Most communities, online or offline, come with some hard boundaries: No hate speech, no threats, no harassment. But a good community recognises some more borderline behaviour — stuff that isn’t as obviously terrible but can still slowly eat away at discussion, scaring away (or annoying away) good members until only jerks are left. And it can ruin any social group, from a book club or group text to, say, Reddit.
That’s according to Jeff Atwood, an expert on community: Atwood co-founded the forums Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange and the discussion platform Discourse. Back in 2014, after releasing Discourse, he asked: “What if we could weaponize empathy?” He described six kinds of behaviour that can corrode group discussion. While he mostly describes their appearance in online communities, they show up in all kinds of real-life social groups. And if you recognise them, you can guide the offenders to better behaviour, or direct their behaviour to the appropriate place.
For example, “axe-grinding” means bringing up the same topic no matter what the main discussion is about:
Part of what makes discussion fun is that it’s flexible; a variety of topics will be discussed, and those discussions may naturally meander a bit within the context defined by the site and whatever categories of discussion are allowed there. Axe-Grinding is when a user keeps constantly gravitating back to the same pet issue or theme for weeks or months on end.
We all axe-grind sometimes — it’s basically my biggest hobby — and we need others in our social groups to tell us to stop, or to save it for an appropriate time and place. (Like therapy.)
In fact, it’s helpful to read Atwood’s whole list of grey-area behaviours with an eye toward your own behaviour. Have you been “that guy” at your after-work drinks or your D&D group? Take some responsibility and keep an eye on yourself. For one, it’ll give you a leg to stand on when you call out everyone else.
But for real: Confronting people respectfully will help them grow and avoid getting ostracized. So you’re helping them. And if you don’t see the problem with the behaviour that Atwood describes — or you think that “policing” such behaviour will violate your right to free unfettered speech—you might be committing one of the five geek social fallacies. Consider that your follow-up reading.
What If We Could Weaponize Empathy? | Coding Horror