Owning the Conversation

If you hang out “below the line” in the comments section of newspapers, on Reddit, StackOverflow or similar forums, there’s a good chance you’ve seen unkindness on the Internet.

In technology, particularly, we rely upon getting answers to our questions from the online community. There are rarely books on Swizzy startup’s Esoteric API v0.9, or Funky Framework v2; if you want answers to a question or problem that you cannot find for yourself, you go online to discuss it. Just as in the playground, your physical workplace or your local community, some people online are nice, helpful, generous, and some are, well, not.

T’was ever thus. But although bad behaviour is as old as humanity, we’ve not always been so exposed to it. In the recent past, if you needed an answer to something you’d have to figure it out for yourself, look it up in a book, or ask someone with expertise. If you asked by phone you’d have a conversation and could gauge the other person’s tone of voice. In person, you’d see their demeanour, and either way, you could fully discuss and interact to get your point across and take advice from them.

Taking the discussion online and asynchronous means that much of the nuance is lost. Throw in that internet forums allow you to address a broad audience spanning different cultures and languages without being able to see how your words are received or interpret theirs with any verbal or visual clues (except emoticons and emojis; this is why they have such value).

Suddenly, it’s possible to give and receive offence very easily. Sometimes it’s accidental, but there are people who set out to be deliberately unpleasant and provoke annoyance. It’s easy to do online from a distance and get away with it.

By Source, Fair use

A 2014 Pew survey found that 40% of its respondents had suffered online harassment, defined as name calling or worse such as physical threats, stalking or sexual harassment. As participation on the Internet has evolved, so has the terminology. We have had flamewars, trolls, snark, doxing, and many others. Examples of bad behaviour online are so plentiful that we’ve all seen or heard about suicides and self-harm caused by others’ comments on social media.

There’s much debate about whether online communities are doing enough to address how people interact online when offence is caused. It’s possible to complain, report, block and move on, but “very often, hate, anxiety, and anger drive participation with a platform,” according to Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland.

“Whatever behavior increases ad revenue will not only be permitted, but encouraged, excepting of course some egregious cases.”

However, in the wake of the recent Mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, several world leaders have called on social media companies to take more responsibility for the material posted on their platforms. I think the same goes for any company or foundation that runs a developer community.

Developers behaving badly

My first job in technology was in 1997. We used Lotus Notes (“Lotes”) inside the company to discuss detailed software development questions as well as more general philosophy of where the area of tech we were working in was headed. Many of those posting had strong opinions and everyone participating was young, smart and articulate. Differences of opinion were common, threads would burst into life and feelings were undoubtedly hurt. As an inexperienced, young, female coder, I felt the pressure intensely: if I needed to post a question I would be terrified of getting the smallest detail wrong. Answering anyone else’s questions (even if it was the area I was working on) was even more intimidating, and I got shot down more than a few times. The hot flush rushing to my cheeks when I woke in the night thinking of the corrections my colleagues had doled out, correlated strongly to the flaming I had received on the boards the day before.

I attribute some of my long-term imposter syndrome directly to my Lotes experience. While not thankful for it at the time, it has also probably made me tougher and more tolerant of snark in the long term, when it’s not personal, unkind or abusive. I can laugh it off and think of the times it made me flush (though this is not an invitation to roast me in the comments below!). Speaking of which, some people must like the experience, as Reddit has a genre of subs where people submit photos just for the experience of being roasted. Here’s a selection for those not of a nervous disposition.

My experience was mild: a group of young British software professionals piling on a few grammatical errors or basic coding mistakes were still bound by some levels of decency, and they were employees of the company, so never likely to be vulgar, violent or discriminatory when they smelled intellectual inferiority. I have been lucky never to have experienced the threats and harassment that some have endured across various online channels, including mainstream social media websites.

