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11497 Tim Green: Sun Tzu and the Art of Words – Self-awareness on social media

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly: The official blog of Canada’s national editorial association on 12 Nov 2019 and is reprinted with permission. Tim Green is a member of Editors Canada.

Article by 11497 Tim Green (RRMC/RMC 1977)

As editors and writers, we are all conscious of the need to consider our target audience. See Understanding My Reading Communities as an example. This requires self-awareness to avoid inflicting our own biases on our readers. If Sun Tzu had been an editor, he might have said, “Know your audience, know yourself. A hundred editing contracts, a hundred successes.”

Self-awareness is also important in focused internet discussion forums where a typical exchange starts with a question. In editors’ groups this may involve terminology, localization, or obscure grammar. The asker is looking for a qualitative answer. (Online forums are unsuitable for quantitative studies because respondents do not necessarily represent a cross-section of anything.)

The first 20 or so respondents who say “Answer is X” really want to help. After that, however, the 21st identical answer adds little, and the 40th even less. (A recent question in a technical forum elicited quick consensus but answers continued to roll in. After a week, answer 400 appeared saying the same thing as the previous 399.)

Certainly, after a long string of identical responses, a well-supported explanation of a contrary answer could be useful. But what motivates the 100th or 400th person to provide an answer identical to the vast majority of answers already posted?

Perhaps Person 400 did not take the time to glance at the comments and realize that the group had achieved consensus hundreds of answers previously. Perhaps Person 400 is insecure and wants to demonstrate to others, but mostly to themselves, that they are not ignorant. In any case, I contend that this demonstrates lack of self-awareness, and that answer 400 is more about the respondent than about an actual desire to help.

This is an example of the communication value depending on context. The message may be very useful in one context while identical words carry no direct information hundreds of responses later.

Of course, in international groups, people in different time zones may have different perspectives. An early consensus could represent Canadian viewpoints (“Answer is X”) while different views emerge later (“Answer is Y in Australia but Z in Europe”). If the asker needs to know that the answer is X everywhere, they should say so up front… and that requires awareness of the effect of one’s own actions (in this case, questions) on others.

Useless online posts are harmless and easy to ignore. However, they obscure useful information and broadcast respondents’ lack of awareness. Again, if Sun Tzu was writing today, he might have said (online, of course), “It is a wise person who knows when to post and when not to post.”

So as editors, we learn that words have no constant message; the information they convey depends on the context in which they appear. And the reach of our internet communications may reveal to others aspects of ourselves that we do not even understand. Luckily, Sun Tzu assures us that “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Do we possess sufficient self-awareness to seize that opportunity?

Tim Green


Tim Green is a former army officer and current technical editor, eclectic engineer, and podcasting story teller living in Yukon. In his spare time, he explores lost copper mines.


  • Dave Hall

    November 26, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    Good article, Tim. Relevant to all of us who post from time to time.
    By the way, wuz Sun Tzu in our class:):):)??
    10950 Dave M Hall

  • Kevin J. Macdonald

    November 28, 2019 at 12:58 am

    Good article,Tim. Relevant to all of us who post from time to time. By the way, I think Sun Tsu was in the Class of ’76. I’m not sure; we had a very large class. I know I’ve heard the name before!