When the wildly popular online multiplayer game World of Warcraft came out a few years ago, I played it for about six months. Like just about every other multiplayer game out there, WoW players a faction to belong to, in WoW’s case, either the Horde or the Alliance.
This choice is often arbitrary, although once someone has chosen a particular faction, their friends will often choose the same one so they can play together. But at the time a player joins, they have no particular love for the side they choose or hatred for their faction’s enemies.
This soon changes, however, especially on game servers that promote warfare between the factions (so called player-vs-player servers, such as the one I played on). A raging hatred exists between players on opposite factions that extends out of the game world and onto forums, blogs and so on, where people insult each other, claim the other side has an unfair advantage, etc.
In other words, people who have a ton of things in common, from their frequently similar personal characteristics (young, male, etc.) to their obvious appreciation for the same type of entertainment, spend hours flaming each other as a result of an arbitrary, meaningless choice when they first started playing the game.
As in the world of video games, so in the world of web development. I’m sometimes dismayed by the attitudes expressed by Python programmers towards Ruby programmers, and vice versa.
Don’t get me wrong: lots of people from these two communities are perfectly civil towards one another, and some of the tension is simply a healthy competitive rivalry. But that is not always the case, which is weird: after all, both languages are dynamic and cutting-edge, both communities are producing fantastic software, and both communities are generally contemptuous towards people who program in PHP. So what’s the problem?
Or check out the massive flamewar on Smashing Magazine because someone had the nerve to suggest that web developers don’t need to use Macs. Five hundred comments (and counting) of Mac users bashing Windows users bashing Mac users, occasionally interspersed by pious Linux users wondering what all the fuss is about.
But all of these people are web developers. Some, of course, are respectful to each other, but others are not: the fact they are speaking to someone who is probably much like them, with the same career and probably many of the same interests, does not matter as much (at least at that moment) as that person’s choice of computer.
When we’re online, we often disagree the most with the people who are just like us. Is this the result of competition, like the conjured up war between the Horde and the Alliance in World of Warcraft or the pressures of the hyperactive pace of web development? Or is it a way of insisting that we are unique individuals, even when presented with evidence to the contrary – our peers?
Offline, the situation changes. Put a Ruby programmer and a Python programmer in a room together at a party and they’re bound to meet at some point and trigger the kind of endless, arcane-to-normal-people conversation that prompts their wives to suggest leaving. Put a couple of WoW players into a room at a party – actually, never mind, WoW players don’t really leave the house.
There’s a simple solution for all of this then: when you deal with people online, treat them the way you treat the people you see every day, in person. Even if they still use PHP. Or they’re Horde. You ganking bastards.