Monday, June 13, 2016

How to Be a Billy Goat in the Wake of Tragedy

Our world suffers tragedy. Often. Trolls use tragedy to stir up conflict but what are billy goats supposed to do? 

If you want to catch up on why you should be a billy goat you can do so here:

As I sit down to write this the United States is reeling from an attack on a nightclub in Orlando. Fifty people died and fifty-three more were injured. The club, Pulse, is a gathering place for the LGBT community. Responsibility for the attack is claimed by ISIS. 

Social media is filled with responses. People are grieving publicly. Emotions are high. 

Dialogue versus Diatribe

If you want to be a billy goat that means you want to find and cultivate opportunities for dialogue on the internet. You want to offer an alternative to the trolls that do so much harm to individuals and communities. Sometimes that means not engaging. 

When our lizard brains are in control, when our limbic system is reacting, when our bodies are deciding if we should fight or flee, we can't really listen. And if we can't listen, we can't engage in dialogue. 

In moments of national or international tragedy the limbic system of the internet is reacting. All of social media is running through a fight-or-flight response. There's no space for listening and no space for dialogue. 

There will be plenty of people posting. There will be plenty of responses to the tragedy. But there won't be dialogue. Not yet. 

Don't be Silent

Just because there's not a chance for dialogue doesn't mean you can't show support for those affected by the tragedy. Grieve. Mourn. Weep. You don't have to be silent in the face of great evils in the world. 

As you choose to add your voice to all of the others, show extra care. Everyone's emotions are tender. Everyone is on edge and looking for threats. Do everything you can to not become another threat. Avoid politically charged statements. Avoid religiously charged statements. Find ways to support, to love, to grieve without adding to the fear and anger that are boiling. 

Grieve First, Then Engage

I'm not suggesting that we let tragedies pass us without reflection. I'm not advising that we avoid having conversations about the hard topics. In fact that's exactly what I'm hoping billy goats will do. We desperately need to have these conversations about these difficult topics so we can work together to heal from tragedies and to prevent future tragedy. 

But first we need to grieve. 

First we need to get past the white-hot pain, that is so intense that we can barely stand to be near it, let alone touch it. First we need to allow our brains to adjust to the new reality of the world that includes this tragedy as a part of it. It might take a few days or weeks before things have calmed down enough for dialogue to happen. 

Start with Unity

Especially in the midst of grieving a tragedy, there's a tendency for social media to move toward the solution first. While it's possible to have dialogue about possible solutions, there's often a long chain of reasoning that leads to a proposed solution.

More guns will fix it. 
Fewer guns will fix it. 
Walls fill fix it. 
Open borders will fix it. 

We're clearly not united on our solutions, but we can easily unite around the problems. We all want to fix it. We all want to stop tragedies from happening. Start there and see how far the conversations can go. Work to understand why people are so confident of their proposed solution. 

But not now. For now just grieve. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

How to Be a Billy Goat: Opinions versus Perspectives

Opinions are something we all have, but they don't do anything for anyone but the one who has them. Perspectives are something we can share to help not only ourselves but anyone open to hearing them.

If you're wondering why you should be a billy goat you can read about it here:

That's Your Opinion

Billy goats work against the opinionification of dialogue. If we try to have a conversation based on opinions there's not likely to be much movement. You like watermelon; I know that it tastes awful. I like peanut butter globbed onto my sandwiches; you spread it thin like a monster. 

Opinions are unassailable. No one can be wrong about their opinion. Whatever you think about something is what you think about something. Period. There's no conversation just entrenched statements. 

Opinions are closely tied to our identities. We believe them with the same fervor as we believe that we have value and meaning in the world. So, an attack on our opinions is an attack on our identity which is an attack on our value and meaning. Such attacks trigger our fight-or-flight, lizard-brain response. 

Opinions are the beginning of a perspective, not the end. 

Put Things in Perspective

Perspectives are the explanation of our opinions. Why do I dislike the taste of watermelon? Because I grew up not liking it, it reminds me of other tastes that are bad, and I have repeatedly tried it from different places and at different times in my life and I still don't like it. You can like watermelon for all of your reasons. I don't have to share your opinion to see the world from your perspective. 

