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I graduated with a Computer Science minor from the University of Virginia in 1992. The reason it's a minor and not a major is because to major in CS at UVa you had to go through the Engineering School, and I was absolutely not cut out for that kind of hardcore math and physics, to put it mildly. The beauty of a minor was that I could cherry pick all the cool CS classes and skip everything else.
One of my favorite classes, the one I remember the most, was Algorithms. I always told people my Algorithms class was the one part of my college education that influenced me most as a programmer. I wasn't sure exactly why, but a few years ago I had a hunch so I looked up a certain CV and realized that Randy Pausch – yes, the Last Lecture Randy Pausch – taught that class. The timing is perfect: University of Virginia, Fall 1991, CS461 Analysis of Algorithms, 50 students.
I was one of them.
No wonder I was so impressed. Pausch was an incredible, charismatic teacher, a testament to the old adage that your should choose your teacher first and the class material second, if you bother to at all. It's so true.
In this case, the combination of great teacher and great topic was extra potent, as algorithms are central to what programmers do. Not that we invent new algorithms, but we need to understand the code that's out there, grok why it tends to be fast or slow due to the tradeoffs chosen, and choose the correct algorithms for what we're doing. That's essential.
And one of the coolest things Mr. Pausch ever taught me was to ask this question:
What's the God algorithm for this?
Well, when sorting a list, obviously God wouldn't bother with a stupid Bubble Sort or Quick Sort or Shell Sort like us mere mortals, God would just immediately place the items in the correct order. Bam. One step. The ultimate lower bound on computation, O(1). Not just fixed time, either, but literally one instantaneous step, because you're freakin' God.
This kind of blew my mind at the time.
I always suspected that programmers became programmers because they got to play God with the little universe boxes on their desks. Randy Pausch took that conceit and turned it into a really useful way of setting boundaries and asking yourself hard questions about what you're doing and why.
So when we set out to build a login dialog for Discourse, I went back to what I learned in my Algorithms class and asked myself:
How would God build this login dialog?
And the answer is, of course, God wouldn't bother to build a login dialog at all. Every user would already be logged into GodApp the second they loaded the page because God knows who they are. Authoritatively, even.
This is obviously impossible for us, because God isn't one of our investors.
But.. how close can we get to the perfect godlike login experience in Discourse? That's a noble and worthy goal.
Wasn't it Bill Gates who once asked why the hell every programmer was writing the same File Open dialogs over and over? It sure feels that way for login dialogs. I've been saying for a long time that the best login is no login at all and I'm a staunch supporter of logging in with your Internet Driver's license whenever possible. So we absolutely support that, if you've configured it.
But today I want to focus on the core, basic login experience: user and password. That's the default until you configure up the other methods of login.
A login form with two fields, two buttons, and a link on it seems simple, right? Bog standard. It is, until you consider all the ways the simple act of logging in with those two fields can go wrong for the user. Let's think.Let the user enter an email to log in
The critical fault of OpenID, as much as I liked it as an early login solution, was its assumption that users could accept an URL as their "identity". This is flat out crazy, and in the long run this central flawed assumption in OpenID broke it as a future standard.
User identity is always email, plain and simple. What happens when you forget your password? You get an email, right? Thus, email is your identity. Some people even propose using email as the only login method.
It's fine to have a username, of course, but always let users log in with either their username or their email address. Because I can tell you with 100% certainty that when those users forget their password, and they will, all the time, they'll need that email anyway to get a password reset. Email and password are strongly related concepts and they belong together. Always!
(And a fie upon services that don't allow me to use my email as a username or login. I'm looking at you, Comixology.)Tell the user when their email doesn't exist
OK, so we know that email is de-facto identity for most people, and this is a logical and necessary state of affairs. But which of my 10 email addresses did I use to log into your site?
This was the source of a long discussion at Discourse about whether it made sense to reveal to the user, when they enter an email address in the "forgot password" form, whether we have that email address on file. On many websites, here's the sort of message you'll see after entering an email address in the forgot password form:
If an account matches firstname.lastname@example.org, you should receive an email with instructions on how to reset your password shortly.
Note the coy "if" there, which is a hedge against all the security implications of revealing whether a given email address exists on the site just by typing it into the forgot password form.
We're deadly serious about picking safe defaults for Discourse, so out of the box you won't get exploited or abused or overrun with spammers. But after experiencing the real world "which email did we use here again?" login state on dozens of Discourse instances ourselves, we realized that, in this specific case, being user friendly is way more important than being secure.
The new default is to let people know when they've entered an email we don't recognize in the forgot password form. This will save their sanity, and yours. You can turn on the extra security of being coy about this, if you need it, via a site setting.Let the user switch between Log In and Sign Up any time
Many websites have started to show login and signup buttons side by side. This perplexed me; aren't the acts of logging in and signing up very different things?
Well, from the user's perspective, they don't appear to be. This Verge login dialog illustrates just how close the sign up and log in forms really are. Check out this animated GIF of it in action.
