming up with the right answer. Truly solving a problem requires finding a solution that can actually be implemented with the resources at hand.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, believe me. Somewhere along the way, my critical-thinking skills got distilled down to looking at a situation and asking, “Why is this broken?” or “Where did they make the wrong assumptions?”

Those questions introduce assumptions of their own though; that I know more about this problem than the people living with it, for one.

These days, I’m trying to take a step back and ask, “How did this come to be?” instead. “What am I not seeing here?” is a nice follow up.

Next time you’re tempted to jump in with a “Why don’t you just…” I invite you to do the same.

When I was in first grade, I got left behind on a field trip to the National Zoo.

The Amazonia exhibit had just opened and my little group waited with our chaperone for what seemed like hours to walk through the massive jungle exhibit.

As we walked briskly from parking lot to parking lot in search of our bus, I voiced the question that I suspect was on everyone’s mind:

“What if they leave without us?”

“They’re not going to leave with out us.”

When it became clear that they had, in fact, left without us, I was mildly distraught that no one had answered my question or offered a contingency plan.

Ultimately, we sat and waited at the visitor’s center for a while. Our chaperone called the school (this was pre-cell phone, of course) and then bought us all some ice cream. Eventually another chaperone came to pick us up and drive us back to school. We missed half of math class and were briefly notorious as the kids who got left at the zoo.

This was somewhere in a series of events during my childhood where I expressed concerns about something going wrong, and then they did. What if my grandfather’s little motor boat ran out of gas? What if my grandmother’s car broke down on the way to our summer camp at the Y?

What I probably should have learned was that, by and large, these things work out. I am not still living at the National Zoo, drifting in a motor boat with a hinky gas meter, or stranded on the side of a Florida highway.

Instead, what I took away from these moments was that I should probably stop asking “what if” questions out loud. My superstitious little brain believed that saying these things was what had caused them to come true. I had a secret superpower, and it wasn’t a cool one like flying or being invisible.

So for a few years, I tried to keep all the what-ifs in my head. Sometimes thinking of one would cause another to pop up, but I did my best to keep them to myself. With my silence, I could prevent things from going wrong.

This is how you become “a worrier”.

A few years later, something shifted. I saw that this was ridiculous—clearly, I did not have the ability to make cars break down simply by giving voice to thought. Nor had my silence somehow prevented all bad things from happening. Weird, right?

Instead, I reinterpreted these events as an adept ability to foresee potential problems. I had predicted the Great Zoo Abandonment of 1992. Because I was a child, no one had taken my concerns seriously, but now that I was older—in high school, college, an “adult”—I had more control over the variables and thus, the outcomes. My ability to see potential minefields was a skill; it made me an effective planner, a dedicated student, and well-prepared employee.

Or rather, I thought it did.

Herein lies the catch-22 of stress. You get stuck in a feedback loop: you’re stressed, which propels you to succeed, which validates your stress. When you fail, you simply weren’t worried about the right things—you didn’t stress enough.

The stress, the busyness, the importance of getting everything right—that becomes a part of who you are.

What if you didn’t stress? Would you still be productive? What if you didn’t worry about all the things? Would you still be able to identify actual problems before they became full-blown crises?

These are the what-if questions I’ve been asking myself over the last few years. For me, stress is like a bad habit—it’s not my only means of dealing with uncertainty, but for a very long time, it was almost always my first approach.

I haven’t totally figured this out yet, and honestly, I’m not sure I ever will. It’s something I’m working on though. I try to remember that there’s a difference between stressing and planning, despite how often I’ve conflated the two, and that when problems arise, I’m a lot better at solving them when my fight-or-flight response isn’t kicked into high gear.

When something becomes so deeply engrained, it can be hard to separate cause and effect. I’m finally starting to see that maybe the stress isn’t what pushed me to do well. Maybe it wasn’t a skill—maybe the stress was just noise.

If you build it, they will come

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to talk with an HIV educator working in rural Malawi. We were discussing the challenges he faces in his work, and he told me that when they built the clinic where he works a few years ago, they assumed people would immediately start showing up for treatment. Many members of the community were living with HIV, and here was a place for them to receive care. “We thought,” he laughed, “if we build it, they will come.”

Turns out it’s more complicated than that. Stigma, education, gender politics, community dynamics, economics, and so much more kept people at bay; prevented people from seeking treatments that could dramatically improve their lives.

If you build it, they will come.

This is my least favorite phrase about the Internet.

It’s so pervasive, you’d be forgiven for thinking its origins were biblical, and not say, a late 80s baseball flick. Maybe it worked for Kevin Costner, but it’s not going to work for you.

