[Noisebridge-discuss] Why Consensus Kills Community

Danny O'Brien danny at spesh.com
Sun Dec 15 23:21:26 UTC 2013

On Sat, Dec 14, 2013 at 12:07:05PM -0800, Al Sweigart wrote:
>    That time it was an amusing lawyer, before that it was a guy whose rants
>    were set off by a fish tank, before that it was a long list of people who
>    thought it was fine to cook personal meals, sleep, and live in the space.
>    While the lawyer was an outlier (more tedious than amusing), the pattern
>    is that Noisebridge attracts a lot of pushy, entitled people. The
>    consensus & anarchism culture of "no rules, no one is the boss of me"
>    allows strong-willed people to bully their way around while making others
>    feel like they have no place to tell them to stop.

I think this actually reaches to a bigger and more important point than
critiques of consensus per se, in that Noisebridge culturally has to
deal with a lot of ... eccentric ... people. It's pretty much
constructed to attract them, in part deliberately, and in part by

Some ways that Noisebridge attracts eccentric points-of-view:

* Zero cost -- even if the rest of your life is screwed up, you can stil
  come to NB
* Always open -- even if you can't even synchronise with the sun and the
  moon, you're still welcome at NB
* Self-declaratory "anarchist"/alternative attitude -- see Al's point
* Do-ocracy -- all you really have to do to participate, is participate
* Express interest in new experimental political models -- all the
  people who would normally push back against the crazy appear to be
  interested in crazy new societal arrangements themselves

The bet is/was that accomodating eccentricity like this brings you
beneficial behaviour and results. The risk is that you get sunk with a
bunch of nutcases -- especially antisocial, even sociopathic nutcases.

I'll add that if you're reading this, you're probably on the eccentric
axis yourself (one nice part of Noisebridge is it makes people who write
books and then give away their income to radical groups, or work for
NGOs dedicated to creating anonymity online, or defend hacker
terrorists, or believe in post-capitalist society-building, or use Plan
9, as though they're straitlaced denizens of the middle-of-the-road).

I really do think people want their Noisebridge *fairly* weird. I also
think much of the conservatism about how much control to impose at
Noisebridge has been verbalised as "not killing the golden goose", in
that Noisebridge sits in a perpetual chaotic state with beneficial
results, and if you start to just switch to other, pre-existing models,
you'll lose the stuff that makes Noisebridge unique.

The way I've generally thought about this is in economic terms: that
Noisebridge is an experiment in just how much free-riding a system can
take. Most rules are there to prevent free-riding. Many of the systems
that we enjoy online and in free culture benefit from relaxing
constraints on free-riding. What happens if we apply that to a physical

I'm at the point where I believe we've finished up that part of the
experiment. It turns out that such a system can work pretty well, up
until people are sleeping inside walls, and converting laptops into
meth, or whatever it is that people are worried about now. I don't
actually think I know anyone who actually visits Noisebridge who doesn't
think that's the case. Most importantly, some eccentric people are
scaring away *other* eccentric people, and we're getting less exciting
Noisebridge craziness and more depressing Noisebridge craziness.

So, what is to be done? I agree with Madelyn and Al that Noisebridge's
core culture is too confrontational and pro-status quo, and that it's
difficult to make rapid, iterative change. I would also note however,
that right now, people are *also* claiming (sometimes the same people!)
that we're making too rapid changes, without oversight or consultation.

I suspect that's because there are now such a minimal number of people
who can wield a consensus block that we actually have an opportunity to
make some fairly radical changes.

When I've had this discussion with Al in the past, where he has argued
for dumping consensus in favour of a more traditional model, my
counter-argument has been that that would just be impossible. Someone
would block it, as an example of the system's in-built conservativism.

My experience these days is that you could probably get *something* like
that through, but selling it as "what every other hackerspace does" and
going for something traditional wouldn't win, because both the core
audience, the core funders, and the membership want Noisebridge to do
something *different* from the rest of society. They want Noisebridge to
be weird. They just want it to be *productive* weird.
I think there is consensus that something new should be tried though --
that's what we've been seeing in the Associate Member/Full Member
hacking. I think if someone like Sai were to propose something *crazy*
like Liquid Democracy it might also get some purchase. Hell, even
Robert's Rules of Order[1] might look fairly radical at this point.

(Just to give something substantive after this level of hand-waving, my
previous suggestions on radical change have been to close Noisebridge
for a couple of weeks and reboot with a members-only meeting to work out
a new constitution[2], which would at least give people a feeling that
they'd participated in a new order.)


[1] Though, just to be clear, I don't think dumping consensus is going
to fix problems you might have with Noisebridge's polity. I think, for
example, that if you're worried about Tom's dominance of the consensus
process in order to prevent someone beoming a member, you'd be amazed by
how completely he (or me, or maybe Al) could dominate a standard
Robert's Rules of Order environment[2]. As nice middle-class people, we're
pretty much weaponised to get what we done in that environment; we've
been culturally trained in it since we were kids. That's not necessarily
a problem if what you want is to get things done: it *might* be a
problem if you expect Noisebridge as an engine of new possibilities.

[2] For examples of what happens when geeks get hold of rules, see http://www.amazon.com/The-Futurians-Science-Fiction-Produced/dp/0381982882 , or your local dysfunctional D&D game

[3] I believe you Americans have a precedent for that.

>    Lawyer or no, I still think Madelynn's original five points summarize very
>    real problems.
>    On Sat, Dec 14, 2013 at 11:57 AM, The Batkid <batkid at gmx.com> wrote:
>      >I'm talking about oddness like someone who was asked to come back to a
>      >Tuesday meeting after anti-social behaviour ending up in a screaming
>      >match, followed by his lawyer making legal threats to everyone there.
>      >Or the discussions around people hiding in spaces to sleep. Or leaving
>      >human crap everywhere. etc.
>      I don't think you should blame the consensus process for the amusing
>      lawyer
>      that was an outlier, that particular lawyer has a decades long history
>      of being
>      very antagonizing to try to reach her goals.
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