Opinions are a primal part of our brains. They are emotional reactions. In themselves opinions don't do more than just describe our feelings. But when we start to stitch our opinions together, to suss out the reasoning behind them, and to create a framework the explains why we came to have our emotional reactions, we have a perspective. 

A perspective gives us something to work with when we come to a dialogue. It gives us a way to share the why behind our opinions and, more importantly, it gives us a way to critique our own opinions and, if possible, find better ones. 


In school we all learned about the scientific method. You take a hypothesis (a guess about how things ought to work based on what you've observed), figure out a way to test your hypothesis (an experiment), and then based on the test you either confirm your hypothesis or change it to fit the new observations from the experiment. 

Your opinions are your observations about the world. They are the emotional sensors giving you information. This is scary, this is fun, this is sad, this is thrilling, this is happy. 

Your perspectives are your hypothesis about the way the world works. This is scary because... this is fun because... this is sad because...

The beautiful thing about a perspective is that you can test it. You can check to see if it matches all of your observations. You can provide some context for your observations (i.e. opinions) rather than having them exist without any chance of being critiqued. 

Your conversations with others, both online and in person, both with people you know and with people you don't (like through books and news sources), are the tests you can run to see if your hypothesis works or not. 

When you get to the end of each conversation, whether it's an online dialogue or a class in school or a book you've read, you get to revisit the opinions you started with and compare them to the opinions you had during the conversation. Then, most importantly, you figure out your new perspective (i.e. your new hypothesis). 

There's No Such Thing as a Failed Experiment

As a billy goat you're not just working to make yourself better at having conversations online, but showing a better way. You will, without a doubt, get into conversations where the other side isn't willing to move past opinions. There's not much you can do in that conversation. Move along; move along. 

If our conversations are experiments all you did was find a a way that your hypothesis doesn't work. That's not a failure as long as you learned something. Maybe you learned how to not start a conversation with someone who disagrees with you. Maybe you learned that this particular person or place on the internet isn't one where you can safely share your perspective. Maybe you learned about a perspective that you'd never discovered before. 

Whatever happens in conversations, learn something, take something away, shift your perspective. If nothing else, you'll be better for it. But what's most likely to happen is that people will start to notice how you handle yourself. They'll start to see a different way to be online. Maybe you'll start a movement of billy goats. 

Next up: stalkers aren't always a bad thing. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How to be a Billy Goat: Respect

Respect for other people, their ideas, and their opinions is an indispensable part of being a billy goat.

If you're wondering why you should be a billy goat you can read about it here:

Find out what it Means to Me

Before we get too far into the conversation about treating people with respect, we need to take a moment to define the term for this context. In some contexts respect can refer to what someone earns. Like how much you respect me for my beard-growing skills or how much I respect you for sharing this post with all of your friends. 

That's good respect and should be cultivated, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the difference between treating someone in a dehumanizing manner and treating them with a basic level of human dignity. 

When the internet was just a baby, in those long-past days before YouTube came to be, I had downloaded dozens of videos of Star Wars Kid. If you don't remember or you weren't around, a 14-year-old Canadian, Ghyslain Raza, had a video he made privately, pretending to be Darth Maul from Star Wars, was posted online without his permission. I laughed at that video (and various edits of it) a lot. 

I reduced a young man to something less than human in my mind. I didn't show him any respect. 

Ghyslain spent years in therapy, years being bullied, years being told he was worthless and should commit suicide. Thankfully he's been able to put the experience behind him and is working to move on with his life. But that hasn't been the case for everyone. 

Give Respect to Get Respect

If you consider yourself to be inherently worthy of respect, not having to earn it, but just deserving to be treated with human dignity because you are human, then you ought to extend that courtesy to everyone else. 

Yes, everyone. 

Yes, even them. 

If you haven't earned your basic human dignity then no one else has earned theirs. Even people you disagree with. Even people who commit crimes. Even people who don't respect you in return.*

You don't have to like everyone. You don't have to be everyone's friend. You don't have to agree with everyone. But, if you think that you deserve to be treated with basic dignity and respect, then so does everyone else. 

Unfortunately, not many people on the internet think this way. There are a lot of double standards going on where people get angry when they are defamed while turning around and defaming others without a second thought. 

