A Web of People

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Did you see The LEGO Movie? My boss told us to watch it as homework. That’s right, I have work homework. To be honest, it was the first homework i’d had in years and, contrary to homework of the past, I really enjoyed this assignment. There’s a scene at the end of the movie that perfectly illustrates a trait of the web I’d like to talk about. [Spoilers ahead!]

In the LEGO world, Emmet (the ordinary hero of the movie), is on a quest to stop the villain Lord Business who sees the LEGO world as chaotic and plans to bring order and perfection to the world using a super weapon called “The Kragle” (which is revealed to be a tube of super glue).

Emmet discovers that the events of the LEGO world are unfolding in the parallel human world, where a boy is playing with his father’s LEGO set. The father (Lord Business) reprimands his son for ruining his LEGO set by creating what he sees as a chaotic, inferior, jumbled mishmash of LEGO play sets. To bring order and perfection to his LEGO set, the father (Lord Business) uses super glue (the Kragle) to stick the LEGO pieces together forever; thus subduing the creativity of his son to his own vision.

In the final showdown between Emmet and Lord Business, the following exchange takes place:

Emmet: Look at all these things that people built. You might see a mess… Lord Business: Exactly! A bunch of weird dorky stuff that ruined my perfectly good stuff. Emmet: Ok. What I see, are people. Inspired by each other, and by you! People taking what you made and making something new out of it.

Admittedly, I’ve found myself in Lord Business’ shoes–looking at the web and seeing a bunch of weird dorky stuff that ruined my perfectly good stuff. Inferior, inefficient, poorly-executed, ugly work that pales in comparison to my own self-perceived beautiful, elegant, efficient, standards-conforming work. And unfortunately I too often voice my knee-jerk, negative reaction on stuff that doesn’t fit what I deem as tasteful, professional design.

But perhaps, like Lord Business, I’m missing something special. What I could be seeing is that behind these works are people. Not people who are maliciously debasing and destroying the profession of web design while trying to purposefully do everything “the wrong way”. But instead people inspired by the work of each other. People who want to imitate the marvelous, beautiful things they’ve seen created by others. People who are learning through trial and error every single day, just like I did—I mean—just like I still do. Isn’t that wonderful?

The Web is Just as Much Mine as it is Yours

The problems that exist on the web aren’t other people’s problems to solve, they’re my problems. Other people aren’t building the web. I am building it. Each and every day. Even this very moment as I type this article.

As a designer/developer I am constantly reading and writing on the web: commit messages, code comments, private and group messages, blog posts, forum messages, tweets, emails, issue tracking posts, links, tutorials, the list goes on and on.

Each message has a distinct purpose: some ask questions, some share insights, some track bugs, some connect me with peers, and some make me laugh (looking at you gifs). All these messages of mine, together with yours, are what constitute the expression of our mutual interest: the web itself.

But the web is not simply a collection of inanimate information—comments, tweets, emails, avatars, questions, answers, posts, etc. Those names and avatars I thoughtlessly scroll through online aren’t just static .jpgs or nodes on a network. Behind every avatar is an indivisible, sovereign human being with emotions, experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, and every other nuance which constitutes a member of the human race. Behind every avatar is a person just like you and I.

So with each of those daily messages you and I read and write we’re not only getting work done, but brick-by-brick we are building the structure of the profession we share together. A Github issue reply, a Hackernews comment, a Stack Overflow answer—individually these may seem trivial in the grand scheme of the web but taken together they are the building blocks which comprise our profession. It’s not just the “thought leaders” or the industry-recognizable names and avatars who direct where the web is going. It’s you and I. Each day, whether consciously or not, we are contributing to the organization and culture of this profession we call web/UI/UX/interaction/front-end designer/developer or whatever we call it.

So when I write on the web, I should probably ask myself: what kind of profession am I building?

Criticism & Fault-Finding

I want to take a second to focus on criticism. Not the criticism the dictionary defines as “the judgement of the merits and faults of [an] artistic work” and that we often refer to as “constructive”. Giving and receiving that kind of criticism is essential to the evaluation of thoughts, ideas, and opinions in the public marketplace of knowledge. Being able to freely exercise our critical faculties is crucial to progress.

What I want to focus on is the other meaning of the word criticism: “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes … severe judgement, faultfinding”. Faultfinding is defined as “continual criticism, typically concerning trivial things”. Contrary to the former definition of “constructive” criticism, this kind of criticism is destructive. It doesn’t build up, it tears down. It doesn’t motivate, it discourages. It doesn’t inspire, it disheartens.

