Anatomy of an ad-hominem attack

When people find it difficult to debate specific aspects of a rational argument that you're making, they can sometimes resort to using ad-hominem attacks. Here's a beautiful example of one that was sparked by my article on Web vs. Native at Smashing Magazine.


  1. An ad hominem (Latin for "to the man" or "to the person"), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting it. Ad hominem reasoning is normally described as a logical fallacy, more precisely an informal fallacy and an irrelevance. Abusive ad hominem (also called personal abuse or personal attacks) usually involves insulting or belittling one's opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument. (Wikipedia)

    Following my article on Smashing Magazine on the topic of Web vs. Native, Brian Leroux (who works on PhoneGap at Adobe and apparently did not enjoy the article) began an ad-hominem attack with a three-tweet salvo:
  2. By referring to "the useless garbage" I tweet "and ship", Brian is attempting to negate the validity of what I wrote in the article by attacking me personally. This is doubly sad since the article in question aims to take a reasoned overview of the technologies and platforms available to us as designers and developers when making decisions that will impact the user experience of the products that we make. His tweets do not address any of the points in the article and instead focus on me, the author. 

    Syd Lawrence, a developer I met at a hack day in Cannes, chimes in with a reply to Brian:
  3. As confirmed later by Syd on Twitter, that would be me he's referring to and the app that he alludes to is Feathers, the iPhone app I released two years ago as a case study in emotional design. 

    This "shit" app that Brian also refers to happened to be featured by Apple in the US and in several other app stores, was a case study in emotional design in Aarron Walter's An Event Apart talks, and was nominated for Mobile App of the Year at the .Net awards (it lost to Dropbox). In addition to being released two years ago, it also saw a number of updates, including a Retina Display update last year. I'll be the first to admit that I wish I had more time to work on it but I am finding it difficult as an independent designer/developer to find the time to do so given the number of talks that I give and the workshops on iOS development that I teach… and it might also be time to work on something new.

    It is also puzzling that Syd states that I "claim to make stuff" as he took part in the same hack day I did in Cannes in March and saw me make Grab Magic (source code) using a combination Processing, Web Sockets, and Objective-C/Cocoa Touch. In fact, I'd even asked Syd to be on my team and he had even helped me to get started on the project by giving me pointers to the web socket libraries he'd used and to his own open-source Kinect hacks (for which I was, and still am, very grateful). Grab Magic went on to win the hack day and I recently presented it at the TED@London auditions for TED Global 2013.

    Ah, but I digress… See what I did there? I was defending myself.

    Of course, such ad-hominem attacks are made precisely in hopes that you will end up having to defend yourself (as illustrated above) instead of debating a particular issue and thus to draw the topic of discussion even further away from the original argument. 

    Ad-hominem attacks are not constructive in the least and they detract from the actual issues we're trying to debate in a civilised manner. Unfortunately, they also constitute a form of online bullying that says "if you challenge something we are involved in on valid technical grounds or based on design considerations, we will attack your character". Personally, I have a thick skin. I don't enjoy these sorts of tussles but neither do they have the intended affect on me of shutting me up (quite the contrary, apparently). However, not everyone is as thick skinned and nor should everyone have to be in order to enjoy the right to rationally and civilly debate matters of design or development.

    So, Brian and Syd, if you have issues with my Web vs. Native article on Smashing Magazine, please address those issues directly. Maybe make a blog post that states your objections. Add to the conversation constructively and everyone will benefit from the discussion.

    PS. You can read some other people's feedback on the article in this story.