Dealing with the dickheads

Many of us are put off of contributing to the web community for fear of criticism. What can be done to stop the negativity?

I recently wrote a post entitled “contributing to the web” where I encouraged others to share what they have learnt and contribute to the development of our industry.

It is a subject I feel passionate about and so was sad to receive an email from a reader outlining why he doesn’t contribute more. His email can be summed up in the following extract:

I can tell you why there isn’t more contribution to the web despite having such a large community.Because this community can appear to be a cruel, vindictive, judgmental, and exclusionary group. It’s sad but true, I see it almost every day.

He is right. He goes on to recount various instances where he has witnessed this behaviour first hand. I could add many more. In fact relatively recently a dear friend of mine decided to stop speaking at web design conferences because some dickhead (sorry there really is no other word) decided to include her in a list of speakers that would actively make him boycott a conference. His post was personal, vindictive and based on no fact whatsoever.

What then do we do about this appalling state of affairs?

You can’t fight human behaviour

The person who emailed me implored respected figures in the web community to speak out on this issue. He seemed to believe that in some way this behaviour could be stamped out. However, I am sorry to say I disagree.

I believe this is a matter of human nature and the medium within which we work. It is easy to de-humanise the people we talk about online because we are not looking into their eyes. I myself have been less than complimentary about certain products, software etc, forgetting that this is somebodies hard work.

The web also doesn’t allow us to see the circumstances of those criticising us. Some guy once called me a c*unt on Twitter. However, when I challenged him on this unacceptable behaviour he quickly apologised explaining that a day of disasters had got on top of him and he lashed out. Was his behaviour acceptable? Absolutely not. Was it understandable? Completely. We have all had days that have caused us to say something harsh.

Yes there are those who are simply vindictive because they are jealous, angry or bitter. They hurt because they can or because they themselves have been hurt. This behaviour is disgraceful, but I suggest that no amount of outcry on our part is going to prevent these people saying what they are going to say.

Where then does this leave us? If we cannot change the situation, does that mean we should all give up contributing for fear we are torn apart by criticism?

We can change ourselves

Although we cannot change the behaviour of others, we can change our own attitudes. That is where the answer lies in my opinion.

I don’t believe we should allow these people to hold us back, but instead we should simply ignore them and so remove the power of their voice. We need to develop thicker skins and recognise that people will criticise, but their criticism has no value.

I know what some of you are thinking. “It is easy for you to say that Paul. You are an outgoing, confident person who is respected within the web community.” I am sorry but that simply isn’t true. I am actually as sensitive and vulnerable as anybody else. I just don’t let it stop me.

My mantra is simple. I only accept criticism from those I know and respect. Everybody else I basically ignore. Yes that means sometimes I ignore good well intentioned criticism, but that is how I cope.

Ask yourself why?

I also apply a lesson my mother taught me as a kid (when I was badly bullied at school). She taught me to ask “why”. Why do people behave the way they do? It has actually become so engrained in my thinking that I apply it readily to clients, users and those I work with. However, I apply it most readily to those who criticise me. Why is this person being a dickhead? When you ask this question you tend to end up with one of the following answers:

  • They have a valid point that I am not taking seriously and have become aggressive to get me to pay attention. Personally I tend to confront them, recognise their point but state that their behaviour is unacceptable. But you could equally walk away.
  • They are jealous of me in someway. In these situations I tend to look for common ground and repair any negativity.
  • They are lashing out because they have been hurt. In most cases you will never get to the bottom of what has happened or know how to help, so you are best just backing off.
  • They feel the need to build themselves up by knocking you down. This is often a sign of poor self esteem and I quietly ignore them because if it makes them feel better it is no skin off my nose to let them rant.

It’s about them and not me

Notice the common factor. Other than the first scenario it is entirely about them and not a reflection on me. Even in the first scenario, it is often more a sign that they cannot cope with being ignored, than it has to do with them having a valid point.

In short most criticism I encounter doesn’t hurt me because it is not really a reflection on me. They can say whatever they want, but it reflects more on their character than on me or my contributions.

Don’t respond

Finally, and probably most importantly, I rarely react to criticism. I don’t allow it to change my behaviour and I don’t respond to it. If you remain silent others will come to your defence. Generally speaking this is by far the best way to deal with it.

Let me be clear, I am not criticising people like my friend who has chosen to stop public speaking. I completely understand her decision to walk away. What I am saying is that if you want to preserver, if you want to contribute, you can teach yourself not to take criticism on board. Its sad to say but the dickheads are not going away, we just need to learn to ignore them.

