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Belittling Beginners

by ig (Vicar)
on Jul 21, 2009 at 15:48 UTC ( #781996=monkdiscuss: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

I am reminded of Shirky's article A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy by the last thread I read here. This thread included several posts that were excessively hostile, harshly critical and demeaning of someone who was obviously only beginning to learn Perl. Sadly, this wasn't in response to persistent failure to follow guidance and learn - it was based on a single post of code, held up to ridicule with no evident knowledge or concern of the circumstances.

I think of Perl Monks as a site whereby more experienced users welcome and help those who are learning Perl in a way that few other languages are supported, and thereby promotes the knowledge and appreciation of Perl in the broader community. I know that it is - I have been helped and I have seen many others helped over the past year that I have been visiting the site. Yet it saddens me to see such contrary behavior, even though it is infrequent and only a few. The hostility of a few can discourage and drive away many.

To his or her credit, the person who received such a harsh welcome responded without anger, hostility or defensiveness, even posting a revision of the vilified code here and removing the original post from his/her blog as a constructive response to the criticism that it was harmful to others. I can't imagine any more compelling evidence that the abuse wasn't deserved. I hope he or she will return to the site to learn, share and set such good example in the future.

Overall the site works well and to the benefit and credit of the vast majority of those posting and browsing here. I am doubtful that this post or anything else can do much to improve the worst case behavior. Yet I hope it can be improved and would be interested to hear any thoughts, ideas or suggestions on the issue.

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: Belittling Beginners
by toolic (Bishop) on Jul 21, 2009 at 16:35 UTC
    I agree that this type (and all types) of rude behavior should be discouraged.
    it is infrequent and only a few
    Thankfully, during the past 2 years in which I have been a PerlMonk, it is my experience that they are few and far between. Because of that, these instances do tend to stick out more.

    Periodic reminders, such as this thread, may be one of the most effective means to curtail unnecessary behavior. Another mechanism is to send a private message to the offender with a reminder of netiquette. In my opinion, taking the high road, as your linked Monk did, is always the best approach.

Re: Belittling Beginners
by ELISHEVA (Prior) on Jul 22, 2009 at 19:03 UTC

    I have been debating whether or not to add anything to this thread - my own opinions about that post have already been expressed on the thread to which ig refers. However, I think the various reactions to Golf: Improve this guy's fail . . . please! - both at the time and then again in hindsight a few weeks later - point to an issue that goes well beyond a particular post.

    In any community there are competing needs and values. Sometimes these values come in conflict and sometimes one value gets focused on to the exclusion of others. This tension is illustrated nicely in the back and forth between Argel and Nkuvu just above this reply. YourMother's observation that Golf: Improve this guy's fail . . . please! showed a wide range of responses also hints at this issue.

    What makes this community powerful is that *most of the time* we find a healthy balance between potentially opposing values. However, we do this so well *most of the time* that sometimes we forget that the things we value are in tension with each other. When we do that we can mess things up badly.

    On one hand, we have:

    • We value kindness, tact, and politeness.
    • We like to teach and mentor. We strive to excel at acting with insight and patience towards newcomers.

    On the other hand we have

    • We defend the honor of Perl by trying to improve the quality of code written in Perl.
    • We enjoy this community as an opportunity to strut our stuff in an environment where people respect our skill rather than being threatened by it.

    To avoid messing up we need to (a) be conscious of when values conflict (b) choose our priorities. Posts like the one by ig above help us with the first part of this issue: becoming conscious. However, I think we still need to express out in the open our feelings about the second: "where are our priorities?"

    The fact that we have done this before many times is not enough. Many (most) of the participants in that thread were old old timers with huge amounts of XP. They are also people who in my brief interaction here seem to espouse all of the above values. These are the very people who helped create these values. This suggests to me that the keeping clear on priorities is not a one time thing. As human beings we need to be reminded of them. Without on-going discussion, we may also start seeing them as purely individual ideals that others might not cherish the way we do. Conversely we might think that our own priorities are the same as everyone else's when they are not.

    Repeat discussion also serves a second purpose. The community is not static. Groups change over time. Once active members disappear. New members take their place. Continued discussion insures continuity as each new generation of users grows into active participation in the community. If we do not discuss our values, then all newcomers have to see are our actions. If those actions seem in conflict with our values they may get the wrong message. No one lives their values all the time. The function of dialog is to help us know what we'd like to be, even if we aren't there yet.

    In A Group is its Own Worst Enemy, Clay Shirky discusses the thought of Wilfred Bion, one of the pioneers in group dynamics. A key component of Shirky's thought is that a group is more than just its members. All groups develop norms as well as formal and informal structures to communicate them. Our values as individuals are shaped by the groups we identify with. Conversely, the groups with which we identify derive their values from the interests and passions of their core members. Thus as members come and go there is a continual need to reflect on and retune the group's vision and priorities.

    Best, beth

    Update: expanded on reasons for continued dialog (paragraph about old timers/actions vs. ideals).

