[Noisebridge-discuss] catching up with "what's wrong with discussing things at the Tuesday meeting"

Torrie Fischer tdfischer at hackerbots.net
Thu Mar 27 12:15:07 UTC 2014

On Wednesday, March 26, 2014 22:51:21 Al Sweigart wrote:
> I think a lot of people who sit through the frustrating, lengthy, and often
> vitriolic weekly meetings would agree that much more would be needed to
> improve the policy process than just a "minus 1" or "minus 2" addendum. And
> even for that much, I haven't seen any proposal for such a change to
> consensus ever come from the folks who are pro-consensus.
> But coming up with policy and process is work, and boring work to boot.
> It's easy to put off when the "people just need to be excellent and
> consensus will work" placebo is available.
> If there are some practical process suggestions for how to conduct meetings
> and decision making (not just abstract guidelines or ideaology) that would
> improve Noisebridge, I'm all ears.

Hi, Al and Noisebridge.

I believe that I am watching an incredibly fascinating situation develop at 
Noisebridge. It is fascinating to me because of how incredibly similar it is 
to what SYNHAK is (was?) going through over the last few months. I hate to 
keep bringing up SYNHAK, SYNHAK, SYNHAK, but I really do feel that I have some 
useful suggestions that can come out of these parallels.

This is going to be a *very* lengthy e-mail with links to even longer emails 
on our own mailing lists. Sorry, but I feel that I need to explain my point of 
view before any concrete suggestions pop up. I will visibly note these 
concrete suggestions.

I want to note though, that I'm only here as an observer. I last visited NB 
back in January and ended up picking up an Associate Membership and CNC milled 
a key in response to a challenge that JC gave. Regardless, Noisebridge has 
been a big inspiration for us synhakkers. Its a bit like our parents are 
fighting and we're scared and probably can't help much but we want to stop it 
oh please just stop its so scary and uncertain ;_;

First, some background about me:

I'm a software engineer who works in the FOSS world. I help write GStreamer, 
made some patches to Tracker, did a lot of work for KDE back in the day. I've 
been active in KDE and FOSS development since early 2008, but actively 
involved in the whole ecosystem since 2001. I feel that I know what it takes 
to build an open source project from the ground up and the mechanisms it takes 
to keep it running smoothly.

Second, some background about us:

* We've grown from a crazy idea to create a Noisebridge of the midwest in Ohio 
to a bustling hub of 20+ members in the last two years.
* Since the outset, we've tried to adopt a mixture of various governance 
patterns, such as Noisebridge's triumvirate of Do-ocracy, Consensus, and 
* On top of that, we adopted a few other systems such as the Apache 
Foundation's rule of "If it didn't happen on the mailing list, it didn't 
* On top of /that/, we've got some actual space rules that were decided upon 
in Ye Age of Myth, much like when NB finally decided to write down their house 
rules in github.
* Back in January, we officially consensed to use Noisebridge's consensus 
process, though we didn't write down all the details.
* We grew a *lot* faster than we were able to scale, which means that our 
bylaws and rules and such had a lot of loopholes.

The meat and potatoes.

Sometime in December, a board member had mentioned entertaining a sublease 
with another member's DJ company to lease out 250 square feet of our new 4,000 
square foot space. I immediately jumped on that since it is antiethical to a 
hackerspace to do that by contacting a lawyer and proving that the lease 
didn't happen, and also calling for the removal of the members involved:


On Feb 28th, the new SYNHAK board assumed office.

Shortly thereafter, a board meeting was called by one of the officers with the 
intent to retroactively approve the lease.

A few days later, the person in question announced that the board was going to 
be voting on a Drug Policy:


We already had a general feeling of what was and wasn't acceptable behavior. 
However, the bylaws and other governance documents didn't say that the board's 
agenda had to be spelled out before anyone voted on it. The membership started 
to revolt, and I ended up putting discuss@ in moderation for the weekend to 
cool things down.

