[Noisebridge-discuss] Why Consensus Kills Community

Praveen Sinha dmhomee at gmail.com
Mon Jan 6 08:41:19 UTC 2014

Listen, these issues are more in depth and the resolutions are going to be
more complex than a single point of view can provide.  We need to develop
consensus:  what you and I have done thus far is state our differences, and
the work that will go into making consensus is a long road.

I'm going to add more dissent though while I am at it:

-- *the members only processes have already been alienating people:  *I've
talked to several people (notably women and minorities) at this point that
felt unwelcome or intimidated by the screening policies in place.  I've
been asked a couple of times at noisebridge whether I belong there, and I
have to tell you, being asked whether I belong somewhere is one of my
biggest peeves, as I've had to deal with it in many forms my entire life.
In so far as hackerspaces, I was turned away in berlin and new york, it's
really shitty.

-- *The policies aren't doing enough against institutional asshattery,
while unfairly treating people who don't look like cookie cutter hackers:*
And by this I mean, when someone looks like an institutional white male
hacker, they can get away with a lot of harassment with impunity.  I had to
mediate in nb drama against one particular hacker who was trying to do away
with houseless people at nb.  He was claiming (like many people do), that
they were somehow more of an innovator, and the others weren't.  He acted
aggressively towards people that weren't a particular gender or class, and
it took months before anyone was able to do anything about it because he
looked and talked the part and had a cult of personality around him.

I may add, that this anti-pattern is endemic in technology.

*-- The policies that we are making are too blunt:  * Our problems are more
subtle, and we are tossing kludges that aren't really fixing the underlying
issues and alienating even more people.

*--* *Our fundamental problem is not that we need to exclude, but we that
we need to re-engage*:  After doing some basic interviews, what's clear to
me is that our number one issue is that as an organization is that our core
becomes disengaged over time.  I don't think this is due to any one
negative factor, though people will report various things.  Sometimes it's
burnout, sometimes people migrate, sometimes it's drama.  But I maintain
that it's the lack of engagement that is the number one problem at

To this end, I actually think we need to be rethinking our member policy --
and I agree that a single person shouldn't be able to block a potential
member at this point.  My proposal is that we need to have a minimum number
of hours that any existing member of noisebridge do in order to be civicly
active and maintain nb presence.  This could come in the form of
participation of mediation, docent duty, consensus, mailing list...

What's happening right now is that we have people from different time
slices of noisebridge with wildly different ideas of what is going on.  We
should be going back and outreaching to all the people who haven't been
participating to get back in.

-- *Voting is still to frigging blunt*
I'm not saying this to be obstinate.  I think voting as a approval process
is bullshit for a lot of reasons.  There a number of ways to try to patch
the consensus process without totally removing it.  Examples would include:
 voting to veto blocks, increasing number of blocks required to block
block... There are a lot of ways.  We could even enumerate them.

-- *We need to have a conversation with the deep nb community (re:
 Al, you are totally right that a simple survey/interview process conducted
over nb-discuss will be biased.  That's not what I'm saying.  I'm proposing
that we need to *really* branch out and connect with all the people who
have long since left nb-discuss or long since left nb itself.

*-- We still haven't consensed upon sleeping even*:  We still don't really
have a good consensus on sleeping.  I think there are lot of reasons for
this, and I think we need to develop that consensus.  A good place to start
is by asking why?  Why do you think that sleeping shouldn't be allowed at
nb?  Why do you think it should be allowed?

I'm not downplaying the issues with theft or cleaninless.... But at the
same time, you can't downplay the issues of alienating people. We need to
figure out creative solutions and appropriate measures -- otherwise you are
just going to get unintended consequences:

On Sun, Jan 5, 2014 at 10:14 PM, Al Sweigart <asweigart at gmail.com> wrote:

