Why I Feel it Necessary to Correct Stuff

Consider this scenario: you receive an email, or come across something online that concerns you, upsets you, worries you, excites you, woos you, or renews your faith in humanity. You share it with your friends on facebook… either to warn them, or to warm their heart, too, depending on the context. Then some jerk decides to respond to your post and correct what you’ve posted. “Sorry, but that’s an urban legend,” or “Nope, not a true story,” or “You have your facts wrong. This is what it should be…” says the jerk. Now you just feel like a bit of a heel for posting it in the first place. You feel devalued. You feel let down. Sometimes, you even feel a little annoyed that this person wouldn’t let it drop, and had to continually point out the mistake, often missing the underlying reason you posted it in the first place. They even back it up with some links or facts from credible sources.

Maybe it wasn’t the truth or falsity of the story that mattered to you, but the heart of what you were trying to share. Maybe you experienced something in your life that made you enraged when you found something online that was offensive to that life event. Maybe you’re coming at it from a perfectly legitimate perspective, and the person who takes time out of their day to correct you was simply pouring more fuel on your fire, and making you angrier in the process. Or maybe the heartwarming story now suddenly feels pathetic, not because it’s no longer true (The Princess Bride isn’t a true story, but it’s a good one anyway) but rather because the person replying made you feel like a heel for thinking it was true, and made you feel like a loser for sharing it with others.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced something like that. We’ve all received or encountered those kinds of stories that we feel prompted to share. A heartwarming story about an old man saved from certain death by his faithful dog. A story about an impoverished family that inherited a fortune and used the money to save an entire village. A warning about a computer virus or link in Facebook that will destroy your hard drive. A caution about a company’s business practices that are enslaving children around the world. A story about an underdog who overcame all odds and fought the system and won. We’ve all seen those stories. Many of us have also shared them.

And sites like Facebook are making it easier to share these kinds of things, and to have discussions about them. In most cases, those discussions wind up taking place in front of all of our friends and co-workers (because Facebook loves that we’re willing to mix those together now), and standing our ground on our reasons for sharing become all that much more near and dear to us, because, really, who wants to look like a goof in front of friends, family and co-workers?

Sadly, in this story, I tend to be the jerk who feels it necessary to point out whether something is falsified, miscommunicated, rooted in urban legend, or is pointing blame at the wrong party. I’m the guy who often feels it necessary to pipe up and point out a mistake. I’m the guy who comes in like rain on a parade, and often, I wind up looking like a total jerk for doing it.

But I have good intentions. Just like you did when you shared whatever it was you found online.

Problem is, we all know where good intentions lead. It works out poorly for both of us. So if nothing else, this post is here to explain why I feel it necessary to offer corrections, restatements, or to shed additional light on the stories that others feel a desire to share.

A Little Back Story

Years ago, I had a friend who was notorious for sharing half-truths. Not on purpose. This person just had a knack for missing critical parts of a story, and the result was that many people heard half-a-story, and then the telephone game ensued (remember that game?) as a result, pretty soon the story was twisted beyond its original meaning. Even to the point that my friend would get confused in the details and would interpret events wrongly because they only half-heard things in the first place.

Long story short, I was on the receiving end of a half-story once, in that one of the things my friend shared was about me. It was miscommunicated, others heard very different things, and it reflected poorly on me. By the time I offered a correction to the story, the damage had already been done, and people had even “taken sides” so to speak, and some friendships became very awkward for me, for several years afterwards. It was actually quite traumatic for me. It affected my school life, and my work. Every time that friend continued to incorrectly communicate stories, I felt a need to correct them–even publicly, sometimes–because I hated being on the receiving end of wrong information. That caused strains, and relationships failed. We were both to blame, but I still stood behind the need to correct that person (though I stopped doing it publicly). But even when I tried to correct that person privately, they never took the steps to correct their mistakes with others, and lots of false information got communicated to people as a result.

