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March 30, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

Tone Matters

Last week Gina Trapani wrote an insightful post on Smarterware about designers, women, and hostility in open source, including how she has applied that to her social-networking scraper application ThinkUp, in terms of welcoming non-coders and contributors from a diverse range of backgrounds. And Trapani's been working around those kinds of problems for a while now: as the founding editor of the Lifehacker blog, she created a space for tech-minded people that was a breath of fresh air. From the post:

At Lifehacker, my original vision was to create a new kind of tech blog, one that wasn't yet another "boys worshipping tech toys" site, one that was helpful, friendly, and welcoming versus snarky, sensational, and cutting. (That was no small task in the Gawker-verse, and I learned much in the process.) ...

I learned something important about creating a productive online community: leaders set the tone by example. It's simple, really. When someone you don't know shows up on the mailing list or in IRC, you break out the welcome wagon, let them know you're happy they're here, show them around the place, help them with their question or problem, and let them know how they can give back to the community. Once you and your community leaders do that a few times, something magical happens: the newbie who you welcomed just a few weeks ago starts welcoming new folks, and the virtuous cycle continues.
One of the things that has struck me, as I've paid more attention to the tech news ecosystem online, is how rare that attitude really is. Trapani alludes to the general tone of the Gawker properties, which start at "snark" and work down, but (thanks to imitation and diffusion of former Gawker writers) most of the other big tech blogs sound pretty much the same, which is one of the major reasons that I dropped them from my usual reading habits and blocked them in my browser.

The typical industry blogger persona is aggressive, awestruck (both as irony and as an expression of genuine, uncritical neophilia), and uncompromising to other viewpoints. When they break their pose of cynicism, they usually rave in extreme superlatives, as though it simply wouldn't do to be quietly amused by something. The tone is, in other words, exactly what you'd expect from a group of young men who arrested their development at a precocious seventeen years old--and I say this as someone who is not entirely innocent of similar sins, as a trip through the archives here would show.

For as long as I can remember, Lifehacker did something different. Along with Make and Hackaday, their writers were less interested in tossing off snarky burns at the expense of the day's news, and more focused on appreciating the efforts of their communities. Even though Trapani has moved on, it remains an easy-going, welcoming read. I think they deserve kudos for that. It's certainly a style I'm trying to imitate more--to highlight the positive as much as I call out the negative.

When it comes down to it, I think each of us has to ask ourselves whose future we'd prefer to realize. If I were forced to live in a world represented by TechCrunch, or one built by Lady Ada, I know which one would feel more welcoming. The latter values knowledge, in my opinion, while the former values commerical product--like the difference between learning to cook and reviewing frozen dinners, the result is probably less polished, but ultimately more nutritious.

Tone has consequences beyond self-realization: Lifehacker and Make, in particular, have really encouraged me to take a closer look at open-source hardware and software in a positive way, just because their bloggers are relentlessly cheerful, low-key advocates for those communities. As Trapani noted, that kind of appeal can be a virtuous cycle. A diverse, positive tech community should be more likely to apply its energy to projects that reflect its membership, instead of an endless supply of hipster social networks and expensive new hardware. I'm glad there are writers like her out there, trying to make that a reality.

Future - Present - Past