A List Apart


Putting Our Hot Heads Together

Putting Our Hot Heads Together

The author of an online article recently told me that he didn’t want to write a piece about two schools of thought in a specific niche within the web standards world. “It would be a bloodbath,” he said. A bloodbath. I don’t disagree. Rev up your iMac, boot up Bootcamp, set your CSS reset, strap on your nine millimeter handgun—it’s just another day at work in the web world. A website was redesigned not too long ago, and from the ensuing discussion about a typeface, you would have thought small animals had been tortured during the making of that site.

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All but the sweetest of us have said something in a web discussion that was—intentionally or not—demeaning, sarcastic, flippant, or discourse-crushing. I admit it: guilty as charged. Some of us have ugly motivations, posing as experts by acting superior to others, stirring up controversy to get attention, or perhaps being mean-spirited because our mothers decided we’d be bottle-fed. More often, our contributions are inspired by a higher goal: a heartfelt drive for a better web. Even then, however, our passionate responses to others too often sound like whines, jabs, sour grapes, and one-upmanship. We, too, become responsible for the pervasive sense that the web standards world is one long, soul-draining argument.

How can we move beyond this? How can we transform discussion sections on major sites and online magazines from shooting ranges into arenas of collaboration?

It’s not just about playing nice

Despite the overwrought nature of some of our online conversations, there is, indeed, something important at stake. The great phenomenon of our times, this global network of voices and places and missions is something you and I have the power to shape. What a privilege. As fast as the web races forward, it’s clearly still in its infancy. We have time to make it grander than it is, and that better web is likelier to arrive through open doors, not those slammed shut.

This isn’t a call for netiquette, though that’s a good start. Nearly everyone knows those rules, though some of us still don’t realize that in public venues, the scratching of private itches is often best left at home, or at least behind locked doors with the shades down. The point, if we want to make a positive difference, isn’t to turn into frighteningly polite and passive Stepford Web Wives. Comment sections can offer opportunities for productive discussion, if we’d only learn to make a habit of collaborating, rather than colliding.

The venues are in place for the most rockin’ show on earth

Challenging yet cooperative discourse may be most essential—and fruitful—at online magazines and long-running community sites. Conferences are energizing and sometimes brilliant, but just a thin slice of the web world has the means to attend them. Many blogs and forums, even those created by the celebrities among us, come and go, or just wither like the neighborhood pothead’s vegetable garden. A blog, too, is something distinctly owned; as consistently informative or inspiring as it may be, it’s the author’s party and he can cry if he wants to, or even close his comment section. Social apps may be as open-invitation as a high school kegger when Mom and Dad are out of town, but too many pop up overnight like dandelions only to blow away as people tire of them. Others have staying power, but their focus is often on personalities or tasks, not major web issues.

However, a few online magazines and long-running sites have become the archives and libraries of both the debates that make a difference and the verbal fistfights that just leave us wounded. Even with the waxing and waning of blogs, some magazines and sites still wax just fine. They are our community’s gathering places, and anyone who knows the language in which the articles are written is able to attend—even if most of us are invisible, silent guests. Nearly all of us are equally able to participate, and the back-and-forth can happen quickly, all the way ‘round the world.

Despite the warlike tendencies of otherwise peacenik geeks, despite the snide, dismissive remarks, the bickering, and the well-aimed why-didn’t-you’s, we have good reason to bring our best ideas to these publications. The readership is large and loyal and reputations are made at the most respected ones. The articles aren’t shoot-from-the-hip, rapid-fire bursts of ideas; they are arduously crafted and vetted; they are expected to be substantive and worthy of comment.

Seek the higher way, Grasshopper

An author sweats through an article, polishing each point until it’s publication-ready. Authors, bombastic or self-deprecating, visit the site again and again, hoping they won’t be greeted by either scathing, snobby remarks or the agonizing echo of an empty discussion section. They deserve a bit of applause for walking onstage and stepping into the hot spotlight, while we read from the comfort of our safe little cubicles or cozy recliners.

Even when we disagree with the author, we don’t need to take the directly opposing view—even if the author is cruisin’ for a bruisin’. Like taco drive-ins and 401K programs, arguments in online magazines offer more than two choices. We can go for the prize behind Door Number Three: the Great Idea or small suggestion that actually moves the conversation forward, that clarifies or sharpens the points in the article and suggests an even better way—one that transcends two bitterly different views. It’s here, at the juncture of opposing opinions and a third alternative, or a fourth, that we may come closer to a truth that improves one corner of the web.

Armed with a collaborative spirit, we don’t need to shrink back from potential bloodbaths. We can tackle weightier ethical issues, technical snags, unsupported boasts, and discover where the web is immature and pouty and needs a good spanking (or a “time out,” if that’s more to your liking). We can explore what is really happening with women on the web, examine those sharp-edged HTML subjects without being cut, and set about establishing best practices for virtually every step we take in building a website. (Will our jobs even exist in five years? What “rules” do we follow—and then pass on to others—when they are only appropriate in certain circumstances? What the hell should we do with Flash? Are we going to use VHS or Betamax?)

Ignoring the inevitable grumps, trolls, and people who’ve got some sort of wedgie problem goin’ on, we can eagerly and repeatedly return to an ongoing discussion and be entertained, challenged, or inspired by the reactions to the comments we’ve made. That’s why these sections are optimistically called “discussion area,” or “care to comment?” rather than “Hit and Run Zone.” Make a thoughtful comment, read it twice before clicking submit, do a little coding or creating, Twitter your latest nom nom nom or canhaz? (if you must), then ease on down to the discussion section for another go-round.

