The Hating Game

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I was at an event the other day with a lot of local front-end developers. The leader of the group was presenting. I was excited. For the past three years, I’ve only been around other fronties at conferences where I’m presenting or at group lunches. That’s a different experience from being in the trenches with them. The chance to hang out with “my people” was too good to miss.

The leader got behind his laptop, turned on the big screen. We clapped and cheered. This was going to be awesome.

Then he started by banging on everything that didn’t conform to His Way of Doing Things: his process, his tools. Everything else was “stupid,” “dumb,” “moronic.”

I got the impression he was hiding his own fear of inadequacy behind a wall of disapproval and smack talk. I know this method. I used to use it myself, when I felt for sure I’d be fired from the team as soon as they realized I’d never used Handlebars.

Then the group started going along with it: jeering, making jokes, mirroring that negativity. The room was roast of Things “We” Don’t Like.

Now, I’m used to smack talk from a fair number of European conferences where public figures joust and argue approaches with a helpful serving of humor and good intentions, on stage or at bars. But this was one-sided: a bunch of developers agreeing with each other or bailing on the conversation because they couldn’t.

It was like someone sucked out all my enthusiasm and wiped the floor with it. My smile faded off my face, and I started shutting down intake not because I was challenged or disagreed, but because his approach was so negative. It was less stressful to read a blog post on the same topic on my laptop and tune everyone out, and I did so.

I forgot that front end development can be this way. I know designers and the design community can be snarky prima donnas at worst (“Oh my gawd, I hate that logo. It’s so stupid.”), and this is the front end development community’s version of that: a bunch of teens in black eyeliner insisting that the tweens shopping at Hot Topic aren’t “Twoo Gawths.”

It’s not pretty.

And it hurts us.

About a year ago I was writing an article for A List Apart. The editing process was long and grueling. My editor kept hedging me in: this sounds really aggressive; if you’re going to make a statement like this, you need evidence to back it up; this doesn’t fit the tone of our publication. They were driving me bonkers. Why can’t I just say this in my own voice?

I was also working on a talk about CSS Animations for Fronteers, a conference in Amsterdam later in the year. I’d proposed a talk called “CSS Animations Suck (because you’re doing them wrong)” which I promised to deliver in a “shock jock” style.

At this time, a post claiming to debunk myths of CSS animations vs JavaScript animation went up on a popular site. It was written by a commercial interest. To put it kindly, it had tone problems. When I got to the comment section, it was teeming with polarized opinions: from former Flash developers lauding the piece as vindication to CSS-first animators getting defensive. There were no hearts won over to any side that day.

I wrote to the author, “This is bad. You’re going to tear the house in two. We should be binding together right now. This is only driving everyone back into their fortresses.” It was obvious that the author, who I knew from conferences, was well-intentioned. But they didn’t realize that their own passion was being transmuted into fuel for long-standing antagonisms. What’s more, they had trouble recognizing the tone problems with their writing when I pointed them out. They were polite, earnest, seeking to make things right, but their ego and heart were too wrapped up in it to see things anew.

The next day I returned to my drafts with all its frustrating, voice-muffling notes from my editor.

It was like walking into a store and seeing a woman in clothes that didn’t quite suit her and lipstick that really did not go—then realizing I was looking at myself in a mirror.

Everything I had said to the other author was flung back in my face. My editor’s comments made so much more sense. I could practically hear my own admonishments in their words. This wasn’t a post that would bring the community together. This was me prancing around on my high horse.

I quickly made all the revisions requested and exchanged my talk proposal to Fronteers with one that would draw on web animation’s rich past and promising future, giving credit to CSS, JavaScript, and even the much maligned Flash. (That talk, by the way, blew the audience away and remains one of my proudest moments. I went on to retool it for publication as a popular article on Smashing Mag.)

Paul Bakaus recently posted about how Internet Explorer put forth CSS properties for fast zooming and panning with touch. Paul is one of those European speakers/developers who can have strong opinions but discuss them and move on from them without injuring his ego. In his post, he wonders if such a useful feature was never embraced by the web development community because of Internet Explorer’s bad reputation (that is to say, the community loves to commisserate over how much we hate it about as much as we love to crucify Flash developers) or if it was the lack of evangelism and late standardization. I suspect it’s the former, given how the conversation went after I retweeted it (I’m removing the name of the Tweeter for their own face-saving):

Now if this were Safari or FireFox, would this tweet have happened, or would it have been kept securely in the mind of the tweeter? An example of classic knee-jerk reaction to any mention of Things We Don’t Like: find a reason to criticize it and tear it apart. Prove how much you know. Get a pat on the head from your friends, maybe a gold star from teacher or a cookie from Mom. It’s what we all hope for when we express an opinion we expect to be favorably received by our friends and peers. It’s why Gamer Gate is a tire fire. It’s why Flash developers have all but disappeared from the community, taking their domain knowledge of motion design and optimization with them. It’s why bullies end up with fandoms and smart people go silent and underground.

This is unhealthy.

This costs us good things. Good community members. Good people.

We need to remember: just because we have opinions doesn’t mean they’re worth shoving in other people’s faces. Because when we start getting Us vs. Them, we can’t be friends with Them. And sometimes, Them are people we can learn from.

This guy: 'Imma have opinions, too! They weren't mine to begin with, and I didn't bother to do any research, but this is how you make friends, right?' Don't be him.
When we monger hate, we inspire these guys. These guys are all kinds of trouble, even if they aren't outright malicious. We can spread spread harm through them.

I was never too happy working in house, under and alongside people whose validation comes from belittling others. And I hated myself when I start mirroring that behavior, like that crowd was at that event. It’s human nature to do so. The only way to stop it is to neither initiate it nor engage in it.

I’d rather stand at the front of the class, set a good example, lead from the front by speaking at conferences and preaching love of knowledge, that we are not our tools or our processes: we are what we make. If you ever see me behaving like this, speaking in opinion and smack rather than in fact and appeal, please, call me out on it.

It’s lonely not being on a permanent team, but one day I will have one again. And we won’t be a team of haters.

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