We've acknowledged that similarity by having either form accessible at any time from the two buttons at the bottom of the form, as a toggle:
And both can be kicked off directly from any page via the Sign Up and Log In buttons at the top right:
Pick common words
That's the problem with language, we have so many words for these concepts:
Which are the "right" ones? User research data isn't conclusive.
I tend to favor the shorter versions when possible, mostly because I'm a fan of the whole brevity thing, but there are valid cases to be made for each depending on the circumstances and user preferences.
Sign In may be slightly more common, though Log In has some nautical and historical computing basis that makes it worthy:
A couple of years ago I did a survey of top websites in the US and UK and whether they used â€śsign inâ€ť, â€ślog inâ€ť, â€śloginâ€ť, â€ślog onâ€ť, or some other variant. The answer at the time seemed to be that if you combined â€ślog inâ€ť and â€śloginâ€ť, it exceeded â€śsign inâ€ť, but not by much. Iâ€™ve also noticed that the trend toward â€śsign inâ€ť is increasing, especially with the most popular services. Facebook seems to be a â€ślog inâ€ť hold-out.
Work with browser password managers
Every login dialog you create should be tested to work with the default password managers in …
At an absolute minimum. Upon subsequent logins in that browser, you should see the username and password automatically autofilled.
Users rely on these default password managers built into the browsers they use, and any proper modern login form should respect that, and be designed sensibly, e.g. the password field should have type="password" in the HTML and a name that's readily identifable as a password entry field.
There's also LastPass and so forth, but I generally assume if the login dialog works with the built in browser password managers, it will work with third party utilities, too.Handle common user mistakes
Oops, the user is typing their password with caps lock on? You should let them know about that.
Oops, the user entered their email as email@example.com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org? Or email@example.com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org? You should either fix typos in common email domains for them, or let them know about that.
(I'm also a big fan of native browser "reveal password" support for the password field, so the user can verify that she typed in or autofilled the password she expects. Only Internet Explorer and I think Safari offer this, but all browsers should.)Help users choose better passwords
There are many schools of thought on forcing helping users choose passwords that aren't unspeakably awful, e.g. password123 and iloveyou and so on.
There's the common password strength meter, which updates in real time as you type in the password field.
It's clever idea, but it gets awful preachy for my tastes on some sites. The implementation also leaves a lot to be desired, as it's left up to the whims of the site owner to decide what password strength means. One site's "good" is another site's "get outta here with that Fisher-Price toy password". It's frustrating.
So, with Discourse, rather than all that, I decided we'd default on a solid absolute minimum password length of 8 characters, and then verify the password to make sure it is not one of the 10,000 most common known passwords by checking its hash.
Don't forget the keyboard
I feel like keyboard users are a dying breed at this point, but for those of us that, when presented with a login dialog, like to rapidly type
email@example.com, tab, p4$$w0rd, enter
… please verify that this works as it should. Tab order, enter to submit, etcetera.Rate limit all the things
You should be rate limiting everything users can do, everywhere, and that's especially true of the login dialog.
If someone forgets their password and makes 3 attempts to log in, or issues 3 forgot password requests, that's probably OK. But if someone makes a thousand attempts to log in, or issues a thousand forgot password requests, that's a little weird. Why, I might even venture to guess they're possibly … not human.
You can do fancy stuff like temporarily disable accounts or start showing a CAPTCHA if there are too many failed login attempts, but this can easily become a griefing vector, so be careful.
I think a nice middle ground is to insert standard pauses of moderately increasing size after repeated sequential failures or repeated sequential forgot password requests from the same IP address. So that's what we do.Stuff I forgot
I tried to remember everything we went through when we were building our ideal login dialog for Discourse, but I'm sure I forgot something, or could have been more thorough. Remember, Discourse is 100% open source and by definition a work in progress – so as my friend Miguel de Icaza likes to say, when it breaks, you get to keep both halves. Feel free to test out our implementation and give us your feedback in the comments, or point to other examples of great login experiences, or cite other helpful advice.
Logging in involves a simple form with two fields, a link, and two buttons. And yet, after reading all this, I'm sure you'll agree that it's deceptively complex. Your best course of action is not to build a login dialog at all, but instead rely on authentication from an outside source whenever you can.
Like, say, God.[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!
Sure, smartphones and tablets get all the press, and deservedly so. But if you place the original mainstream eInk device from 2007, the Amazon Kindle, side by side with today's model, the evolution of eInk devices is just as striking.
Each of these devices has a 6 inch eInk screen. Beyond that they're worlds apart.8" × 5.3" × 0.8"
They may seem awfully primitive compared to smartphones, but that's part of their charm – they are the scooter to the motorcycle of the smartphone. Nowhere near as versatile, but as a form of basic transportation, radically simpler, radically cheaper, and more durable. There's an object lesson here in stripping things away to get to the core.
eInk devices are also pleasant in a paradoxical way because they basically suck at everything that isn't reading. That doesn't sound like something you'd want, except when you notice you spend every fifth page switching back to Twitter or Facebook or Tinder or Snapchat or whatever. eInk devices let you tune out the world and truly immerse yourself in reading.
