Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Why You Have To Fix Governance To Improve Hospitality
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
Fundamentally, if you want to make a community hospitable,* you need to work not just on individual rules of conduct, but on governance. This is because
Wait, how does that work?
In my Wiki Conference 2014 keynote address (available in text, audio, and video), and in my PyCon 2014 poster about Hacker School, I discuss how to make your community hospitable. In those pieces I also mention how the gatekeeping (there is an initiation/selection process) and the paid labor of community managers (the facilitators) at Hacker School help prevent or mitigate bad behavior. And, of course, the Hacker School user manual is the canonical document about what is desired and prohibited at Hacker School; "Subtle -isms at Hacker School" and "Negative comments" have more ruminations on how certain kinds of negativity create a bad learning environment.
Sometimes it's the little stuff, more subtle than the booth babe/groping/assault/slur kind of stuff, that makes a community feel inhospitable to me. When I say "little stuff" I am trying to describe the small ways people marginalize each other but that I did not experience at Hacker School and thus that I noticed more after my sabbatical at Hacker School: dominance displays, cruelty in the guise of honesty, the use of power in inhospitable ways, feeling unvalued, "jokes", clubbiness, watching my every public action for ungenerous interpretation, nitpicking, and bad faith.
You can try to make rules about how things ought to be, about what is allowed and not, but members of the incumbent/dominant group are less accustomed to monitoring their own behavior, as the Onlinesmanship wiki (for community moderators) reminds us:
Another pattern of the privileged: not keeping track of the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They only know they've crossed the line when someone in authority tells them so. If this doesn't happen, their behavior stays bad or gets worse....
Do not argue about their intentions. They'll swear they meant no harm, then sulk like fury because you even suggested it. In most cases they'll be telling the truth: the possibility that they were giving offense never crossed their minds. Neither did any other scenario, because unlike real adults, they take no responsibility for getting along with others. The idea that in a cooperative work situation, getting along with one's fellow employees is part of the job, is not in their worldview.
This too is a function of privilege. They assume they won't get hit with full penalties for their first offense (or half-dozen offenses), and that other people will always take on the work of tracking their behavior, warning them when they go over the line, and explaining over and over again what they should have done and why. It's the flip side of the way people of the marked state get hit with premature negative judgements (stupid, dishonest, sneaky, hysterically oversensitive) on the basis of little or no evidence.
And, in any community, rules often get much more leniently interpreted for members of the dominant group. And this is even harder to fight against when influential people believe that no marginalization is taking place; as Abi Sutherland articulates: "The problem with being lower on an unstated social hierarchy is that marginal judgment calls will reliably go against you. It's an excusable form of reinforcement."**
Changing individual rules isn't enough. After all, individual rules get made by particular humans, who -- here, instead of babbling about social rule system theory at you, I'll give you a sort of sidebar about three successive levels of governance, courtesy of my bachelor's degree in political science:***
- Actors: The actual set of people who run an organization or who shape agendas, on any given day, have particular ideas and policies and try to get certain things done. They implement and set and change regulations. Actors turn over pretty fast.
- For example, in its five-year history, Hacker School has had employees come and go, and new participants have become influential alumni.
- Dominant worldviews: More deeply and less ephemerally, the general worldview of the group of people who have power and influence (e.g., Democrats in the executive branch of the US government, sexists in mass media, surgeons in operating rooms, deletionists on English Wikipedia) determines what's desirable and what's possible in the long term. Churn is slower on this level.
- For example, dominant worldviews among Hacker Schoolers**** include: diversity of Hacker Schoolers, on several axes, helps everyone learn more. Hiding your work, impostor syndrome, too much task-switching, and the extrinsic motivation of job-hunting are common problems that reduce the chances of Hacker Schoolers' success. Careers in the tech industry are, on balance, desirable.
- Rules of the game: What is sacred? What is so core to our identity, our values, that breaking one of these means you're not one of us? The rules of the game (e.g., how we choose leaders, what the rulers' jurisdiction is) confer legitimacy on the whole process. Breaking these rules is heresy and amending them is very hard and controversial.***** Publicly disagreeing with the rules of the game costs lots of political capital.
- For example, the rules of the game among Hacker Schoolers, as I see them, include: the founders of Hacker School and their employees have legitimate authority over admissions, hiring, and rule enforcement. Hacker School is (moneywise) free to attend. Admission is selective. A well-designed environment that helps people do the right thing automatically is better than one-on-one persuasion, which is still better than coercion.
(Where do the four Hacker School social rules fall in this framework? I don't know. Hacker School's founders encourage an experimental spirit, and I think they would rather stay fluid than accrete more and more sacred texts. But, as more and more participants have experienced a Hacker School with the four social rules as currently constituted, I bet a ton of my peers perceive the social rules as DNA at this point, inherent and permanent. I'm not far from that myself.)
(I regret that I don't have the citation to hand, and would welcome the name of the theorists who created this model.)
So, if you want a hospitable community, it's not enough to set up a code of conduct; a CoC can't substitute for culture. Assuming you're working with a pre-existing condition, you have to assess the existing power structures and see where you have leverage, so you can articulate and advocate new worldviews, and maybe even move to amend the rules of the game.
How do you start? This post has already gotten huge, so, I'll talk about that next time.
* I assume that we can't optimize every community or activity for hospitality and learning. Every collaborative effort has to balance execution and alignment; once in a while, people who have already attained mastery of skill x just need to mind-meld to get something done. But if we want to attract, retain, and grow people, we need to always consider the pathway to inclusion. And that means, when we accept behavior or norms that make it harder for people to learn, we should know that we're doing it, and ask whether that's what we want. We should check.
**See the second half of "One Way Confidence Will Look" for more on the unwillingness to see bias.
*** I am quite grateful for my political science background -- not least because I learned that socially constructed things are real too, which many computer science-focused people in my field seem to have missed, which means they can't mod or make new social constructs as easily. Requisite variety.
**** A non-comprehensive list, of course. And I don't feel equal to the more nuanced question: what beliefs do the most influential Hacker Schoolers hold, especially on topics where their worldview is substantially different from their peers'?
***** The US has a very demanding procedure for amending the Constitution. India doesn't. The US has had 27 amendments in 227 years; India, 98 in 67 years. I don't know how to interpret that.
28 Dec 2014, 12:08 p.m.
The promised "next time".