Self-selecting for the thick-skinned means turning away contributors.

May 29, 2012 Open source 2 comments , , ,

Every so often, usually in the middle of an online argument or flame war, someone will say that the climate of the group has him or her uncomfortable. He’ll say something like “I don’t want to be around all this hostility” or, worst of all, “This makes me not want to get involved.” The reply sometimes comes back “You’re just thin-skinned.”

Labeling someone as “thin-skinned” makes no sense. There is no measure of skin thickness. When someone says “You are thin-skinned,” he’s really saying “You are less willing to put up with anti-social behavior than I am.”

I wonder what the speaker hopes for “You’re just thin-skinned” to do. Is that supposed to inspire the listener? Make him realize the error of his ways? I don’t know what the intent is, but it communicates “You are wrong to feel that way” and that’s hurtful, not helpful. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to put up with anti-social behavior.

None of this is an endorsement of being easily offended, however you may define “easily.” I wish we all had the attitude of Gina Trapani, who once said “I eat your sexist comments for breakfast. YUM.” But not everyone does, and that’s no reason to shut them out. Yes, online communities can get hostile, but that doesn’t mean we need to tacitly endorse that hostility. We can do better, and we should, to help our communities grow and thrive.

Aside from ignoring the aspect of treating other humans with compassion, it makes no sense to ignore or insult those you see as thin-skinned. Ricardo Signes recalled a lightning talk at OSCON 2011 where someone noted “When we say that this community requires a thick skin, it means we’re self-selecting for only people with thick skin.”

Self-selecting for the thick-skinned means turning away contributors. If you were running a restaurant, and a customer said “I like the food here, but my waiter was rude to me,” the sensible restaurateur would take this as an opportunity for improvement. You’d thank the patron for bringing it to your attention. You wouldn’t say “Well, that’s just the way it is here” or “You’re just too sensitive.” The wise restaurateur would see it as an opportunity for improvement.

There’s an adage in business that for every customer complaint you get, there are between ten to 100 other dissatisfied customers that don’t say anything and go somewhere else. This is especially so in the case of those tarred as “thin-skinned” by someone in the community. For every person who speaks up and says “I don’t like this hostility”, how many more unsubscribe from the list, leave the IRC channel or vow not to come back to the user group meeting again, all without saying a word about it?

In online communities, we’re not dealing with an owner-customer relationship, but nonetheless contributors to the community are a scarce commodity. A business owner can’t afford to turn away customers. Is your online community or open source project so flush with talent that you can turn away contributors?

Distracting examples ruin your presentation

July 26, 2011 People, Social , , ,

At OSCON today, I went to a talk called “Why Know Algorithms” by Andrew Aksynoff. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the speaker was the author of Sphinx, a powerful full text indexing engine that I’m considering adopting for a project.

However, halfway through I was shocked, especially in light of all the problems with sexual harassment and sexist attitudes at conferences that have been brought to the fore lately, to see the example that Andrew used: Selecting women from a database, ranked by “hotness.”

Here’s the table layout he used (and I apologize for the blurriness):

CREATE TABLE usertest (
    sex ENUM ('m','f'),
    hotness INTEGER NOT NULL,
    name VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL,

His sample code revolved around ways to optimize this query:

FROM usertest
WHERE age >= 18 and age <= 25

The latter half of the talk discussed various ways of creating indexes to efficiently provide answers to that query, and which queries would run best with different indexes, in case you want to order by age instead of hotness, for example.

I was angry about two things. I’m specifically not going to address the crass sexism here. I know plenty of others can (and will) address it better than I can.

I was more upset about the effects of the sexism in the classroom. When I’m here at OSCON, I’m both teacher and student. When I’m a student at a session, I want to pay attention to the content, not wonder how the women in the audience feel about the instructor’s attitudes towards them. Are they offended, but afraid to leave? I saw no women leave, although plenty of men did.

Andrew clearly knew his material, and he explained it well. Strictly from a teaching perspective, Andrew’s problem was that the examples overshadowed the lessons to be taught. It’s the same frustration I had with Steven Feuerstein’s book from O’Reilly on Oracle 8 where his examples included a table of war criminals including Henry Kissinger.

When you’re teaching a class, don’t include anything that detracts from the message you’re trying to teach. A LOLcat slide is fine but include too many and that’s what people will remember rather than what you’re trying to teach. It should go without saying that examples that make the audience uncomfortable will also ruin your class.

Note: I will delete any comments that include personal attacks on anyone.

How not to get a job: A continuing series

July 11, 2008 Job hunting 2 comments ,

Penelope Trunk posted this in her Twitter timeline:

I set an interview for Monday. Candidate says he has kid stuff. I suggest Saturday night. He says Why don’t you have a date? No job for him.