Toxicity, Inclusivity, and Community Size

3 minute read 03 October 2013

I've been struggling with the topic of toxic communication and poisonous people in our community spaces for years now. Only recently though have I been able to start collecting my thoughts and looking for answers. Today I saw that Openfly wrote an interesting article on titled "Redefining Hackerspaces" which jived well with my scribblings. I don't want to put words in his mouth so instead I'll quote some of the conclusion:

"We need to accept that trust networks don’t scale beyond a certain point. That trust is built on some commonality. That a community cannot be all things to all people."

I'm beginning to come to the same conclusion, that community spaces that don't have the resources or the goal of becoming a place that pays (trained) staff CAN NOT be (radically) inclusive...

In an ideal world we should be able to communicate our grievances, work beyond our differences, simply avoid (and NOT sabotage) those who we don't mesh with -- all while still getting shit done. Sadly, our society (and thus our community spaces) don't seem to work that way.

We're seeing more and more toxic communication in our communities online and off. Tons of talk of twitter, reddit, hacker news, and other communities being toxic. We've got new newspapers and blogs removing their comments sections (finally). We've got every major tech conference the past few years with a big sexual harassment 'scandal'. And in my world, huge problems in our community spaces with angry people seemingly measuring how toxic they can be against how much value they bring in.

Many people will say its just our demographic. Males, Nerds, Engineers. 18-24's. But it sure seems to transcend into politics, religion, and all other quarters of our society. In the end it doesn't matter, because we are in tech and thats our demographic whether we like it or not.

Ask anybody who served on the board of our nonprofit hackerspace HeatSync Labs over the past 2 years, and they'll tell you they spent approaching 0% of their time envisioning and executing on what kind of awesome nonprofit we should be and instead spent all of their time babysitting and psychoanalyzing a CONSTANT (albeit minority) population of angry members.

Why are they so angry at this person, their project, or the way they they were spoken to? Have they tried talking to them? Have they tried not yelling at them? Have they offered to help? Were they broken up with recently? Are they having problems at work?

And thats all just to stay afloat, let alone make a dent in the problem.

As a result we've got the policy and administrative types screaming at us to make more rules in order to deal with all the jerks.

However, I hope we can think critically and see that rules don't make unhealthy people healthy.

I'm not sure theres any way to make unhealthy people healthy than doing the hard work of sitting them down, forcing them to view their actions, and ESPECIALLY if their actions are getting them the results they want. And if we find that what they really want is to pain others, then we have the unpleasant (and increasingly impossible) job of removing them from our communities--rules or no rules.

Sadly all this takes energy, time, and pain which LITERALLY the opposite of why we come to communities. In fact, thats the kind of deep conflict resolution that frankly takes training and experience.

Thats why I'm starting to agree with Openfly's conclusion that communities should not (frankly CAN NOT) be (radically) inclusive, at least not without paying staff as community managers, mediators, and at the end of the day authorities to make decisions and remove people from the community.

I'm not saying HeatSync (or your community here) have to pay community managers, but I am saying the only other option I see is to start getting less inclusive. Smaller like-minded communities (somewhere < the tribe number) who share life experiences, ways of talking to eachother, and to some extent political views will still find strife and toxic people, but are seemingly WAY more capable of communicating with eachother while still actually getting shit done-- which is what we all came here for in the first place.