It's So Easy To Be A Dick

Twitter is a fabulous medium for tossing out random thoughts. Great for people with ADD like me – much easier than blogging. 71k+ posts in a little less than 8 years will tell you I’m a fan. In general I think it’s been a positive thing, but there are… some issues.

There’s this thing with interacting only via text where I believe we tend to worry less about how our words may affect others. Maybe it’s because we don’t have to see a confused or pained expression on the reader’s face. This is exacerbated on an intentionally curt medium like Twitter, where expressing a nuanced, complex idea is particularly problematic. The writer can’t easily anticipate potential confusion and address it when they have 140 characters1.

So on the reader’s side, you strip out nuance and language that makes it easier to judge intent. Pair that with the tendency I have, and I think many others do, to take written communication in the most negative way possible, and things can get really nasty, really fast.

This often has come up in the context of software or tools I’ve made. When I was working on Spaz, I often read rather curt messages from users about the open source software I gave away for free. A couple choice quotes:

twhirl sucks. So does spaz. Hello feedalizer. You might just be my new friend
spaz sucks. testing tweetdeck now
Spaz sucks, Tweetdeck wins

I did an impromptu presentation one time entitled “Users Are Assholes” just for this reason. Thing is, they’re not assholes: they’re just being insensitive, because they’re not thinking that a human being just like them worked hard on this. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t like anyone saying that the project they had put hundreds of hours into and given away for free “sucks.” Not many people wouldn’t take that personally. I definitely lost my temper plenty of times over stuff like that.

I’m not going to just excuse the sometimes-fucked-up stuff I wrote or did when I was triggered, though. I have to take responsibility for my actions, even in the light of a trigger like that. Yes, it can be difficult not to, but to quote Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

Whatever happens, happens to you, by you, through you; you are the creator, enjoyer and destroyer of all you perceive.

I am responsible for how the expressions of others affect me, and being a slave to them is a terribly unpleasant state of being. I know, because I’ve struggled with it for nearly 40 years.

The other thing I found is that if you avoid responding in kind, but instead offer an empathetic response, you often can immediately change the tone of the conversation. If, however, I respond negatively, I almost always have reinforced the existing negative perception that existed, or I found that the person didn’t intend something so negative as I took it, and now they’re wondering why I’m being such a dick.

I also find it helpful to suggest moving the medium to one which is less prone to mistaken inference. If it’s possible to get the conversation off of a text medium, that’s great (although potentially creepy). If not, something more verbose like e-mail or SMS or IM or whatever the kids use these days is probably a lot better and less likely to turn into a shitstorm.

As Dalton says in Road House:

If somebody gets in your face and calls you a cocksucker, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.

So, to sum up:

  1. Human beings read what you write.
  2. Try to be cool to them, and make it less likely they will be upset about what you write.
  3. When someone writes something you don’t like, yelling back rarely helps, and is still not okay.
  4. Avoid responding in kind to a perceived negatives. Offer empathy in response to negativity/hostility.
  5. Try to change the medium if the current one isn’t working.

1 One might say “so don’t write about that stuff on Twitter then.” Yeah, but it’s so easy