Diversity is Joy

pieterhpieterh wrote on 04 Feb 2012 19:50


If you're into community building, you will inevitably bump against individuals who cost you sleepless nights, who draw you into endless email threads debating the most inane details, and who generally turn what should be a pleasant win-win experience into a war of words. In this short article I'll explain how to deal with such people.

The problem with open communities is that you can't really turn away people. I explained in the Economics of Evil how annoying people can be healthy for communities. But I've also seen communities fracture and die because a few individuals insisted on turning every issue into arguments about style and personalities. It can be incredibly toxic, and confusing to the majority of people who come to the table to be helpful, and be helped in return.

It's not specifically an open source problem. In many closed teams, the level of hostility and paranoia is quite astonishing. I've watched people turn every email exchange they have with others into arguments. It can be educational, even fun, to watch from a distance. But what if you're the person at the other side? It can feel like being in a bad relationship, where no matter what you do, you will always lose.

So, from so much experience that I can almost call this science, here are a set of techniques you can use to moderate hostility, and eventually contain it, in a group. These techniques won't always work, and if they don't, and the problems continue, you need to evaluate your presence in the group.

First, respond to personal attacks and insults with humor. I'm regularly called names by people who sincerely think that by pinning a label onto someone, they prove a point. It is a schoolyard mentality, and the correct response is to laugh. If you can't find the humor in it, you say nothing. Don't laugh at the other person but if necessary, at yourself. It's hard to humiliate someone who shows no ego.

Second, understand the mentality of the person doing the damage. Most often, aggressive and emotional behavior comes from deep insecurity and feelings of inferiority. People who really do not believe in themselves often compensate with a superiority complex that turns aggressive at a button press.

You need to understand that the person launching diatribes at you is really sincere. They probably believe they are all that stands between order, and chaos. You will often hear arguments about "quality" and how good things were in the past. But this intense, emotional attachment to a myth of quality is a kind of mental disorder, an obsessive compulsive tick that you can't reason with, convince, or shift except with patience.

An insecure person, searching for order, will create a mental construction based on their own superiority, and that of those they can manipulate. At the same time, they distance themselves from any inputs that could disrupt this. If they write code, they don't use it. If they build processes, they make them as complex and arcane as possible, always citing "quality" as their rationale. This drives others away, which reinforces their model. They will use long, complex arguments to escape any real challenge. They do not respect others' experience (which will be different from theirs, and thus a challenge), while over-emphasizing their own (which reinforces their self-belief).

The more such individuals (or groups, because this can spread like a form of cult) entrench themselves in their self-belief, the more hostile they become to any opposing thoughts. They turn discussions into conflicts, and then use those conflicts to hammer in a "them and us" mentality.

For a weak, insecure person to shift their attention from their perceived ordered world to a new one takes time, and sometimes never happens. If it never happens, and the person continues to create friction, you have to choose some more permanent solution.

But before then, understanding that aggression comes from insecurity, you can assuage it by stepping back from conflict, and stressing how you will ensure security and continuity. When you are attacked, respond with platitudes and commiserations. Assure the other person that everything will be OK. Assure them that things will not change dramatically.

It can be a lot of effort, so the person in question has to be worth it. And, if this pattern has gone too far, you often cannot do anything. Then you have two choices. Either you leave the group, and abandon any investment in it. Or, you force out those people and recreate the group in a healthier form. Leaving a group is traumatic but simple: you stop reading the messages, and you do something else with your time. When you stop the fights you'll suddenly have lots of free time.

Ejecting troublemakers from a group is harder, and requires that a substantial majority of the group agree. The process is then simply to ignore the troublemakers. Since they have come to rely on conflict for self-identity, silence will rapidly bore them, and then repel them. This tactic is successful, if the whole group can maintain it.

You will realize that a lot of this discussion, and the tactics, mirror those you might need to use in abusive personal relationships. It's not surprising. Communities are made of people who often use exactly the same patterns in their personal lives as in their public lives. A solitary young male who is unable to create long term relationships with women will, trivially, express exactly the same angsts and emotions onto groups as he does onto women.

It might strike you that this article was triggered by recent email threads on the zeromq-dev list. Which is true, but the people and mindsets I'm describing are ones I've seen way too often in other places, principally the FFII from 2005-2008 and the AMQP workgroup.


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