I grew up in Oklahoma in the 1980s. It was not a great place for kids with high IQs, awkward social skills, or a lack of athletic ability. When you have all three, well, it’s brutal. I was called a lot of names.
When you deal with that sort of emotional bullying every single day, you create defense mechanisms to deal with the wilting fire you’re under. You avoid doing things “nerdy” you might find fun — which is why I never played Dungeons and Dragons or other role-playing games. You change your behavior so people won’t see you as gay, even though you are very clearly hetero. You build a hard, spike-covered outer shell to keep away anyone who can hurt you.
High school… well, high school was a nightmare. To be friends with me was damaging to your social capital. Thus, I had few friends. The ones who did often had to publicly repudiate me to keep themselves from becoming pariahs.
When Columbine went down nearly a decade later, I just nodded. I had those fantasies when I was a kid, of walking into school and killing my abusers.
College was better, but only just. Still awkward, still smart, highly defensive. Other kids in my dorm wrote homophobic insults about me in the bathroom stalls. After an incident involving a bathroom sink meeting its maker at the hands of a violently drunk freshman, the hall director discovered the graffiti, ordered me moved to another part of the building, and threatened all members of the floor with eviction.
It says something that I barely even noticed just how abusive the language actually was.
I didn’t even call myself a geek until I was 25 and living in the UK (a land that flies its freak flag in the same way the US flies American flags – as large and as high as possible). By then, I’d discovered the Internet.
The Internet, first in the form of the Usenet and then in World Wide Web, became my savior. There were people just like me out there. They had jobs. Spouses. Families.
My livelihood I owe to my devotion to the web. My career would move from coding to designing to guiding experiences.
But the sort of web geek I became was rooted in my days of bullying.
My affinity for accessibility comes out of this place of exclusion. You could say that being called “spazz” was a stepping stone to that.
I (regretfully) came late to support GLBT rights, but in 1992 I voted against Amendment 2 in Colorado — touted as “no special rights for gays” — because I had been called “faggot” so many times.
As for user experience, that came from the empathy that springs from knowing how it feels to be the one who isn’t in on the joke.
I say all of this because, honestly, I’m tired of the bullying I see on the Internet. The intertwining of Gamergate with the Chan communities has led to so much doxxing, swatting, and general asshole behavior that whenever the battles stir up again I get wound up in anger.
And yet, these are, in theory, my people. Just as bullied, just as outcast. Why am I not with them?
At 22 I was an angry young man. At 42 I’m not as young, but I’m still angry. However, I’m not angry at those who ran me down, damaged my self-esteem, left me defensive, and led me to turn away from opportunities to find common cause with others like me.
I’m angry it’s still happening to others.
This liberal, libertarian web that has evolved over the last 20+ years has been built by people like me, the outcasts, the “crazy ones,” the kids who spent more time with their computers and books on Friday night than drinking up in Chandler Park with the popular kids.
We were not the cool kids. And then, all a sudden, we were.
But our desire to get back at the cool kids is written in the DNA of the web we built. We built an open system that was meant to level the ground, give every person the opportunity to rise up and strike down the limitations of the systems that have held us down. The web is for everyone.
But now that open system, in the hands of both the powerful and the angry, has become a cudgel to beat down the weak. It has become a space where we don’t foster empathy, instead easily raising angry mobs to attack our now dehumanized “opponents” in behavior resembling sociopathy.
We view the design and code of the web as data points and impressions, not as wholly personal experience. We try to avoid it with personas and user research and accessibility, but then we return to our vacant metrics, to our manipulative A/B tests, to our inaccessible code we keep shipping because there’s just no time to make it functional for all.
Eric Meyer’s direction change back in November reached me at a time I was ready to hear it. I had recently left a situation that had triggered flashbacks of the days of being bullied. Twitter was full of the sociopathic vitriol of Gamergate. It was time for a new message — of not just designing for crisis, but building a web that, to paraphrase an evangelical Christian concept, “meets people where they are in life.”
Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s heartbreakingly beautiful “Personal Histories” reinforced that for me. We don’t think of the consequences of our words and actions on real people in real pain. The parent, their child acutely sick, trying desperately to navigate a hospital website. The abuse victim, forced to come out as an abuse victim on a possibly ungermane form.
My daughter’s school has a program called Roots of Empathy. They bring in a teacher for elementary school kids to learn empathy from. The twist is the teacher is an infant (accompanied by their mother). During the program, the kids are asked to observed the baby’s emotions. Why are they crying? What is the baby feeling?
Through Roots of Empathy the children learn how to put themselves in the shoes of others, how to be more inclusive. Schools with Roots of Empathy programs have fewer incidents of violence and bullying.
How do we take the lessons of Roots of Empathy and transpose them to the web we’ve built? As developers, designers, and content creators we cannot control what users are carrying into their experiences with our work. They’re carrying past and present pain. We cannot pretend our users are perfect automatons, single data points on a web log devoid of emotion. We have to be kind. After all, we have our own past and present pain we’re carrying into the interaction.
So, why did I not join the Internet brigades that are full of the bullied like me? After all, the psychic wounds are certainly not gone. The echoes and ghosts of the past are still with me. Why not?
Of all things, it was my 20 year high school reunion. Yes, I actually went to my high school reunion.
And there, with all the jocks and cheerleaders, I finally understood. Yes, my pain in high school was personal, but we were all suffering. All of us.
If I’d known back then, would things have been better? Would I have been able to reach through the strict social castes of school to say hey, I know you are hurting, and it's OK because I'm hurting too?
I don’t know. But I wish I did. Or I wished I’d paid more attention. But that defensive shell wasn’t going to keep itself up.
But nonetheless, I was standing in a hot and humid Oklahoma summer night, and the head cheerleader was telling me she was happiest to see me at the reunion. And she wasn’t the only one saying it that night.
The years of bullying had dehumanized me, and it had dehumanized everyone in my eyes. I didn’t see how poisoned I’d become until that moment.
The web is poisoning us, telling us empathy doesn’t matter, insisting people who are WRONG ON THE INTERNET deserve our scorn and none of our humanity.
This year, we fight back. The web we’ve built needs to be patched with empathy, on every social forum, on every web form, on every piece of microcopy. This is the Year Of Empathy.
Let a thousand pull requests blossom.