How to host a friendly developer community

It almost goes without saying that user-generated discussion is a vital part of a developer community. It’s how you support developers without pouring huge resources into a dedicated in-house technical support team. Any developer assessing whether to use a particular piece of software will be looking to see if the community is flourishing and self-supporting. Developers trust other developers and want to see what they are saying to each other. This will give them an idea of how much help they will get if they pick up a project using that software. Typical things they look for include tags on Stack Overflow, Reddit subs and forums on the community portal itself.

In recent years, for those setting up developer communities, particularly startups or companies that aren’t traditionally developer-centric, there’s been a trend to offload community discussions to Stack Overflow or Reddit. In many ways, it makes sense simply because there’s an audience on those sites already. Career developers will work with a number of tools and platforms; they don’t want to be posting on forums across a number of different channels when they can head to one central discussion portal and build their reputation/karma in one place.

However, while this is practical approach, it makes it hard to control the tone of the discussions and limit bad behaviour to ensure that newcomers are not treated with condescension. I should make clear that Stack Overflow don’t condone bullying on their site, and are taking steps to ensure that their early “Be nice” code of conduct is upheld. But their rules are generic and applied across a broad range of thousands of posts, self-moderated by users. You should want *your* community to be special, to be intolerant of bullying and condescension. If you want to attract a diverse range of new developers to your product, you need your community to be encouraging, open and supportive.

I don’t believe you can do that by relying on a third party to uphold the rules.

So, although it seems that it’s more trouble to set up forums on a developer portal, and attract people to them, the payoff is that you can use your control to set a high-quality standard for communication between users.

I recently interviewed Adrian Speyer from Vanilla Forums for the Under the Hood of Developer Marketing podcast, and we discussed this topic in some detail. He made a great point that, if your forum participants are signed up to your portal with email addresses, and logging in and out, you can see who they are, and how genuine they are about your product. Have they downloaded your SDK? Are they reading your documentation? Or are they just trolling with comments like “You could have googled this in 5 seconds” and logging off again? Either way, a comment like that is not helpful, but it can help you to decide whether you ban them, or warn them and ask them to delete or edit their comment.

With more ownership of your forum, you can protect the nascent community and allow it to build with a set of values that give encouragement and support rather than sarcastic take-downs. It’s not so easy to do that off-site, and a new user may simply walk away if they don’t like being ridiculed for basic questions, can’t work something out, and aren’t getting help. Owning a forum allows you control to ensure that rudeness is stamped out before things get out of hand.

I’ve written previously about my experience on Lotes, and how I believe that the culture was perpetuated because ‘good people do nothing’.

“…what I observed at the time was that, if those that received a rough time when they first joined the community stuck around, they later started to adopt the same behavior towards other newcomers. A typical bullied-becomes-bully mentality, which was singularly depressing. The first generation of domain experts set the tone of discussions, and didn’t step in sufficiently to correct poor behavior when it first surfaced, or later when their snark was mirrored by those that followed them…”

It is about the culture, and nobody should be upset by unhelpful or rude communication that can be avoided. By making every interaction inclusive and building trust, members of the community begin to feel loyalty to your product. As the team at Vanilla Forums wrote in a blog post:

When you have a community that’s unified around a topic they care about and are loyal to your brand or company, the odds that they’ll tolerate trolls in their midst is relatively small.

And it’s then that they will self-moderate.

Owning the discussion

In our podcast, Adrian and I discussed this in more detail and also covered some of the other aspects of great developer communities. Adrian made the point that, in owning the forum, you can retain the content over the long-term and ensure it is available and easy to find. You are also able to ‘garden’ it, so you collect similar posts together with tags to build a knowledge base for different levels of skill. You can also easily grab the statistics for posts and posters, and use them to spotlight good behaviour to reward “hero of the week” with prizes or kudos.

Do you want to be diverse, to include those who are tentative, new to your product, maybe new to coding, and those that don’t want to be part of a brogrammer snark-fest? Then there’s a case for implementing forums on your developer portal rather than building a community presence off-site on other popular developer destinations. If you have your own thoughts on this, or have experienced either a great community, or harassment online, please share your thoughts in the responses! And check out our podcast for the full interview, and other episodes, on developer marketing.

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