I’ve been putting off writing about this for a while now, mostly so I could digest my opinions on the whole thing and try to fashion something useful to others.
In order to help respect my readers’ time, I’ll give the experiment and subjective results up front, and then give longer (and quite a bit more rambling) commentary afterwards in case people are curious.
(I, of course, think the interesting stuff is the process and not so much the results, but maybe you don’t.)
Note that all of this is in the context of the Lobsters (and, to a lesser-extent, HN) aggregation site.
The experiment, short version
From 2017-06-08 to 2017-07-08, I undertook the Friendlysock experiment.
Described in my profile as “only positive posts”, I did my best to change my posting behavior to:
- …avoid calling other users names or trolling
- …avoid non-constructive criticism of others’ work or submissions
- …actively find something positive to say about even the most troublesome submissions
- …be as polite as possible in my meta commentary and advice (posts about tagging, submissions, voting, etc.)
The subjective results, short version
Observed effects on my posting style:
- I was still able to reply to anything I felt the urge to—I wasn’t hamstrung.
- Some comments were harder to write in a positive tone, and required additional thinking.
- I found myself getting more annoyed at the negative posts of others, significantly so.
- I used more emoticons (smileys!) than usual in an attempt to prevent misunderstanding.
- Most times when I felt the need to point out that somebody was wrong I ended up taking a politely confused tone (“I’m not sure that I understand thus-and-such” instead of “thus-and-such is a really bad idea”).
Observed effects on interactions with other users:
- A few people actually messaged me and wanted to know what was happening.
- A few people commented on me being nicer in tone in threads.
- Fewer direct replies were aggressive in tone, and in general were more polite.
- People on IRC were confused that I hadn’t carried over the experiment there.
- I still was routinely downvoted as “troll”.
Future work, short version
This is just my subjective experience. A better, more quantitative conclusion could be drawn if I had:
- Text bodies of my posts for sentiment analysis
- Sentiment analysis of replies to my posts
- Breakdown of upvotes and downvotes by category
- Number of child comments for posts
- Count of my own posts
These figures for the month of the experiment, the preceding three months, six months, year, and time to date should be enough to establish a nice baseline and see if my intuitions are correct. I’ll have to ask @pushcx really nicely and maybe they’ll help me out.
If I get this information, I can do a nice write-up “The Friendlysock Experiment, objective results”. :)
The experiment, long version
Diversions in SEO
Every so often I Google my username, just to see what will pop up. This is handy because I like to know what people will think about me after a casual search if they haven’t seen my work before.
About a year or two ago, I’d gotten annoyed at some punk kid wanting to reinvent metadata filesystems—and because they were so hyperbolic in their writing, I acted by near reflex and cut them the fuck down. Angersock 1, punk kid 0, great success, maybe they’ll go on and spend their time on something useful instead (like getting laid, porting C stdlib to Rust, or something).
They apparently had read my posts and were shocked and provoked by my comments.
Reading through their words, my internal monologue went something like this:
(…) Yeah, this particularly vehement dismissal pissed me off too. Even if it’s not me or the LTP guy, I hope someone can prove him wrong.
That’s right, buddy, angersock has set the bar—
I want to respond to this but I don’t know how.
—and it looks like you aren’t up to the task, so maybe you—
I hope I never become this jaded.
—huh. Well, shit.
This punk had read me loud and clear, shots had landed exactly where I’d wanted them to, and yet I was getting the feeling that the sheer earnestness of their efforts meant that maybe I’d done something wrong, had maybe stepped on a weird little flower that just wanted to grow into a big happy weird flower.
Sure, trolling people is fun and needling well-meaning idiots is probably the fastest way to get them to reconsider their choices, but I couldn’t shake Vonnegut’s advice.
And then I read the other post they had on the topic and had linked to, and it looked like sure enough they had spent a few days thinking on what I’d said and had managed to pull the wisdom (because you always need to include some) from the bile:
So I’d like to thank angersock for this series of comments, even though an earlier one was a bit harshly worded.
Well, this one is pretty harsh too but it’s completely reasonable too.
My heart warmed a little, as it looked like the person had taken my gruffness and adjusted course, and were going to do some cool things with a little less naivety. They weren’t a punk at all.
But, it could have gone the other way. They could’ve been reading it after a bad day at school or work, after their dinner had gotten burned, after their phone screen had gotten cracked in their pocket…it could’ve been the final straw and had caused them to give up on their project all together.
That wouldn’t have been cool. And it would’ve been my fault.
It could’ve been better, right? I could’ve said something that they thought was overwhelmingly constructive and thanked me in errata or something. But I hadn’t.
Around the same time period, @brucem from the #lobsters IRC channel had been expressing that they’d found my posts overly angry and negative, and had hinted that maybe I should reconsider how much scorn and annoyance I was broadcasting. I value the voice of my writing, and the headspace that often accompanies it, and so I filed this tidbit away and continued on my merry course.
@brucem, being the wise and patient person that they are, continued (and continues!) to be a wonderful human being to converse with—their advice and admonishment simmering in the back of my head. They could’ve just as easily thrown me into a killfile.
A late-night revelation in a strange place
Fast forward to June of 2017.
There’s been a death in the family. Nothing unexpected and nobody immediate enough that I’m distraught but still I’m in a somber and contemplative mood.
I’m in a hotel room in an unfamiliar part of an unfamiliar state and am trying to get to sleep by tiring myself out browsing Lobsters (as one does). I get the urge to Google my username.
Were it anyone else, I’d laugh and ignore the sour grapes.
@aphyr is somebody whose work I really respect and with whom I haven’t been arguing and spatting for years.
