Online tech communities have always annoyed and irritated me. For a long time, I couldn't figure out the reasons, even though I've attempted to, in the past, to figure it out.
In this article, I'll try to explore the nature of online technology communities (or forums) and explain why I think online tech forums are dreary, drab and sometimes downright depressing hangouts. Yes, I have participated long enough in online forums to analyze them somewhat dispassionately and I've been in more flame wars than I care to remember.
Endless talk/debate on a narrow range of topics
Online tech communities tend to be "focussed". The group of people who participate in tech communities tend to have a narrow range of interests. Even if, as individuals, they might be interesting folk to hang out with, capable of having intelligent conversation on a wide variety of subjects, when in a group, and especially in an online setting, technology enthusiasts tend to discuss only tech and nothing much else. When two tech enthusiasts get together, it's easy to figure out that all other talk will be drowned out by the endless tech banter.
While in real life, people in groups usually have limited time to get together and talk shop, being online imposes no such restrictions. Endless threads debating the relative merits of PCs and Apple Macs, Linux and Windows, Android and iOS, vi and Emacs go on for ages, sometimes years. The same arguments get rehashed over and over again, until some kind-hearted community moderator or administrator decides to pull the plug on the topic.
This makes online tech communities, in particular, very dreary.
Tech communities have a peculiar problem. The gushing fanboy/girl. Nothing can be more annoying than a fawning fanboy/girl who sing praises to a particular product or service. Sometimes these folk get so sensitive about the object of their adoration that even the slightest hint of criticism can set off a huge flame war with personal abuse heaped on the person who dared to express that critical remark.
This problem can be seen particularly in product-oriented or brand-specific discussion forums, where fanboys/girls tend to elevate themselves to positions of unofficial, unpaid brand ambassadors of the companies/brands they revere, but is a common phenomenon in most tech forums. Fanboys and fangirls get tiring very quickly because they lack the intelligence or critical thinking necessary to participate in a reasonable discussion related to the product or brand they worship. Worse, they often attack the competition with FUD and sometimes downright false information.
Sometimes being part of an online community can feel like watching a telemarketing show on TV: such is the endless stream of marketing talk.
Levels of maturity
The gushing fanboy phenomenon is actually an indication of a broader issue: the average level of maturity of the typical tech forum user. This is something that I think is not necessarily age-related, but online tech communities seem to attract a particularly immature set of people. I am not saying that every tech enthusiast is immature, but the general quality of discussion of non-tech topics on tech-related forums seem to indicate that some people don't have a broader perspective of issues beyond technology.
Try discussing religion or philosophy on a technology forum and be prepared to face a surprising level of ignorance and intellectual arrogance. Try discussing politics without descending into circular cliched arguments, references to the Nazis and ultimately flame wars. Admittedly tech communities are supposed to be about tech and not much else, but it's the people who hang out there that set the tone and the odd discussion on non-tech topics can be revealing.
It's not lack of knowledge that is the problem; it's a question of attitude. Techies generally tend to think they know everything there is to know under the sun, because they happen to be tech savvy.
Lack of respect in communication
It's not that the people who form part of tech communities are always purposely disrespectful to their peers. It's that there is a tendency among geek-types to be blunt, brusque or rude, without realizing it. Yet other geek-type wannabes put on a show of bluntness or rudeness just to "fit in" with what they consider the geek or hacker culture. To be honest, part of this problem is that communication purely by text doesn't convey emotional cues and even a badly phrased joke can come across as an insult.
Whether deliberate or not, repeated behaviour of this kind can get tiring and annoying.
Here's a typical example. Suppose I use a product which has some exciting new features, and I announce it on a tech forum (and I might not even be a fanboy):
I just got product X and it has so many great features P, Q, R. Good work, company X!
Now, I may have posted that information by mistake. One of the new features might actually not exist on the edition of the product I own. On a tech forum, some genius (or over-sensitive techie) who spots this, and takes me for a fanboy of Company X, is sure to respond as follows:
Stop spreading false information. Product X doesn't have all those features. You are either somebody with a very low IQ or you are on the payroll of Company X. Looks like you are both. Get lost.
A normal response might be:
Man, that is incorrect. Product X doesn't have that feature. Maybe you made a mistake or you own edition Y of product X?
The exact wordings, might of course differ. But on a regular non-tech community, most people would simply point out the mistake politely or ask me if I am using a special edition of product X with that feature. I am not saying that every tech community will have users who act like this. I simply state that tech communities tend to have more people who respond in the first manner.
The haters and trolls
It appears to me that trolls and haters roam more freely around tech-related communities than non-tech communities (with the possible exception of political or religious communities, even though some of them are surprisingly well behaved). Technology seems to spark extreme reactions in people. The haters and trolls are in some ways, at the opposite end of the spectrum to the fanboys, but they might probably be secret fanboys of a competitive product, service or brand. The difference is that the haters and trolls don't make it clear what they like. Instead, their focus is entirely on the negative side of things.
Constant stream of cynicism can be dampening to the spirits and annoying as well.
The hoity-toity moderators and staff
Tech communities seem to attract a particularly uptight and self-important set of people as community moderators or staff. They lack humour, they act like cops and generally think they're above the rest of the crowd. While ready to condemn others for bad behaviour or etiquette, they generally act like prima donnas and feel free to insult anybody they wish. They also tend to be apathetic and uncaring about genuine issues.
Moderators or staff on non-tech communities are generally nicer, more mature and act as community helpers first and foremost. I rarely have come across a really rude or arrogant staff member on a non-tech community.
I think it boils down to the fact that tech communities tend to be much larger than non-tech ones and moderators/staff on such communities tend to get a sense of power over the "unwashed masses." More likely, they probably take their roles too seriously, are numbed by the constant negativity of tech forums and spend too much time online, looking for potential troublemakers and spammers: just like the over-ethusiastic local policeman who probably doesn't have too much power or importance anyway.
Other minor irritants
These are relatively minor points, but they contribute to making technology communities somewhat drab and dreary, compounding the above factors.
- Too many of them online to be really unique or different from one another.
- Excessively populated to have a homely comfortable feel. Online tech communities attract the masses.
- Tech websites and web forums tend to be themed with pretty dull colours. Blue, grey and white are all too common. They all add to the dreary, generic feel.
Technology is supposed to make life better. One would think that technology discussion forums would be cheerful and friendly communities. The drab and dreary nature of online tech forums and communities somehow belie these assumptions. Maybe the fact that technology has become so ubiquitous in our lives that we take it for granted has something to do with the prevailing cynicism. Maybe techies, as a class, are more highly strung than non-technical folk, due to the nature of their jobs (particularly in IT, where techies spend far too much time at work in front of computers)? I don't know.
Nevertheless, the depressing thing about participating in online tech forums is that, soon enough, you start to absorb some of that cynicism. You stop being yourself and start speaking in a language which you might not otherwise have used in normal, everyday conversation. In the long run, it can also be downright depressing.
Finally, I am not going to draw any broad conclusions from this article. I have simply made observations based on my personal experiences over the years with online tech forums.