Obviously this is just my experience and personal opinion. I would be interested to hear other perspectives on this. Am I being naive? Let me know (gently) in the comments :)

 

  • credir

    Hi Paul, incredibly timely article. I spoke at FOWD yesterday. The support and warmth extended to me afterwards was amazing, with many offering congratulations and wanting to discuss things in more detail. I was amazed however when someone came over and laid into me for one of the images I’d used in my presentation. Can’t please all of the people all of the time, I guess.

    • http://twitter.com/ryn_j ryan joyce

      Can’t work out which FOWD speaker you were from your username, but of the talks i saw there was nothing that warranted somebody having a pop at you – for your slides no less!

      Guess as hard as it can be, sometimes you just have to accept that our industry has a rich vein of socially… akward… types.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sushin-Kelly/577371465 Sushin Kelly

    A great article Paul, which I agree with entirely. I am not in the position where my voice carries enough weight for people to be jealous of me but even on the lowest scale the anonymity of the internet means people are far quicker to say nasty things that they would never back up face to face! 

  • http://twitter.com/Steve_Worsley Steve Worsley ⚡

    I like to follow dickheads on twitter because it helps challenge my opinion. I don’t respond to them even if what they say makes me angry. But I take a step back & try think about what they are saying rationally. I could unfollow these people but then I would be trapped in an echo chamber where everyone has the same opinion as me. Sometimes it takes a dickhead to make us sit up & take note that what we might be doing is wrong.  There’s a great TED video about online filter bubbles: http://blog.ted.com/2011/05/02/beware-online-filter-bubbles-eli-pariser-on-ted-com/

  • http://twitter.com/Madebysheppard Jack Sheppard

    This behaviour isn’t confined to the “web community” but extends into the creative community and indeed the workplace where perhaps not everyone is creative.

    The creative community is one populated by such a vast amount of people from hundreds of different cultures, demographics and backgrounds it would be impossible to please everyone. And sadly 9 out of 10 of the people I meet are convinced that their way is the best way, and not only the best way but the only way, and if you aren’t doing it their way then you’re stupid. I wonder if it is down to a lack of knowledge of these aggressive people or perhaps we spend so much time learning our trade we don’t want to accept another point of view or method of work.

    In my experience it’s just as impossible to know those who are approachable and about what. I see some of the bigger names in the industry in slagging matches on twitter almost every week. I now know that if I have a question, or want to share something then perhaps those people aren’t the ones to approach.

    Most recently, I’ve read a tweet from someone publicly announcing that they hate people asking for design help. In what industry is this acceptable? I don’t stand up in my office and declare that I will no longer talk to people unless they have sufficient knowledge on  any given subject. Does anyone?

    The creative community in particular is very unforgiving to those learning. Communities like dribbble are lovely places, but sadly act as a magnet for those less willing to forgive mistakes. I’m personally not a member, but visit it often, and people are all too quick to accuse and judge. 

    Maybe we all need to learn that our criticisms should be constructive. 

    This is a very good article, and essential for those starting out in the trade. Perhaps one day things will change and we will all be a little more accepting, but until then learning who and who not to listen to is a good start.

  • http://twitter.com/TwoLittleFishes Nick Bramwell

    Until recently I’ve not shared too many of my thoughts online because I was afraid of being wrong. But after reading Paul’s previous post about contributing to the Web I wrote a blog post yesterday in response to something said on twitter.

    The problem doesn’t come when we disagree with each other but in the way we voice the disagreement. Too often lately it seems that people who disagree make an insult but don’t actually make the case for their view. We work in an area where the often is no right and wrong way of doing things, so often both opinions can be equally correct.

    We need to learn to ignore those who just want to vent anger, while making sure we join in conversations about the things that matter (like the current debate on responsive images).

    If you want to read my post you can find it at http://www.twolittlefishes.co.uk/blog/2012/05/is-web-design-a-craft/

  • http://twitter.com/ElizFreemanWeb Elizabeth Freeman

    What a great article.  I used to work with someone who delighted in knocking everyone else’s opinions and approaches and he did so face to face so goodness knows what he’s like on the web.  He was an annoyingly good developer but sapped the confidence of all around him.  Working with him left me feeling reluctant to put my ideas out there. Definitely need to get over this and start talking more!

  • http://twitter.com/ElizFreemanWeb Elizabeth Freeman

    What a great article.  I used to work with someone who delighted in knocking everyone else’s opinions and approaches and he did so face to face so goodness knows what he’s like on the web.  He was an annoyingly good developer but sapped the confidence of all around him.  Working with him left me feeling reluctant to put my ideas out there. Definitely need to get over this and start talking more!

  • ColbyDesign

    I think you are correct, Paul, in that this is human nature. And it’s not just limited to the creative community; I see it in all walks of life. There are people who feel the need to attack and insult in order to feel better about themselves. The anonymity and distance the web gives them makes it easier to do and gives them a bigger audience, which is what bullies crave. Learning to ignore them is the challenge.

