October 6, 2016

On Drama

This is a post I'd planned on writing immediately after my lightning talk at CAST 2016. The lightning talks were recorded, but the videos weren't published, so I parked it for a while. However, Twitter being Twitter, it wasn't long before the next epic drama broke out in my feed, and given that we're in the midst of Geek Mental Help Week, this seemed like a good time to resurrect this article.

This isn't a post about any particular argument. It's not about taking sides. It's not even about not taking sides. It's more about how it feels to be constantly put in a position where you're given the choice of taking a side.

When discussion becomes debate

I was a relatively late convert to Twitter, but in 2014 I discovered there was real value to be found in utilising it as a platform to share discussion and ideas with your community peers. Regardless of your occupation, you can interact with like-minded people across the globe who share your interests and ideals.

Of course it's always been a hotbed for trolls and arguments, and to an extent that comes with the territory. When you're not discussing face-to-face, and where any of the parties may choose to remain anonymous, it's easy to see how conversational disconnects can occur, especially when you're exchanging snippets which are capped at 140 characters.

In the last few months, there's been a noticeable shift in the discourse within my community. Valuable discussions are being had, particularly surrounding ethics and mindfulness. But these frequently spill over into personal attacks, mud-slinging and vitriol, which tends to get reciprocated and before you know it, there's another "Us vs Them" debate flooding my feed.

Oftentimes, I have opinions on these debates. But I'm wary of getting involved. One reply often means that your Twitter username remains in follow-up replies for hours, with dozens of tweets being beamed directly to my handset, keeping me in the discussion long after I've had my say. Frankly, this makes me uncomfortable. I've got more than enough drama in my personal life and in my workplace, so I opt to remove myself from the debate.

How I'm perceived for silencing the voices

If a big debate breaks-out in my Twitter feed, I tend to take fairly drastic action. TweetDeck has the power to not only mute users, but also to hide particular keywords, giving you the power to mute any reference to a particular user's name. This is something I've used heavily in the past few months, just to maintain some degree of calm and normality, and to allow me to continue using Twitter as a valuable platform.

CAST 2016 was a major eye-opener for me here, as I met several people that I'd muted, and - perhaps unsurprisingly - I was able to have reasoned, rational conversation with them throughout the conference. I'd never doubted that they were knowledgeable, passionate people; all this illustrates to me is that Twitter is not a suitable platform for deep debate, finding common ground or achieving consensus.

I'm comfortable with the approach I've taken by removing myself from online drama. But CAST made me take a step back and think about how others might perceive my actions (or lack of actions). Am I seen as weak for not wanting to participate? Does my inactivity present itself as a threat to my trust/integrity? Am I letting-down my friends?

One case in point: Somebody who I consider to be a close professional friend had some incendiary anonymous comments left on one of her blog posts. I could have stepped-in and left a comment in reply, or drawn attention to the injustice on Twitter. Instead, I opted for the "stay out of it" approach. I regretted it for weeks, and was mortified to think that she might have felt unsupported by me, but thankfully we've spoken about it since and she was more gracious than I would have expected.

Finding value in the debate

Debate - and conflict - can both be healthy paths to achieving understanding. However, this doesn't seem to be the case with the discussions that I've seen on Twitter of late. Any understanding that can be reached is shallow at best, and usually of the "I'm tired of talking about this now" variety. If there's common ground to be found, it tends to only be found after a steady stream of name-calling and straw man arguments.

In some cases, these arguments seem to be endlessly self-perpetuating. This was highlighted at CAST when we had an after-hours discussion about the state of certification in our industry; I found a couple of useful conversation streams within the debate, but Richard Bradshaw summed it up best -

So, if debate can be valuable, how do we work harder to find value in the debate? For me, it begins with having respect for others, and giving (and receiving) trust, allowing us to be vulnerable in a safe environment. This tends to be naturally occurring when we're discussing face-to-face (though I've seen the occasional overheated conference discussion which is the exception to the rule) but Twitter is pretty much the worst place to have this discussion unless you enjoy getting caught up in miscommunication and ambiguity.

For now, don't be surprised if my voice is absent from the "epic" debates. But please don't be disappointed in me either. I will gladly discuss them in other forums. It's one of the reasons I'm eagerly looking forward to TestBash Manchester in a couple of weeks. I'm opting to medicate my daily intake of drama, and hope you can understand why.

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