08 Dec 2016
By Belle

Things that make me feel unwelcome online

As a fairly green developer, I can use all the help I can get. Particularly since Hello Code is made up of just two people, and I'm the only one with any iOS experience. I've tried out a few online communities to find others who can help me when I'm stuck, share news about what's happening with the languages I'm interested in, and just generally help me feel less alone in my development work. But unfortunately, none of these communities have stuck for me. I've tried various Slack communities, different subreddits, and even getting involved on Stack Overflow, but I've always felt unwelcome, or just that I didn't really belong.

I know lots of people are working hard to build safe, friendly, useful communities online, and they often struggle to get more diverse groups of people involved. Being a female developer, I sometimes fit in as a token diversity member of a community, so I wanted to share some of the things that make me feel unwelcome or just uncomfortable in online communities, and eventually lead to me leaving.

Forced interaction

This is something that comes from good intentions, but I'd prefer anyone taking this approach to simply address the other items I'll mention in this post, rather than using this method to get me involved.

When I say forced interaction, I'm thinking of those communities where the creators/admins/moderators are very keen to have me get involved and feel welcome (perhaps more so when they see me as a diverse member, such as when I join a community that's lacking female members). In practice, this often includes things like:

  • Drawing attention to me joining the community and encouraging other members to say hello
  • Going further than a simple introduction by mentioning any work I've done that's interesting/relevant, to give existing members a reason to talk to me
  • Reaching out on a regular basis after I've joined to make sure I'm enjoying myself, or to find out why I haven't been participating
  • Asking me for advice on bringing in more members like me (i.e. women, though I expect this happens to anyone who's considered diverse in a particular way within a community that cares about diversity)
  • Mentioning me publicly during conversations I'm not part of, to encourage me to contribute

There are probably more examples I haven't thought of or experienced myself, but I'm sure you can see what I mean from this short list. While this approach comes from a place of good intentions, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

It's a bit like being the new kid at school. Imagine switching schools, and all the anxiety that comes with being new and not knowing anything about the place you're in. Then imagine the teacher makes a big fuss about introducing you to the class. And mentions some of your hobbies or achievements from your last school. Then the teacher comes over later in the day to make sure you're doing okay, and introduces you to some of your new classmates. And in the afternoon the teacher calls on you during a class discussion to get you involved.

You know all of this comes from good intentions. You know the teacher just wants to help you meet people and settle in. But what you really want is just to keep quiet and naturally blend into the class. You want to make friends naturally, not because your teacher has forced you to sit together or work on an assignment together in the hopes you'll quickly become friends.

It's great to help people become part of a community. It's a good intention to have. But if someone isn't jumping into conversations already and making friends, it's unlikely forcing them to interact with the group will change that.

Harsh, inconsiderate, or rude comments

I've been lucky enough to not have too much hostility directed at me in online communities, though when it does happen unchecked it usually results in me leaving the group. I think it's common knowledge that nobody likes being treated poorly when they join a community (and that it happens too often).

But what people may not realise is how much community members can be affected by comments directed towards others. When I see someone being talked down to, responded to without consideration, or otherwise treated disrespectfully, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I don't want to be part of a community where that kind of interaction is okay. And if I see it happen multiple times without recourse, it usually leads to me leaving the community.

It doesn't matter that the hostility isn't directly towards me. We can just as easily be affected by seeing others treated badly as we can when it happens to us. What should a new community member expect for themselves when they see others treated poorly and nobody jumping in to defend them? What confidence would they have to join in discussions or ask questions after witnessing that?

I know sometimes people ask silly questions or aren't clear enough in their communication. I understand that those situations can be frustrating. But I don't accept that it's impossible to treat those people with respect and consideration in your response.

Not being able to contribute

This point is a difficult one to address, but I feel it's important to share anyway, because it's a big reason people lack a feeling of belonging.

I've been a member of communities in the past where I would dip in once a day, or a couple of times a week to see what was going on. Even if I had no particular questions or issues I needed help with, I wanted to be a good community member by getting involved and helping others when I could, or just contributing to interesting conversations.

But many of the communities I've joined have been full of conversations I didn't understand, discussions around topics that weren't relevant to me, or simply missing any opportunities where I felt I had something to add.

This is what leads to inactive users and lurkers who never participate. Not everyone wants to ask specific questions or get help within a community they join. Some want to share their experience or expertise. Others just want to make new friends and have interesting conversations.

But if you never see an opportunity to contribute, it's very hard to ever feel like you really belong in that community.

I don't know how to fix this issue. I'm not even sure it's something that can be fixed by a community creator/admin/moderator. But it's worth thinking about. There's nothing like feeling you have nothing to contribute to make you not want to visit a community at all anymore.

Not getting the help I need

This issue is similar to the previous one in that I'm not sure how it can be addressed. But it's another major reason I tend to leave online communities.

One of the reasons I want to get to know other developers is to get help when I'm stuck. I've often become frustrated and overwhelmed when I get stuck on a bug I can't track down, or a new feature I can't get working, because I can't find the answer on my own. With no-one to turn to, I sometimes take months to get over these hurdles, because I've exhausted all the ideas I have about what to do next. These situations would be a lot less painful if someone more experienced could point me in the right direction so I didn't waste hours going off on unrelated tangents.

Of course, I also want to make friends, discuss the technology I'm working with, and enjoy conversations. But getting help is particularly important to me as a beginner, and it's why I often join junior/beginner-focused development communities. These communities often exist for the main purpose of helping beginner developers, so it's normal and common to ask questions and look for help in these places.

But it takes a lot of courage as a junior developer and a new community member to ask for help. And the few times I've done it, I've almost always walked away without a clear answer. My questions seem to be too specific in most cases for anyone's suggestions to work for me, so I'm left struggling on my own.

Specific situations are exactly the moments when you need another human being to help you. We can all find example code and tutorials to figure out the basics. But it's when we have questions or specific circumstances that aren't covered elsewhere that we need to ask fellow developers for help. And unfortunately, that seems to be the time when our fellow developers let us down most.

As I said, I don't know what the answer is here. It's nobody's job to be able to help every new community member with every specific hurdle they face. And without doing a full code review, perhaps it's impossible for developers to help beginners with specific problems.

But not being able to get the help I need tends to leave me disappointed and leads to me leaving the group. If we set up communities for the purpose of helping junior developers, it's worth noting when those communities fail to do so.

I know it's hard to build robust, helpful, respectful communities. I admire the people who put time and energy into doing so, and who care about increasing the diversity of members, opinions, and ideas within their communities.

I hope that if others have some of these same issues with joining communities that by sharing my experiences it might help community creators, admins, and moderators to find ways to make new members feel more welcome.