I believe in the broadest sense, bits > atoms. Sure, we'll always read on whatever device we happen to hold in our hands that can display words and paragraphs. And the advent of retina class devices sure made reading a heck of a lot more pleasant on tablets and smartphones.
But this idea of ultra-cheap, pervasive eInk reading devices eventually replacing those ultra-cheap, pervasive paperbacks I used to devour as a kid has great appeal to me. I can't let it go. Reading is Fundamental, man!
That's why I'm in this weird place where I will buy, sight unseen, every new Kindle eInk device. I wasn't quite crazy enough to buy the original Kindle (I mean, look at that thing) but I've owned every model since the third generation Kindle was introduced in 2010.
I've also been tracking the Kindle prices to see when they can get them down to $49 or lower. We're not quite there yet – the basic Kindle eInk reader, which by the way is still pretty darn amazing compared to that original 2007 model pictured above – is currently on sale for $59.
But this is mostly about their new flagship eInk device, the Kindle Voyage. Instead of being cheap, it's trying to be upscale. The absolute first thing you need to know is this is the first 300 PPI (aka "retina") eInk reader from Amazon. If you're familiar with the smartphone world before and after the iPhone 4, then you should already be lining up to own one of these.
When you experience 300 PPI in eInk, you really feel like you're looking at a high quality printed page rather than an array of RGB pixels. Yeah, it's still grayscale, but it is glorious. Here are some uncompressed screenshots I made from mine at native resolution.
Note that the real device is eInk, so there's a natural paper-like fuzziness that makes it seem even more high resolution than these raw bitmaps would indicate.
I finally have enough resolution to pick a thinner font than fat, sassy old Caecilia.
The backlight was new to the original Paperwhite, and it definitely had some teething pains. The third time's the charm; they've nailed the backlight aspect for improved overall contrast and night reading. The Voyage also adds an ambient light sensor so it automatically scales the backlight to anything from bright outdoors to a pitch-dark bedroom. It's like automatic night time headlights on a car – one less manual setting I have to deal with before I sit down and get to my reading. It's nice.
The Voyage also adds page turn buttons back into the mix, via pressure sensing zones on the left and right bezel. I'll admit I had some difficulty adjusting to these buttons, to the point that I wasn't sure I would, but I eventually did – and now I'm a convert. Not having to move your finger into the visible text on the page to advance, and being able to advance without moving your finger at all, just pushing it down slightly (which provides a little haptic buzz as a reward), does make for a more pleasant and efficient reading experience. But it is kind of subtle and it took me a fair number of page turns to get it down.
In my experience eInk devices are a bit more fragile than tablets and smartphones. So you'll want a case for automatic on/off and basic "throw it in my bag however" paperback book level protection. Unfortunately, the official Kindle Voyage case is a disaster. Don't buy it.
Previous Kindle cases were expensive, but they were actually very well designed. The Voyage case is expensive and just plain bad. Whoever came up with the idea of a weirdly foldable, floppy origami top opening case on a thing you expect to work like a typical side-opening book should be fired. I recommend something like this basic $14.99 case which works fine to trigger on/off and opens in the expected way.
It's not all sweetness and light, though. The typography issues that have plagued the Kindle are still present in full force. It doesn't personally bother me that much, but it is reasonable to expect more by now from a big company that ostensibly cares about reading. And has a giant budget with lots of smart people on its payroll.
This is what text looks like on a kindle.— Justin Van Slembrouâ€¦ (@jvanslem) February 6, 2014
If you've dabbled in the world of eInk, or you were just waiting for a best of breed device to jump in, the Kindle Voyage is easy to recommend. It's probably peak mainstream eInk. Would recommend, would buy again, will probably buy all future eInk models because I have an addiction. A reading addiction. Reading is fundamental. Oh, hey, $2.99 Kindle editions of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? Yes, please.
(At the risk of coming across as a total Amazon shill, I'll also mention that the new Amazon Family Sharing program is amazing and lets me and my wife finally share books made of bits in a sane way, the way we used to share regular books: by throwing them at each other in anger.)[advertisement] What's your next career move? Stack Overflow Careers has the best job listings from great companies, whether you're looking for opportunities at a startup or Fortune 500. You can search our job listings or create a profile and let employers find you.
Most discussions show a bit of information next to each user:
What message does this send?
If I have learned anything from the Internet, it is this: be very, very careful when you put a number next to someone's name. Because people will do whatever it takes to make that number go up.
If you don't think deeply about exactly what you're encouraging, why you're encouraging it, and all the things that may happen as a result of that encouragement, you may end up with â€¦ something darker. A lot darker.
