"God damn it, you've got to be kind."
Kurt Vonnegut: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "
Earlier this week, I stumbled upon an obituary for a Wikipedia editor I knew.
I found it in the course of searching for Wikipedia-related news stories for The Signpost. I’m surprised I hadn’t found it earlier, when the obituary was new. It was an editor I had a number of congenial interactions with on the encyclopedia and via email. We thought quite highly of one another, but I couldn’t call him a friend—after all, I barely knew him.
His obituary told me more than I ever knew when he was alive. I hadn’t known he had been an actor. Not that he was a particularly successful one, but he has a respectable IMDB page with a dozen credits, including bit parts on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I hadn’t known that he escaped being a victim of 9/11—where four of his co-workers died in the north tower—by being out of town for a job interview. I hadn’t known that we had a number of common interests outside of Wikipedia. We might have gotten along famously.
And I also hadn’t known that he and his family thought highly enough of his work on Wikipedia to include it and his user name in his obituary.
This surprise was a stark reminder to me on this Easter weekend that the other people we interact with on the encyclopedia are all actual people, with their own lives and feelings, and not just lines of text and pseudonyms. We know that intellectually, of course, but we often don’t act like we remember it.
Many of us, especially those of us who are active in the community interactions and institutions of Wikimedia, know people online we consider friends who are just as dear to us as friends in our immediate physical proximity. But for the majority of editors on Wikimedia projects, including myself for much of my tenure here, other people are just disembodied lines of text.
As a result, it’s far too easy forget that all of the words on our encyclopedia were written by another person.
We need to do a better job of remembering that. It’s 2016—we’ve had the internet for far too long to keep acting like it’s not “real life”, that we don’t have to adhere to responsible standards of interpersonal conduct, that the actions taken there don’t have real life consequences. The internet allows many people to be what they cannot be offline for whatever reason. That can be liberating and fulfilling in positive ways, but too many others indulge in negative behavior they are unable to get away with offline. All of the editors reading this can name at least one person in the latter category.
A popular quote circulating in some quarters of the encyclopedia likens Wikipedia to a shop floor, but through no fault of its author, this characterization is occasionally invoked to justify behavior that would result in immediate termination in an offline workplace.
Forgetting one another’s humanity is not treating the encyclopedia like a shop floor; it is treating it like a public playground; Wikipedia and other online spaces should not be consequence-free places for negative behavior by people who can otherwise pretend to be good people in the rest of their lives. What we do and how we act on Wikipedia matters just as it matters offline.
Why else would someone's family make a note of it in their loved one's obituary?
There will always be people who can’t or won’t look at their own behavior, because they have antisocial tendencies, or lack empathy, or simply need forums to address personal issues that would be better handed by professionals. But the rest of us can stop excusing that behavior. We can stop blaming people for “feeding the trolls” when victims justifiably complain, stop dismissing or minimizing the negative consequences of it, and stop indulging in it ourselves in our weaker moments.
We don’t have to be perfect. We can be angry when justifiably provoked. We can be snarky and sarcastic. We can make mistakes. But we should do that while remembering there are other people involved, just as we would in our interpersonal interactions offline.
We can do better. We can be better.
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—"God damn it, you've got to be kind."
— Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
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