Dismissing people as idiots (or fill in your favorite insult here) because you disagree with their ideas, or because you think their ideas are not well reasoned, or because you think their ideas are not well researched, is dehumanizing them. It is treating them as less than human because of their ideas or actions.** 

If you do that, then why would they respond to you any differently? 

But, if you show respect, even when no respect is being shown to you, you will start to erode the culture of disrespect of dehumanization. I'm not trying to tell you it will be easy. We're into this dysfunction pretty deeply. It will take a lot of us a long time working to counteract it. But the alternative is that we do nothing and let the conversations continue to devolve. 

Basic Respect

So, what does this look like? 

First, you don't have to take disrespect. If someone is insulting you, belittling you, or attacking you, respectfully call them on it. If someone continues to do so, block them and report them. The very first step in respect is respecting yourself (I know that sounds super cheesy, but it's the truth). Figure out how you want to be treated and then learn to treat others that way. 

Second, don't call people names. I know, we were all supposed to have learned this in grade school. It's not a difficult concept, but it is one that we seem to have forgotten. If you try to engage in conversations on the internet, you will be called names. You will be personally insulted. You might even be threatened or bullied. 

Don't respond in kind. Don't call names. Don't return personal insults. That's your fear response talking; that's your lizard brain. You aren't actually in danger. You don't need to choose between fighting or fleeing. Take a moment (or a day depending on how riled up you are) and calm down. 

Third, don't talk down to people. It's one thing to not call people idiots; it's quite another to not treat them like idiots. You've come to your conclusions about life, the world, and the way things ought to be through years of thought, learning, and shaping through your experiences and community. So has everyone else. Just because they've come to different conclusions doesn't mean they're wrong or stupid and telling them they're stupid will, pretty much automatically, mean you don't get to be a part of their community to help shape their thoughts in the future. 

Finally, demand that the people who agree with you treat the people who disagree with you respectfully. Online conversations can often become one person advocating for their side while the friends of the person with whom they disagree pile on. If your friends are piling on, make sure that they do it with respect. Defend the basic human dignity of everyone and you will start to create a climate where conversations can actually happen. 

Next up: the value of opinions (hint it's about the same as the value of Shrute Bucks). 

*There are, absolutely, consequences for actions. There is, absolutely, a type of respect that is earned through actions and can be damaged or lost. I'm not talking about that type of respect. I'm talking about the basic level of dignity and rights that we all think we should be treated with. If you don't think that you should be treated with a basic level of dignity and respect, we can have that conversation separately. 

**The dehumanization process can go the other direction where people are treated as more than human. Our cult of celebrity and wealth tends to treat those with fame and power as something other than human and also not worthy of the same respect. Celebrities are expected to perform, to entertain, to be always on. If you are worthy of privacy and consideration because you're a human being, then celebrities are too. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How to be a Billy Goat: Listen

"Listening to the Birds" Winslow Homer
One of the most difficult things about being a billy goat on the internet is patience. The internet is a place filled with instant information, instant emotions, and instant feedback. The speed of the internet is as fast as oral communication, but without the richness of body language and vocal tone.

Slowing down and listening, not only to what people are posting online, but to why they are posting things, will help to improve the level of discourse.

Fight, Flight, or Dialogue

In many ways your brain works from the inside out. At the core of your brain is a part called the amygdala that we have in common with nearly every brain-having animal on the planet. It's such a primal region of the brain that it is often colloquially known as the "lizard brain."* 

Your lizard brain wants to keep you alive. That's pretty much it (it also wants to help you pass on your genes, but that's part of keeping the species alive). Whenever your sense get information they filter through your brain, it looks for something new and different, and checks to see if anything on a survival level is going on. The lizard brain checks to see if anything is threatening your survival, if there's anything to eat, or any reason to try to procreate. 

It's what happens next that's important. 

What should happen next is we run the lizard brain response back through the rational parts of our mind. That's why we don't usually attack people on the street, why we don't leap across the counter at the restaurant and take the food, and why we can be monogamous when we choose to. The lizard brain is working to keep us alive, but the rest of our brain is working to determine how we live. 

Because our lizard brain is looking for things that are different and things that are primal, we usually respond most strongly to those things. We repost things that outrage us, things that terrify us, things that make us want to either fight or flee. 