Personally I feel prone, almost hard-wired, to see the amateur, second-rate, inefficient work of others. See, there I go again already finding faults of those around me (like Lord Business). And when I point out the trivial weaknesses of those around me I’m also pointing out the weaknesses of my beloved community and profession. Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating all criticism be stopped. Growth can come from correction, especially when constructive. Those who see a kernel of truth in the criticism of others (whether constructive or destructive), who acknowledge and correct their mistakes, they are indeed wise and destined for great things. But we will never find unity in fault finding, only division.

Instead of seeing what’s lacking in others, perhaps I could look for the good among my colleagues and their work. I could talk about my colleagues’ strengths and talents more than their weaknesses and faults. It is so incredibly easy to criticize code or design: the lack of symmetry here, the inefficiency there. But in doing so I miss complimenting the hard work of others. It’s so much more motivating when I receive positive, constructive feedback as opposed to simply being told all the things I’m doing wrong. Perhaps I could begin saying something like, “That’s a really unique way of approaching that problem. I really like what you did here. That’s a really strong design. I love how you solved XYZ problem. This is a really great foot forward. Here are some possible methods of building upon this compelling foundation of work you’ve already put so much effort into: 1. Perhaps you could … 2. An approach you could try here would be to … 3. An efficient trick I learned yesterday that might help you here is to … Feel free to use or discard these suggestions as needed and keep up the great work you’ve already accomplished thus far. This is going to be amazing!”

A Time For Everything

I’ve talked a lot about avoiding the type of criticism that I personally struggle with most: pointing out faults of a petty nature. Some might say, “well, I am justified in speaking out against this person’s code or design because what I am saying is, in fact, true. It’s industry standard. Any real professional could see that what I’m saying has merit and holds true.” But just because what we’re saying is true is not always a justification for conveying it, especially when it’s hurtful. There is a time and a season for all things.

Our own use of truth and standards within our industry should be disciplined by other values we esteem as a profession. For example, doctors and lawyers are bound to secrecy with facts they have received in confidence. Even though those revealed facts may be true, the value their industry places on confidentiality and trust disciplines, not censures, their commitment to conveying facts.

May I suggest our own use of facts in conveying industry standards also be tempered with other values we esteem (at least I would hope we esteem) such as patience, love, and mutual respect. These also have their place in communicating facts and critiquing the work of others. They are not mutually exclusive. If we focus only on faults, though they be true, it tears others down and causes division. If we are patient, loving, and respectful we build our profession, each other, and ourselves.

We are not just a cut-throat profession on the web, we are a community. Our common interests and passions to learn and create are what unite us. Focusing only on the weaknesses and faults of those in our community, though they be true, cultivates division when we could be fostering unity.

Unity in (Constructive) Criticism

Now I want to make myself very clear: my plead to constrain our communication of fact is no justification for infinite silence. Biting my tongue is different than leaving the conversation indefinitely. I don’t need to be indifferent to inefficient practices or defective methods in my industry. But when speaking about them I could show more patience and forbearance to my fellow comrades. What a better place the web could be if my own daily, public communications (tweets, posts, comment threads, code comments, etc.), especially those which protest deficiencies in the industry, were coherently well expressed while simultaneously upbeat and positive.

As a professional, I must expect that my performance and the things I build will be subject to public critique and evaluation. However, I can also help foster the expectation that these public critiques and evaluations be constructive by doing so myself. In other, more familiar, words: treat others as I wish to be treated.

There is more than enough anguish, grief, and low self-esteem in the world at large. I don’t need to add to it through my own pride, stubbornness, or vanity. I constantly gripe about how my co-workers or clients are not perfect, but in a moment of honesty I have to admit: neither am I. Avatars on screens will undoubtedly do things that disappoint, annoy, and frustrate me. It will always be that way and I can focus exclusively on that if I want. But they are also going to do things that inspire, motivate, and amaze me, why not focus on that?

So the next time I feel the impulse to point out insignificant faults in others or write about how someone else is doing everything wrong, perhaps I will let it sit overnight. More often than not I will realize in the morning that whatever I had to say was trivial, destructive, or contributed nothing of true value. My silence prevented an avalanche of words that would have simply polluted another corner of the web and my—ahem our—profession with needless criticism on petty matters.

The web is what I make of it. So I must ask myself, “self: what type of profession do you want to be a part of?” I hope it’s not a web of fault-finding but a web of unbounded support and creativity. Not a web of words but a web of people. Now I just need to contrast that aspiration with the plethora of messages I disseminate every day and ask: what kind of web am I building?