Printing a post count number next to every user's name implies that the more you post, the better things are. The more you talk, the better the conversations become. Is this the right message to send to everyone in a discussion? More fundamentally, is this even true?
I find that the value of conversations has little to do with how much people are talking. I find that too much talking has a negative effect on conversations. Nobody has time to listen to the resulting massive stream of conversation, they end up just waiting for their turn to pile on and talk, too. The best conversations are with people who spend most of their time listening. The number of times you've posted in a given topic is not a leaderboard; it's a record of failing to communicate.
Consider the difference between a chat room and a discussion. Chat is a never-ending flow of disconnected, stream of consciousness sentences that you can occasionally dip your toes in to get the temperature of the water, and that's about it. Discussion is the process of lobbing paragraphs back and forth that results in an evolution of positions as your mutual understanding becomes more nuanced. We hope.The Ars Banana Experiment
Ars Technica ran a little experiment in 2011. When they posted Guns at home more likely to be used stupidly than in self defense, embedded in the last sentence of the seventh paragraph of the article was this text:
If you have read this far, please mention Bananas in your comment below. We're pretty sure 90% of the respondants to this story won't even read it first.
Plenty of talking, but how many people actually read up to paragraph 7 (of 11) of the source article before they rushed to comment on it?The Slate Experiment
In You Won't Finish This Article, Farhad Manjoo dares us to read to the end.
Only a small number of you are reading all the way through articles on the Web. Iâ€™ve long suspected this, because so many smart-alecks jump in to the comments to make points that get mentioned later in the piece.
But most of us won't.
He collected a bunch of analytics data based on real usage to prove his point:
These experiments demonstrate that we don't need to incentivize talking. There's far too much talking already. We badly need to incentivize listening.
And online, listening = reading. That old school program from my childhood was right, so deeply fundamentally right. Reading. Reading Is Fundamental.
Let's say you're interested in World War II. Who would you rather have a discussion with about that? The guy who just skimmed the Wikipedia article, or the gal who read the entirety of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?
This emphasis on talking and post count also unnecessarily penalizes lurkers. If you've posted five times in the last 10 years, but you've read every single thing your community has ever written, I can guarantee that you, Mr. or Mrs. Lurker, are a far more important part of that community's culture and social norms than someone who posted 100 times in the last two weeks. Value to a community should be measured every bit by how much you've read as much as how much you talked.
So how do we encourage reading, exactly?
You could do crazy stuff like require commenters to enter some fact from the article, or pass a basic quiz about what the article contained, before allowing them to comment on that article. On some sites, I think this would result in a huge improvement in the quality of the comments. It'd add friction to talking, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's a negative, indirect way of forcing reading by denying talking. Not ideal.
I have some better ideas.
Remove interruptions to reading, primarily pagination.
Here's a radical idea: when you get to the bottom of the page, load the next damn page automatically. Isn't that the most natural thing to want when you reach the end of the page, to read the next one? Is there any time that you've ever been on the Internet reading an article, reached the bottom of page 1, and didn't want to continue reading? Pagination is nothing more than an arbitrary barrier to reading, and it needs to die a horrible death.
There are sites that go even further here, such as The Daily Beast, which actually loads the next article when you reach the end of the one you are currently reading. Try it out and see what you think. I don't know that I'd go that far (I like to pick the next thing I read, thanks very much), but it's interesting.
Measure read times and display them.
What I do not measure, I cannot display as a number next to someone's name, and cannot properly encourage. In Discourse we measure how long each post has been visible in the browser for every (registered) user who encounters that post. Read time is a key metric we use to determine who we trust, and the best posts that people do actually read. If you aren't willing to visit a number of topics and spend time actually listening to us, why should we talk to you – or trust you.
Forget clicks, forget page loads, measure read time! We've been measuring read times extensively since launch in 2013 and it turns out we're in good company: Medium and Upworthy both recently acknowledged the intrinsic power of this metric.
Give rewards for reading.
I know, that old saw, gamification, but if you're going to reward someome, do it for the right things and the right reasons. For example, we created a badge for reading to the end of a long 100+ post topic. And our trust levels are based heavily on how often people are returning and how much they are reading, and virtually not at all on how much they post.
To feel live reading rewards in action, try this classic New York Times Article. There's even a badge for reading half the article!
Update in real time.
Online we tend to read these conversations as they're being written, as people are engaging in live conversations. So if new content arrives, figure out a way to dynamically rez it in without interrupting people's read position. Preserve the back and forth, real time dynamic of an actual conversation. Show votes and kudos and likes as they arrive. If someone edits their post, bring that in too. All of this goes a long way toward making a stuffy old debate feel like a living, evolving thing versus a long distance email correspondence.
These are strategies I pursued with Discourse, because I believe Reading Is Fundamental. Not just in grade school, but in your life, in my life, in every aspect of online community. To the extent that Discourse can help people learn to be better listeners and better readers – not just more talkative – we are succeeding.