Neither of those responses is conducive to conversation. 

Brain Spaces

Your brain learns to respond differently when you're doing different things. When you hear an explosion in November, your brain will likely trigger a fight or flight response. But when you hear one in early July you're going to be far less afraid. For me, if I see a spider across the room while I'm fully clothed and have shoes on my feet, I can notice it and move on with my life. But if I'm stumbling around, barefoot and in my pajamas and I happen across a spider right in front of me I will, in all likelihood, scream like a child. 

Our brains shift gears and determine what gets sent down to the lizard brain for a survival check. The more we feel safe and at ease, the more likely we are have something trigger our survival check. If you're out, crossing the street during the day cars coming at you are normal and expected. Your lizard brain trusts the rest of your brain to figure it out and keep you alive. 

One of the major issues with online communication is that our brain space is often in the home-safe zone rather than in the out-in-public zone. If I go downtown on a busy day I expect to see and hear things I don't agree with. I note them and then, usually, ignore them. But when I'm at home I expect to be safe. My lizard brain expects the stimuli to be of the food and sleep variety. 

Because of the internet and smartphones we have the stimuli of a busy day downtown in the palm of our hand as we're stumbling around in our PJs before going to sleep. Our poor lizard brains don't know what to do. 

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

It's a discipline to be able to see things online that are outrageous or terrifying and to do nothing.** That's the first step in having great dialogue online, however. Do nothing. Wait. Listen. 

When your heart rate spike because you see something offensive, when your fingers twitch with the need to respond in anger or fear, when the arguments against a person line up in your brain ready to be deployed, that's the time to stop. Feed the response of your lizard brain back into your rational mind. 

What are your afraid of? What are you angry about? Why did this post trigger your lizard brain to respond? 

What fears and angers do you think drove the person who posted it? Why do they feel so threatened? 

Sit with those questions until your heart rate returns to normal. Sit with them until your fingers stop trying to compose a heated reply on their own. Listen to what your rational brain is trying to tell you and listen to what drove the person to post what they did in the first place (not what they actually posted, but the underlying threat they felt). 

Next up we'll talk about how to engage people. 

*This is an incredible simplification of the concepts going on. If you want to know more about the "lizard brain" do some research on the limbic system. 
**As an aside, this is a very similar process to seeing pornography online and choosing to not respond from the lizard brain. It takes conscious, practiced effort to resist the pull of instinctual responses. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

How to be a Billy Goat: Introduction

Last night I got to share some ideas about being a billy goat in an internet filled with trolls. It was at the first ever VanTalks (video will be available soon).

I shared (one of) the origins of the metaphor of a troll as a bully on the internet: the Norwegian fairy tale "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" in which a troll lives under a bridge and keeps the goats from grazing in a lush pasture.

Right now it seems like the internet is filled with trolls, like there's no good comments section, like there isn't a place to have good conversations online. The way we can start to change that is by being the opposite of trolls. We need to be billy goats.


Trolls are rude, abrasive, and abusive.

Trolls are confident in what they know and cannot, will not be swayed from their certainty.

Trolls are never, ever, ever wrong.

It's nearly impossible to have a conversation with a troll and, what's worse, trolls often succeed in devolving the conversations around them. There might be good people trying to have a decent conversation, but in walks a troll and things fall apart. People start taking sides. It stops being a conversation and starts being a shouting match.

Bad News

I hate to say it. I don't want to be a downer. But the truth is we won't ever be rid of trolls. A medium like the internet that allows anyone anywhere anytime to share their thoughts will the world will, inevitably allow thoughts that are abusive, hurtful, and intransigent.

Fighting the trolls, more often than not, won't do much of anything to help. Trolls love the conflict and won't be swayed by even the best of arguments.

Trolls are here to stay. But they don't have to dominate the conversations. The reality is that trolls are the exception that is writing the rules. They are the tail that's wagging the dog. They are the minority influencing the majority.

Billy Goats

We can offer an alternative. We can offer a different way. We can be the billy goats to the trolls of the internet. 

Billy goats treat everyone with dignity and respect (even trolls). 

Billy goats seek to understand before they seek to be understood. 

Billy goats willingly and graciously admit when they are wrong. 

