The World Needs a Free Web

I spend a lot of time thinking about this as a Mozillian. And just this week I had the privilege to meet the producer of an upcoming documentary addressing the challenges we have in this regard.

But today I had the utter joy to see why this issue is so tangible. So palpable.

If there were no free web, there’d be none of this. Profuse thanks to Deanna for calling this important material to our attention!

Progress or Compliance?

The Internet exploded this week when Adria Richards chose to use her social media audience as the first channel to air her offense at some comments made at Pycon. Much has been written about this, including further offense that people have actually questioned Adria’s response to her own offense. Everyone’s offended.

To be clear: offense and even outrage is justified considering the vitriol that ensued (including real, disturbing threats and job losses). It’s worrisome and harkens of regressive tendencies in tech and the job security and safety of many in this industry.

However, the bigger picture so eloquently outlined by Amanda Blum is very important. Blum calls out a pattern of social media dysfunction where Richards has reacted to multiple instances of offense through public channels, which invariably (if you use social media, it’s not surprising) led to incendiary exchanges and a general degradation of relations.

Blum says it so well:

All she had to consider was “what outcome am I looking for?”. If the outcome is “change the way these men are speaking” she’d have taken a different route. If “make as big a deal of this as humanly possible with no thought to consequence” was her outcome, she chose right.

When I look at this big picture – what do we want things to be vs. how do we feel about specific incidents – I have little sympathy for the “if someone is offended they are off-limits to criticism” approach others (whom I love dearly) have put forth. There are SO many reasons why putting a quarantine on any critique of an offended person’s reaction is counter-productive and leads to horrid consequences…here are just a few:

  • It confines the situation to feelings rather than uses those feelings constructively. Not to belittle feelings; if I suspend disbelief (and had not read the very salient context provided by Blum) and posit that she has for reasons of pure fate encountered a large backlog of awkward sexist situations, certainly frustration, insecurity, awkwardness, and fear are all rational reactions. But acting on them vs. weighing out what the desired outcome should be led to lots of disservices. Disservices to her, for assuming that is all she is capable of is reacting (or cyber-bullying, in this case). To the offenders, for not allowing them a chance to explain themselves before the world knew. And to the Internet, for escalating a series of reactions about an offense rather than healthier, more constructive conversations about what can be done to prevent them. Regardless of what Matt Lemay says about the conversation being good, it would have been *way* better had it not been launched by a shitstorm of threats and polemics. Easily avoidable.
  • It absolves the offended of any responsibility to think bigger and act in a way that actually helps others. In this sad case, giving Richards a self-centered carte blanche to do whatever she feels is ok wasn’t just therapy. It led to some real, horrid and significant backlash. Social media tends to do that. If she truly wanted a healthier environment in tech, her passive-aggressive “I will only Tweet and out them en masse” manner would not have happened. She could have followed Jolie O’Dell’s script. If she was too afraid or timid to do that, she could have addressed it with the conference officials who had already made it clear they care about this stuff – clearly a supportive audience. But she chose vendetta, not activism.
  • It leads to an environment of fear and compliance rather than freedom and enlightenment. Again, play it out: say some company hires her for PR purposes (it’s a leap to think someone would hire her for her commmunity-building skills; SendGrid’s explanation makes perfect sense). She joins the team. Do you think anyone would feel free to say _anything_ in her presence given her passive-aggressive terrorist approach to conflict? All ingredients to an environment of compliance, fear and resentment rather than an enlightened, educated workplace.

In short, when you choose to involve social media as the key channel for your conflict, you go beyond your personal therapy. You affect lives. Think before you point, shoot and post.

The Gift You Need To Want

“Feedback is a Gift”

One of the most enlightened leaders I’ve had the privilege to work for often said this. As I went on to grow professionally (and personally), I have grown to increasingly appreciate the wisdom contained in this simple statement. Rather than being obvious or trite, effective feedback is quite elusive – and therefore precious – for a few reasons.

Deliverers of effective feedback need to be willing to face conflict, and to take some time and effort to point out specifics to make the feedback valuable as well as communicate it clearly.

And yet, regardless of how its delivered, recipients tend to react defensively (see “the 3 Ds“), or simply ignore it altogether.

Which is a huge loss. Even if the feedback comes from a “biased” or self-interested perspective and is delivered terribly, there are always nuggets that provide important learning – if only because “perception is reality”: the wake you leave on others will effect your own life in various ways that you may be aware of or not.

So when I saw a crazy-a** email inquiry come into our mailbox at WebFWD, my biggest takeaway was not how lame it was (details on that part at this blog post); rather, it was how valuable the actual response was that my colleague provided.

For convenience, here’s the original email (sent to BCC):


I have a great idea that’s working and I have customers and revenue.  I need advice for experienced angels/ investors/ mentors in order to scale it

Several questions if I may:

1.       When are you accepting applications?

2.       What do you offer?

3.       What equity stake do you request?

4.       What are the best mentors/ angels are you firm?

5.       What differentiates you from all the other incubators?

6.       When I visit you (I’m coming from london uk), where should I stay accommodation wise, please recommend me some places

Thank you and I look forward to your reply.


…but, again, rather than reeling in my aghastness, what has stuck with me was Pascal‘s reply:

Hi <first name of sender>,

I can’t tell if you sent this email to me personally or to WebFWD (judging from your questions I assume the later – so I copied my colleagues on this response).
Don’t get me wrong – but this email is probably the worst possible way to ask for help. You obviously sent this email to a bunch of people at the same time; didn’t take the time to personalize your email; don’t tell me what it is that you’re doing (a hair saloon? a new web browser? a cure for cancer?); clearly haven’t done any homework (the answers to your questions are all on the WebFWD website – if you happen to mean WebFWD – which I still can’t tell).
If you really look for help and genuinely mean it – I suggest you treat the people you ask for help with a bit more respect. That way your chance that someone will actually help you increase significantly.
This is so good, for so many reasons, including:
  • It sets up the feedback being delivered as being in the best interest of the sender: all of the input is intended to help the sender get the help she is allegedly seeking.
  • It provides 4 specific examples as to why the inquiry is so ineffective.
  • It shares the basic direction of the feedback straight away, as opposed to the proverbial “shit sandwich” approach that many afraid to provide constructive feedback hide behind, obscuring the ‘meat’ of the feedback in between a few fluffy bits of niceties that on their own would not merit any feedback.
  • It clearly took time and effort to craft, but if received with any degree of openness, will clearly help the sender.
Blessed are those who are not only open to feedback, but who get it in such thoughtful, concrete ways. Here’s to a year of growth, through constructive, actionable feedback!