Reputation and The Internets (A Rant)

There’s a gentleman from Hampshire, in the United Kingdom, @kinofrost on twitter. I may have met him at a conference, but I can’t place his face — his twitter avatar is the Letters KF. It doesn’t really matter anyway, because he is winning his reputation on the internets, getting involved in conversations, answers questions, posing his own. Most recently, he put a post against apathy that I found a little inspiring. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but if you’re in a hurry, here’s the core bits I’d like to comment on:

Moreover if you give out advice in public, especially if you’re at a paid conference, be ready to defend it. If you’re reading advice, especially if you’ve paid to hear it, why not question what you’re hearing? Preferably publicly, so everyone can benefit from your question. If someone came for an interview and told you that they’re awesome would you hire them at once, or probe for evidence? You need to ask questions. Even if you don’t believe in your question you owe it to yourself, to them, and to the testing industry to pose that question — and if you’re being questioned you need to understand that the questioning is for your benefit, as well as everyone else’s.

We’ve all had a quick rant at certification or factory testing or misunderstanding of testing in our careers, so let’s keep ourselves to a higher standard. Let’s practice what we keep telling everyone we do and question things, including anyone who claims to speak with authority on subjects that matter.

It occurred to me, after reading Kinofrost’s post, that, well … he was giving advice in public. So why not critique that advice? Luckily, Kino was a good sport about it:

If Kino’s advice is to critique things in public more, when might that be a bad idea?

Adding Some Context And Reality

When you critique someone in public, there is an audience. That observer effect, to borrow a phrase, changes the nature of the conversation.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

My first example is from a previous decade on the agile-testing list. I was a little younger; there was less grey in my hair, and I was asking for advice. At the time I was struggling with some subtle and nuanced issues about the way we were managing change. Worried about context, I would frame the question carefully — each question had a page or so of set up, who the key players were, what we had done before, how that had turned out, and so on. The first post boiled down to “we are thinking about trying A but these are the drawbacks.”

Another senior member of the community, an elder statesperson of agile, responded with something like “Couldn’t you just B?”

Again, the long reply, explaining my history with B. His one-line zinger: “Oh, you should C.”

Each time I would invest a lot of energy into nailing down the system forces. Each time, a one-line response, telling me how I was wrong, the idea would never work, and I should consider something totally different. After five or six times around, the snarky response was “Couldn’t you just A?”

Wait.

That was my original idea!

What is going on here?

I thought we were having a conversation. Nearly a decade later, I’m not so sure. I think the elder statesman was playing to the audience and trying to look smart. Trying to look smart is dangerous.

My Point

Again, when you critique on the internet with an audience, there are other people reading. Sometimes, it can be tempting to play to the audience. If you think you’re talking to the other person, and they are playing to the audience, you’ll see a bunch of bizarre behaviors that don’t seem to make sense and you won’t be able to figure out from your position.

Even if that’s not in play, it can be awfully hard for anyone to admit “hey, you have a point there” in front of a five thousand readers. The people that are trying to build their reputation may see your post as an attack — and once attacked, the claws come out. Be careful.

Instead of “yes, but…” say “yes, and.” Add, ways to do things, or think about that. “Here’s what has worked for me”. Consider the environment.

Consider getting to know the speaker. Find out if feedback is warranted. Ask if feedback is wanted. Ask for the best way to give feedback. (At one wedding I missed, twenty years ago, right before “man and wife”, someone stood up and said “Wait a minute — isn’t there supposed to be a part of this where someone asks if anyone has reasons these two should not be wed? Because I have reasons!” That went … poorly.

I say I missed the wedding, because I thought something like that might have happened, that it wouldn’t have made a difference, and I wouldn’t want to have destroyed a friendship over something I might have said.)

Sometimes, the right choice is to say nothing.

Calling Out Bullshit

According to Harry Frankfurt, Bullshit isn’t, strictly speaking, quite the same thing as a lie. When a speaker is speaking bullshit, they have an agenda; they are trying to get you to change your behavior. What they are saying might be true (if that is the easiest way to get you to change your behavior), it might not be. They don’t care; they want you to do what they want you to do — whether that is promote them, hire them, pay to take their certification, or whatever.

Sometimes the bullshit is actively harmful to the community. If you might feel called to be a sheepdog, to protect the community.

If this is true, then yes, we have problems we might need to talk about in public.

If the idea is bad, if it is actively doing harm to the community, let’s separate that from “you are a bad person.” Character attacks might not be fit for public consumption, but you can attack bad ideas, often by the consequences of those ideas. At another company, we had an architect who desperately wanted to look smart. Someone was talking about how smart he was, and I asked “You’ve been using the process-process for six months; how’s that working for you?”

She walked away and complained to our manager that I was unprofessional.

Here’s the thing: She might have said it was going fine. I honestly didn’t know.

Ask how the idea turned out. If “by their fruits you will know them”, one thing we can do is be fruit inspectors.

Still, I am reminded of a song I used to listen to in college:

“I know I need to stand against all that is wrong. To raise the shield of truth up high, and sing the battle song. But sometimes I get worried, that what the world may see — is everything that I’m against instead of all that I believe.”

Yes, it’s a bit corny, but it summarizes something. Yes, it is okay to criticize the bad. Do it too much, though, and things can change; you’ll find your reputation is built on criticism. That can become a very dangerous business.

Better to be known for what you stand for.

On Balance

Kino’s post was about fighting apathy. It stirred up strong emotions in me and made me want to post. If that was the goal, I think the post did its job.

Thanks Kino. If I had to critque, I might say the post was a little naive. That’s cool tho, man. This post was a little … raw. Well met, friend.

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