If you want to become a true radical, if you want to have deeper insights and better conversations, spend less time talking and more reading.[advertisement] Stack Overflow Careers matches the best developers (you!) with the best employers. You can search our job listings or create a profile and even let employers find you.
Remember how people in the year 2000 used to say how crazy and ridiculous it was, the idea that Anyone Would Ever Run Photoshop in a Web Browser? I mean come on.
Apps are great and all, but there has to be some place for this year's bumper crop of obscene amount of computing superpower to go. I like to use history as my guide, and I believe it's going exactly the same place it did on desktops and laptops — that no-installing-anything friend of every lazy user on the planet, the inevitable path of least resistance, the mobile web browser.
My Core i4770k desktop machine scores 180ms in the same benchmark on the latest version of Chrome x64. I'd say we're solidly within striking distance this year.
I don't like to spend a lot of time talking about news and gadgets here, since the commentary will be irrelevant within a few years. But this year marks a key turning point for mobile and tablet performance, and I've lived with every iteration of these devices for the last couple of years, so I'll make an exception.
Look at this performance rampage the iPad Air 2 goes on:
Just look at it! All the graphs are like this!
It's hard to believe we now live in a world where the Apple "Premium" is no longer about aesthetics, but raw, unbridled, class-leading performance. And you know what? That's something I can totally get behind.
Anyone who tells you the iPad Air 2 is some kind of incremental update must not actually use theirs. As someone who does regularly use his iPad, I can say without hesitation that this is a massively upgraded device. I grew to hate my old iPad Air because of the memory restrictions; I could barely have three tabs open in Mobile Safari without one of them paging out of memory. Thanks x64 and iOS7!
The bonded screen, touchid, the now-adequate-for-x64 2GB of RAM, the amazingly fast triple core CPU, the GPU, and yeah, it's a little thinner. For performance, nothing else even comes close.
It's so fast I sometimes forget I'm not using my Surface Pro 3 with its 4GB RAM and Core i5 CPU. I get hassled when I bring my Surface to meetings, but I patiently explain that it's a very nice third gen hardware design with a fully integrated keyboard cover, IE11 is a great touch browser, and that I'm mostly using the device as a tablet, as a sneak preview of what iPad 8 performance will look like. Based on today's benchmarks with the iPad Air 2 – chronologically, the iPad "6" – I believe that's about right.
I also purchased a Nexus 9. It's the first device to ship with Android 5 and the vaunted Nvidia Tegra K1.
I'm very impressed with Android 5.0; aesthetically I think it's superior to iOS 8 in a lot of ways, and it is a clear step forward over Android 4. Anyone on older Android devices should definitely upgrade to Android 5 at their first opportunity.
Performance-wise, it is what I've come to expect from Android: erratic. In our Discourse benchmarks, and the latest version of Chrome Android beta, it scores about 750ms, putting it somewhere between the 2011 iPhone 4s and the 2012 iPhone 5. That said, this is the fastest Android device I have ever laid hands on. I just wish it was consistently faster. A lot faster.
I hope over the next year the remaining Android 5 performance bumps can be ironed out. I still like the Nexus 9; if you're a big fan of Google services like GMail, Docs, and Maps like I am, I definitely recommend it. The one I have will be a gift to my mom.[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!
One of my favorite insights on the subject of online community is from Tom Chick:
Here is something I've never articulated because I thought, perhaps naively, it was understood:
The priority for participating on this forum is not the quality of the content. I ultimately don't care how smart or funny or observant you are. Those are plusses, but they're never prerequisites. The priority is on how you treat each other. I expect spats, arguments, occasional insults, and even inevitable grudges. We've all done that. But in the end, I expect you to act like a group of friends who care about each other, no matter how dumb some of us might be, no matter what political opinions some of us hold, no matter what games some of us like or dislike. This community is small enough, intimate enough, that I feel it's a reasonable expectation.
Indeed, disagreement and arguments are inevitable and even healthy parts of any community. The difference between a sane community and a terrifying warzone is the degree to which disagreement is pursued in the community, gated by the level of respect community members have for each other.
In other words, if a fight is important to you, fight nasty. If that means lying, lie. If that means insults, insult. If that means silencing people, silence.
I expect you to act like a group of friends who care about each other, no matter how dumb some of us might be, no matter what political opinions some of us hold, no matter what games some of us like or dislike.
There's a word for this: empathy.
One of the first things I learned when I began researching discussion platforms two years ago is the importance of empathy as the fundamental basis of all stable long term communities. The goal of discussion software shouldn't be to teach you how to click the reply button, and how to make bold text, but how to engage in civilized online discussion with other human beings without that discussion inevitably breaking down into the collective howling of wolves.
That's what the discussion software should be teaching you: Empathy.
