One online and not on WordPress.com, one at work and anonymous, and one in real life.
In October I took a dive into communities. I ended up being part (in some way) of three.
I decided to try to participate in Inktober via my Tumblr account (via my WordPress.com account 🙃), and ended up with 13 submissions. Here are my favorites: Day 21, Day 14, Day 13, Day 8, and Day 7. I didn’t manage to post every day, but I enjoyed doing something that literally thousands of other people are doing. It took any pressure off; there are just so many people participating that there’s definitely a pack to blend into. I also really liked looking at other submissions. It gave me good visual feedback on what other people can do with pen and ink, and helped me define what my strengths are with the medium. It was interesting to do something specific offline for online consumption. My usual routine is to just record what’s happened in my day or with the kids, and this was a little bit different. I had to consciously and deliberately create something for submission. It was (by definition) much more intentional, which made missing days also intentional. I learned that drawing people doesn’t actually hold much interest for me. I get a lot more out of drawing cute animals, or faithful reproductions (i.e., not particularly imaginative). I’m not skilled at cartoony-type drawing, either. Finally, I don’t really maximize ink. There are people out there who can do so much with it! The practice I did have this month absolutely made me better than I was, and I think there’s a ton of value in that takeaway — daily practice even for a short time can reap noticeable benefits. I didn’t get into commenting on other people’s submissions or truly being active in that community (in a way that Tumblr in particular makes so easy), but I think that’s a good next step. [Reminder, Automattic has acquired Tumblr.]
At work we have an anonymous P2 (remember what P2s are? They’re our internal public blogs, that function a lot like forums — anyone in the company can read any P2, and anyone in the company can comment on them. We do all our business on P2 and in Slack for instant communication.). When you access this particular P2, your IP is switched to a specific one (everyone is switched to this specific IP), and you’re assigned the identity “Anonymous.” A historic problem we have had with this P2 is that it lends itself to trolling. A comment that might be lighthearted coming from a friend becomes sinister coming from a stranger. Eventually, we instituted a code of conduct for the P2, but that has only been in recent years, and isn’t always followed. Another long-time issue is that we (leadership) haven’t transparently participated on a consistent basis, so we have been passively endorsing this sort of behavior. That’s not to say that people don’t participate non-anonymously (we do this by @-mentioning ourselves, which pings us) — they do! And it’s really helpful when they do. And it’s not to say that people also don’t redirect conversations and call out non-productive comments anonymously, because that happens too. But I do feel we’ve lost a lot of opportunity to make this space particularly valuable for the people who would get the most out of it. I usually avoid this P2. I find some of the viewpoints and the relentless trolling vitriolic; it typically hasn’t produced healthy debate, and attempts to steer the debate in a productive manner usually results in more trolling. I’ve made a point, however, of paying attention to it, since early September. I’ve noticed that more people are (anonymously) working to keep things productive, and that the questions being raised are being put up in good faith more often than not. These are positive improvements! I summarized a thread for all the team leads at Automattic, because it dealt with how people felt about leadership. It had some interesting points, and things for us to be aware of as a whole. Some of it was completely non-relevant, but it was a start. I’ve also only ever commented on this P2 using my own name (someone, anonymously, told me to stop because I was decreasing anonymity for every other person; reader, I did not stop), but I’m taking a more proactive stance to look through the P2 at least once a week and find places where I can weigh in as a lead of leads, or pull out relevant lessons for others. It’s too early to tell how helpful this is actually going to be, but I do firmly believe that taking accountability for my own words is important, and demonstrating in this anonymous environment what I consider to be acceptable behavior is just as important. Time will tell.