> tl:dr; I disagree with every point you make. You think consensus promotes
> community and compromise, but after five years of it I think it's time to
> say the experiment failed and we should try something new.
> 1) Consensus is voting where the 99% can be ignored and the 1% get their
> way.
> If you think voting sucks, it sucks even more when a single person can
> obstruct an idea and not be willing to compromise. If political processes
> are always dominated by trolls and politicians, than consensus is a process
> that makes it easy for them.
> The fact that prospective members have to overcome consensus to be a part
> of Noisebridge shows how cliquish and exclusive NB really is. I remember
> when not saying you approve of consensus was grounds for having your
> membership blocked. Talk about voter suppression.
> 2) Haters gonna... have some good points.
> I often say that the people who are still in favor of consensus at this
> point are those who willfully ignore criticism. "Well I've never seen that
> problem." is a favorite refrain of the anarchist crowd. They don't have to
> even refuse to solve problems, because they don't acknowledge them to begin
> with. People give up and leave, giving more ammo to "then why aren't more
> people complaining?"
> 3) We should prevent small problems before they predictably explode into
> drama.
> A lot of the problems Noisebridge has are predictable and have been solved
> by other people and organizations before. We just ignore those lessons so
> we can call ourselves radical hackers.
> You think Noisebridge experiments? Noisebridge is the most conservative
> organization I've ever been a part of. Consensus means status quo, where a
> single individual just has to say "I block" in order to prevent change.
> You offered up some ideas for new political processes; too bad consensus
> will prevent any of them from ever being implemented.
> 4) "I'd just ignore the anti-harassment policy anyway" doesn't sound as
> sexily iconoclastic.
> Case in point: saying "I'd just ignore the anti-harassment policy" doesn't
> make one sound roguish as much as it does sociopathic. Before you say the
> anti-harassment policy is already covered by "Be Excellent": we already
> tried that for five years and all it ended up with was the situation where
> we passed an anti-harassment policy.
> There's two ways you can go wrong with rules: way too many and none at all.
> 5) Your surveys will be biased.
> When people first come into Noisebridge, they are wowed by all the space
> and infrastructure we have freely available. It's only after a while they
> notice the clutter, the food left out, the missing basic tools in the shop,
> the filth, the mice, getting their phone stolen, creepy pervs, etc. At this
> point I can name close to a couple dozen people who haven't gotten sick of
> Noisebridge and left because consensus makes the slightest changes a repeat
> head-to-wall experience. Your survey won't include any of them. It will
> include a lot of people whose glasses haven't lost their rosey tint.
> Again, consensus makes Noisebridge cliquish. The whole, "Well Noisebridge
> isn't for everyone" response I get is the biggest hypocrisy of the "radical
> inclusiveness" that the anarchist crowd says they abide by.
> "But Al, the fact that you're voicing these dissents proves that
> Noisebridge isn't homogeneous" is an example of "consensus is what they
> gave you to make you think you have a voice". Consensus is fine with a
> community voicing disagreement in a three-hour long meeting, but at the end
> of it the minority still gets its way and the dissenters are left tired and
> frustrated, if they haven't left completely.
> -Al
> p.s. Your "Noisebridge will be staring down the barrel of being gentrified
> out of the mission later in the year" is a hollow scare tactic. I put a
> [citation needed] on that.
> On Sun, Jan 5, 2014 at 8:07 PM, Praveen Sinha <dmhomee at gmail.com> wrote:
>> I know I'm pretty late to this thread but here's my unsolicitated
>> opinions.
>> *tldr: voting sucks, nb is unique and awesome, we should try other things
>> besides voting, we should be doing community surveys, I'm hella blocking a
>> move to voting model*
>> 1) *Voting is what they gave you to make you think you have democracy*
>> I guess in this case, I'm the one actually have a conservative opinion.
>>  But I feel it's worth repeating.  Voting sucks.  Majority rule sucks.  We
>> aren't a corporation, we don't have to turn a profit, we don't have to be
>> particularly efficient about any decision.  We don't have to agree and have
>> one solution.  Participation in a political process is always dominated by
>> trolls and politicians -- this is true in a voting system as well.  We were
>> very concious in the early days of noisebridge to avoid voting for a number
>> of reasons.  Over the years we've iterated on our consensus process.  I
>> think there is much more to iterate on, but I see voting as fundamentally
>> having people lose their voice.
>> 2) *If they aren't making fun of you, you aren't trying*
>> I personally think we should hang the image of "at least we aren't
>> noisebridge" high above our door.  I've heard many people at noisebridge be
>> ashamed of nb.  I've heard of people outside of nb make fun of nb.
>> The other night, I had a group of visitors from Kochim, Kerala visit
>> noisebridge.  They were on a tour to start their own startup village in
>> Kochim  (and I've seen similar visitors as far as Mozambique).  When they
>> come, I tell them that noisebridge welcomes everyone -- regardless of their
>> income or their education level or whether they have a house. I tell them
>> that people living on the street and people who have been in solitary
>> confinement come here and work side by side with executives from tech
>> startups to work on projects and solder.  I tell them that we have an open
>> space which is truly community driven without government or corporate
>> sponsors. I tell them that at Noisebridge I've seen the future being made
>> right in front of my eyes both technologically AND socially in completely
>> unexpected ways.  I tell them that we are contentious, and I've even seen a
