Today’s comic features Opera’s viking doing some nasty, brutal stuff. Because if a public community representative of Opera acts out of line, and the company doesn’t call them on it, they might as well be endorsing it. Luke Wroblewski also stars as the stand-in for well-meaning folk who are trying make peace at the expense of correcting bad behavior.
I’m going to throw myself on the grenade and be the curmudgeon.
You don’t have to like what I’m about to say, but I think you need to read it.
We are, as a community, allowing ourselves to be abused. We’re Kevin Bacon in Animal House, bent over in our underwear and thanking someone for beating us. And, like any sadist with a free pass, they’re continuing to hit us again, and again, and again.
I get it. It’s the holidays. We’re stressed out by end-of-year deadlines, driving on icy roads and getting our Christmas shopping completed and hoping that at the end of the day we can kick back an egg-nog and just be merry. We don’t want the stress of confronting and condemning bad behavior, so we’re trying our damnedest to shrug it off.
Additionally, most of us want to be liked. And we want our friends to like each other. Whether it’s in our neighborhoods, in our Facebook profiles, or in our professional circles we just want people to be friendly and think highly of one another, but especially us. So when a flare-up starts between two peers we’d rather put our fingers in our ears and hum the Benny Hill theme song than owe up to the fact that there’s a problem.
But I’m here to be the bearer of bad news: there is a problem. Not only that, we’re responsible for it.
When I was growing up, my mother made it clear that certain behavior was not acceptable. Among other rules of childhood, I couldn’t go about tossing insults at people. Not my parents. Not my siblings and not friends. Heck, I was expected to maintain at least some decorum around the kids I disliked.
Going outside the bounds of socially acceptable behavior carried with it a penalty. Maybe soap in the mouth, or a spanking, or being grounded in my room, or at the bare minimum no desert after dinner. It was unpleasant. I was a pretty big crybaby, so any sort of punishment or chastising resulted in a waterfall of tears and a sniffling cry that would last for hours. I guarantee my mother hated having to deal with it. She probably would have enjoyed her evenings much more pretending I didn’t doing anything wrong, instead of listening to me cry and sniffle in my room as she desperately tried to read a book in peace.
But she did it anyway. As a result, I learned the difference between right and wrong and stopped doing the bad behavior. It didn’t mean that I stopped thinking ill of kids I disliked, or devising a choice insult for my brother when he provoked my ire. But it did mean I knew it was unacceptable to act on those thoughts, and it made me consider my words before I said them. If, after a good hard think I decided it was worth provoking my mother’s wrath, I’d still take the risk of insulting someone.
I did, however, think first.
In a pattern that goes back probably for quite some time but for certain seems to have flared up this week we’ve been permitting ourselves to be subject to bad behavior. We’d rather read our books in peace, so we are ignoring the misdeeds of an entitled few in the hopes that it will all go away.
And it’s not going away.
There’s literally thousands of amazing, talented developers and designers currently involved in making the Web a better place. A whole lot of them are like me, working hard for a very modest living in a small design firm that doesn’t get awards or fancy big-name clients. A great many also work as embedded Web people in a large corporation or other entity, thanklessly fighting the ignorance or misinformation of their bosses and co-workers while trying to apply their awesome skills to making their corporate site a better, slicker place to visit.
Then there’s the superstars, Web folk that work as community representatives and star developers for the big Web companies that take leadership roles (by fiat or by standards) in developing and proselytizing the advancement of the very technologies we use to make awesome Web stuff.
These people don’t just speak at conferences, they speak at dozens of conferences. They don’t just make cool web projects. They make amazing, cutting-edge projects that push forward the meaning of “good Web design”. They talk a lot about community participation and self-learning and being involved.
They’re intelligent, creative and successful people.
Sometimes, they can be utter dicks.
Anyone can be a jerk. From the drug-addled homeless man currently shooting up in the alley down the street from my office to the richest men in the world. Every person is capable of forgetting those lessons in basic decency that their parents (hopefully) taught them as children and slip up from time to time.
When it happens, it’s usually considered acceptable to say “Dude. No.”
The worse the bad behavior, usually the more stringent the chastisement should be. Action. Consequence. It’s a no-brainer, right?
But what happens when thought leaders, community representatives of important companies in the industry, and superstar talents start to repeatedly engage in or endorse bad behavior? It usually goes something like this.
- The superstar does something socially unacceptable. Like refer to a recent article by the owner of a small design firm as drug-enduced bullshit. (original was deleted, here’s a retweet).
- Individuals call the superstar on the behavior, noting how unacceptable an action it is. Especially for a community representative of a major player in our industry (although, really, it’s just unacceptable period).
- The superstar sort of apologizes. Usually in the vein of “I’m sorry for using strong language” or “I’m sorry you got upset”.
- The individuals (rightfully) insist that’s not an acceptable response, and demand a genuine, public apology.
- The superstar does so.
- Supporters of the superstar retaliate by calling the original individuals the curmudgeons in this situation. They in essence defend the bad behavior by shaming them for “bullying” the superstar, say the “crap” they’re saying is undeserved.
- The rest of the community, straining to retain a smile, do everything in their power to bury the “firestorm” under a (likely well meant) pile of hugs and cookies universally handed out to everyone involved, including those that defended the bad action and the superstar that did it in the first place. All are pardoned, nobody is wrong.
- The superstar states how tired they are of the drama… seemingly ignoring the fact that it was their own behavior that caused it.
This is all sorts of messed up. Nobody’s learned a lesson, because as a community we’re too concerned about “drama” that we’ll do anything to quash it instead of uniting as a community to call down the person who started the drama with their attack in the first place. We’re sending such a mixed message of supporting the peace or the person without collectively condemning the behavior.
Anyone who ever raised a kid or was a kid knows exactly where that will lead. To more bad behavior.
I’m not calling for punishment. But the launch of a pro-community “make the web better” website (which I will not be linking or mentioning by name for reasons I’ll make clear below) should have been a source of joy in the holiday season. Instead, two individuals tied to that effort have engaged in either passive/aggressive sniping or outright insulting of individuals and their efforts in this week alone. And according to people in the know, this isn’t the first time for some of those involved. And what kills me, what hurts me is how highly I thought of these people prior to now. But how can I promote the work of people who engage in socially abusive bad behavior?
I can’t. No matter how much I agree with the message of their product, I cannot in good conscience promote their goods and services when they’re behaving in a fashion that I know to be wrong. And as near as I can tell, they’re not sorry for how they’ve behaved. They’re simply sorry they were called on it.
The only way we’re going to improve as a community is to grow up and realize we can’t hide everything under soothing hugs and cookies. People messed up. Worse yet, people who are well known and respected representing companies with power or social clout messed up. If they are protected for their behavior, they will continue to abuse us, the community. And many of us will, over time, mimic that behavior in a misguided attempt to become as successful as they are.
Shame on you, Divya. Shame on you, Paul. You’re grown adults. You know better.
Next time you want to blame the drama, stop for a moment and think about who actually started it.
And to the rest of you, I’m sorry. I don’t want a cookie. I want it made clear that this behavior should never have happened, and can’t be allowed to keep occurring.