[Noisebridge-discuss] Why Consensus Kills Community

Madelynn Martiniere mmartiniere at gmail.com
Sat Dec 14 04:32:00 UTC 2013

I've been putting thought into this post for about a week now, and I 
think it's ready to share. I've normally tried to keep out of the list, 
but I think this warrants everyone hearing, and not in a meeting.

Disclaimer 1: This is long. But I made it into a numbered list to help.
Disclaimer 2: It's got a lot of strong opinion against consensus, hence 
the title.
Disclaimer 3: I've been around hackerspaces for a while, and seen when 
it goes right, and also goes very wrong. My wiki page talks more about 
why I care about this: https://noisebridge.net/wiki/User:Creativetaboo

I've been a big dissenter about consensus from the beginning of my time 
at Noisebridge (I've been around sporadically for several years). I 
understand that at the beginning, it may have worked very well for 
Noisebridge, but if it still did, we wouldn't be having as many of the 
issues we're having (particularly pertaining to security and membership).

Noisebridge is at a critical point in any organization: it can continue 
as it was, not accounting for the change in ethos and turnover of 
members, pretending that it's the same space it was at the beginning; OR 
it can accept that it's time for some change. I don't claim it will be 
at all easy, or that it will solve everything, but it's where it starts.

The idea of consensus was brought up in discussion at the advent of 
every hackerspace I've been involved with, and was decided against, for 
good reason:

1. It embraces the states quo.

Every organization, particularly community orbs like hackerspaces are 
live organisms, constantly changing and evolving depending on the needs 
of the space and it's members. This is why you see spaces that have 
specific project focuses, discourages change, which is inevitable in any 
organization. Groupthink like consensus stifles innovation and disdains 
dissenting opinions (as can be seen by the constant trolling and name 
calling on the list, and IRL).

2. Gives malcontents and politicians equal weight

The reason people are concerned with the Associate Member versus 
Capital-M Member dichotomy is their worried that some individuals can 
derail the process. But if you've been to any of the recent meetings or 
read the mailing list, it's already happening. Kevin's proposal (and 
Al's before that) surrounding re-consensuing on Associate Members is a 
perfect example: to get one issue passed through consensus we had to 
tack on another, and other members who were not able to attend got 
concerned. Furthermore, wee lost a very good person who was trying to 
become a "Capital-M" member because of last week's meeting craziness, 
after being blocked several weeks in a row for having different views 
than another member (Tom).

Something to note is that by giving all members equal power, doesn't 
mean they will use it. Not everyone wants to participate in the 
organization of the space, and they shouldn't have to. But every member 
should be able to have weight on an issue if they so choose.

3. It short circuits the most radical ideas

The most radical ideas often lead to the biggest breakthroughs in the 
space. Small, incremental changes (those most likely to pass 
consensus) aren't as quantifiable successes/not. Consensus keeps people 
in a perpetual middle ground where majority approves and mediocrity reigns.

4. Leaves unresolved conflicts on the table indefinitely

As soon as something is blocked, it leaves an issue unresolved. If 
someone wants to block something indefinitely because they're not 
comfortable with any of the resolutions, they have the ability to do so. 
This leads to a division of power and opinion, which destroys community. 
We need to give people an opportunity for heathy debate with a common 
end goal: find a resolution and move on to the next topic. This builds 
community and trust, and discourages drawn-out drama.

5. Kills the hacker spirit

Hackers and creatives are not about status-quo, we're bigger than that. 
Try to get creative people to unanimously agree on something, and you'll 
lose them. We've lost so many great people through this process already, 
and will continue to do so, leaving the politicians and the leechers 
(those who choose to use and abuse the space and not contribute 
monetarily or otherwise).

So, now what?

I don't want to do a long post like this and not propose an alternative. 
I've made it clear that I don't care for consensus, and I'm not the only 
one. Very few similar organizations that are successful choose 
consensus, and there's good reason most hackerspaces don't use it either 
(NESIT is the only one I know of that uses consensus currently, anyone 
else who has in the past has since moved to a voting system...and also 
have membership dues (another post for another day). Rather, I want to 
paint a not-scary example of how voting works in another hackerspace, 
and successfully:

The Freeside Voting Model (Beer and Camaraderie Included)

Both Freeside and PS: One use majority rule. Yes, both have their own 
issues, but neither to the extreme that Noisebridge has. Both value a 
quick voting process, to focus more on projects and collaboration rather 
than organizational politics and drama.

Freeside was my first fores in starting a hackerspace, and they're still 
going strong. Here's hour our Tuesday meetings went:

1. Intro new guests and those interested in becoming members. Asked two 
questions to those interested in becoming members "What do you want to 
get out of the space, and what can you contribute?"

2. Discuss any concerns "I'm noticing a bunch of sleepers in the space, 
how do we address this?"  to begin crafting well thought out proposal on 
the topic. Usually a few people passionate about an issue would then 
meet separately to create a proposal (rather than just one person and 
their opinion)

3. Bring up well-thought out proposals for policies and procedures, 
pointing people to a Google survey link where members would have a week 
to vote

4. Bring up results of any past vote

5. Spend last 30-45 minutes of the meeting talking about cool projects, 
classes, and events people are working on and looking for 
co-collaborators and conspirators.

6. Drink beer and enjoy mostly drama-free hacking and camaraderie.

See? It works. While Freeside and PS: One both have board of directors 
that are more engaged, it's not necessary for this to work. We need to 
stop talking circles around how to make Noisebridge a safer, more 
collaborative and inclusive place to hack (not crash, live, or steal 
from) for all involved and start acting on it. Theory without action is 
little more than useless.

If anyone wants to discuss further with me off the list, feel free to 
email me or say hi when I'm at the space (most evenings). Happy to 
provide reference materials (and all around good reads) on the subject 
as well.

Happy hacking!

Madelynn Martiniere
Community Engineer. Entrepreneur. Geek.
LinkedIn <http://www.linkedin.com/in/madelynnmartiniere> | Twitter 
<http://www.twitter.com/creativetaboo>| Email <mailto:madelynn at women2.com>

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