The board meeting finally happened. During the meeting, the discussion quickly 
devolved into "we need to vote on this stuff now because we need to solve 
these problems". Some of the board felt an urgent need to do *something*, but 
didn't want to spend time asking the membership. I do not have a board vote, 
so I was actually told by those involved in the sublease debacle that I could 
not give any feedback or participate. That was quickly shot down. However, I 
could not motion to have any of these items moved back to the general 
membership for discussion. One of the Champions was sympathetic to my pleading 
and eventually no vote happened. Everything was decided to be sent back to the 

The next three meetings after that were absolute hell. I actually ended up 
screaming at someone because they interrupted me, claiming that "We've always 
used majority voting!" Again, there was documentation that we've always used 
consensus. I even got accused of directly editing the mediawiki mysql database 
to fit my agenda. It was sad and petty.

Just last Saturday, the racks were finally moved out. It took three months of 
arguing and fighting and yelling and screaming before he gave up. As a trophy, 
I have a fantastic letter that says we don't respect democracy through 
majority vote (duh) that I will be framing in my office.

During those three months, almost nothing got done. There was no hacking. 
Heck, I even refused to show up a few times because the space was so 
incredibly unwelcoming. Worst of all, it tore the community apart. There were 
some clear divisions. Last week, we had a guest show up during the meeting and 
say that we were not being excellent to each other. It had gotten so poisonous 
and awful and terrible that people who had never set foot in SYNHAK before 
were trying to put out the fires.


Going back to my experience in FOSS, transparency is *always* required. Don't 
even think about doing something without letting everyone know. A board member 
signed a sublease that handed out a big chunk of SYNHAK for pennies! There was 
apparently someone who thought they could use their position as board member 
to unilaterally sell out SYNHAK without a board vote or membership discussion. 
I repeatedly brought up the lack of transparency. If this sublease had been 
publicly discussed anytime before February, the membership could have given 
input and we could have had a fair discussion.

We still use the rule of "If it didn't happen on the mailing list, it didn't 
happen". Proposals are required to be sent to discuss@ prior to consensus. 
Meeting minutes are sent to discuss@ by a robot so that *everyone* knows whats 
up. As treasurer, I'm working on a mechanism where I upload my accounting 
workbook to our servers, which is then massaged by a robot to produce a 
regular report.

Adding on to transparency, is complete documentation of everything. We try to 
document literally everything. There are two pages in particular on our wiki: 
The SYNHAK Manual, and the Unified SYNHAK Code.

The former is a collection of articles about how consensus works, how to 
open/close the space, what to do in case of emergency, how the jukebox works, 
what it takes to be a sysadmin, our mailing lists, etc, etc, etc.

The later is a painstakingly curated list of everything that we've consensed 
on with the exact wording. Everything has a citation that links to the meeting 
it happened at. Each meeting lists the complete discussion about any item. I 
hope to soon also provide links to mailing list archives, but that is manual 
labor that I am working on solving with robots.


Talk about everything. If some rules are changing, send it to discuss at . If the 
board is going to be voting on *anything* that impacts the membership, send it 
to discuss at . If the board sneezes, send a notice to discuss at .

Document everything. Its great that y'all are using github to write down your 
actual rules and consensus items. I really like that idea and want to figure 
an even easier way for us to use that where nobody has to learn how to git.

Finally, I'd like to explain my moderation style during our Tuesday meeting. 
As I mentioned earlier, there were quite a few tense meetings where I ended up 
screaming and yelling at people. Others screamed at me. That is a clear 
indication of an ineffective moderator.

This past Tuesday, I stepped up and do-ocractically decided that I was going 
to fix that by going back to how I first moderated meetings when we had maybe 
four crazy people meeting in my garage. Here's a book I had been reading in 


Its really great and full of suggestions. Here's a protocol that quickly turns 
a "consensus" meeting into a meeting where everyone reaches Consensus. No 
voting needed. No yelling. No screaming.

First, make sure the note-taker is able to project the minutes. Everyone needs 
to be able to see that their view is accurately represented for all to see.

Second, the moderator needs to be able to jump in and tell people to shut up. 
Don't let members talk over the moderator. Make that very clear in the base 
rules set at the beginning of the meeting where you tell everyone to Be 
Excellent to Each Other (You /do/ mention that, right?)

Third, don't let people jump in on consensus in the middle of the meeting. Its 
probably okay if they show up during any announcements, financial report, etc. 
As soon as consensus starts happening, lock the doors. They're SOL if they 
couldn't plan ahead and get there. Yes, its harsh. But is it in the best 
interests of the space to let people interrupt the decision making process? 
They can talk about it on discuss@ later if they've got issues.

