Beware the Internet Bystander Effect at Work

When I was getting certified for CPR*, I learned that a big no-no is just calling out to the general area around you for help.

If you expect to get help, you have to look and be specific (and maybe even point):

“Hey, you – call 911.”

“Hey, you – get an AED.” 

When a call for help goes out to everyone, it goes out to no one – because no one assumes they should be the one to take responsibility. Meet the bystander effect:

“The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.” – Wikipedia 

The bystander effect is bad enough in real life, but it’s made worse in mass online communities.
Let’s say you’re working on a problem at your company, and the problem is now bigger than you. You need a specially-skilled developer to examine the issue and fix it. Your first issue might be to go to the online place where the most devs congregate – a Google Group, a Hipchat or Slack channel, or a Gitter message board.
Do not listen to this instinct.
If you post a problem that needs real work without specifying someone who you’d like to help you, the bystander effect kicks in. Everyone assumes that someone else will handle it. Or time passes, and the issue gets buried until you try something more drastic.
To avoid this fate, do what they taught me in CPR class. Know your specific contact points for help, and go to them directly first. Be very clear about your ask and about the responsibility you are laying on the person. Leave no room for doubt or passivity.
And while we still have people who don’t know better, try to be the person to take responsibility when everyone else is standing by.

*I should probably look at getting that updated. I was 12, maybe. Basically, don’t look at me if you stop breathing.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.