stopit, Golden Principles, and the Golden Bridge


One my favorite talks I give is about making Dale Carnegie’s 9 Golden Principles for Being a Friendlier Person an accessible idea for UX designers. The first principle is often one of the hardest to adhere to, both IRL and on the web:

Never criticize, condemn, or complain.

When a user does something we perceive to be “wrong” — either in the moral sense, or in the sense of how we want them to use our software — our first instinct is often to tell them, directly, that they are wrong. You clicked the wrong button. You typed your password wrong. That’s not enough digits for a phone number. You sent horrible racist memes to a female journalist. And while it might feel good in the moment to tell someone they are wrong, especially when we are experiencing moral outrage, it’s often not very helpful. Nobody likes to be criticized, even if it’s well-deserved.

You can be right or you can be effective, but you can rarely be both. Being “right” implies that someone else is “wrong”, which creates an adversarial relationship, which tends to discourage people from doing what you want them to do.

I’m thinking about all this again because of some great nuggets I found about the stopit policies developed at MIT in the early days of managing their online community. There‘s good stuff in the original UseNet post from 1994, and this 2012 paper about building successful online communities.

The stopit mechanisms, as they came to be known, were based on a simple proposition: Most offenders, given the opportunity to stop uncivil behavior without having to admit guilt, will do so. The stopit mechanisms thus were designed to do two things: to discover computer misbehavior rapidly, and to communicate effectively with its perpetrators.

In one of the best examples, users who posted harassing material were shown that material and asked to check if their account had been compromised and if they were aware it was being used in this way. In many cases, users who definitely posted the bad stuff themselves went in and changed their passwords anyway, and stopped their bad behavior. Amazing.

When we let them save face by pretending (if only to themselves) that they did not do what they did, they tend to become more responsible citizens with their pride intact. We lose the satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished, but we reduce misbehavior and gain educational effectiveness.

In my observations of social media culture, that “satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished” gets a lot of people up in the morning and drives a tremendous amount of activity. Lots of folks being “right”, but not necessarily effective. Community policing of bad actors can only go so far.

It’s an idea you can trace back further than ol’ Dale Carnegie, even. As Sun Tzu encouraged: Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.