Christian Heilmann

Posts Tagged ‘communication’

De-trolling the web: don’t post in anger

Monday, June 4th, 2012

At the fluent conference last week Nicole Sullivan gave an interesting keynote called Don’t feed the trolls:

I liked this very much. We need to fight the current culture of animosity, one-upping and “winning” on the web and turn it towards a culture of nurturing each other and that values communication and agreement instead. The main techniques to do that were outlined by Nicole:

Nicole works through a few kinds of trolls, jealous trolls, the grammar nazi, the biased troll (and the trolls who look for bias where there is none) and the scary troll. She alludes to another, which I will cover here:

The accidental troll

In her talk, Nicole defines a troll:

Def. Troll – people who seek conflict

Now, I have been called a troll a few times, and it hurts me every single time. I am not a person to seek conflict – at all. I am very uncompetitive and the best way to bore me is to tell me that $x does things better than me. Good for $x. I am not $x – I can look at what $x is doing and see what I like for myself but I shouldn’t copy it as it is not me. I want to be better myself tomorrow than I am today as I am the person that is with me all the time. If you don’t compare yourself to yourself and get better you play catchup and become the “good” that is somebody else. You have your own, unique way of learning and communicating and you should hone and celebrate that. If you get home and the door closes and you are someone else then there is a problem. This is for actors and rockstars who tend to die in drug overdoses.

So how come people saw me as a troll or gave me the “Don’t be hatin” message that pretty much insults the grammar fan in me? Because I posted in anger. I was pissed off – somebody was wrong on the internet and people even applauded and quoted it. This will not do.

Cultural differences

Part of this is cultural. Europeans, especially Germans, are a direct bunch. We say it like it is. If we want something, we request it. If we don’t like something, we make it obvious without a doubt that this is the case. America, on the other hand is not like that. Everything is about not offending people – not because this is bad, but mostly because you can get sued if you do. How this works in a society that is highly competitive at the same time continuously baffles me. There can’t be any losers in any competition, just third, fourth and forty-eighth winners. This dilutes the idea of competition to the degree that people don’t take them serious any more. In Europe, not so much. A competition is something serious and to win, someone has to lose. The same applies to conversations. Meetings in the US are considered a success if everything was mentioned and nobody was affronted or feels bad coming out of them.

In Europe, the result of a meeting is what has been done and what needs to be done next by who and by which date. If that means someone got blamed for doing things wrong, that is just how it is.

Pointing out an error is not attacking the person who made that error. What it is is pointing out an opportunity to fix something. This is the end goal. A lot of people have problems admitting to failure. To me, a failure is a great opportunity to analyse what happened and making sure you don’t do it again. If that hurts, even better, as it is easier to remember for you not to do it.

With this background it is easy to affront people on mailing lists and other communication devices that lack human communication (body language, voice and so on). The problem is exacerbated when the thing that – in your book – is obviously wrong gets sold as a “best practice” and gets a jazzy marketing-ish abbreviation and people quote it all over the place. Something you consider a mistake becomes something other people strive for rather than being something to learn from by avoiding it.


So here is what I do now. I channel the Fennec:

Fennec Fox

You notice that this animal is much more ear than mouth and this is what we should be doing. Instead of firing up a massive post ranting about what is wrong in a certain publication or person we should start asking questions and most of all listening. The same applies to humans: we have two ears but one mouth – let this be our ratio for learning.

So if you disagree with something and it really rails you, give it some time before you answer. Do other things, have fun with people. Then go back and write your post if you still want to. Even better, ask the right questions.

By asking for refinement and pointing out shortcomings of a solution in the form of a question you do not only bring it upon you to do better than the original solution. You also turn your anger into a chance to get the original maker to take on your refinements and make the product that angered you work better. If the original author can not answer your questions you managed to show that they made mistakes and called something a best practice prematurely. And other people listen, too. Which means that they’ll request more details and changes.

Another way of listening is to read all the other posts and comments following the thing that annoyed you. You’ll find that in a lot of cases other people will point out the flaws you see, too and you can join a conversation and maybe even soften the tone of other comments to turn them from flame to request.