  • ColbyDesign

    I think you are correct, Paul, in that this is human nature. And it’s not just limited to the creative community; I see it in all walks of life. There are people who feel the need to attack and insult in order to feel better about themselves. The anonymity and distance the web gives them makes it easier to do and gives them a bigger audience, which is what bullies crave. Learning to ignore them is the challenge.

  • http://twitter.com/sydlawrence Syd Lawrence

    Although I totally agree with the sentiment of don’t feed the trolls. One thing I think this does cause issues with, is taking on fair criticism.

    I want people to provide me with honest feedback on anything I make / say. Otherwise I can’t improve. 

    It all depends how they word it. Rude people are just rude, and you can ignore them especially if they just throw insults. But as Mark Boulton said, criticism isn’t always personal. http://www.markboulton.co.uk/journal/comments/its-not-working-for-me-crit

    But the trolls? Oh just ignore them, they are as you said, being dickheads.

  • vickytnz

    I’d ad another thing: call out other people for bad behaviour, and if you’re doing such things as organising meetups remind people of the rules of fair play (e.g. not inappropriately flaming people on twitter while they are doing a talk ala the infamous dana boyd fiasco). 

    A lot of this is to do with accountability: people say what they can because they think they can get away with it. While heated discussion is a good thing, bullying is not and it’s the role of any community that wants to learn to remind people what is and isn’t OK. 

  • http://twitter.com/nigedo nigedo

    Surely how to recognise and ignore trolls is one of the first things anyone learns on the Web? Join the World of Warcraft community for a few months and get a taste of the childish cyber-bullying that goes on there. I would have thought people in the industry would be thicker skinned than most after long exposure.

  • http://www.paulund.co.uk/ Paul Underwood

    There was an article on impressive web the other day related to this subject. It was about allowing voting on comments which featured a comment from a beginner about placing css and images in separate folders. http://www.impressivewebs.com/folly-up-down-voting-comments/

    This comment was on smashing magazine and was voted down over 30 times, for a simple question which someone can easily answer but decided to just vote it down.

    This can stop beginners from wanting to learn more, we were all beginners at some stage it’s up to the more experienced people to help.

  • http://www.paulund.co.uk/ Paul

    There was an article on impressive web the other day related to this subject. It was about allowing voting on comments which featured a comment from a beginner about placing css and images in separate folders. http://www.impressivewebs.com/folly-up-down-voting-comments/

    This comment was on smashing magazine and was voted down over 30 times, for a simple question which someone can easily answer but decided to just vote it down.

    This can stop beginners from wanting to learn more, we were all beginners at some stage it’s up to the more experienced people to help.

  • http://twitter.com/sebastiangreen Sebastian Green

    I could not agree more with everything you have said. I think ultimately the ‘dickheads’ are high school bullies, just older and a tiny bit more mature. Instead of stupid childish teasing and name calling they try to pull you down on other things, such as a presentation which you may have done, or a design. It is all just to give them that feeling of being better and boosting their ego, when in reality they are just dicks. 

    They will always be here. There is no escaping them. Keep your chin up and soldier on.  

  • http://twitter.com/mattbee Matt Bee

    I appreciate the sentiment, and you’re absolutely right – but when things like this happen, it winds me up a little.  Fair enough I have had to deal with dickheads, fine.  But I have also had a HELL of a lot more positive encouragement and positive feedback and general fun with hundreds (literally)  of the good ol’ web community. So in balance I still think we have an amazing community but there seems to be too much PR for the negative, and very little for the positives.  If we broadcast all the positives it will surely drown out the negatives.

    For example, I made a list.  The list of negative experiences will never be as long as this:
    http://mattbee.co.uk/2011/12/stop-complaining/

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      The trouble is that one negative comment sticks with people far more than 10 positive comments. We are pulled down easier than we are built up.

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  • http://twitter.com/mattbee Matt Bee

    I appreciate the sentiment, and you’re absolutely right – but when things like this happen, it winds me up a little.  Fair enough I have had to deal with dickheads, fine.  But I have also had a HELL of a lot more positive encouragement and positive feedback and general fun with hundreds (literally)  of the good ol’ web community. So in balance I still think we have an amazing community but there seems to be too much PR for the negative, and very little for the positives.  If we broadcast all the positives it will surely drown out the negatives.

    For example, I made a list.  The list of negative experiences will never be as long as this:
    http://mattbee.co.uk/2011/12/stop-complaining/

  • http://twitter.com/JustinAmphlett Justin

    Criticism is an integral part of the design process and community. The key word is community and you are spot on that online, you have to ignore the comments from people you do not know or respect. It is too emotionally draining to deal with the trolls and the uninformed opinions.