Finally, I spent some time with an offline community – Buffalo Bills fans! I luckily went to a game on a really beautiful fall day; it was warm and sunny. Everyone was in a good mood. I got to hang out with a fun group of Bills Mafia folk, and find out more about their Bills-mentality. People tend to defend the Bills’ performance by investing more energy into being fans; if you like the Bills when they’re down, you’re a good fan. If you actively hate all other teams in a very specific and detailed manner, you’re a great fan. I think that if the Bills had the exact same record, but everyone (outside of the 716 area) was really supportive of them and felt fondly towards them, fewer people would be rabid fans. I had a really interesting day. People were definitely all really jolly but also kind of strangely furious. The Bills played the Dolphins, which is a classic matchup, and one I was glad to get to go to, but I did wonder at the folks who were decked out head-to-toe in their Dolphins gear. Would they have the same kind of experience I expected to have? Their team lost, so no, but on the whole, the fan bases were polite to each other. I saw some high fives and hand shakes at the end of the game, with rueful “good game”s thrown around. But during the game, the Bills fans were absolutely bananas. You expect a certain amount of that when they lose the ball or during foul calls that go against them. What really caught me off guard was how violent their happiness was. I do suspect the beautiful day played into this some — longer to tailgate means more impaired people packed closely together and yelling together. And none of their belligerent joy was directed at the other fans (that I saw). It was very pointedly directed at specific players. I suppose long winters in Buffalo makes for a good imagination, and the things that these fans wanted Dolphins players to be aware of were breathtaking in scope and suggested implementation.
My two big takeaways overall are the value of effort and the danger of othering. Not groundbreaking, not anything you couldn’t figure out for yourself in other ways. But I think in this context, it’s useful and instructive. These are all three areas where I had minimal (or zero) involvement. But I found that by putting forth an effort to participate, I gained more than I anticipated. Inktober helped me actually improve my drawing skills, and got me used to using the Tumblr app. I have ideas of what I want to do next, and I feel like exploring Tumblr is going to continue to be interesting and rewarding. Participating in the anonymous P2 has gotten me more used to having critical discussions with other leads outside of Happiness about the things we all have in common. It’s also made me have a more positive mindset about that P2, and what I can do to make it more like the community I’d like us to foster. Going to a Bills game and tailgating with fans has given me a much bigger appreciation for the team and also for the people who help make those sorts of experiences actually fun (not everyone is there to get drunk and be angry). I also enjoyed being out of my comfort zone and doing something along with a massive group of strangers (I don’t want to do it every week, humans are exhausting).
On the flip side of that, in each group, othering is pretty real. The most positive here was Inktober — participation is completely voluntary, and there’s no penalty for not being involved. However, there’s also a reality that if you’re not actively looking for other submissions and interacting with those (liking, commenting, reblogging), you’re not going to get much interaction on your own submissions. I think this makes perfect sense — again, you get out what you put in — but it can also create a divide between people who have the time to build those relationships and interactions, and those who don’t. That’s normal and expected. You can’t have an inside without an outside, and everyone has the option to be inside. On the anonymous P2, there is a pervasive “us vs them” mentality. My hope is that we all consider ourselves Automatticians facing similar problems together, but too often when debate is begun on the anonymous P2, it is not us versus a problem, it is us versus us. I was talking to a product lead about the P2, and he said it was really hard to carry on a dialogue with someone who is anonymous. Are you replying to the same person? Or someone entirely new? What is the intent behind the question? In a lot of ways, the anonymity amplifies every issue that exists in a remote environment. Goodwill attempts to engage in discussion can be frustrated (entirely accidentally). All too often, the problem becomes “me vs everyone else here.” My own mindset about the P2 has definitely evolved over time. I have historically thought of it as being a “bad” place. But that is also othering! Finally, with the Bills fans, I’m not sure I need to get too detailed about the “others” — usually the other team, not really the fans. A guy sitting behind me was constantly facetiming with his kids during the game, and his son’s name is Brady. He loudly told everyone that he wasn’t named for that Brady, because he hates the fuckin’ Patriots, he’s just loved the name since he was 12. (His daughter’s name is Nora. He was loud.) I still see myself on the outside of this group as a whole (I’m just not that into sports overall), but as with all three communities, I’m glad to have spent time exploring them more and learning more. I’ve had the opportunity to better refine my opinions as a result, and that certainly feels like a win.