If you build it, they will come.

I should pause here and confess that I may be a little biased. I do, after all, work in community management—my professional success depends on people believing that “building it” is not enough. Still, I’d like to think my distaste for this phrase has more to do with the underlying assumptions it perpetuates than any particular interest in self-preservation.

If you build it, they will come.

To my mind, it’s one of the biggest, most pernicious myths of the internet. It plays on a number of fallacies our industry has clung to aggressively over the years: that the facts speak for themselves, that we are a meritocracy, and that the web is a great, global equalizer.

“If you build it, they will come” separates us from the people we are trying to serve. We are the builders. They? They are the masses. We do not need to ask them, understand them, build with them, because if we build it, they will come, like sheep to a greener pasture.

“If you build it, they will come” perpetuates the notion that building something is enough. That creating your website, or your app, or your online community platform, is all you need to do. If it’s good enough, if it’s better than your competitors’, if it meets an unmet need, and disrupts the right industry, users and profits will flow your way.

It is sorely tempting to believe this idea. It’s the 21st century American Dream—we’re all starring in our own Horatio Alger novel, pulling ourselves up with Bootstrap and the answers we find in StackExchange.

If you build it, they will come.

If this is all it takes, if the only qualification is how well something’s been built, then whatever is left standing must be what was built best, right?

I think few of us actually believe that (given that this, can happen at the same time as this, for instance), yet it still permeates our notion of what it takes to succeed, and who is capable of succeeding. When we buy in to “if you build it, they will come,” it becomes easier to believe that Mark Zuckerberg is the only portrait of success for our work.

If you build it, they will come.

Our work, our responsibility, does not end when building is complete. Perhaps because the building is never really complete. The universe of our work is constantly evolving, and if we want what we’ve built to survive, we must evolve with it. That means doing the hard work of maintaining our products, our projects and our content.

It also means we can’t sit around looking pretty, hoping our users will finally call. We have to remind them that we’re here, and show them—by building with them, incorporating their feedback, supporting them while they use our sites—that we’ve built something worth coming back to.

Chris Hadfield has quickly become something of a hero of mine. His book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, is delightful and I highly recommend it.

In one section, Hadfield talks about his experiences working in teams of astronauts, who (unsurprisingly) make for highly competitive colleagues. He writes, “It’s counterintuitive, but I think it’s true: promoting your colleagues’ interests helps you stay competitive, even in a field where everyone is top-notch.”

One of the examples Hadfield gives is of a colleague who expresses an interest in learning how to pilot the Soyuz, even though it’s unlikely he’ll ever need this knowledge, and very clear he won’t need it for the specific mission they’re training for. Instead of brushing him off though — Hadfield spends extra time training with his colleague to help him learn these skills.

This is not, I think, a typical reaction. Hadfield’s response to potential competition from his colleagues isn’t to withhold information that allows him to maintain his status as a specialist — it isn’t even to say, “Sure, learn that on your own time.” His response is, “That’s great — here, let me help.” The way he stays competitive in a field of incredible competitive colleagues is by helping them get better.

I suspect we can all see how this might be beneficial in the life and death stakes of, you know, space travel, but I think it’s vital for all of us working on the web, too. No, it isn’t rocket science, but we have an opportunity, collectively, to make a huge impact: together, we shape the space where our fellow humans spend an ever increasing portion of their lives.

We have an obligation to them, to each other, to ourselves, to make that space as good as it can be. We are, as Paul Ford reminds us, entrusted with the incredible responsibility of trillions upon trillions of heartbeats.

It is tempting to make only our corners of the web shine — to show how much better we are. To keep our little fiefdoms intact. Certainly, there is the potential for short-term glory on this path — you can stand above your colleagues, be lauded for your exceptionalism, and reap the rewards of that success.

But I think there are more risks to this approach than we sometimes acknowledge. The very definition of a zenith means we can’t be at ours forever. Whatever you do for a living, there will always be someone who has a new perspective, a brilliant idea, or is just hungrier for that glory.

If we are truly going to make the web as good as it can be, I think part of that means pushing for the collective successes of our colleagues. We learn and grow and advance the web faster when we’re all performing at the top of our game — we’re all motivated to improve when the people around us are getting better all the time.

By supporting each other, especially those who are newer to the field, we’re ensuring we have great colleagues for years to come.

The opportunities for us to accomplish great things increase exponentially when we are surrounded by talented, creative people who want to do more. And there are so many great things we all need to accomplish, so root for those you see advancing your field, and do what you can to play a part in that. Push your field forward.

