The toxicity of arrogance

October 11, 2017. 1,493 words and a 8 min read. Post version 1.1

The community of people that work in technology have a problem, we’ve built a meritocracy of assholes, and it’s toxic to inclusivity. Taking a look at the public face of technology reveals a place where the cult of ‘meritocracy’ has resulted in the creation of ego’s and attitudes from some of our industries leading thinkers and practitioners that fundamentally violate the thing so succinctly summed up in Wheaton’s Law.

“Q: What is Wheaton’s Law? A: “Don’t be a dick!” – Wil Wheaton

Three of the main avenues of public discourse in technology (social media, Github and conferences) are infected with the kind of adolescent, male power structures that are more at home in a school playground than a professional environment that self-describes itself (rather hubristically) as wanting to change the world.

When talking to people about this post there were suggestions that I should ‘name and shame’ some individuals involved, but I’m not going to do that. The only purpose it would serve is to frame this post as a personal attack, and more than that I think it violates the “Don’t be a dick” rule. I also won’t be dealing with why a meritocracy is a bad thing, other people have done it better than I ever could.

Social media

Social media has been the best thing to happen to our community, it has lowered the barriers to communication and collaboration in a way that I don’t think anyone could have predicted, but it has also led to a terse culture of dismissal and attack.

Far too often you watch people engage in the kind of nasty, personal attacks that naive experience tells you people would never indulge in real world interactions.

I’m not talking here about the toxic cesspool of social media that seeks to degrade and abuse people at every opportunity, particularly so if you’re female or just not a member of the young, white, male and heteronormative morass. That part of the internet deserves to be fired at high speed into the nearest star. I’m talking about what is seen as the positive side of social media, the place 'where the value lives'.

Too easily nasty adjectives are thrown around, describing ideas or even the people that produce them as ‘stupid’ or ‘idiotic’. Too easily do what start out as constructive discussions end in name calling and barely concealed personal attacks. Too easily are we ready as a community to throw people’s ideas and work under the train of subjective ‘reality’.

Do bad ideas need to examined and dismissed? You bet. Do people spreading misinformation need to be called out? No question, but do we need to do with it with the attitude of condescending indifference and barely controlled mocking laughter? No, we don’t. Look at pretty much any Hacker News submission to see the kind of attitude I’m talking about here.

Building positive and constructive discourse on social media is a key to building an inclusive community, that means not dismissing people who know not quite as much as you so easily, giving feedback and accepting it in return. Is it your responsibility to reach out and spend time doing this? Maybe not, but it is your responsibility to treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve when dealing with them on social media? Yes, it is.


Github has come to represent, for me at least, a lot that is good about open source and community building in technology, but due to it’s size and rambling complexity it also attracts the kind of attitudes I talked about above.

For example the arrogance that's written in issues or bugs or the language and pronouns that are used in documentation can serve to alienate a sizable chunk of the community. Others have written on this subject far more eloquently that I ever could, Coraline Ada Ehmke in particular, who has created what I think is becoming one of the most valuable documents available to the open source community: the Contributor Covenant, which in it’s words is:

An easy way to begin addressing this problem [the startling lack of diversity of participants, including women, people of color, and other minority populations] is to be overt in our openness, welcoming all people to contribute, and pledging in return to value them as human beings and to foster an atmosphere of kindness, cooperation, and understanding.

The Contributor Covenant can be one way to express these values. Pledge your respect and appreciation for contributors and participants your open source project by adding an explicit to your project repository.

The adoption of the Contributor Covenant is growing, with notable projects like AngularJS (and many others!) adopting it’s values. To demonstrate it’s obvious necessity, read it and then apply it’s principles to your favourite project on Github, what would have to change? In many cases, it’s quite a lot.

Tech conferences

Having conversations with others in the community about the above will usually lead to an easy to form conclusion: sure, people aren’t nice on the internet, but they’d never be like that in person!

If you’ve ever been to a tech conference, you can attest to the fact that it unfortunately carries over to in person encounters to. Curiously impersonal ones admittedly but face-to-face nevertheless.

There’s a few examples that illustrate the problem:

  • Questions after a talk. Too often these ad-hoc questions are not used to push forward a discussion on a topic or get as much value from a persons experience as possible, they’re used to demonstrate the cleverness of the person asking the question. A question that lasts for 60 seconds can be 45 of public ego-stroking and 15 of perfunctory or provocatory question at the end.
  • Holding court. People with (sometimes rightfully) great reputations in communities can use conferences (usually when they’re speaking at them) as proxies to hold court. Seeking to spend their time with a coterie of admirers and quickly dismissing questions they deem unworthy with a knowing smile or subtle eye roll.
  • The “dudes at the bar” problem. There’s a lot of bullshit ladishness at conferences, too often when a group of men get together in one place with cheap or free alcohol a predictable atmosphere is created. It’s not good, it makes people feel uncomfortable. Being the vaguely liberal, vaguely well educated group or predominantly white straight men that we are we think this “isn’t really that much of a problem”, but it is, just ask someone who isn’t part of that group who’s been to a tech conference if you don’t believe me.

Finally, there’s an even more insidious and flagrant group of people at tech conferences, those who still loudly decry their misogynist, transphobic, homophobic and racist bullshit. This has to stop, these people need naming and shaming and ostracising from our community, only then can we deal with the more subtle problems our conferences face.

The positive thing is that there’s a growing movement at tech conferences to have well documented and enforced Code of Conduct. This is awesome and is to be applauded, but we as attendees and organisers need to do more to hold ourselves and others to the high standards these conduct documents require us to.

Why is tech bad?

Having worked in legal, financial and other fields the tech industry is worse than some and better than others, but I think there are a couple of things that in combination lead to a particular nexus in the tech community:

  • The nature of our work is, in lots of cases, an introverted intellectual one. This can lead to the stereotype of the brilliant anti-social engineer that we all know. It is hard to relate to the world when you spend all day in your head. When you form hypothesis and ideas internally it’s difficult for people to relate to them in exactly the way you do. However, we forgive people too much their lack of social niceties.
  • The startup eco-system has led to the kind of inflated, ego driven cult of personality and individual worship that means keeping a level, modest head on your shoulders can be hard. “I’m paid really well and sought after by some of the most important, innovative organisations in the world, of course my opinion’s important!”

So what can we do?

Follow some simple rules when interacting with people, be it online or off:

  • Be open to other people’s ideas and opinions.
  • Welcome everyone to contribute regardless of their experience, gender, sexual identity, race, physical ability or religion.
  • Be kind, be cooperative, be understanding.
  • Be thoughtful with your language, particularly when it comes to personal pronouns or sexually or racially inappropriate names or words.

If you feel these things are being violated and make you uncomfortable, please don’t stay silent. This is easier said than done, but know that there are people who care and will help.

Related posts