All in all a lot of accidental trolling happens because we get the wrong urge to answer as fast as possible and be the first to point out a flaw and thus winning 245 internets. Letting things sink in first and listen for a while helps you write better responses, realise that some sins are not really that much of an issue and make you understand the context of what something was published in, which can be a large part of the content decisions.

Open and Accessible – my talk at the OSDC in Taipei, Taiwan

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Yesterday I gave a presentation at the Open Source Developer Conference in Taipei, Taiwan about a different view of accessibility called Open and Accessible:


[slideshare id=1309350&doc=1309350]

As part of my Taiwan trip I had an interview with Ray Wang of IThome about accessibility and he was pretty impressed with me telling him that accessibility shouldn’t be about trying to comply with a law but is an opportunity to build massively successful and better usable products for everybody.

In this talk I am covering the same topic for an Open Source audience. I do believe that free and easily available and usable assistive technology is the future of accessibility as with commercial products we are running in circles. Screen readers are expensive pieces of information and far too hard to install and upgrade. The accessibility world’s technical set-ups are stuck in a woefully outdated state that developers despise having to support and the only way out is to make easier, upgrading and self-maintaining products built on systems like Mozilla’s Firefox.

I hope I managed to entice some people of the Open Source community to give accessibilty a go and maybe organize an Asia Pacific Scripting Enabled.

The talk was filmed, so there will be a recording soon.

Jeff Croft hates standards! Typical designer, eh?

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

I just had a wonderful time on the train home reading Jeff Croft’s Two Thousand Twenty Two post, following the whole trail of comments is like watching a TV show. I got to the end although there is a distinct lack of explosions, car chases, gracious nudity or even kittens!

In essence, Jeff (who is a top chap to meet in real life – let’s not let personal hygiene become an issue here) makes fun of an interview about HTML5 that he read:

Today, it was brought to my attention that HTML 5 Editor Ian Hickson, in an August 27 interview with TechRepublic outlined a timetable for the “new” spec, which began life back in 2003. Hixie suggests HTML 5 will reach the “Proposed Recommendation” stage sometime in 2022. Go ahead, read it again. It’s not a typo. Two thousand twenty two.

As a result, and mocking the, shall we say, adventurous outlook of seeing 2022 as an foreseeable goal young Jeff in his innocence managed to kick off a trail of comments that must have registered in some earthquake pre-warning centre in Southern California. He dared to say that he is done with reading specs and that today is more important:

I care about right fucking now. My clients care about right fucking now. Our users care about right fucking now. The only people that really give a damn about two thousand twenty two are people who write timetables for a living.

Potty mouth language aside, there is some truth to that. I was also pretty impressed with the following:

We’ve all learned a lot through this standards movement. We are now capable of identifying a good idea when we see it (like the namespacing of experimental CSS properties, for example). We are equally capable of knowing when something feels inelegant (like maintaining different code bases to achieve the same thing in multiple browsers). Our bullshit radar is strong these days. We don’t need a spec to tell us whether something is useful or not (XMLHttpRequest was incredibly useful, despite not being a ‘standard’).

Check out the post and especially the long trail of comments. It reads like the oh so classic misunderstandings we have to deal with every single day on the web: humour and sarcasm and irony do not translate in online reading unless you really lay it on thick. There’s the “oh I understand, I really have nothing against you personally”, there’s the “read the thing again, you missed the point”, there’s also the “people will quote this wrongly” which is sadly enough the case.

So, before you bring the pitchforks and torches: Jeff is not a traitor to the cause and he is not the “designer that doesn’t get standards as they want their own stuff all the time”. It was a funny sarcastic remark that shows just how inbred a lot of discussions around standards have become.

A standard to me is an agreement between several parties to deliver a certain task to make it easy for all parties involved to deliver to the best quality with the least effort. It is something to take out the random element of any delivery and battles having to learn the details before delivering a job we should be able to deliver easily as we’ve done it before. Not more and not less. It is about aiding working together, making handover very easy or even obsolete and making sure that what we build works where it is supposed to work.