Now, the actual process for reaching consensus:

1. The moderator asks if anyone wishes to raise any issues
2. Each person is given a turn to quickly explain their issue along with a 
proposed solution. These are written down by the note-taker.
3. As the note-taker writes it down, the moderator asks the participant to 
verify that what is written down is exactly what they want to see
4. The moderator asks for a show of hands of those who wish to block an item
5. Repeat for those who have *any* questions or *any* concerns.
6. Those who did not raise their hands are asked to remain silent while those 
with questions and concerns are each given a turn to explain each item.
7. With each item, the participant, note-taker, and moderator all verify that 
what is written in the minutes is exactly what they want.
8. After all questions and concerns are written down, the moderator goes 
around the room and gives each person a turn to answer any questions or 
concerns with new information.

It is very important that it doesn't turn into a back-and-forth dialog! This 
is how an adversarial feeling develops between parties. Others start to feel 
that their voice is not heard.

9. Repeat steps 4 through 8 until nobody has any concerns or questions.
10. Each blocker is given a chance to explain why they are blocking. It is a 
requirement that any block must be in the best interests of the space, and not 
for personal or moral reasons.

For example, its okay to block against subleasing a portion of the space, 
since it takes away workspace from the group.

It is not okay to block against having sleepers because "they're 
neuroatypical". The moderator needs to ask the question of whether or not it 
is in the group's best interest to permit neruoatypical folks to sleep there 
at the space. Hint: No. It gets in the way of hacking and might break the 

11. Repeat steps 4 through 10
12. Collectively write a formally worded proposal
13. Send to discuss@
14. At the next meeting, repeat steps 1 through 10. If the proposal does not 
change, you've consensed.

It is of the utmost importance that all of this is documented and that all of 
this is made public. Not everyone can come to every meeting. If something 
objectionable comes up from a meeting, members have that one week gap before 
step 14 to get involved and plan to attend.

Yes, it is slow. Yes, it works.

To scale beyond that, you need to start implementing sub-committees, speaking 
time limits, and requiring that most of the discussion happens outside of the 
meeting. If something is taking too long, the moderator can jump in and say 
"Hey, lets write down where we're at and then we can talk about it outside of 
the meeting on discuss@". Thats how Consensus can scale.

On a final note, SYNHAK has 20 members who actively participate in governance. 
We have been able to scale it using this. If you're looking for more ideas, 
read that book. It really does have a bunch more. I myself am also looking for 
more ways to streamline our processes to get our meetings down below an hour. 
We're currently at 1.5h. Best of all, STUFF GETS DONE WITHOUT FIGHTING.

In Excellence,

> On Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 10:36 PM, rachel lyra hospodar
> <rachelyra at gmail.com>wrote:
> > A broad reaching yet minimalist approach to solving this very specific and
> > real problem might be trying out a consensus minus 1 or minus 2 model.
> > 
> > As opposed to majority vote within a secret cabal which is the ultra
> > opposite of consensus.
> > 
> > Just saying.
> > 
> > On Mar 26, 2014 7:13 PM, "Al Sweigart" <asweigart at gmail.com> wrote:
> >> That's my point though: while in theory consensus is supposed to be more
> >> inclusive, over the last five years it's more often been a way for one or
> >> two people to use blocking as a nuclear option. This protects abusive
> >> people and excludes others who feel unsafe at the space. (See also: the
> >> overwhelming number of people joining Double Union who wouldn't touch
> >> Noisebridge with a ten foot pole)
> >> 
> >> We've been hearing the "ah, but it's not the TRUE way of consensus" for
> >> literally years. Maybe the reason we haven't found this utopian version
> >> of
> >> consensus is because it doesn't exist.
> >> 
> >> 
> >> On Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 10:01 PM, spinach williams <
> >> 
> >> spinach.williams at gmail.com> wrote:
> >>> On Wednesday, March 26, 2014 09:53:50 PM Al Sweigart wrote:
> >>> > Moving to a more democratic system
> >>> 
> >>> leaving consensus for majority vote isn't "more democratic" -- actually
> >>> practicing consensus (as rachel has been pointing out hasn't been done
> >>> in the
> >>> space in quite some time), however, is.
> >> 
> >> _______________________________________________
> >> Noisebridge-discuss mailing list
> >> Noisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.net
> >> https://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
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