We read with our own contexts

Oh Twitter. Yesterday was another day where I accidentally incited another riot with a poorly-worded tweet. Nobody is perfect, but it’s starting to happen with alarming frequency, and I wanted to understand why I keep doing this.

The ever-present ego

We read everything through our own ego filter. It’s how we apply new knowledge to our own situations. Whenever we read a tweet, blog post, article, book, watch a TV show, a film, a play, we take in what we’re reading and hearing and apply it to ourselves. How does this affect me? What do I think of this? Does this mean that what I do is right or what I do is wrong? It’s not that we’re entirely intentionally selfish, it’s just how we comprehend the world around us.

Specifically, if we’re working on the web, we tend to filter what we read through our own specialisms. If an article doesn’t mention what we think is incredibly important, we deride it as thoughtless. If a tweet doesn’t include that exception that we feel makes all the difference, we jump around, compulsively feeling the need to add our own opinions or defend our own positions.

Forgetting over and over

Somehow we manage to forget over and over what we’re constantly saying to each other: 140 characters is not enough for context. A blog post or article is just one facet of a topic, or a facet of a facet of a fragment of a subject. To always include every detail would take forever (and would make for a dull read) and, you know what, you don’t have to always be right.

I don’t introduce my blog posts saying “I am speaking from a position of authority here…” Because that would be a lie. In fact, I often do the opposite, but it’s still not necessary. Who is anyone to decide what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’? All we can advise are the widely-accepted standards, and even those won’t be right forever.

One person’s point of view is exactly that. The wonder of the web is that we can put our ideas out there and others can help us refine them. We have creative and journeying discussions. We make progress. A lot can be learned and shared from something written about a controversial subject. If we don’t discuss these subjects, how do we expect people to learn? Even if we’re sure we’re “right,” how better can we help others to see our points of view? I value every comment left on my blog. If you look back through my posts, almost every one has a comment that has taught me something new, even if it’s just how other people approach things from a different angle.

Criticism comes in two forms

When we disagree with something that someone else has written, we must take the most care to express ourselves possible. Here I’m providing myself as an example of what not to do:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280613649289211904"]

We write with our own contexts too

Now if you’ve never read another one of my tweets, that does come across as a rather unpleasant criticism of the author, 24ways and Bootstrap. And for that I’m really sorry and I’ve been regretting it ever since. Enveloped in my ego, I wrote it as if all my previous tweets about Bootstrap (from days and weeks and months ago, not prior to that tweet) were context. Not only does that assume that people will read all my tweets, but also that they’d remember them.

We must remember that we write with our contexts shut up in our own heads, and we should really provide them where possible. Linking to something that you’ve written on that topic, or just writing with a little more consideration, you can prevent yourself coming across as unkind when you really didn’t mean to appear that way.

I went on to write twelve follow-up tweets. Each trying to clarify, yet back-pedalling, on the last. And that doesn’t even include the multitude of @replies. I just made a big mess.

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280613817245892610"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280615326759141376"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280615659702976513"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280616724200566784"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280618421647986689"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280620547593875456"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280620742075367424"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280621858624253952"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280622345029287936"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280645260152029184"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280645513949351937"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/laurakalbag/status/280710303199674368"]

Constructive criticism is aware of context

Constructive criticism is when you may be negative about something, but your criticism explains why you think something isn’t right, and what could be done to resolve it. You don’t have to have the solutions to everything in order to criticise, but it shows respect to show that your opinion is relevant and considered rather than just a knee-jerk reaction.

If it’s not constructive, then it’s the other thing

If your criticism isn’t constructive, then chances are it’ll come across as personal, rude, unkind and possibly even trolling. There’s no wry smiles at the end of tweets, no sarcasm tags, and for all we try with emoticons and expressive animated GIFs, the nuances of face-to-face communication are completely lost on the web.

Play nice

Of course criticism is important, if we all just go around telling each other how fantastic we are, we probably wouldn’t try anything new. The web community is a caring and protective place, but we need to make sure we’re contributing in a positive way.

5 comments

  1. The problem yesterday wasn’t your views, whether they were “right” or “wrong”, it was that people have entrenched views. In the web world, as I’m sure it is for many other professions and industries, we find ourselves wedded to techniques and ways of working. When someone questions these things we don’t see it as “Oh, someone doesn’t see this as useful”, we take it to mean “They think it’s a stupid thing to do, and by proxy that I’m stupid for doing it…but I’m not stupid!”

    I think I agreed with the feelings you seemed to project, and discussion around these things is positive. Who knows how many people read about the spat not knowing about bootstrap, or even grid systems, and left with a more balanced view of the pro’s and con’s of how to approach a site?

    I think Bootstrap is a crappy way to work, but then I also hate WordPress too, I’d never recommend to people *like me* to use those things…but that doesn’t mean I don’t regularly recommend them to people that have different backgrounds and requirements. I think maybe that’s what we should all have in our mind when we read something…

    “This isn’t them saying my way, and my beliefs, are wrong…just that they have a (probably) valid reason why it’s not always suitable”

    As long as we try to be respectful, and I hope no-one truly fell out with each other over this (it’s all to easy to think people have got fully annoyed with you when really they just have passionate views!), then these kinds of things are good for the community, because everyone taking part is a slightly different flavour of developer, with a little bit more or less designer in them, or designer with a little bit more or less developer in them.

    It’s this spectrum that can really help us focus on best practices, plural, that apply dependent on our situation and skills.

    Reply

  2. Hi Laura, recently I’ve seen a couple of designers, Paul Adam Davis, Amber Weinberg and yourself criticising Bootstrap. Coming from a development only backgrounds seems to have left me with whitenoise when it comes to design. Whilst I’m capable of deciding if something looks good or not, I’m unable to design myself, so I rely on design frameworks such as Bootstrap and Foundation to give me a head start. My blog for example is built on Bootstrap however I paid for a theme via WrapBootstrap to take the standard Bootstrap theme and change it into something beautiful and different. I don’t see the harm in doing that? It’s like you taking a website structure you use on every site and applying custom colours on top. Is that just as bad?

    I know we’re coming to a point with bootstrapped websites where a lot of developers are leaving them as the default styles, but many of us work by shipping function over design. With you, perhaps that’s different.

    I have a lot of respect for you Laura – this comment isn’t meant as a stab at yourself or anybody mentioned above. :)

    Reply

  3. Hey Laura,
    Don’t beat yourself up. I think it is also important to realise that everybody is in the same 140char limit as you, and many can (and do) read between the lines. I saw your tweet and wrongly or rightly put 2+2 together, and drew my own conclusion, as I’m sure other people will have. My personal opinion is that frameworks are fantastic for quick prototypes and putting ideas together, but I still prefer to start with a blank template when it comes down to it…. so yes, those few characters you wrote will always say something different to the reader, wrong or right.

    Reply

  4. Fantastic article, Laura, I’ve now re-evaluated how I talk to others online, when to give critique and constructive criticism etc.

    I don’t know about you, but one my favourite things in this community is when a dev or designer takes on something I’ve suggested or improves after listening to my criticism, or even respects it and acknowledges it. It’s an absolute delight, and what makes this community a wonderful place; I hope that it will continue to be a place of positivity, and supportiveness.

    Reply

  5. Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful post. I think you make some good points about criticism and context. It is not just about our personal context. It is also our culture, our society and so on. People forget or don’t realise that knowledge they take for granted is often not there in other people.

    Also, I think you provide a good example of some of what I don’t like about Twitter.

    Reply

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