Common Role Anti-Patterns in Online Discussion Forums

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Crucial Confrontatoins

I've been an active contributor to a range of mailing lists, newsgroups, and other types of online discussion forums for many years. During this time I've noticed, and unfortunately exhibited more than a few times, one or more common role anti-patterns in these forums. The primary value of giving names to these anti-patterns is that we can use them to recognize when we exhibit them and then act to address them. These anti-patterns are: Blamer, Hypothetical Preacher, Indifferent Specialist, List Dictator, Mind Reader, Online Backstabber, Spammer, True Believer, Unjustified Criticizer, and Unknown Poster.

Role Exhibited Behaviors How to Handle Them
Blamer Blamers are often arrogant Indifferent Specialists or True Believers. Instead of accepting responsibility for trying to solve a problem, they instead choose to blame others for the problems. Blamers will promote division within communities often to promote their own political agenda. Point out to Blamers that we’re all in this together and need to find a solution to the challenges that we face, and not to just push them off to someone else.
Hypocritical Preacher A Hypocritical Preacher says one thing yet in practice does something else. For example, it’s very easy to preach about the virtues of open and honest communication, yet very easy to shut down a conversation with someone who disagrees with you. Invite Hypocritical Preachers to live up to what they say, potentially quoting their previous postings when doing so.
Indifferent Specialist An Indifferent Specialist is someone who is often very good at what they do, yet they are rarely motivated to learn about things outside of their specialty. These people often underestimate the importance of these other things and in extreme cases will choose to denigrate these topics or the people who believe in them. Statements such as “Oh, that’s something the programmers do” or “We need to blame management for that, they can be so dense sometimes” are indications that someone is an Indifferent Specialist. Point out to Indifferent Specialists that there is more to an issue than what they are currently discussing, and that it's important to consider those other factors. Everyone should strive to become a generalizing specialist, someone with one or more specialties and a general knowledge of IT and the business domain that they work in.
List Dictator List Dictators are often Hypocritical Preachers, True Believers, and/or Unjustified Criticizers who find themselves in a position of power. A List Dictator will often dictate exactly what can and cannot be discussed on the list, but will often choose to flaunt those rules themselves as they see fit. List Dictators will ban people who they feel are dissidents instead of publicly addressing their issues in the discussion forum. List Dictators attempt to prevent others in a discussion forum from questioning the dogma which the List Dictator wishes to focus on. Try to convince List Dictators to behave more responsibly. Otherwise, vote with your feet and create better discussion forums.
Mind Reader In the middle of a discussion a Mind Reader will state what someone else must obviously be thinking, and more often than not it's usually a negative idea which casts the other person in a bad light. Suggest to Mind Readers that they ask the other people what they’re thinking instead of guessing. Suggest that they actively seek to communicate with that person instead of misrepresenting them.
Online Backstabber An Online Backstabber will criticize someone, or their ideas, but their victim doesn’t know that it’s happened because they weren’t copied in. Reply to Online Backstabbers that they should seek the opinion of the person that they're attacking, copying that person in when you do so. Everyone should have the courage to involve the person that they’re criticizing so that they have an opportunity to respond. If you have a strong argument, then you shouldn’t be afraid of a response, should you?
Spammer Do I really need to describe this role? Give Spammers a few warnings and then ban them if they keep it up.
True Believer (also known as the Born Again Developer) A True Believer is adamant that their preferred approach to development is the best one and is very happy to let everyone else know it. They rarely seem to question what they know to be right, and not surprisingly struggle to justify why it’s right. Sadly, True Believers, when put in charge of a project, will often lead it on a Death March due to their inability to see beyond the narrow confines of their belief system. Once the project has clearly failed, the True Believers tend to transmogrify into Blamers. Point out to True Believers that there are other approaches which also seem to work well. You should be open-minded but skeptical at the same time, recognizing that no approach is perfect and can always be improved upon.
Unjustified Criticizer An Unjustified Criticizer will criticize something without having read it, often because it’s about a topic which goes against their beliefs or because it’s written by someone they have disagreed with in the past. Unjustified Criticizers rarely provide sufficient arguments to support their criticism, they prefer to make blanket statements without sharing their actual experiences pertaining to the topic. Respond to Unjustified Criticizers by describing your own relevant experiences and then ask them to comment on them.
Unknown Poster Unknown Posters typically have list names such as “Cool Dude” that don’t indicate who they are. Unknown Posters often seem to be True Believers who don’t to have the courage to be associated with the ideas that they’re espousing. Insist that Unknown Posters reveal who they are.


I'd like to thank James Dobson, Brian Lions, and Mike Vizdos for their feedback incorporated into these anti-patterns.

Suggested Reading

Disciplined Agile Delivery This book, Disciplined Agile Delivery: A Practitioner's Guide to Agile Software Delivery in the Enterprise describes the Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) process decision framework. The DAD framework is a people-first, learning-oriented hybrid agile approach to IT solution delivery. It has a risk-value delivery lifecycle, is goal-driven, is enterprise aware, and provides the foundation for scaling agile. This book is particularly important for anyone who wants to understand how agile works from end-to-end within an enterprise setting. Data professionals will find it interesting because it shows how agile modeling and agile database techniques fit into the overall solution delivery process. Enterprise professionals will find it interesting beause it explicitly promotes the idea that disciplined agile teams should be enterprise aware and therefore work closely with enterprise teams. Existing agile developers will find it interesting because it shows how to extend Scrum-based and Kanban-based strategies to provide a coherent, end-to-end streamlined delivery process.

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