    Find others like yourself online, build relationships and learn to cherish their comments, constructive or harsh… it’s the fastest way to grow as a designer.

    Saying “you can teach yourself not to take criticism on board” is a little misleading… you don’t want designers operating in a bubble, their ego cushioned from the harsh reality that they may be producing crap because they aren’t listening to their peers.

  • http://twitter.com/stuartwiener Stuart Wiener

    Thanks Paul. Great article. 

    I would say that there are a number of people whom I respect and whom I have chosen to listen to. I would very quickly listen to their opinion and criticism because it is genuine and from a place of wanting to improve my work and the overall progress of our industry.  The rest of the comments from the general riff-raff of the internet, more often than not, can be treated as “water off of a duck’s back”. 

  • http://twitter.com/bz_icehorse Birgit Zimmermann

    I really need to think twice about writing this answer for fear of being ignored ;)

    I share your opinion that people tend to get more personal on the web and we have to develop a thicker skin. Being the outgoing character you are, ignoring the critical voices is certainly also the best way to deal with them for you. But as far as I’m concerned, I love to hear constructive&objective feedback from people that I respect, and it can be helpful in a world where superficial praise usually is the way to go. And maybe even a person whom I don’t know and didn’t ask will make a valid point once in a while.

    But that doesn’t mean that I will let any dickhead knock me down for whatever reason! Rather, I could deal with it through some kind of 2-level evaluation process: First, decide if they have a valid point. If so, respond to the critique in one way or another. If they’re just being negative, either ignore them or disarm them.

    On a critical side note: I love the attention to detail on the bulletpoints, as well as many other aspects of this website’s design. However, reading an article like this, the bright background is actually a little tiring for my eyes after a while.

    Now I’m gonna go and hide under a stone.

  • http://16toads.com Paul Burton

    This is a much deeper and far more pervasive issue than mere “criticism”. It speaks to a culture of complaint, childish reaction, and outright hypocrisy that is actively undermining our community.

    I’ve been writing a four part mini-blog series about this problem for the past four months. Paul, thank you for giving me the final incentive I needed to contribute my thoughts on the matter. 

    Intro: http://www.16toads.com/projects/offense/

    Part 1: http://www.16toads.com//journal/comments/passionate_sanctimony_part_1_the_art_of_bullying

    Let’s keep the conversation going.

  • http://twitter.com/First_Broadcast Matthew Croucher

    A very good and thought provoking article and one that certainly would’ve helped me if I’d read it when I starting out.

    I found it immensely difficult when I first got into the industry, and couldn’t really find any advice on how to deal with the things you mention, such as unfair or irrational criticism – most of the time I ended up thinking it was because my work simply wasn’t good enough yet. In a way I guess that meant I just had to keep trying harder and harder, which I did and now have a position in a great company.

    There will be those that don’t react to the criticism by working harder to get what they want though. Those that aren’t quite as confident as they need to be, for whatever reason, and give up and don’t pursue a career in this industry as a result. That surely has to be the saddest thing about all of this.

    Like you Paul, I got badly bullied in school, and my Mum’s advice was sort of similar. She used to just tell me that if I asked why they were doing it, I’d probably end up finding out they were jealous in some way, or insecure, and that if I didn’t let myself be concerned about it all it would all stop and I’d get what I wanted eventually.

    Turns out she was right even in later life!

    Just keep on going and do what you gotta do, don’t let anyone else get to you – pick a goal and stick to it! 

    :-D

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  • Michael

    Hey great article. It’s helped clarify my thinking about how to deal with this sort of person. And let’s face it, these is a high proportion of them in the web design/development world!

    Where criticism is justified and constructive I will accept it and learn from it. The Dao Te Ching has a saying – greet your catastrophies as your friends. I like that.

    When it’s unwarranted and either someone trying to offload blame or make them self feel better I will push back on it and deal with it rationally. Accept the criticism that’s going to make a worthwhile difference. And not the rest!

    I know this is more about in the workplace than contributing online but your article

    • Michael

      …helped. Thanks.

      And don’t anyone criticise me for replying to my own post – I kill you! :)

  • Mick

    Assertiveness works with dick heads. I only become assertive when I get mad. Luckily for the dick head they comply, some don’t know how close they’ve come to being knocked out. Don’t get me wrong I’m a nice guy and most people would probably not give them a second chance

  • RobbieRaven

    Well said Mr B, hope you are well

  • SteveW

    The Internet, and the IT industry is surrounded by a lot of ego. You hear it so much..”he’s shit”, “he works with [name technology] so he’s crap”. We should all be helping each other.

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