@JonathanMosen
Jonathan Mosen

Billy Joel once said, "I once believed in causes too, and had my pointless point of view, but life when on no matter who was wrong or right". I was mindful of this as I saw the considerable volume of tweets exchanged over the apparent halt to development of the Qwitter client, the Twitter client for Windows designed specifically for blind people. I say apparent, because this is in my recollection the third time such a threat has been made, so I suppose only time will tell if this one is real or not. Initially, I felt compelled to comment, then I decided there was no point, and now finally, I've felt moved to write an extended post about this subject because I think the conduct of a number of people in the latest Twitter drama represents a pattern that is all too typical in the on-line blind community.

Although I have been using Twitter since 2007, I actually was a late adopter of the Qwitter client, beginning to use it in around November of 2009. My reason for this was because I felt uncomfortable with the aggressive online behaviour of its lead developer. A friend of mine convinced me that it was appropriate to separate the behaviour of the developer from the quality of the application, and there's absolutely no doubt that the software is first class. It is a feature-rich, efficient means of interacting with Twitter. Without Qwitter, I am sure much fewer blind people would be using Twitter so regularly. The award given to Chris by ACB this year recognises all of this, and that recognition is richly deserved.

I have, however, remained very disappointed by the extraordinary rudeness, even contempt, that Chris has shown to many users who have made suggestions or come to him for advice. I am mindful that I am making these comments with around 20 more years on the planet than him, and in this case I think that does make a difference. I hope that if Chris is unfortunate enough to be able to review some of his tweets in 20 years time, he will do so with genuine regret. What makes our world so diverse and interesting, is that we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people can write code, others conceptualise great user interfaces, others struggle with very basic computer concepts that just come naturally to some. Abrupt, rude, confrontational replies, many of which give the impression that the program's author is somehow superior to or better than his fellow blind people are hardly going to remain unremarked upon.

Developing software is of course a very different skill from supporting it. Chris is obviously superb at the former. With a bit more good will towards people, I'm very confident the Qwitter Support account could have had a large number of volunteers, and Chris could have politely directed users to that account. We can wish that users would RTFM all we want, some simply will not, it is the reality of software development, and nothing is going to change that. Nor does the fact that the software is free make it any more acceptable to treat end users with rudeness.

Chris is, of course, absolutely right that there is a high proportion of blind Twitter users who are unemployed, may have difficulty getting out and about due to financial or transportation issues, and who therefore have plenty of time to generate Twitter drama. We do have a very high unemployment rate. Just as with sighted people, there are those who have never tried to find a job, those who in the current climate have become demoralised and have given up, those who spend hours every day looking for that big break. We seldom know each other's stories, and it is sad when we choose to make very personal, sweeping assumptions. We do tend to sew what we reap. If we dish out confrontation on Twitter, chances are very high that confrontation will come right back at us. And it has been rather like watching a school bully crying when one little kid finally plucks up the courage to hit back, to see the lead Qwitter developer complaining when some of the hurt he has caused others comes back to him.

Does that make the behaviour of those who've responded in that way right or justified? Of course not. The best response to confrontation is often no response at all. Various Twitter characters in the blind community who've come and gone, have thrived on the fact that they know which buttons to push to get a reaction. Stop responding to them, and they'd have become bored and gone away long ago.

Then there is of course what we in New Zealand call the tall poppy syndrome. There is no doubt that Chris has considerable talent. In the blind community, we are good at building people up, to tear them down. Confrontational behaviour notwithstanding, there are some people who have sought to make his life a misery, almost as if they resent what he has been able to achieve. More than that, they are jealous of it.

Developing an app such as Qwitter obviously involves a very significant commitment of time. It has not completely been a labour of love, however. I haven't taken the time to go back and do the sums, but I know I've personally donated at least US$100 to Qwitter, and that many others have donated what they can. I don't regret doing so for a moment, nor do I expect that donations have created any kind of contract, expressed or implied, that Qwitter's development would continue indefinitely. I raise this to simply point out that while a few users may have been vexatious, some provoked, some not, the project hasn't been totally without its financial compensation.

Whether a piece of software is commercial or not, there is no guarantee that its development will continue forever. There are many examples of software used by a large number of people where development has simply stopped. Microsoft Money is a case in point. The issue I have is the point in the development cycle at which Qwitter development is apparently ceasing. It is in beta right now. Because it is beta software, there are problems, as one would expect. Does Chris have a legal obligation of any kind to tidy up the critical bugs? Of course not. He can walk away whenever he likes, and apparently has. The question is one of moral obligation, and of his personal brand. Would I be as willing to support any future project, commercial or otherwise, by a developer who leaves a user base in the lurch like this? No, I'd think twice, because I don't believe that this is an ethical way to treat people. Anything we do online impacts on our personal brand. If we're abusive, people make a mental note of that. If we walk away because a few people, again some provoked, some not, have been abusive, even though the majority of us have been supportive with our praise and with our wallets, then that leaves a sour taste and a reputation that is hard to recover.

Whether you volunteer or not should not make a difference to one's conduct. I've volunteered over many years for a range of positions, including leading New Zealand's blindness consumer organisation which would be the equivalent of NFB and ACB, serving on various committees, and of course managing Internet radio projects like Mushroom FM. In all of those cases, the work involved has been considerable. It's involved a huge investment of time and effort. And there are times when circumstances require you to walk away. But if you have to do that, you should do so by tidying up as many of the loose ends as you possibly can.

I don't begrudge for one second the fact that Chris may have concluded that he has better things to do with his life, that it's just not rewarding anymore. If you are copping a lot of abuse, especially when you're younger, it's hard to shrug that off, and easy to say, why on earth am I bothering. My only issue is that I hope he will recognise how his own conduct as contributed in part to some of the grief that has come his way, and that to protect his reputation, he at least get Qwitter 5 to a production release and make it clear that that's the end of the project. If he does not, then I fear the bad taste the half finished Qwitter project has left in so many mouths will continue to haunt him. That would be a pity when he is clearly such a gifted young man.

As for the rest of us, maybe there's a good number of us who might like to think twice before joining in the flame war. Most of us in the blind community are online in such a way that our interactions are filtered to us through a mechanical sounding speech synthesiser. It is easy for us to forget that the tweet we send in a quick burst of anger or sarcasm may be the one that tips a real human being with feelings over the edge. We don't know what else is going on in their lives, how they may be feeling. If we showed a little more on-line empathy, just empathy in general really, imagine how much of a peaceful place the online world would be.

I urge Chris to reconsider wrapping up the project in this stage in the cycle, but regardless, thank him sincerely for a very significant contribution to bringing blind people around the world closer together, and assisting us to interact with equal efficiency with our sighted peers.


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