I've been immersed in the world of social discussion for two years now, and I keep going back to the well of empathy, time and time again. The first thing we did was start with a solid set of community guidelines on civilized discussion, and I'm proud to say that we ship and prominently feature those guidelines with every copy of Discourse. They are bedrock. But these guidelines only work to the extent that they are understood, and the community helps enforce them.
In Your Community Door, I described the danger of allowing cruel and hateful behavior in your community – behavior so obviously corrosive that it should never be tolerated in any quantity. If your community isn't capable of regularly exorcising the most toxic content, and the people responsible for that kind of content, it's in trouble. Those rare bad apples are group poison.
Hate is easy to recognize. Cruelty is easy to recognize. You do not tolerate these in your community, full stop.
But what about behavior that isn't so obviously corrosive? What about behavior patterns that seem sort of vaguely negative, but … nobody can show you exactly how this behavior is directly hurting anyone? What am I talking about? Take a look at the Flamewarriors Online Discussion Archetypes, a bunch of discussion behaviors that never quite run afoul of the rules, per se, but result in discussions that degenerate, go in circles, or make people not want to be around them.
What we're getting into is shades of grey, the really difficult part of community moderation. I've been working on Discourse long enough to identify some subtle dark patterns of community discussion that – while nowhere near as dangerous as hate and cruelty – are still harmful enough to the overall empathy level of a community that they should be actively recognized when they emerge, and interventions staged.1. Endless Contrarianism
Disagreement is fine, even expected, provided people can disagree in an agreeable way. But when someone joins your community for the sole purpose of disagreeing, that's Endless Contrarianism.
Example: As an athiest, Edward shows up on a religion discussion area to educate everyone there about the futility of religion. Is that really the purpose of the community? Does anyone in the community expect to defend the very concept of religion while participating there?
If all a community member can seem to contribute is endlessly pointing out how wrong everyone else is, and how everything about this community is headed in the wrong direction – that's not building constructive discussion – or the community. Edward is just arguing for the sake of argument. Take it to debate school.2. Axe-Grinding
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.
Example: Sara finds any opportunity to trigger up a GMO debate, no matter what the actual topic is. Viewing Sara's post history, GMO and Monsanto are constant, repeated themes in any context. Sara's negative review of a movie will mention eating GMO popcorn, because it's not really about the movie – it's always about her pet issue.
This kind of inflexible, overbearing single-issue focus tends to drag discussion into strange, unwanted directions, and rapidly becomes tiresome to other participants who have probably heard everything this person has to say on that topic multiple times already. Either Sara needs to let that topic go, or she needs to find a dedicated place (e.g. GMO discussion areas) where others want to discuss it as much as she does, and take it there.3. Griefing
In discussion, griefing is when someone goes out of their way to bait a particular person for weeks or months on end. By that I mean they pointedly follow them around, choosing to engage on whatever topic that person appears in, and needle the other person in any way they can, but always strictly by the book and not in violation of any rules… technically.
Example: Whenever Joe sees George in a discussion topic, Joe now pops in to represent the opposing position, or point out flaws in George's reasoning. Joe also takes any opportunity to remind people of previous mistakes George made, or times when George was rude.
When the discussion becomes more about the person than the topic, you're in deep trouble. It's not supposed to be about the participants, but the topic at hand. When griefing occurs, the discussion becomes a stage for personal conflict rather than a way to honestly explore topics and have an entertaining discussion. Ideally the root of the conflict between Joe and George can be addressed and resolved, or Joe can be encouraged to move on and leave the conflict behind. Otherwise, one of these users needs to find another place to go.4. Persistent Negativity
Nobody expects discussions to be all sweetness and light, but neverending vitriol and negativity are giant wet blankets. It's hard to enjoy anything when someone's constantly reminding you how terrible the world is. Persistent negativity is when someone's negative contributions to the discussion far outweigh their positive contributions.
Example: Even long after the game shipped, Fred mentions that the game took far too long to ship, and that it shipped with bugs. He paid a lot of money for this game, and feels he didn't get the enjoyment from the game that was promised for the price. He warns people away from buying expansions because this game has a bad track record and will probably fail. Nobody will be playing it online soon because of all the problems, so why bother even trying? Wherever topics happen to go, Fred is there to tell everyone this game is worse than they knew.
If Fred doesn't have anything positive to contribute, what exactly is the purpose of his participation in that community? What does he hope to achieve? Criticism is welcome, but that shouldn't be the sum total of everything Fred contributes, and he should be reasonably constructive in his criticism. People join communities to build things and celebrate the enjoyment of those things, not have other people dump all over it and constantly describe how much they suck and disappoint them. If there isn't any silver lining in Fred's cloud, and he can't be encouraged to find one, he should be asked to find other places to haunt.5. Ranting
Discussions are social, and thus emotional. You should feel something. But prolonged, extreme appeal to emotion is fatiguing and incites arguments. Nobody wants to join a dry, technical session at the Harvard Debate Club, because that'd be boring, but there is a big difference between a persuasive post and a straight-up rant.