Because of those events, I tend to be a little sensitive to stories that are incomplete, especially when someone or something near-and-dear to me is painted in a bad light because of it.

Fast Forward a Little…

Not long after those events, I began my career working in IT. I was well-known as a “go-to” guy for solving problems with peoples’ computers, networks, and basically anything tech-related. For years, that’s all I did. I thought that when I “grew up” I’d eventually own a store and sell computers. What did I know? I was just a late-teenager at the time. I thought owning a computer store was where the real money was at. I eventually realized that business solutions and business development in IT was the real career path for me, but that’s another story.

Actually, no, that really is the story. As I shifted into a business-focused career path in IT (more formally, “IS”, meaning Information Systems, not Information Technology), I found it very hard to shake this “former life” where I was “The IT Guy.” I was still the go-to for technical problems. Even when I was building core business systems for multi-million-dollar companies, people still looked at me as “the guy who can fix my printer” or “the guy who can make my WiFi work.” It even got to the point of being a little frustrating, when I’m sitting at home working away on a multi-million-dollar budget plan, and an email would come in from someone saying, “I can’t get my Windows XP to boot, can you come out to my house and look at it for me? I can pay you $20.”

It’s not that I was insulted by it… but rather, taking three hours to solve a computer problem that isn’t even my area of strength any more, and being offered $20 just wasn’t even worth the gas to drive there. I’m all for helping people (and in most cases, I just did it to help out and wouldn’t take any money for it, and that was a big part of the problem), but when it got to the point that I was getting several dozen of these kinds of requests every week, it was too taxing on me. I had to reply with things like “sorry, I just don’t do that any more,” which made me feel guilty, because I knew full well I was perfectly capable of doing it, but those side-tasks were a distraction to the rest of what I do.

Fast Forward a Little More…

Now we have Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. Now it’s easier for people to pose those kinds of questions. Now it’s harder to “ignore” those kinds of requests. One person, recently, even tried to “insist” on using my time for a while to “pick my brain” on an idea. It was time I simply couldn’t afford, and it was for someone who has frequently “picked my brain” but never brought me any real business. I had to say no, despite multiple attempts (even after saying no) for this person to try to get me to help them. It’s too much, and with full-time work, side-work (that’s necessary to maintain a well-rounded skill set for my field), four kids, and all the usual stuff associated with that, those kinds of events are even more stressful for me than they are for the people having problems and needing help. And I still wrestle with saying “no” when deep down, I’d really love to just help.

But here’s the painful part: the vast majority of emails and communications that I receive which I would consider to be “distractions” in my life (and for which I have to say, “no”), stem from people trying to do things where they’ve been misinformed, or have received bad advice, or because they panicked over something they read online.

  • An email talking about a virus that will wipe your hard drive unless you forward it to twenty people.
  • A warning about the socioeconomic practices of a company that we all know and love.
  • A fraudulent post or facebook rant about a friend or a co-worker.
  • A failure to read a dialog box properly, resulting in a virus or other type of malware that mucked up your whole computer.
  • Confusion about up-and-coming upgrades to free systems we all use like Gmail or Facebook.
  • Confusion about privacy settings and how things like phones and iPads are tracking everything you do.

Stuff like that.

People post these things all the time. And despite the fact that I haven’t worked in a technical support related job for well over a decade, people still tend to turn to me for help when they have a technical problem. That seemingly harmless post you just shared about how Facebook is going to start charging for using it? Well, that just prompted ten people to email me privately and I have to explain that it’s not true multiple times. It took an hour. That little post about how Company X is run by a secret society that supports supports human slavery? I now have to respond to people wanting to know how to eliminate software made by Company X because they refuse to support slavery. That took another hour. That fun and light-hearted comment about why Blackberrys (or Androids, or whatever) are better than iPhones (or Androids, or whatever)… I just ended up with a dozen emails and private messages from people concerned that their Blackberry/iPhone/Android is now suddenly a security threat, because the article that was shared wasn’t a lighthearted one, but rather just some misinformed journalist who wrote a bad article.

