[Noisebridge-discuss] Why Consensus Kills Community, redux

Al Sweigart asweigart at gmail.com
Wed Mar 26 23:25:43 UTC 2014

I was writing out a long response on the problems I see with
consensus, but it was turning into a rehash of what was already better
said by Madelynn way back in December. I've posted it here. She also
goes into the model Freeside uses in the full email:

I'd like to discuss this again on the list, since consensus is back in
the spotlight.

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).
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