Thoughts on online conduct

The latest outrage within my sphere of the internet seems to be the PHP project’s proposed Code of Conduct (PHP internals threadreddit thread). My cursory opinion: I like the idea, and the language of this particular proposal seems a bit draconian. While the PHP CoC doesn’t directly impact me, this seems like a good opportunity to jot down some thoughts on online conduct.

I am a white, privileged male who grew up in an upper middle class family. I didn’t have to work in high school, and my college would’ve been completely paid for, had I chosen to complete it. I live in a comfortable house in well-developed suburbs, with easy access to many local services. I identify as fiscally conservative, socially progressive, and think politicians are a bunch of schmucks (so you could probably call me libertarian).

As someone of privilege, I try to refrain from discussing controversial topics on the web. All too often they devolve into a flame war, “a heated argument between two individuals, that results in those involved posting personal attacks on each other during or instead of debating the topic at hand.” But, as a maintainer of several open source projects and active contributor to many others, codes of conduct have a direct impact on my daily life.

I do believe in the golden rule, and do my best to treat others as I wish to be treated. I think communities, online and off, can benefit from explicitly stated expectations of behavior — even more so when leadership role models ideal conduct. I also understand it’s difficult to regulate away human behavior, and take an active concern with who holds the power to enforce rules. Power is a real thing. Lastly, I know that if a conversation turns into personal attacks, it can be effective to explicitly address emotions — “it hurts me when you say…” — because it brings empathy to the forefront.

Text-based communication, particularly as we practice it on the internet, is really hard. Let me say that again for emphasis: text-based communication is really hard. Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin have a great podcast episode about emotional density, which conveys many of my thoughts on the subject. In short, text loses many of the voice intonation and body language nuances we humans actually use to communicate. Think about it this way: text is a medium where 2/3 of packets are lost in transmission. If we chose to collaborate on the web, this is a constraint we must acknowledge and embrace.

Be nice to others. Go out of your way to be helpful. And, if someone flames you, understand they might be operating a computer without their first cup of coffee for the day.

Workshop: Website hack session, 3/30/11

Only three people showed up, so it ended up being more like office hours than anything else. It was a productive use of my time, although I need to solve the problem of one teacher to N studens with individual needs. I wish students were more receptive to the idea of teaching one another and wonder whether a digital tool would more effectively route those connections. There was definitely a usable gradient of skill sets.

One of the Entrepreneurial Journalism students is moving her project site from Tumblr to WordPress to take advantage of custom taxonomies. I showed her the PHP to register one. She followed my lead by copy and pasting to register the other two. No errors at all, though that would’ve been a good teachable moment. We also talked about template tags. She correctly surmised she needs to replace the existing category and tag snippets on her single.php file with the new custom taxonomy snippets. Lastly, we walked through adding a tag cloud to the sidebar and changing it to use one of the custom taxonomies.

Question: How many times does a person need to review a topic in order to fully grok it?

Another student is in child theme territory for her photo side project. We’re modifying the Fullscreen theme from Graph Paper Press to handle (hopefully) thousands of images on the homepage. Tonight we covered child theme structure, WP_DEBUG, and the HTML, CSS and modifying PHP function arguments of displaying the homepage. We’re just getting started and she wants to have it live by the beginning of New York spring break. Effective project management should be a required course for everyone at the school.

The last student had a few minor questions. These included how to remove an extra menu item that had shown up, modifying the padding and margin of div’s using CSS, and modifying the width of subnav items using CSS. Two more required courses: troubleshooting and accurately stating the nature of your problem.

Again, overall, it was a pretty productive time. I think I’ll continue hosting these on a weekly basis as long as students continue to show up.