      You are extremely thoughtful and considerate as usual. In the list "On the other hand we have" I'd add:

      • We deal with awful beginner and legacy code at work where it is even held up as ideal because the manager wrote it so it's impossible to say how we really feel about it; then when presented with similar code in personal life it's easy and psychologically healthy to want rail it.

      I don't act on it but at times in the past I have definitely wanted to. And while I admire this place, it's really on a per monk basis. I have a great deal of distaste for groups as units of persons. I like you, I like lots of monks. I don't like Perl Monks as a unit. I realize there are good reasons to explore community issues like you're doing. It's entirely uninteresting to me personally. I can't buy Perl Monks a beer or an espresso. If you, or any number of monks here I've come to admire and enjoy, were in my home town I'd gladly do so.

        There's the PerlMonks community, then the larger Perl community. What's not clear to me is how much you can separate them. It's easy to say you don't think of PerlMonks as a unit, and I definitely agree that the people are what make the community. But every group of friends needs a place to hang out. PerlMonks could feel like a large corporation, in which case it would die quickly. Ditto if an elitist attitude prevailed. To me it feels more like hitting the student center to get some studying in with classmates and friends back when I was in college. And I think the Monastery motif serves the community well. While it's fun to play off of the motif, I think it does help set a certain tone. And even though the titles are from Western Religion I have personally always felt PerlMonks has had an Eastern feel to it.

        I get your point that PerlMonks isn't the site, but it also isn't just the people. It's the combination. Even the software we are using lends a certain flavor to the site. It's possible that Larry Wall's greatest achievement was in creating a language that for some unknown reason encouraged communities to form up around it in ways that other languages can only be envious of.

        Elda Taluta; Sarks Sark; Ark Arks

Re: Belittling Beginners
by Your Mother (Archbishop) on Jul 21, 2009 at 19:37 UTC

    I think that thread needs to be read holistically. To me it becomes positive that way.

    I think nannying is as bad as bullying; in fact, when done publicly it's a politically correct form of bullying.

      Ouch! but point taken. I almost didn't post my comment, because it is criticism of criticism. Perhaps, in a more perfect world, that would have caused it to annihilate itself, or me myself.

      I am curious to know more and thereby perhaps understand and agree with how you see it become positive.

        moritz is a really good hacker and his was the first reply of: even if embarrassing, that's just how I started. Others spoke up about the things you're talking about, don't harsh on the newbies. And the author came here, participated in the discussion, revised some code, got complemented on the new code, and welcomed by a couple of monks; including me.

        I wish everyone would be friendly. I agree it makes a difference. Discussions about etiquette make me cringe though and generally seem to be covered by: "Never teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig." I think about how things go in most other forums, technical ones included, and this place seems like paradise even with the occasional scrap.

Re: Belittling Beginners
by jrsimmon (Hermit) on Jul 21, 2009 at 16:51 UTC

    While I agree that this thread was an example of bad behavior here at PM, I don't believe that we should be too hasty in making changes to prevent such bad behavior in the future. The current system of consideration and reaping poor nodes is both flexible and effective.

    It is unfortunate that this node was not reaped (and I bear some of that responsibility -- i did not read the post closely enough and voted to keep). That is typically not the case though, and to change the rules or process by which nodes are reaped could easily do more harm than good.

    I hope this thread serves as a reminder to the monks that the welcoming and gentle atmosphere of the Monastery is its most valuable asset and should be guarded accordingly.

Re: Belittling Beginners
by Argel (Prior) on Jul 22, 2009 at 01:03 UTC
    I think part of the problem is that that node is framed within the context of golfing, which kicks in some competitive spirit (not that I'm condoning it).

    Elda Taluta; Sarks Sark; Ark Arks

      Competition is fine. But there's no need to be rude about it, in my opinion.

      Had that post been along the lines of "here's some code I found on the web, let's golf it (and correct any errors in the code in the process)," I'd be a lot more comfortable with it. The problem is that the competitive spirit is being directed not only at the other people golfing, but to the brand new Perl programmer.

        I completely agree. I'm just saying that the response may have been harsher than usual because of the competitive sport angle. I'm sure many of us have heard stories about ridiculously bad behavior by parents at Little League games. Of course, that doesn't excuse the behavior, but it may help explain it. For the record I downvoted that node and voted to reap it (though that was more a symbolic gesture since I don't expect it to get reaped).

        Elda Taluta; Sarks Sark; Ark Arks

Re: Belittling Beginners
by RedElk (Hermit) on Apr 22, 2010 at 20:12 UTC

    I know I'm taking a risk by dusting off this old post, but....

    I'd like to share with everyone that I'm an absolute beginner (think Beginning Perl chapter 5). I found this site by way of an internet search that directed me towards Building a Development Environment on Ubuntu (an indication of my recent introduction to the monastery).

    Because of my acute tenderfootedness, there may be value in the fact that I find the content of this specific post to be rare and kind of inspiring. Based upon this alone I think Perl Monks will likely remain a beacon for all people interested in perl, new-b and old-b alike.

    My two cents.

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