WEB Advent 2012 / Get a Little Uncomfortable

It must be a small world after all. Walking through a neighborhood, that I neither live in or work in, in a city of eight million people, I somehow manage to, seemingly randomly, bump into someone I know, nearly every time. If I were to come across this acquaintance in the neighborhood where he lived, I would think nothing of it, but usually this is not the case. Occasionally, this someone is not even a resident of any of the five boroughs of the city. How is it that I can walk through a city so populous with a constant ebb and flow of outsiders, and unwittingly bump into someone I know. Maybe it truly is a small world after all.

It must be a small world after all. Every day I am in communication, over the phone, text message, email, Facebook, Twitter — you name it — with someone that is in a different city, county, state, country, continent, but somehow not a different planet. I guess it is a small world, but in a huge, sparse universe.

Before the Web, and all these social apps, there was a time when you dictated the number for your phone to dial by diligently typing in every digit, rather than asking your smart phone what to do next. During the time when your parents — or maybe grandparents — were your age, were they in near constant communication with someone living in another country? The answer to that probably depended on whether they were one of the few to have a friend from grade school through high school, or a more likely reason for knowing someone abroad was participation in the service.

Today, I am posting this article that will likely be read by people from all around the globe. I might collect more Twitter followers, and I will likely learn about new happenings in the web development community from those whom I follow. I will write at least one email to someone not residing in the same country as I do, and I will compose, and reply to, several more e-mails to people I will not talk to in person for at least a month, if ever. The odds of me commenting on or liking a photo or post of someone I have not seen since my tenth high school reunion is not improbable, either. It must be that technology and the Web has shrunk the world, brought us closer together… but has it really?

Many of us participate in a communication graph encompassing a large geographical region, but has this made us any more worldly?

This past year, I spent a decent amount of time traveling to places I had never been to. My travel was mostly to web development conferences. The developers were excited to meet more people in the community; the conversations were informative, and sometimes became a heated debate. It was difficult to be disinterested. How could anyone electing to attend a web development conference not be excited to participate in a lecture, discussion, or a debate about web development?

The world is not as small as it seems. The Web has just made it easier to create small, niche communities, based on shared interests that cover a large global expanse, as opposed to the past where small, niche communities often times were more or less dictated by geography. Participating in a community spread thin across the globe, but tightly knit by its passion surrounding common interests can create a false sense of worldliness. Within such a group, the world is as small and narrow as the role the common interest plays in the world population.

I am not suggesting that the Web is insignificant. Most would say that the majority of the world’s population is impacted in some way by the Web. The common interests and shared topics of the web development community, as an example, tend to be far more specific. Is it rarely about the significance of the web? Usually, discussions about which technology to use, which practices to follow, which programming language to use, or something else that is more personal, teach individual members day-to-day. Beyond that, I am talking more generally about all types of self-selecting groups. I am warning against being lulled by the false sense of reality that self-selection bias can breed.

Still using the web development community as an example, the truth is that most people (also known by the dehumanizing term: user) do not care what language your web site is implemented in, which database you used, whether or not you host the site from the cloud or your own bare metal. Most people do not care if you use continuous deployment or how good your test coverage is. Read this last bit to someone who is not a web developer, and you are more likely to discover that he doesn’t even know what these things are. Some of you reading this may think, “we should teach everyone.” That’s not my point.

My point is that everyone — no matter who they are — needs to actively put themselves in an uncomfortable position every now and then. It is comforting to surround yourself with people just like you. Next time you are at the company party, rather than spending most of the time talking just your co-workers, take the opportunity to listen to your co-workers’ party guests. It is a great opportunity to ask them about their professions; find out what their interests are. It is an opportunity to be educated, a chance to view the world through the eyes of someone unlike you. Now this is just a starting point because these party guests obviously have something in common with your co-workers who likely have something in common with you, but you can use this as a start.

Another good start is to change the topic in your common interest group, every now and then, to something off-topic. While I was traveling this past year, conference to conference, I decided to ask most people that I met, “What did you learn in history class?” It did not matter whether the person grew up in Poland and now resided in Great Britain, or if the person simply lived in the south as opposed to my north-east roots. The question was enough to remove the person from the normal biased answers to the ever reworded common questions. It was also an opportunity for me to glean some notion of how a person’s view point of the world might be different from the view point I was raised with.

All of this ties into common things we all eventually tackle during our web development experience, like learning that internationalization is more than handling different character sets and translating verbatim to another language. That it is more about a quest for localization, realizing that different cultures exist. Sometimes it is even recognizing that the dividing lines could be education, occupation, or some other basis besides culture. It’s also like recognizing not to trivialize the world through Big Data. When attempting to find the commonality amongst your user base, remember that those are also individuals. Do not take for granted the opportunity to actually sit down with someone, listen to them, observe them, just because you have data.

For me the goal of all this is to encourage you to get a little uncomfortable, break out of whatever small worlds you have joined, and see the world as vast, huge, uncertain, and as ever-unlimited as a wide-eyed child does. Otherwise, your endeavors to take the world by storm with your web development will be as limited as your outlook.

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