Example: Holly posts at the extremes – either something is the worst thing that ever happened, or the best thing that ever happened. She will post 6 to 10 times in a topic and state her position as forcefully as possible, for as long and as loud as it takes, to as many individual people in the discussion as it takes, to get her point across. The stronger the language in the post, the better she likes it.
If Holly can't make her point in a reasonable way in one post and a followup, perhaps she should rethink her approach. Yelling at people, turning the volume to 11, and describing the situation in the most emotional, extreme terms possible to elicit a response – unless this really is the worst or best thing to happen in years – is a bit like yelling fire in a crowded theater. It's irresponsible. Either tone it down, or take it somewhere that everyone talks that way.6. Grudges
In any discussion, there is a general expectation that everyone there is participating in good faith – that they have an open mind, no particular agenda, and no bias against the participants or the topic. While short term disagreement is fine, it's important that the people in your community have the ability to reset and approach each new topic with a clean(ish) slate. When you don't do that, when people carry ill will from previous discussions toward the participants or topic into new discussions, that's a grudge.
Example: Tad strongly disagrees with a decision the community made about not creating a new category to house some discussion he finds problematic. So he now views the other leaders in the community, and the moderators, with great distrust. Tad feels like the community has turned on him, and so he has soured on the community. But he has too much invested here to leave, so Tad now likes to point out all the consequences of this "bad" decision often, and cite it as an example of how the community is going wrong. He also follows another moderator, Steve, around because he views him as the ringleader of the original decision, and continually writes long, critical replies to his posts.
Grudges can easily lead to every other dark community pattern on this list. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to recognize grudges when they emerge so the community can intervene and point out what's happening, and all the negative consequences of a grudge. It's important in the broadest general life sense not to hold grudges; as the famous quote goes (as near as I can tell, attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous)
Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
So your community should be educating itself about the danger of grudges, the root of so many other community problems. But it is critically important that moderators never, and I mean never ever, hold grudges. That'd be disastrous.What can you do?
I made a joke in the title of this post about weaponizing empathy. I'm not sure that's even possible. But you can start by having clear community guidelines, teaching your community to close the door on overt hate, and watching out for any overall empathy erosion caused by the six dark community behavior patterns I outlined above.
At the risk of sounding aspirational, here's one thing I know to be true, and I advise every community to take to heart: I expect you to act like a group of friends who care about each other, no matter how dumb some of us might be, no matter what political opinions some of us hold, no matter what things some of us like or dislike.[advertisement] Stack Overflow Careers matches the best developers (you!) with the best employers. You can search our job listings or create a profile and even let employers find you.
What are the real world consequences to signing up for a Twitter or Facebook account through Tor and spewing hate toward other human beings?
Facebook reviewed the comment I reported and found it doesn't violate their Community Standards. pic.twitter.com/p9syG7oPM1— Rob Beschizza (@Beschizza) October 15, 2014
As far as I can tell, nothing. There are barely any online consequences, even if the content is reported.
But there should be.
The problem is that Twitter and Facebook aim to be discussion platforms for "everyone", where every person, no matter how hateful and crazy they may be, gets a turn on the microphone. They get to be heard.
The hover text for this one is so good it deserves escalation:
I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.
If the discussion platform you're using aims to be a public platform for the whole world, there are some pretty terrible things people can do and say to other people there with no real consequences, under the noble banner of free speech.
It can be challenging.
How do we show people like this the door? You can block, you can hide, you can mute. But what you can't do is show them the door, because it's not your house. It's Facebook's house. It's their door, and the rules say the whole world has to be accommodated within the Facebook community. So mute and block and so forth are the only options available. But they are anemic, barely workable options.
As we build Discourse, I've discovered that I am deeply opposed to mute and block functions. I think that's because the whole concept of Discourse is that it is your house. And mute and ignore, while arguably unavoidable for large worldwide communities, are actively dangerous for smaller communities. Here's why.
It allows you to ignore bad behavior. If someone is hateful or harassing, why complain? Just mute. No more problem. Except everyone else still gets to see a person being hateful or harassing to another human being in public. Which means you are now sending a message to all other readers that this is behavior that is OK and accepted in your house.
It puts the burden on the user. A kind of victim blaming — if someone is rude to you, then "why didn't you just mute / block them?" The solution is right there in front of you, why didn't you learn to use the software right? Why don't you take some responsibility and take action to stop the person abusing you? Every single time it happens, over and over again?
It does not address the problematic behavior. A mute is invisible to everyone. So the person who is getting muted by 10 other users is getting zero feedback that their behavior is causing problems. It's also giving zero feedback to moderators that this person should probably get an intervention at the very least, if not outright suspended. It's so bad that people are building their own crowdsourced block lists for Twitter.
It causes discussions to break down. Fine, you mute someone, so you "never" see that person's posts. But then another user you like quotes the muted user in their post, or references their @name, or replies to their post. Do you then suppress just the quoted section? Suppress the @name? Suppress all replies to their posts, too? This leaves big holes in the conversation and presents many hairy technical challenges. Given enough personal mutes and blocks and ignores, all conversation becomes a weird patchwork of partially visible statements.
