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Oh no! Someone is incorrect on the internet!


I responded to this tweet from Kyle (@getify) and I felt like writing out a longer response.

What should you do when someone is wrong on the internet?

[on a topic you’re an expert in]

I don’t actually think the answer is “leave it alone,” at least not all the time. The Internet is like quicksand — give something attention, and you risk it getting more an more entrenched; however, give it no attention, and you may have something circulating that is incorrect.

Unfortunately for quotability and inspirational TED talks, most things aren’t binary rulesets, and applying a consistent rule to absolutely every scenario is more likely to put you in situations where you’re hurting someone than not, and the world is made of nuance and messiness, and the simplest things are complex.

So what should you do when someone is wrong on the internet? It depends.

Are you reading the thing in question on a forum requesting comment? (Unrequested commenting on things and inserting yourself into not-your-business is sealioning, and don’t do it)

Are you offering a specific, concrete statement that would actually be useful? (shoutout to an editor who said my writing was “just bad,” and then I rewrote the article, and when they published mostly the first version, it was their most popular column that year. and by “shoutout” I mean “you acted like an asshole”)

How “bad” is it? Sometimes, letting people make mistakes and find them themselves is one of the best ways to let people learn. As a wise person told me last year, getting things wrong is called learning. The other thing? That’s called knowing. And there’s a distance between learning and knowing, and it is the valley of fucking-it-up. Doesn’t feel that great, but it’s how you improve. Is your comment useful enough such that they’ll learn from it.

For example, as an example of useful-correction, I once gave a talk where a standard I’d referenced had been sunsetted a little over a month prior to my talk. Someone kindly and quietly came up and told me [rather than say, asking a Q&A question] and I was able to update my talk.

On Correctness

One of the reasons I was attracted to mathematics in school was, unlike English courses, at least in maths through high school and most college, there is a “correct” answer. Other fields don’t have this luxury. Even software, so many things are objective. Kyle commented on a post on Reddit which linked to a post that used JSON.stringify as the means to solve a problem. Do I think that was the best way to solve that problem? No. But did it technically solve that person’s problem, as they laid it out? … It did, actually.

Futurama screenshot, with the quote You are technically correct, the best kind of correct, overlaid

So while maths and computers seem like these “correct” fields, I think you’re limiting yourself if you get too dogmatic about one kind of correctness. Opinions are great to have and hold, but flexibility is a lot more valuable to work with, in my opinion, in the long run.

FWIW, I think Kyle’s comment on this one in particular is useful, and given in the context of something requesting comment (Reddit, which is in fact, a comments forum).

Does insisting on correctness discourage creation?

Some context: Kyle is responding to some previous feedback he’s received about how he’s reacted to folks’ work in the past, but it’s tricky to use platforms like Twitter as a rant, when you have a platform and people will say, cite your tweets in talks and articles 😉

I think the way Kyle’s worded his criticism in the past can come off as harsh — in the context of the power relationship of someone with a platform (Kyle) and a lesser-known person on the internet writing about how they solved a problem. It might not be easy to accept that you’ve accumulated power, but if you refuse to recognize what you have and deal with it, you’re likely to hurt someone.

Could someone in power saying “your stuff sucks” discourage someone from creating? I think it definitely can! That time that editor said my work was “just bad”? I can make some fun of it now, but I didn’t write for that publication again. Because … why would I want to put myself through that again? So if you’re a junior dev, dipping your toe into writing on the internet, and a prominent expert in the field says “you are bad at this” [which Kyle did not do in that Reddit comment, btw] you might stop writing.

Here’s the thing, we don’t get to control how someone takes our feedback. You can have the most thoughtful, direct feedback in the world, and people will still defensive all over it (happens to me more often than I’d like — getting complimented on my direct feedback, while being asked to listen to the extensive feelings someone had about it). So you never said “you’re bad at this” but … it could be taken that way, especially since the combination of “X is an incorrect statement” + position of power, creates a different message than the former + person someone knows and trusts/can be vulnerable with.

If you have some trouble with giving and receiving feedback and want to work on your communication skills, NVC/non-violent communication is a framework a lot of people have found useful, and I’m still exploring myself. I also have a bunch more communication and emotional intelligence reads and tools I’ve used in the past, if you’re curious please ask!

Do you have a responsibility to correct things?

Absolutely not.

This is not a new problem. Blogs have been around for decades at this point. The ease of publishing one, about the same. Teaching newbie programmers, I remember running into this in redirecting folks from using W3schools to MDN for their documentation needs.

What might be new, that I’m wondering, is more of these “platform” sites, where the platform takes no responsibility for the content (see The Practical Dev). Platforms that grow, but then take no responsibility for the content, are how bad information spreads (see Facebook). The platform adds a false sense of legitimacy, and humans gonna human, so we fall for it. It looks like an article on a site where things have been correct in the past … I think we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves when we “fall for it.”

But can you improve your own information-consumption habits? Definitely. I do putter around Twitter (so I’m not junk-food-free by any means), but I don’t read Reddit. I don’t surf sites like The Practical Dev. I follow a blogroll of folks who are at or alumni of Recurse Center, and read my friends’ stuff or things they recommend. You can create some control over what you consume.

Should there be a peer-reviewed site of JS tutorials etc?

Yes! It’s called MDN!

Ok, not quite. MDN should remain the #1 source for JavaScript (and web) documentation. But beyond than that … you know CSS Tricks? It’s a great, edited (not whoever-makes-an-account-publishes) platform, and I reference it for web things, and they’re great!

Is there an opening for an edited site dedicated to JavaScript content, such that the content is “more vetted”? There might be. EggHead is fantastic for video, but personally, I’m a reader (and writer). Written word will, almost always, be my preferred modality.

And I’ll mention that there are some existing great resources (including CSS Tricks! It’s not just CSS), but often, they’re related to one person — Kyle’s books, Axel’s 2ality, Nicholas Zakas, and Kent C. Dodds and Dan Abramov (with Maggie Appleton) have recently launched personal education platforms. I … wish folks would work together (more hype for CSS Tricks!)? I think you can make some great stuff if you do.

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