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Michael MacTaggert
Michael MacTaggert

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Roundabout Thoughts on Community and Codes of Conduct

Neil Postman was as social critic whose work I find interesting, particularly his explorations of the impacts of technology on society. I think this ties in very nicely with James Boyle's concept of Cultural Environmentalism, which he uses to analogize cultural artifacts that we collectively own (the public domain) to an environment worth defending. One feature that differentiates study of an ecological environment from thought experiments common in other disciplines is that additions cannot be taken back. Once something is introduced to an environment, it is now a new environment with that additional element.

Culture works very much like this, as a world in which The Japanese House finally releases her first album will be irrevocably different than the world had been. Perhaps people will enjoy her androgynous electropop and seek out similar artists like Oh Wonder or Princess Chelsea, and perhaps not. Perhaps musicians of the future will grow up inspired by her idiosyncratic syncopation choices inspired by water or her sultry hyper-processed alto, and perhaps not. But it will be introduced, so the environment will be different. We will then have to confront the question of what is that world is to decide how to respond.

I was listening to a 1998 talk by Postman to get my creative juices going on my next articles, and he started talking about questions that we should ask about new technologies, putting these thoughts in my head. One of them was the question "How does this new technology change our language?" and he gave this irresistible example:

And as for the term community, by the way, as it's used on the internet: You should examine that very carefully, because it's almost being used in the way opposite to the usual meaning of community. Most people when they talk about they're "joining a community on the internet" mean they've joined a group with people of similar interests. Now, the more traditional meaning of the word community, seems to me that these are people do not necessarily have the same interests, but who must negotiate and accommodate their differences for the sake of social harmony. So it's almost the opposite meaning.

Like a lot of things Postman said, I think there's a lot of truth here, and consequences worthy of consideration. 20 years later, most platforms where our internet commiserating takes place are essentially selling themselves on optimizations to connecting you to people who like the things you do. We all pair off into sites designed for an interest like DEV or carve out mini-network niches in the more general sites in order to socialize more directly, but we do not often come across people on the internet outside the context of some shared interest.

This has proved unscaleable. Every social media platform that aims for a general audience has faced innumerable problems with moderating such a large group of people. Their proposed solutions normally include handwaving at artificial intelligence, which we all know is a pipe dream that's ineffectual in this space at best and actively harmful as it facelessly defends malicious actors at worst. They don't seem to have a clear method of discerning how well people are fitting in and they very often screw up what paltry policies against harassment they do have.

You don't have to go to world-scale platforms like Facebook or Twitter to run into problems with dissidents, though. I am a moderator of the Programming Discussions server on Discord, and anyone who's held a similar position can share stories of trolls and serious malcontents. Granted, most are people deciding to be bad who deserve a quick boot, but the most difficult people to moderate are those in a grey area where their manner pisses people off and they seem incapable of adjusting. Often, they believe that the community of 15,000 people should adjust to them. They might even be right in some cases, and determining that is a challenge. The reasons they do not mesh well with the others usually has nothing to do with the shared interest that brought them to the server.

We'll have people with valuable skills and insights who come in and treat beginners badly or constantly seek drama by not treating people respectfully. Ultimately, they have to change or go. The interest is not enough to guarantee a good fit with a group of people. A community needs more than that to remain stable because what really holds one together has never been one shared interest, even if the new meaning obscures this. It has always been the openness to negotiating a thought-space with other people that characterized the old meaning.

I don't pretend to know exactly how the large social media platforms could enforce order at their scale, but there's obviously room for improvement over their laissez-faire approaches. I have seen positive results coming from the movement to emphasize enforceable codes of conduct for places people interact online and in person, such as conferences. Programming Discussions doesn't call its #rules channel a code of conduct, but it was definitely influenced by them. It's especially clear in Rule 2: "This is a welcoming community. All forms of abuse, belittlement, and rudeness are strictly forbidden. This includes unsubstantiated language/technology bashing, unprompted aggression, and anything unpleasant that someone else asks you to cease." (Our Rule 1 is just a reminder that our users must follow Discord's guidelines, so I've suggested that be Rule 0 before.) The main difference is that its conflict resolution policy is still entirely moderator discretion, which still works well at our size.

This code of conduct emphasis, basically creating a bill of rights for each place we wish to be, seem like an adaption of communities of the new meaning that attempts to recapture the spirity of the old meaning. They are equally an acknowledgement that people of differing backgrounds enjoy the shared topic at hand and a preemptive negotiation of the terms of that space. The agitation for and against conferences adopting this form of policy shows it's being treated as something new, even if it is a return to the roots of how to organize people. Perhaps the solution to this problem caused by this new technology will come from looking back to appreciate what the culture lost in transition.

For posterity, this is the list of questions Neil Postman suggested we ask of every technology:

1) What problem does this technology solve?
2) Whose problem is it?
3) What new problems will be created by solving an old one?
4) What institutions will be most seriously harmed?
5) What changes in language are occurring as a result of technological change?
6) What new sources of social and political power will emerge?
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