This is your house and your rules. This isn't Twitter or Facebook or some other giant public website with an expectation that "everyone" will be welcome. This is your house, with your rules, and your community. If someone can't behave themselves to the point that they are consistently rude and obnoxious and unkind to others, you don't ask the other people in the house to please ignore it – you ask them to leave your house. Engendering some weird expectation of "everyone is allowed here" sends the wrong message. Otherwise your house no longer belongs to you, and that's a very bad place to be.
I worry that people are learning the wrong lessons from the way Twitter and Facebook poorly handle these situations. Their hands are tied because they aspire to be these global communities where free speech trumps basic human decency and empathy.
The greatest power of online discussion communities, in my experience, is that they don't aspire to be global. You set up a clubhouse with reasonable rules your community agrees upon, and anyone who can't abide by those rules needs to be gently shown the door.
Don't pull this wishy washy non-committal stuff that Twitter and Facebook do. Community rules are only meaningful if they are actively enforced. You need to be willing to say this to people, at times:
No, your behavior is not acceptable in our community; "free speech" doesn't mean we are obliged to host your content, or listen to you being a jerk to people. This is our house, and our rules.
If they don't like it, fortunately there's a whole Internet of other communities out there. They can go try a different house. Or build their own.
The goal isn't to slam the door in people's faces – visitors should always be greeted in good faith, with a hearty smile – but simply to acknowledge that in those rare but inevitable cases where good faith breaks down, a well-oiled front door will save your community.[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!
Way back in 2007, before Stack Overflow was a glint in anyone's eye, I called software development a collaborative game. And perhaps Stack Overflow was the natural outcome of that initial thought – recasting online software development discussion into a collaborative game where the only way to "win" is to learn from each other.
That was before the word gamification existed. But gamification is no longer the cool, hip concept it was back in 2011. Still, whether you call yourself a "gamer" or not, whether you believe in "gamification" or not, five years later you're still playing the world's largest multiplayer game.
In fact, you're playing it right now.
One of the most timeless aspects of games is how egalitarian they are, how easy it is for anyone to get started. Men, women, children — people love games because everyone can play along. You don't have to take classes or go to college or be certified: you just play. And this is, not so incidentally, how many of the programmers I know came to be programmers.
Do you know anyone that bought the video game Halo, or Myst, then proceeded to open the box and read the manual before playing the game? Whoa there guys, we can't play the game yet, we gotta read these instructions first! No, they stopped making manuals for games a long time ago, unless you count the thin sheet of paper that describes how to download / install the game on your device. Because they found out nobody reads the manual.
The project Iâ€™m working on is critical, but it has only about 3 to 4 users, most of whom are already familiar the application. One of the users even drives the design. The manual Iâ€™m writing, which is nearly 200 pages, is mostly a safety measure for business continuity planning. I donâ€™t expect anyone will ever read it.
Itâ€™s a project I managed to procrastinate for months, working on other projects, even outside the scope of my regular assignments. The main deterrent, I believe, was my perception that no one needed the manual. The users seemed to be getting along fine without it.
And so as the year ticked to a close, instead of learning more about Mediawiki and screencasting and After Effects, I spent my time updating a 200-page manual that I donâ€™t think anyone will ever read. It will be printed out, three-hole punched, and placed in a binder to collect dust on a shelf.
I guess that's not surprising for games. Games are supposed to be fun, and reading manuals isn't fun; it's pretty much the opposite of fun. But it is also true for software in general. Reading manuals isn't work, at least, it isn't whatever specific thing you set out to do when you fired up that bit of software on your phone, tablet, or laptop.
Games have another clever trick up their sleeve, though. Have you ever noticed that in most of today's games, the first level is kind of easy. Like… suspiciously easy?
That's because level one, the intro stage, isn't really part of the game. It's the manual.
As MegaMan X illustrates, manuals are pointless when we can learn about the game in the best and most natural way imaginable: by playing the actual game. You learn by doing, provided you have a well designed sandbox that lets you safely experiment as you're starting out in the game.
(The above video does contain some slightly NSFW language, as well as abuse of cartoon female avatars that I don't endorse, but it is utterly brilliant, applies to every app, software and website anyone has ever built, and I strongly recommend watching it all.)
This same philosophy applies to today's software and websites. Don't bother with all the manuals, video introductions, tutorials, and pop-up help dialogs. Nobody's going to read that stuff, at least, not the people who need it.
Instead, follow the lesson of MegaMan: if you want to teach people about your software, consider how you can build a great intro stage and let them start playing with it immediately.[advertisement] What's your next career move? Stack Overflow Careers has the best job listings from great companies, whether you're looking for opportunities at a startup or Fortune 500. You can search our job listings or create a profile and let employers find you.