>> fist fight almost break out at consensus, but it's because we are doing
>> things that matter on a far deeper level than we give credit for.
>> I've been around the world to other hackerspaces.  Some of them I
>> couldn't even get into because I came at the wrong time.   But largely,
>> what I've seen is that a lot of spaces working off more closed models are
>> glorified garage shops.
>> No other space has to deal with the problems noisebridge has.  No other
>> space has people living in the walls or has opened itself up to the city as
>> much as we have.  They make fun of us because we *live* the idea of fail
>> fast.  It's a feature, not a bug.  Where do people go from around the world
>> when they want to see a quintessential, glorious, chaotic, hip hackerspace?
>>  Noisebridge.  I don't know how they work in Atlanta, but here in the left
>> coast we roll with people power.
>> *3) We should fail even faster and harder*
>> You bring up a lot of great an interesting points which I think we should
>> experiment with.  It sucks that someone got blocked membership.  It sucks
>> that our process can cause people to self censor and reduce overall
>> participation.
>> I'm in favor of trying further experiments -- maybe having multiple
>> blocking?  Maybe having anonymous collaborative decision making?  We should
>> be innovating and failing and not falling back into broken systems of
>> yester-century.
>> *4) I'd just ignore the rules anyway, and so would other people*
>> I'm still handing out keys to people.  I don't need to sleep at
>> noisebridge, but I don't care if other people do.
>> *5) We really should be data driven about this whole thing*
>> At the end of day, we all have bunch of conflicting opinions, and we can
>> all assert our models of reality and claim that it "works" for some value
>> of "works".
>> I'm getting more to the opinion that this process doesn't go very far.
>>  If we are going to collectively solve our problems, we should be getting a
>> better sense of what everyone thinks our problems really are.  Danny
>> O'Brien started this process with nb surveys last year...  But I think this
>> process should be taken further.  I think we need to be collecting in-depth
>> community surveys and interviews to really get a deep feel for what we
>> need.  This issue is only going to get more urgent as our lease comes up
>> and we as a community stare down the barrel of being gentrified out of the
>> mission later in the year....
>> Love and Happy New Year,
>> Praveen
>> On Sun, Dec 15, 2013 at 5:47 PM, Madelynn Martiniere <
>> mmartiniere at gmail.com> wrote:
>>> We've had some great contributions to this conversation: thanks Danny,
>>> Al, Adrian, and so many others.
>>> This response clearly shows that people are open and aware that change
>>> needs to happen. I would encourage us, now, both on and off the list, to
>>> talk about solutions. I wouldn't worry about whether something will "pass"
>>> through consensus or not, let's just talk solutions and work semantics
>>> later.
>>> I've used Freeside and PS: One as examples not as an argument that we
>>> should "be like them", rather, to demonstrate there are other models that
>>> work better than ours. Noisebridge has the distinction of being one of the
>>> first US hackerspaces, and that means something in the greater community.
>>> If we can capitalize on the unique, vibrant culture that Noisebridge (and
>>> SF) has that sets it apart from any other hackerspace, we can be a positive
>>> example.
>>> Rather than what we represent now: http://imgur.com/hfFrmDv (someone
>>> sent me this from the walls of PS:One)
>>> Cheers,
>>> Madelynn
>>>   Danny O'Brien <danny at spesh.com>
>>>  December 15, 2013 3:21 PM
>>> 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
>>> accident.
>>> 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
>>>   above
>>> * 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
>>> institution?
>>> 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.)
>>> d.
>>> [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> <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.
>>>      _______________________________________________
>>>      Noisebridge-discuss mailing list
>>>      Noisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.net
>>>      https://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> Noisebridge-discuss mailing listNoisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.nethttps://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> Noisebridge-discuss mailing listNoisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.nethttps://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
>>>   Al Sweigart <asweigart at gmail.com>
>>>  December 14, 2013 12:07 PM
>>> 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.
>>> Lawyer or no, I still think Madelynn's original five points summarize
>>> very real problems.
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> Noisebridge-discuss mailing list
>>> Noisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.net
>>> https://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
>>>    The Batkid <batkid at gmx.com>
>>>  December 14, 2013 11:57 AM
>>> >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.
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> Noisebridge-discuss mailing list
>>> Noisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.net
>>> https://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
>>> --
>>> Madelynn Martiniere
>>> Community Engineer. Entrepreneur. Geek.
>>> LinkedIn <http://www.linkedin.com/in/madelynnmartiniere> | Twitter <http://www.twitter.com/creativetaboo>|
>>> Email <madelynn at women2.com>
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> Noisebridge-discuss mailing list
>>> Noisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.net
>>> https://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
>> _______________________________________________
>> Noisebridge-discuss mailing list
>> Noisebridge-discuss at lists.noisebridge.net
>> https://www.noisebridge.net/mailman/listinfo/noisebridge-discuss
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