DRMacIver's Notebook

Inclusivity and Onboarding

Inclusivity and Onboarding

From Talking About Machines by Julian Orr, page 70:

The conversation of a closely cooperating group can be quite cryptic when the members are sharing information about work; they are considering a well-defined field which can be discussed with considerable economy, verging on code.

A thing I have been thinking about a lot recently is the trade off between making a community accessible and the community being able to serve the needs of its core members.

In Being Deep in an Abstraction Stack I talk about how you need a community of people who share your abstraction stack and there is really no substitute for this no matter how much we want one.

But unfortunately by creating such a community there is a certain amount of inherent gatekeeping: It is a community for people who have that abstraction stack, therefore if you do not have that abstraction stack you cannot participate in the community as a full member. I don't necessarily mean this as a moral judgement - sometimes gateekeeping is good - but there is nevertheless a certain amount of elitism implicit in the existence of such communities. In order to talk about our niche interests we need this cryptic shared language, and attempts to make the group more inclusive by avoiding that will also make it worse for us.

I don't really have an answer to that other than "deal with it". "I need other people to talk about my interests with" is a nice problem to have, but it's still a need and it's one that it is reasonable to satisfy, and creating slightly exclusionary communities is pretty much the only way to solve that problem..

Part of why I've been thinking about this is Weird CS Theory Discord. The opening paragraph includes the sentence:

You don’t have to “be” a computer scientist, or even know much computer science, to be here, but if you’re not interested in computer science you probably won’t enjoy the space.

This hopefully makes it clear that we're not looking to gatekeep (I originally typoed that as "gategeek" which, well, valid) based on formal qualifications, but nevertheless there is a reasonably high bar to participating in the space. People are welcome to join, and they're welcome to learn to become full participants through their experience in the space, but that is there.

But, at the same time, we're a tiny free community that I created to serve my particular need for more chatter about weird CS theory. We're absolutely not a computer science institution. We cannot invest a tonne of effort in onboarding people, the best we can possibly hope to do is to be patient and welcoming to people who are still in the process of onboarding themselves.

One problem that occurs, and is important to avoid, is when this lack of inclusitivity becomes considered a feature rather than an unfortunate trade off. The specialised language becomes not a useful shorthand but a shibboleth. I have tried to head that off by making it clear that asking us to explain ourselves is always valid:

[You are encouraged to] Ask questions. (“Can you explain that?” is always fine, though answering “No” is fine too)

We have a specific norm that is designed to give people the space to indicate that they need help understanding something, but also a specific norm that we should not exhaust ourselves trying to bring people in. If people want to bring themselves in, the door is open, but we can only help so much.

Unfortunately, this too is exclusionary: Many people don't have the time or resources to do that work themselves. I feel bad about this, but ultimately the world is still a better place for the community, and there is only so much I can do about it.