@Horse_ebooks, and the Internet we thought we knew

Earlier this year, I shared a silly observation about @Horse_ebooks on Twitter:

To explain @Horse_ebooks to someone who isn’t on Twitter, you must first invent the universe.

It was a joke, sure, but I’d been thinking about it for a while — ever since I had actually tried to explain the appeal of a Twitter account that appeared to be a weirdly prescient, occasionally hilarious spambot to a friend who (still) vehemently refuses to join the site.

If the public’s reaction to @Horse_ebooks being an elaborate “performance art” piece is any indication, Robinson Meyer is onto something when he describes it as the most successful piece of cyber-fiction, ever. It’s a work of fiction that’s inherently dependent upon understanding the network containing it, and even then — no guarantees. My Twitter timeline this week was a mix of confusion (People actually followed that thing?), dismissive non-surprise (Didn’t everyone think it was a person? I did), and a decent amount of genuine disappointment.

Meyer describes our sadness about the Horse news as being about a loss of innocence, and a desire to believe that we were always the ones in control:

We believed we were watching the digital work mutter happily to itself about us, its anxious masters. Maybe the digital world was trying to sell us something, too, but its method of doing so was so blissfully ignorant, so warmly earnest, somehow, that we obliged. We loved @horse_ebooks because it was seerlike, childlike.

But no: There were people behind it all along. We thought we were obliging a program, a thing which needs no obliging, whereas in fact we were falling for a plan.

He sees this as a sign of the account’s success as a work of fiction and he may be right, but I can’t help seeing it as a metaphor for our relationship with the Internet at large right now. We thought we were…obliging a thing which needs no obliging, whereas in fact we were falling for a plan.We, tech savvy folk that we are, assumed we had all of this figured out. Gmail gives us free email in exchange for selling ads next to what we’re reading; Facebook lets us update our friends and share our vacation photos in exchange for selling us ads, etc.

If you’re not paying for a service, you’re what’s being sold.

How comfortable you were with that aphorism dictated the extent to which you used those services or platforms, how you configured your privacy settings, and what you shared with whom.

Now, of course, it’s become apparent that there were parties in this social contract that we weren’t aware of — the NSA may not be reading our personal emails any more than Google is, but it appears they’ve had access all along. One needn’t be particularly familiar with dystopian fiction to find this notion a bit unsettling. Like Google offering us email in exchange for serving up “contextually relevant” advertising, the government offers us national security, in exchange for unfettered access to our personal communications. While it’s not entirely clear exactly how the NSA collects our data, the current understanding seems to be that this isn’t a matter of superior cryptography skills and computing power, but rather that these breaches are more a matter of the government flexing its Patriot Act muscles.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Maybe we only have part of the story. Maybe this is the cost of doing business in the 21st century. Maybe this is making us safer and it’s a small price to pay.

Even if all of those things are true, I suspect it is also true that for many of us, our fundamental understanding of the Internet has shifted. When the biggest “threat” to our Utopian ideal of the Internet was commercial interests, it was easier to believe that we were still in control. There were always options: ad-blocks and opt-outs and ultimately, leaving platforms all together. In fact, the very notion that something new and better is about to jump out around the next corner seems core to how we understand the Internet today. When it’s always expanding, the stakes lower. Someday, we’ll all be sharing our personal lives on the new Facebook or Twitter, just like we joined those services as we left MySpace and LiveJournal behind.

Now it seems the stakes have changed all together. When Facebook misreads my data and starts serving me ads targeted at new parents, it’s mostly comical, if perhaps a little existentially stressful. If the government misreads my data, the possible consequences are entirely different — and short of leaving the internet, there doesn’t seem to be a way to opt out.

The trade offs used to be obvious. Put up with a few spam tweets and the occasional ad from Twitter, and you got to see what that absurd Horse came up with next. Maybe @Horse_ebooks delighted us because it’s become hard to entertain the notion that we can get some measure of joy and delight from the Internet without strings attached. As Dan Sinker so eloquently describes, we wanted to believe that this was our million monkeys, writing a new Shakespeare. We thought we knew what we were getting, but we really didn’t at all.

We’ve always been so aware of the strings all around us, but now it’s starting to seem like there really is a web, tying all of these platforms and services together, making the Internet feel like an increasingly closed-off space, instead of an ever expanding universe. It’s not necessarily that the deck was stacked, though in the case of our Internet privacy, it’s certainly starting to seem that way — it’s that we were playing the wrong game, by an entirely different set of rules, and someone else has been playing it better.

STARS STARS STARS, young watermelon.

Curated by Mat Marquis