@aphyr has written some genuinely beautiful things, as well as some of the best interview satire I’ve had the pleasure to read. This is all in addition to their utterly brilliant work on distributed systems testing.
Discovering that the fourth or fifth entry when searching my username is that post, I got to thinking a bit. That, the day’s events at the funeral, the half-remembered interactions with that filesystem poster, comments by folks in IRC…
I believe in Maxim Sixteen, but was this how I wanted to be remembered?
Just some grumpy crank troll on the internet?
A one-trick pony
And I wish I could claim that that reflection alone was enough to spur me to action. Such a narrative is tidy, and neat, and paints me in a slightly sympathetic light. It is also wrong.
The fact is, people become known by their writing styles and content. We have one user on the site who is consistently long-winded in almost every single post they make, to the extent that some have created scripts to automatically hide their words. We have another user that near-uniformly writes with bad grammar and perpetually positively. Still another is known for their reliable injection of historical technology lessons into every available post.
Whenever I encounter those users, I know what I’m in for. There is not much novelty—which is fine—in their content. And I bet that other users treat them the same way.
I was concerned that my writing was becoming a bit redundant. I was worried that I was getting a shtick, and that that shtick was coming to define me in the eyes of others and, worse, was making me intellectually lazy and creatively bankrupt.
There’s no art to what had become my signature style. There’s no craft when most of the posts that involved disagreements had become mechanical—express wonderment at some point with which i disagreed, make a joke, avoid direct personal attacks, pick on logical inconsistencies or overstatements, use suitable examples from history with links, close with a joke or insinuation of ignorance. On the rare occasion when I was absolutely and obviously wrong, politely cede the point.
Arguing with most people online is like starting a bloody-knuckles tournament in a ward of hemophiliacs: yes, you’ll win, and yes, you’ll look like an asshole while doing so.
So, it was time to change.
Disorganized subjective observation about being friendlysock
(This next bit is a mixture of things I recall from the experiment and things I’ve thought about and internalized since then. I may claim some things about my posting that aren’t strictly accurate—consider this more of a normative than historical section, concerned more with what ought to have been than what always was.)
One of the big things I noticed was that breaking old habits was hard. Lots of comments needed to be reread and reworded before I put them up. It’s really hard to uproot and neuter a deeply-seated sardonic response style back to mere sarcasm and then to something positive that is worth posting.
I started trying to follow the “Yes, and” mindset. In improv or extemporaneous speaking, this is a technique whereby one does not contradict what somebody else has said but instead builds upon it. It’s polite, it usually triggers further discussion, and it doesn’t leave the person you’re replying to feeling put-down.
One of the other things I tried doing was to ask more questions. Even if I really thought somebody was full of shit, misguided, or incorrect, I figured that it was better to ask politely than to disagree bluntly or to link clearly contradictory information.
Another thing, more a result of talking with @pushcx than anything else, is trying to catch myself being inadvertently dismissive. Because reasons, it’s much easier for me to assume a particular worldview or use-case and just plain gloss over how other people’s perspectives and cut straight to the discussion.
It’s fine to do that deliberately—it’s hard to communicate if we’re always covering every angle, and it’s hard to talk about some things if you can’t dismiss conflicting realities—but doing it by accident is sloppy and a recipe for hurting people and getting blind-sided.
I also tried to occasionally just say more nice things to users, even when they did irksome things like misuse tags, post marketing spam, post news, or whatever else.
I’d write things like “Hey, that’s a really neat article you have, but it isn’t so focused on tech—I think they’d appreciate it over at barnacl.es” and people would almost always thank me and stop doing the irksome thing.
One of the other rather odd things I noticed was that, as I started putting those principles into practice, I became sensitive to posts by other users that didn’t follow these practices.
I found myself keying off immediately on people being overly negative or starting a reply off with some kind of grumpiness or just plain being impolite. Part of me wondered (wonders?) if that’s how folks read my own work.
Where this leaves me
I have a few beliefs about writing and engaging in good-faith discussion online:
You have to write competently and clearly. You have to avoid ad hominems, to avoid petty insults. You have to use facts, reasoning, rhetoric—you must be friends with the real and strangers with the convenient. You cannot invoke shibboleths accidentally, you cannot speak from a position of privilege unintentionally. You must always show your work.
You must write your honest opinion, unflinchingly and without reserve, and if your authenticity confuses and confounds some it will gain that much more purchase among those who recognize it for what it is.
And that’s all really important to me. But it’s not enough.
For those of us that, like me, spend a lot of time online, it’s really too easy to just get a constant stream of garbage flowing through our information digestive tracts. It’s too easy to get in a headspace where any remotely positive feedback is some goddamn carebear coddling somebody.
It’s too easy to get accustomed to reading negative and hateful things, and even though we can (and I have!) go back and forth about how a degree of toxicity is helpful for preventing blooms of stupidity, the fact is that that toxicity arises pretty much unbidden. We don’t need to purposefully cultivate it.
I’ve spent the time being positive, after a long time being negative. I’ve enjoyed the minor challenge of breaking out of my old patterns, and I think that the new patterns are probably worth keeping.
So, I think it’s time to retire angersock for now, at least on the Lobsters site.
And no, that won’t make me any less grumpy. It won’t lead to the deletion of nastygrams and tirades of years past. It certainly won’t mean that a bunch of people whom I’ve alienated (or who have, in the manner of the times, become outraged and alienated themselves) will forgive me or decide to come back into the fold.
But, maybe, it’ll make sharing a message board with me a little easier. And, maybe, it’ll help set an example for people to be nicer to each other and to have better conversations.
That’s why we’re here, right?