The internet is littered with this crap, and it’s making my job harder.

Those posts, those comments, that sharing… they become my problems. Day after day after day.

But that’s not your problem, and I don’t hold it against you. It’s my problem. And in a way, I hold it against me. It’s up to me to fix. It’s not your fault: you shared with good intentions. But that tiny piece of misinformation, that small missing detail, that seemingly minor component left out: those just became my worst nightmares. Or least, some bad dreams for me.

When it really gets difficult is when something gets shared about a company or a person that I support. I’m very choosy about which companies I’m willing to buy from. I’ve made conscious choices about the technologies I will support and why. In many of those areas of my life, I’m either an advanced user or an expert in my field. I’m making my choices based on verified information and on information I can deduce from being an expert in that area. I’ve made choices on certain home technologies because I’m the guy who supports those technologies among friends and family. I chose a Mac because they’re less maintenance for my family members, and although lots of people disagree with me on this one: they’re cheaper. I had a discussion with someone recently who complained about what they considered a “fundamental flaw” in a Mac, and explained to me why Windows doesn’t have that flaw, so I’m inherently flawed for leaning towards Macs. No, I’m leaning towards what is needed for what I do, and what the people I support do. Ironically, the person pointing this out just didn’t realize that what they classified as a flaw was just a setting they could change. They just didn’t know how to do it. So it comes back to someone being misinformed, and making my job harder as a result.

When you share something that calls those things into question, legitimate or otherwise, I have to deal with the effects of that. So when it’s misinformation, it’s all that much more important for me to correct it. Not because I’m trying to correct you, but because I have to correct everyone else. I have to correct it for those who then grab a phone or start emailing me because they “read something on Facebook” and now they think that some piece of technology that I helped them buy is causing hackers in Tibet to break into their personal bank accounts, or monitor everything they’re doing. I had to explain to one person, once, that the camera on their iMac is not monitoring them or spying on their home and sharing it with Apple and other third parties. It’s not watching them get dressed in the morning.

In short… I can’t get people off my back when misinformation gets spread around, so my only way to solve it is to the correct the information when I get a chance. It’s nothing personal… but it really affects me, personally. I read, or skim through, an average of about 600 emails and communications every day. I deal with most of my unread emails at the start of every week (Monday morning), and I try to respond to anything I can about 20 to 25 times each day. All day, every day. I currently have 179 unread messages, carried forward from Monday, Tuesday, and today. I don’t know who they are all from, but I have to sift through them. If I miss one from someone, they’ll probably email me tomorrow and say, “hey, why haven’t you replied? did you get my email?” Yes, but you’re not the only person emailing me, and I have 179 unread messages right now. I will sift through 3/4 of them tonight, and deal with them.

And amid that, I’ve received about two dozen direct messages (via Twitter, Google+ or Facebook) this afternoon alone. And that’s mainly because I’ve left my instant messaging program offline all day. Since that last paragraph, four more emails have come in. A communication containing some misinformation could cause several dozen emails in the span of a few hours. It might take several hours of my time to respond.

Misinformation costs me. A lot.

And it’s not that I’m trying to be the jerk who always has to point out when people make mistakes… just like I don’t think you’re a fool for sharing something that isn’t correct. You’re trying to share what you’ve learned, and I’m trying to prevent people from sharing something that isn’t correct, to cut down on how much time I have to spend fixing it later on.

Keep on sharing. Make sure that what you’re sharing is accurate.* And don’t be too upset when I pipe up and point out something that’s misinformed.

* (If you’re ever unsure whether what you’re sharing is true or not, try searching for a few of the key words in what you’re sharing on a site called Snopes, which exists purely to help people understand what emails and internet-based communications are based on truth, and what are fraudulent: http://snopes.com/).