What messes with our goal is that we are moving fast and innovating a lot whilst the market we cater for is less happy or able to keep up with our pace or doesn’t see the need for being up-to-date. This is the real issue that needs solving.

On measuring evangelism success

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

I am right now in Santa Clara, California for the end of the year wrap-up and planning sessions of the Yahoo Developer Network. One thing I am realizing is that it is very tough to measure the success or really the impact of what an evangelist does. As my company does not have any commercial programs that tie with the offerings I talk about (all the APIs are free but some are limited to a certain amount of hits per day and there is no way to “buy” more – BOSS is working on that though) I don’t make the company any money.

What I do though is go out there and tell people about the things we have. On the flipside I get feedback from the outside world and see implementations of our work to feed back into the company. This is worth a lot – you cannot determine the quality of a product if you are the one who did it.

This is the same for every evangelist/advocacy role in any of the companies out there. The problem is that when reporting what you’ve done up the hierarchy in a company a lot of things get lost. Measuring the success of a company is a very tough job and it increases with the size of the company. This leads to terrible decisions being made (there will be another post about this here).

As an evangelist/advocate the hardest job is to tell people exactly what your impact was. A lot of what you do is planting mental seeds and inspiring people to work differently – that can’t be measured in hard figures. Other companies measure the success of an event for example by how many business cards were collected and have a department that follows these up by contacting people. I don’t like this much, first of all because a lot of the people I meet don’t have business cards but follow me on twitter instead and secondly because they gave me the card and not the company.

So in order to measure the success of any developer network we need your feedback and success stories of how what we’ve explained and shown has impacted your work. A blog post like this one on Yahoo Pipes makes me happy, as do tweets like this one.

While I am happily scrounging the web for these gems it is annoying that I need to do that. The biggest problem is that people are not commenting any longer. I don’t know why – personally I love to give a comment on where I found out some information. It keeps my concerns and the original message in context. When I twitter my personal view on something the 140 character limit and lack of original text will lead to information loss.

So my wishes from all of you on behalf of all the people in big companies organizing and supporting developer events (yahoo, microsoft, adobe, sun, paypal, ebay…) are following.

If you enjoy free information, swag, being able to directly reach internal experts and being able to network with a select group of like-minded people:

  • please leave comments on the blogs/announcement pages of the events (in our case the YDN blog and upcoming – a lot of people only look there and don’t have time to scrounge the web for all the info.
  • Use tags we provide at events to tag your photos, blog posts, tweets, videos…
  • Tell us about cool implementations and changes in your company based on what we talked about – we are happy to feature those and send you link love and there is nothing cooler than telling the world how someone else but us have done something cool with our stuff
  • If you sign up for an event – show up (or send a colleague). I am getting terribly sick of spending a lot of money to hire locations and have 150 sign up to the event in the first 10 minutes – effectively blocking out people that should be there – and then 20 show up! This is wasted time and money – and in the current climate that is not a clever thing to do.

I love my job and I am doing quite extensive work to make the IT industry understand that tech evangelism is not a waste of money but that there is a massive need for it. Marketing and PR departments just cannot reach geeks and internal geeks have neither the drive or the opportunities to talk to the world about the great things they do. I am very sure that innovation and change in IT is not coming from top down but from people who dare to talk to the right people to initiate change. As I put it in my talk at accessibility 2.0 geeks that care are the drivers of innovation and I don’t want to lose the opportunities we have right now.

When I started in IT events were massively expensive and I had to negotiate for months with my managers to get tickets. We are past this – thanks to developer networks and evangelists. I’d hate to see this go and developers falling back to being deliverers and not allowed to go out and play.

Scripting Enabled at @mediaAjax 2008

Monday, September 15th, 2008

I am right now at @media Ajax 2008 getting ready to go on stage to deliver my “Scripting Enabled” talk, explaining how the main issue about accessibility is that we just don’t talk enough to each other. Technology is never really the boundary we have with accessibility, it is that we don’t understand how people work and what technology is capable of.

[slideshare id=598740&doc=atmediaajaxscriptingenabled-1221470402418982-9&w=425]

Links in the presentation