How to Build Healthy Geeky Communities
Geeky communities attract people who milk them for money, sex, and throngs of adoring flatterers. In the Anglo world I can trace this from New York science-fiction fandom in the 1940s through some of the groups I knew face-to-face in Canada to the Southern California tech world (and the closely related SoCal kink and porn worlds) in the 2010s. There are theories why this happens such as Michael Suileabhain-Wilson’s “Geek Social Fallacies” (2003). But today I would like you to read an essay on how to build a community of plumbers working side by side not rock stars and groupies, a community that the parasites bounce off like a mosquito landing on a buckskin jacket.
No More Rock Stars (2016) by Valerie Aurora, Mary Gardiner, and Leigh Honeywell
The three authors have experience with people looking for the second kind of benefit, so their specific points will not be everyone’s cup of tea (they say themselves that they are focused on tech communities). But they are thoughts on how to structure a community so the parasites can’t take over, rather than on how to find ‘leaders’ or expel a few bad apples. And structures beat virtues and vices like organized teams beats mobs of heroic individualists. If we want to stop these patterns happening again and again, we need to structure our communities differently. And the three authors have experience with doing that, whether or not you agree with all of their twelve points.
- Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone
- Start with the assumption that harassment reports are true and investigate them thoroughly
- Make it easy for victims to find and coordinate with each other
- Watch for smaller signs of boundary pushing and react strongly
- Call people out for monopolizing attention and credit
- Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization
- Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible
- Build in checks against “failing up”
- Enforce strict policies around sexual or romantic relationships within power structures
- Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives
- Distribute the “keys to the kingdom”
- Don’t create environments that make boundary violations more likely
The one thing I can say to the Internet about this is that their list goes a bit over my head. That is because it aims at geeky communities which already have thousands of members, significant cash flow, and full-time employees. That is way above my level, I am just about competent to keep a sports club or makerspace or gaming group of 3 to 10 people meeting every week through bad weather and personal conflicts and life happening. I want to learn more about how to create and maintain communities like that, and build them to the 30- to 100-person level, which is still much too small to attract the parasites who just want money, sex, and crowds of blushing fans. Focusing on what might happen if a community grows too big or too rich, or remembering groups I was part of which the parasites took over, inhibits me from creating and sustaining the small communities in my neighbourhood.
Further Reading: ‘David Chapman’s’ ebook Meaningness has some interesting ideas if you are in the mood for something in the style of a TED talk or business book https://meaningness.com/geeks-mops-sociopaths Hang’s article on Evaporative Cooling (2010) has some ideas too although they are also written in that style.
Edit 2022-08-18: Scott Alexander has a theory centered around allistic status competition (which might be similar to ‘Chapman’s sociopaths, see previous warning about the style of a TED talk) https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/a-cyclic-theory-of-subcultures Converted to block editor.
If you have a strong stomach, Alec Nevala-Lee has a story from the early 1960s of two prominent science fiction and fantasy authors who were well known as serial child-abusers but protected by one of the geek social fallacies: “We’re all kooks. W. is just a little kookier than the rest of us. Where will it all end if we start rejecting people because they’re kooky?” There are some good books and websites on ancestors of modern online communities in early science-fiction fandom or the “letters to the editor” section in 19th century magazines but I don’t have the others to hand.
Do my gentle readers know of any perspectives from outside the universitied software/business bubble in California and with more perspectives from ethnography, sociology, or just a culture whose traditional language is not English?
Edit 2022-10-29: See also Donna Lanclos, “Something about Networks and Connections” 7 Feb 2022 https://www.donnalanclos.com/something-about-networks-and-connections/ argues for becoming part of many networks like you distribute power within your communities
Edit 2022-11-17: blogger eigenrobot observes that large charities who know their donors are either captured by status-seeking among allistic donors (ie. donors want to impress their peers more than they want to help poor sick people who they never met) or parasitized by their managers (who want money, power, and status) so charities might want to keep themselves ignorant of the source of donations so they keep focused on ‘reducing bad stuff’ not ‘raising all the funds’ https://eigenrobot.substack.com/p/effective-altruism-and-its-future (like Scott Alexander, he seems deeply engaged with the American rationalists and the American independent scholars who really really like saying that human genetics should guide policy, and someone on the orange site says he is ABD in Economics from a US university, so see previous warnings! People who give unsolicited advice to strangers tell more about their inner lives than the outside world)