If you want to start being a billy goat there's something you need to know. This isn't a short term engagement. This isn't something you can sign up for and knock out in a week. This will take time and commitment. It will take consistency and it will mean you are attacked by trolls. 

But it also means that you are stepping between the vulnerable and the trolls, that you are showing people a different way to interact online, that you are a part of a minority that is influencing the majority for good. 

C'mon, be a billy goat. 

Next up (next week) what this looks like in real life and some practical next-steps. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Socrates and the Internet

Socrates said “[T]hey will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

He could have been talking about the internet. He might as well have said: "Don't read the comments section." But he was talking about a different communication technology: writing. 

Socrates didn't like writing; he thought it undermined the thoughts of people and made them vapid. The irony is, we only know that Socrates said this because his student, Plato, wrote it down. 

Communication and the Brain

The way we communicate affects how we think, which affects how we process ideas, which affects everything about us as human beings. Socrates was right, moving from oral to written communication fundamentally changed humanity. Ideas were no longer bound by space and time, the great thinkers were able to build upon each other's work, and whole fields of study like philosophy, religion, history, mathematics, and science came into being. But there was a cost. Thought became a specialized field. Ideas became the property of the wealthy and powerful. The conversation of humanity was concentrated into the hands of a very few, well educated people. 

The rise of the printing press in Europe (it had been around in China for centuries before) paired movable type with an alphabet-based language and drastically decreased the cost of written communication. Within just a few years of Gutenberg's first printing Europe began to transform at a fundamental, cultural level. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation were all spurred onward by the rapid spread of ideas, not among the wealthy and powerful, but among the common people. Culture changed, the people were no longer willing to be ruled from ivory towers and castle walls, the masses revolted based on the power of ideas. On the far shores of a distant continent a few ragged colonies took up those ideas and rebelled against the most powerful nation on the planet.

The Internet is Kind of a Big Deal

There have only been a few changes in the way human being communicate. The first was from oral to written, then from script to printing, and now we're in the midst of third great change from printing to electronic communication. For ease I'll use the internet as a catch-all term to refer to all of our instantaneous, electronic communication (i.e. texting, emailing, blogging, messaging, etc.). 

With each shift in communication the speed of idea transmission and the percent of the population involved have increased. Oral society was slow and ideas could only be shared as far as a voice could be heard. Writing sped things up and allowed more people to receive the ideas (though for much of its history written communication was still, primarily, transmitted to people orally). Printing increased the speed and the participants even further. Now with the internet we have almost half of the population on the planet able to communicate with each other instantaneously. 

That has immense ramifications for how our brains work, how we process ideas, and what our culture looks like. And we're only just starting to see those effects really playing out in the world. 

Socrates was Right

There is always a cost to go with the benefit of changing the way we communicate. The internet is reshaping our brains, for good and for ill. We are losing something with the rapidity of the communication and the number of voices that are clamoring for a place in the conversation. But we are gaining something as well. 

Socrates was right that there's a cost, but he was wrong in not wanting to pay the cost of changing the technology we use to communicate. We should weigh the cost. We should know the cost. We should consciously and actively work to mitigate the cost. But we cannot avoid the cost of communication on the internet, nor should we. 

Next up: what you can do to help. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

VanTalks, Civil Discourse, and Billy Goats

This Thursday I'll be giving a talk at the first ever VanTalks. It's styled after TED talks but focused on the thought leaders, innovators, and creators in the local community.

My topic is on civil discourse online. Something that seems like an oxymoron. You're not supposed to read the comments section, you're not supposed to talk about politics or religion, and you're certainly not supposed to expect anyone to change their mind due to a conversation online.

I'm not okay with that. I used to be. I used to be checked out, to ignore the comments, and to avoid arguments. I thought that was the best path, the path that offended the fewest people.

If you've followed me online for very long you know I don't feel that way now. For the past five or six years I have actively engaged in conversations online about the most difficult topics. No conversation has been off limits and, with very few exceptions, the conversations and conversationalists have been thoughtful, respectful, and civil.

On Thursday evening (6:30pm at the Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver) I'll share what changed, what I've learned, and why I think civil discourse online is not only possible, but necessary.

And I'll tell you why you should be a billy goat.

Buy tickets (they're only $10) and tell your friends (or enemies, they need to hear this too).