Axing the argue-net

If we view discussion areas as a new tool, and enter with a new attitude—seeing one another not as adversaries but as allies with a common goal— we can achieve so much more. If more of us are thinking “What can I contribute?” instead of “Did I like this article?” the entire conversation is transformed.

Remember to floss

The first steps are simple—funny how we so often neglect them. But, like flossing, good habits, however mundane, make for a healthier future.

  • Consider the comment section to be a place of relationships—even with the people you don’t know. For example, if you got out of hand, return and apologize. You’ll only look better for it.
  • Don’t be a but head. “Interesting point, but…” can turn a potential work session into an argument. Tone of voice is essential in any discussion. Humor, too, must be handled with care. We all crave more wit, but snarky bites.
  • Authors may omit significant resources; add important ones yourself, regardless of which side they support. Be wary, though, of advertising your own product.
  • Ask the author questions about areas not fully covered in the article. Her answers may expose the really juicy parts of the issue.
  • Pose a question to the entire group, if it helps us move forward.
  • Read carefully before you comment. Nicholas Carr points out, in “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” that we aren’t reading as deeply or critically as we once did, due to the Internet’s ADHD-inducing qualities. (I cringe recalling the time I commented on an issue that an author had already addressed in his very first paragraph.)
  • Simply share your own experience—yes, even if you are a newbie. Believe it or not, this adds weight to the discussion and can provide new angles that leave the experts tilting their heads to the side like puzzled puppies.
  • Don’t search for vulnerable targets, for unintentional flubs in the article. A highhanded “I find it so ironic that you would….” doesn’t inform any of us about the issue and merely reveals things about your personality that even your own Mom doesn’t like.
  • Remember that the article is about the subject, not about the author’s website(s). We don’t know what invisible disabilities, family crises, employer demands, and other life events have affected an author’s sites. We only know the merit of the author’s piece.  I’ve yet to see a critique of an author’s markup (on a site not covered in the article) add something of real value to a comment section.
  • Help bring a discussion back on track. An argument can send us chugging off to Chattanooga while the neglected article was about New York.
  • Authors, your readers expect a dialogue with you in the comment section. Show up frequently to interact, set the tone, or shepherd the discussion back home. Don’t be too concerned about defending yourself against nasty people. They are self-indicting.

The cool kids’ table

The real challenge is to move beyond basics to something much more fruitful, communal and, at times, visionary. The best brainstorms require a sense of being on the same side—and of the freedom to go to the very edge and even topple over it without fear of losing the respect of our peers. Let’s give each other that freedom—and let’s use it, and not hold back. If we were sitting with friends at a conference (or barroom) table, what exciting places could we take the discussion? What could we achieve? How can we inspire each other? Here are a few ideas; please chime in with your own.

  • Before disagreeing with people, tell them where you agree, and that you can see how they’d reach that conclusion. Then explain why you have come to your differing conclusion. This gives them some insight into your line of reasoning and may lead to a reply that opens your eyes—or theirs—to new possibilities.
  • Graciously ask the other people in the discussion section to clarify or expand their comments, even if you disagree with them.
  • Say, “I’ve never really been that keen on that approach; tell me more about how you handle this snag I encounter when I try your method.”
  • Write to someone else in the discussion section offline, and work together on a solution to a problem or an even more exciting challenge for the group and bring it back to the comments section together.
  • Build on the author’s viewpoint and use it as a taking-off point for a deeper discussion of the issue, or a list of imaginative ideas of your own. Certainly you can do this at your own blog—the web is built on hyperlinks, of course—but many of us won’t follow you back to your nest. Think “community” as often as you can.
  • Offer your own solution to a technical problem and ask people to critique yours and improve it, right there in the discussion section of the magazine.
  • If the article begs for practical examples, rather than complaining, create your own examples and bring them back to blow our minds.

True, there will be times when someone needs to just say straight out that the author’s premise has no merit. But, as with the world’s most dangerous question, “Do I look fat in these pants?” it’s the very carefully chosen reply, given in the right spirit, that brings the best reward at the end of the day. Find a way to make your point, while moving us forward.

Your enthusiastic comments—whether said in agreement or not—may even encourage more people to submit their own articles (or comments) to one of the web magazines or communities, improving the quality of what we read. Some brilliant thinkers among us, some great talents, and some just plain old nice people have been leaving comments that earn their keep, that are as worthy of being read as the article itself.

Think, too, of the hundreds of people who don’t comment or write articles because they don’t want to be subject to sarcastic barbs. They have something to throw into the mix, yet hesitate, wondering if they’ll be called a fool. This isn’t Thunderdome, folks; it’s a magazine. When someone enters, offer them a cushion and a cool drink, and gently coax them to reveal more of their thoughts. Why not?

Somewhere over our collective rainbow

View a comment section as a brainstorming session or potential goldmine of creative exchanges, rather than your chance to choose between being a fanboy or a brawler. Purposefully interacting in the discussion section, rather than just reacting, doesn’t just broaden your horizons. People are watching—oh, so many people—from across the web, the world, and from businesses. Some may ask you to write articles or books. Some may hire you, collaborate with you, or even visit your site and purchase something through one of your cleverly disguised text ads. Offer us something sparkly and you may have followers all the way to the end of the rainbow, where great opportunities await. Even better, offer us something intriguing, inspiring, or mind-bending; offer it in the spirit of collaboration, and we’ll follow you to a better web.

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