Saturday, July 30, 2016
Community dynamics and bad actors
I'm back from Rare Book School and so I'm just now getting to this -- my apologies. This is long and I go through a bit of social construction/community game theory to get there, but I think it's really valuable. Bear with me.
Okay, so once upon a time I came up with a list of currency types in communities, the sort of thing that determines status and the types of actions that garner those varieties of status. In particular, I was thinking about online communities, but there's a lot of cross-over into real life. They were: expertise, service, activity, investment, proximity to source, and celebrity.
So for example, let's say you're dealing with an online fan community. Expertise is a currency earned by knowing all the tiny details about whatever. If your fan group is about Whedon, this person is the most knowledgeable about every thing he's ever done. If it's about raising turtles, this person has raised every turtle known to man and remembers everything about it. When people have a question about the shared interest, you're the one they go to. Everyone knows it.
Service currency is earned by serving the group. Service Guy knows something about the main topic, but his real genius is in organization. He's the one who starts the Secret Santa every year. He's the one who comes up with group meetings, or cool badges for everyone, or ribbons to let people know who you are. He may be a mod on a message board or offer a place for people to meet up. He may be the person who always brings food to the game to share. Sometimes people might overlook these offerings, but he's a big part of why there's a community at all, and no one sells that short for very long.
Activity currency is earned just by being there. It's more complicated than that, though; these people are PRESENT. Activity Girl goes to every event. She replies to every email that requests a reply. She posts memes and starts new message board threads. She documents her turtle's daily life. She turns into one of the key members of an online community because online, presence requires visual action, and that comes from active participation. She doesn't know the most, she probably doesn't set up a lot of events or structure, but by god, if you throw a party she's going to show up. Alternatively, she may be dedicated to her craft, always working on refining it and sharing her process with her community. Both count for this. She's not the expert, but she'll show you her Whedon fanfic and the menu she's planning for her Much Ado about Nothing dinner party.
Investment Guy is a lot quieter than many folks, but he's been around the community forever. He may not know what Inara was wearing in the fifth episode, but he knows who the founding members of the group were. He is the institutional memory of the community, and often finds a way to contribute monetarily if that's needed. This isn't service; that's way more active than this sort of quiet activity, but if you want the greatest hits of the group, he's the guy you go to. When he knows your name, it makes you feel like family.
Proximity to Source currency is earned by having a direct line to whatever it is you're on about. This person owns a turtle rescue and sanctuary. This person may actually know Joss (or know someone who does) or worked on one of his projects, or worked on one of his property licenses. They have authenticity, even if their actual knowledge is limited. They are, however, the next best thing to the creator(s) of whatever everyone is fanning about, and they're relatively within reach. Bonus.
Finally, celebrity. This comes in a couple of flavors: first, you have celebrities who have fame for unrelated reasons who just like the same thing you do. Vin Diesel is a great example of this for game communities (I don't know any famous turtle breeders). He's famous because he's an actor -- gaming is just your common ground and the icing on the cake, as it were. Secondly, you can become a celebrity within the fandom for doing things that elevate its profile or that reach out to others outside the fandom. Felicia Day has some of this going on, but you don't need to be an Internet sensation to make that happen. If your blog is popular, if you cosplay and gain a following, if your Twitter takes off... all of that confers celebrity. Of course, the last method of getting celebrity is putting on a show -- if you entertain the group, you're a celebrity, even if it's just within your target audience.
I'll come back to that.
Groups work on all of these fronts simultaneously. They may value some more highly than others at any given time, depending on how closely they hew to the core interest of the group, but you can usually find all of them at play. Communities also often privilege some of these currencies above others, depending on what they want to encourage in their membership.
We have a gaming community -- specifically, we have a game creating community. That's our fandom. Some like OSR, some like "indie" stuff, some like D&D, some like Onyx Path (though the latter two are far more a player community than a creator community -- that's what happens when someone else owns the community sandbox). With enough differences, the OSR and indie creator communities have sort of split into two subgroups; there's some traffic that floats between them, but there's a lot of hard feelings over time so those who do migrate back and forth don't tend to mention it overmuch -- it isn't encouraged by either community. We privilege proximity/authenticity, activity, expertise, and celebrity within this community of creators -- and that, in my mind, is part of the problem.
