DRMacIver's Notebook

Ladders between communities

Ladders between communities

Today I had to do something that if you had asked me to do it a few years ago, I would probably have faked my death and run away to a foreign country. Specifically, I had to tell someone that they hadn't broken any rules, but we were collectively finding their presence extremely unpleasant, and they should leave now. I did chicken out and use the communal we, and I had gathered some basic consensus first, but it was ultimately my decision.

I don't think the person I asked to leave was a bad person. At worst clumsy and clueless. But I think that letting him stay would have made the community drastically worse, and I'm glad I've become a person who can make this kind of call, especially as I've seen multiple communities fail through not making similar calls. If you've got someone who dominates a community and everyone else finds vaguely unpleasant, the community gradually drifts away unless you can foreground the conflict. Unless a community has some central organising shared purpose and resources, which many modern communities lack, it's very hard to hold it together.

A lot of this is conflict aversion in the community members. I don't think this is a universal at all, it's a function of my particular demographic of weird vaguely traumatised nerds who can't handle social conflict. It's not unique to us by any stretch, but I think we have this at a lower threshold. The same dynamic that allows people to behave badly without modifying their behaviour also tends to be the community members being conflict averse enough to find their presence too unpleasant to endure.

I want to be clear: I don't think the person I kicked out was a bad person. For my part, they seemed mostly fine. I didn't enjoy their presence either but I'd have been fine to put with it, and I expect on a one-on-one basis I'd have had a perfectly reasonable conversation with them and everything would have been fine.

But I do think leaving them in would have wrecked our community, which is why I took action. I hope they find a community better suited to them.

The problem is, fundamentally, that their presence makes the rest of the community unable to function. It was, for lack of a better term, a failure of culture fit. The gap between how they expected to behave in a community and the way the community needs to function was too large - we didn't think they were able to learn to be one of us, and we didn't think we would be able to be us if they didn't.

Communities are like this. I've got into a big fight in the past because someone was trying to argue that communities should have clear and transparent purposes and anyone aligned with that purpose should be welcome. This is, bluntly, a fucking terrible idea, and can only be held by someone who has never run or experienced a functioning community. Communities have to function first and foremost as communities, and this requires either a certain level of cultural and interpersonal alignment, or they fail.

I've talked in the past about Norms of Excellence, and I try to run my discord broadly on these principles, but I think this incident demonstrates something missing: One of the most important norms of excellence is being able to say "I'm sorry, this is not the community for you". Excellence is sought among people with enough shared context and similar problems and skills to help each other out, and having to constantly include people who are absolutely not ready for that doesn't help those people while also wrecking your current ability to progress.

But I still hope those other people find their own communities of excellence, and this makes it even more important to figure out how to build such communities, because a small number of communities can't really support a wide variety of people. At least, not without subdividing those communities and essentially forming a community of communities.

There's a term of art I use, "communities of last resort", which basically means communities that will take anyone as long as they can put up with the community. I have in mind places like 4chan, and some of the other forums of that ilk. They're not good places, but for people who need a community of people who understand them, they're often the only option, and they're often surprisingly valuable. I definitely know people for whom 4chan was a positive and formative experience, and many others even more so.

I think what we often need is ladders out of these communities, and people who are from communities in "the next level up" to help people out. Less Wrong has served as this for a lot of people - many people find Less Wrong hugely life improving, partly because they come from a 4chan or Something Awful background, and this is the next community up from that for them and is willing to both tolerate their initial undersocialisation and help them improve their life.

There isn't really a strict hierarchy of communities like the ladder metaphor imples - often there are multiple communities where membership in either doesn't imply you're ready to be in the other - but I think the most important part of it is that when someone isn't ready to be in a community, there should be other communities to help them be ready.

Of course there often... aren't. The very idea seems impossibly utopian, with our current paucity of communities and lack of explicit support for this sort of personal development. But I can dream.