Joke Accounts Are a Bitter Necessity

Joke Accounts and the BOFH are Garbage by Aurynn Shaw struck a chord with me back in the day. After all, who wants to exclude people? Who wants to make them feel unwelcome? Having survived some amount of difficult working experiences I have changed my mind on this drastically. The joke accounts are a bitter necessity, and I’ll try to explain why.

Satire is not only an aspect of culture. In many ways, it is a tool of survival, but also a tool of expressing cricicism and relieving tension. The “joke accounts” are a tool of that expression, and an outlet for emotions which do not have an official spot in our modern, Western work culture. When bullshit jobs run rampant, and every organisation you join starts to resemble some form of a moral maze, satire is one of the few things that can help.

Sardonic laughter can be one of the very few weapons that remain and help keep one’s sanity.

While a blameless culture is a noble strife, and is an essential stepping stone to building a healthy team, just as any other phenomenon it can overfit. Have too much of blameless culture, and there is no more accountability. Have too much conflict aversion, and no issue is ever important enough to have an argument about. Have too much porcelain, and no behavior will be tolerated - even if it were fully innocent.

Yes, the issue of the devaluation of PHP devs, Javascript devs, CSS devs, designers, Ruby devs, Java devs - any other particular trade devs - is clearly present. But so is the issue of glass ceilings. And so is the issue of overblown Javascript industrial complex, where value extraction gets confounded with simplicity. And so is the fact that many CEOs are utterly incapable of prioritization. The PHP CEO Twitter account could as well have been a JavaCeo, or a ScalaCeo. It could have been a ScaleupCeo too. Most of the posts there have nothing to do with PHP - they have to do with a shitty work culture.

When we see retoolings, Glassdoor becoming deanonymized, …. - what is the place to vent then? How can one keep sane when it feels like every behavior - the silliest, the most long-winded, ceremonial, stupid behavior - is normal, acceptable, appropriate?

Living in oppressive societies leaves a certain mark, an imprint. That imprint dictates that if something ridiculous and probably harmful happens, you should either accept it, or admit it is ridiculous and harmful - and likely face consequences. Questioning the status quo is a danger to well-being. The majority then becomes “silent” exactly because, facing the prospect of being punished, they either “yield to authority” or try to mask their resentment with “there are probably valid reasons for this”. This is my fundamental objection to the Chesterton’s Fence too - it does not allow investigation into whether the fence has any merit, it dictates the fence just be left exactly where it is. The fear of getting reprimanded generates this tacit acceptance. One step further - and you already think “it is probably me who is insane”. One step further still - and we get to fatigue, disenchantment, and finally: burnout.

Fighting this is what satire accounts are about. They are not about “othering female frontend developers”. They are not about “creating an in-group”. They are about the desperate need to be heard when you feel like everything around you has turned into a circus performance, and you yourself - against your will - have been made a clown.

Plenty of that at r/devhumor.

Let’s make no mistake here. We are routinely building bad UIs and there are terrible team dynamics and incentives directly fueled by how our tech industry is messed up. We absolutely are applying a distorted and ritualised practice. We absolutely are putting too many tracking and popups on websites. If we disallow satire, if we disallow exposure for those things - yes, we are being gentle on people who have no other choice than to implement all of this, who have no other choice than to “get in line”. And we are, as an industry, more inclusive, because nothing would ever be labeled “laughable”. But at the same time, we are then making a tacit admission that all of this crap just “came out of nowhere”. It just, sort of, “happened”, you know? UIs that are impossible to use, sites, where the content is concealed for 70 percent by ads, Scrum daily standups which drag on for hours and become a glorified status update, engineers and designers getting ignored with any kind of product input, layoffs, AI supplanting humans…

And while there is no “single person” to blame for all of that, there are certainly directions of thought - and institutions - and yes, people – that absolutely are accountable for where we are. Some of people, specifically, are considered exemplar in the field. And while “voting with your feet” (and going to work on something like Mastodon, provided you have amassed enough FU money and have no caretaker duties, children or mortgage) is maybe an option, the first thing you likely need is waking up from the nightmare. Because any oppressive structure is designed to condition you to believe that it is you who is the problem – as the survival of that system is contingent on you believing it. Wake up, Neo! It’s not you. Or, at the very least, it’s not you as often as you have been made to believe.

BOFH is a curious case here.

I carried this forward as the wish fulfilment of being taught to think I was better than users, smarter and more capable

While it is certainly humorous and makes heaps of fun at helpless “users” whose mailbox is getting deleted story after story after story, it seems odd that a fairly obvious point eluded Aurynn’s attention. BOFH is a satire upon itself, and the culture it makes a joke of is the culture of petty systems administrators who do evil deeds just for their own pleasure. Who forbid essential things from happening just because they like to feel the power bestowed upon them. Who reduce usage quotas “just so that these lame users don’t relax too much”. This is what BOFH is about – way more than being directed at “users” it is directed at the ego-centric culture of systems administrators. I have been on both ends of that stick, and the better admins I worked with and have as friends support this claim. BOFH is satire about “how we suck”, not about “how those others suck”. And should you wander, it can be a good wakeup call. It is that culture which birthed the more dysfunctional versions of “infra” and “devops” teams in late 2010-s. Of course – not all of them. But those that are hard to collaborate with stem from exactly the type of culture BOFH was describing. And scolding.

There is a concept of anti-fragility which has been appropriated by the more right-wing spectrum, but its message is something I would like to subscribe by:

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

Satire is essential for providing shocks that make us all better. But we ought to pick to be antifragile. I find it ironic that exactly the groups which could benefit the most from open-heartedly laughing about the mess that is our field of work, instead choose to suppress it – and to accuse its creators.