A post went up a few days ago by a friend* about how abusive language and attitudes between subgroups harm the game creating community (and the larger fan community that follows along) as a whole. Note that this is my paraphrasing of what I feel he was trying to communicate. In doing so, however, he included some decisions that he and his business partners are taking, putting it on his business blog, and used examples from community members who were generally considered members in good stead, even though he was effectively calling them out. For better or worse, two of those examples were reactions from people in the "indie" community to one person who is a member of the OSR community. He took these as indicative of a larger issue, that may or may not have been set out in the open prior to his post -- certainly some people seemed to think it wasn't a problem. And things kinda blew up from there.
I get what he was trying to say. I don't really think in that post he was trying to tone police individuals -- I think he was trying to talk about a larger issue. Basically if you're going to talk about ethics and good choices, you have to exhibit the behavior you want to see as a community. He came across as trying to tone police individuals, though, and that ripped a big hole in the belly of his argument. In the words of Jaws, he did not bring a big enough boat to tackle the shark of community reaction that occurred, and his lunch kinda got chomped as a result.
And now I want to talk about why that happened. **
Remember above when I said how there was a third path to celebrity -- the path of in-group entertainment? Well, one way to accomplish that currency is to be a huge asshole to people outside the group -- whoever the group has a hate-on for, even if it's maybe just a YKINMK-on. These celebrities create and reinforce community standards and ethos through the followers/audience they attract. They are selective in who they attack; after all, if they attack the people who like them, they lose all that currency they've collected from the group. They are often stand-up members of the community they like and want to be part of; it's outsiders who have to worry. These internal celebrities cause as many problems as they solve, though. They antagonize others needlessly. They thrive on conflict, as that's their shtick. They drive a wedge between their communities (and their friends) and other people who might be allies or friends. Finally, though, there's an excellent chance that either a) they can't see what their behavior is doing, or b) they just don't care because in the end, they're getting what they want so long as they keep doing it. Trump's a prime example of this. There are others. So, like the hunters of olden days, they go out and rough up rival tribes for cool points and loose change, only in the modern day that can involve setting followers loose to harrass and send just shitloads of vile crap via every online access point they have.
So if venting anger in the direction of aggressors is bad for overall communities, but being aggressive is a way of gaining currency within a community... what's left? How can we condemn victims but reward transgressors (even across two subgroups) and still have a leg to stand on? Screw victim blaming. Screw enabling missing stairs. Stand up, people, and let's work together on this.
So, I think my friend's argument has a point, but it's really short on practical advice for dealing with known bad actors -- "missing stairs," to borrow a term -- both within and without community groups. If being aggressive is bad, is it fair to say it's bad across the board? What about people who've been victimized in the name of social currency? Do they get to be angry? Can they be aggressive in return? What about when those victims are part of a traditional minority whose voices are regularly silenced? How does that intersect with the boundaries of a fan community that's larger than the identities of the individuals in question? Being told to silence rough language and apologize will serve the greater "get-along" good, but it won't serve our community members. Instead, it fractures a community as ever smaller, safer circles get created for conversations in order to avoid being policed.
Can a community enforce polite discourse and still leave room for expressing anger and outrage in a way that isn't immediately overlooked? I'm not sure. What I do know, however, is that the current status will not hold, and the shit that's happened over the last few days is Not Good For Anyone.
Another thought, then. When it comes to our game creator communities, can we alter them so that "celebrity" isn't one of the currencies we privilege? Can we widen our criteria for "Expertise" so it doesn't apply just within our subgroups? We are game creators, after all -- if we don't like the system, we can just change it. House rule that mother. Rule Zero, my family, Rule Zero. Stop rewarding in-group celebrity currency to people who tank against people outside our immediate communities. Let it be known that individual actions have consequences and then hold offenders to it, by god.
Switch your celebrity currency to one of the other types (Wil Wheaton did it, so can you) if you're one of those bad actors. You too can change, if you are willing to do it. Exclude those who attack others needlessly, but let them back in if there's change. Reward people for making games, not picking fights. Positive reinforcement is a hell of a lot more effective, anyway.
We can flip this around. We are not that far apart in many ways. We have to understand, though, that this is behavior that, as a community, we all enable. I don't think we're villains. I think we're people who've been playing a game we didn't really pay full attention to, and we don't like the results we're getting. It's time we gave it the attention it deserves.
*I've got friends on all sides of this thing. It's one of the reasons I'm posting. I don't agree with all of the content of that post or the actions being taken, but my advice was not requested or needed, and I wouldn't have expected otherwise. Again, bear with me.
**I get that this is a simplification in many respects, and it leaves out the very real personal feelings and history involved. I apologize for the inevitability that this may cause more pain to someone accidentally. That said, I don't know that history or those feelings (as is appropriate, given that I am not them) and I cannot stay at the individual level and hope to talk about this in any useful way. Mea culpa.