The overall empathy level of a community
October 23, 2018 10:41 AM   Subscribe

"One of the first things I learned when I began researching discussion platforms two years ago is the importance of empathy as the fundamental basis of all stable long term communities. The goal of discussion software shouldn't be to teach you how to click the reply button, and how to make bold text, but how to engage in civilized online discussion with other human beings without that discussion inevitably breaking down into the collective howling of wolves. That's what the discussion software should be teaching you: Empathy. You. Me. Us. We can all occasionally use a gentle reminder that there is a real human being on the other side of our screen, a person remarkably like us."
If your community isn't capable of regularly exorcising the most toxic content, and the people responsible for that kind of content, it's in trouble. Those rare bad apples are group poison.

Hate is easy to recognize. Cruelty is easy to recognize. You do not tolerate these in your community, full stop.

But what about behavior that isn't so obviously corrosive? What about behavior patterns that seem sort of vaguely negative, but … nobody can show you exactly how this behavior is directly hurting anyone?
posted by clawsoon (37 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
I found the FPP link in a discussion of the newly-released GNU Kind Communications Guidelines. It is Richard Stallman's attempt to create something like a Code of Conduct, but without giving it that name.

The other big open source Code of Conduct news over the past couple of days was the Internet's discovery that in February of this year the widely-used (you're probably using it right now without knowing it) SQLite project, which is open source but closed contribution, adopted the "instruments of good works" from the Rule of St. Benedict - with a moderating preface - as its Code of Conduct. Most people assumed that this was a joke on the idea of Codes of Conduct, and have responded accordingly, but the leader of the project, a committed Christian, has said that he chose it because it is a statement of the values of the core developers.

This seems in part to be happening because some vocal developers - or at least people who hang out on developer forums - have been poisoned to the idea of Codes of Conduct, telling everyone who will listen that they are evil ideas from evil people who are out to destroy everything that's good about open source software communities. Somehow, treating each other with respect has become a radioactive part of the culture wars. This leaves the people who have to lead certain communities with the dilemma that they need a Code of Conduct so that their communities don't descend into vitriol, but they can't call it that because doing so will cause their communities to descend into vitriol.
posted by clawsoon at 11:21 AM on October 23, 2018 [13 favorites]


"I expect you to act like a group of friends who care about each other."
posted by Baeria at 11:35 AM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


Does this site have a code of conduct?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:41 AM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


It's worth pointing out that the author of the FPP is one of the main architects of Stack Exchange, which has had its own documented issues with civility and kindness. The thing with codes of conduct is that they're often pretty pieces of paper - and without the will to enforce them, that's all they are. Empathy is nice, but if you want your community to be non-toxic, you better have a plan to deal with toxic members.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:50 AM on October 23, 2018 [7 favorites]


Discourse is a really powerful platform, and I'm glad to hear that the founders are getting focused on empathy driven discourse.

For all my love to Metafilter, I do think that there's truth in TFA and a lot that Metafilter could learn - especially relating to Persistent Negativity and Ranting. I know that I am often driven away from this community because of the ways people choose to express their opinions - even when I'm entirely in agreement with their actual arguments. But Ranting just sucks to read.

I hope rants cool the heart of whoever is typing it, because it only heats up the rest of us.
posted by juice boo at 11:56 AM on October 23, 2018 [19 favorites]


Those rare bad apples are group poison.

Yup. And I feel compelled to remind folks, the adage is "one bad apple spoils the bunch" because that bad apple causes the others to good bad.
posted by MikeKD at 12:20 PM on October 23, 2018 [9 favorites]


In related news, Linux Founder Apparently Completes Empathy Journey in About a Month. "Torvalds has yet to make an official statement about his time for self-reflection and self-improvement, or why he’s now equipped to lead with care and inclusivity."
posted by fedward at 12:25 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


NoxAeternum: It's worth pointing out that the author of the FPP is one of the main architects of Stack Exchange, which has had its own documented issues with civility and kindness. ... Empathy is nice, but if you want your community to be non-toxic, you better have a plan to deal with toxic members.

It has been four years since the FPP link was written. Hopefully in that time the author has learned a bit about how quick we are to conclude that low-status community members who raise concerns about bad treatment are "toxic", and how often "civility" is used as a cover for protecting high-status community members. It makes a moderator's job doubly difficult: How do you have civil conversations about uncivil behaviour? How do you stop yourself from quietly ignoring abusive behaviour if it's done by someone you like and respect to someone who's new, or who you disagree with? How do you differentiate between incivility on the one hand and legitimate complaints expressed with the vigor necessary to make people pay attention to them on the other?

In the Linux CoC discussion, the high-status participants made this explicit: As Ted T'so put it, "decide how much someone appears to be a member of the community before deciding how and whether their thoughts are relevant." This is great when the person being ignored is promoting the subjugation of women and old men marrying prepubescent girls (real), but not so great when Sage Sharp gets hounded all over the Internet for bringing up problematic things Ted T'so has said and suggesting that maybe he shouldn't be one of the people making decisions about harassment claims.
posted by clawsoon at 12:38 PM on October 23, 2018 [10 favorites]


Kind of like I'm learning about with raising a toddler right now, "No" seems to be the least helpful word. Showing him what to do / focus on instead is much more helpful to his frame of reference.

This article does the easy work of identifying the bad behaviors that are definitely not empathy. I wish it went into more detail on defining what the behaviors that demonstrate empathy actually look like. People need examples of that. Even here on Metafilter (and I consider here to be way better than most places on the internet I intentionally won't frequent).
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:41 PM on October 23, 2018 [6 favorites]


> Does this site have a code of conduct?

we (and "we" here refers to both metafilter and to the broader culture of the anglosphere internet) have a tendency to fetishize written statements of values rather than enacted performance of values.

As I see it, Metafilter's FAQ functions more or less as a written code of conduct; however, it is largely unimportant. The reason why there's a somewhat better quality of discourse here than in other places, and significantly less hate here than in other places, isn't that we have a clearly stated written code of conduct, but instead because the values embodied in the actions taken by the community and by the moderators — the specific things we don't tolerate as a community, the specific things that get deleted by the mods, etc.

basically, being decent is less about writing what it means to be decent and more about doing what's necessary to maintain decency.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:43 PM on October 23, 2018 [19 favorites]


You'll often hear engineering or engineering-adjacent people (almost always boys and men) claiming that they don't get along socially because their insistence on logic and forthrightness triggers the crybabies. (c.f. Slashdot)

It's a peculiar case of Dunning-Kruger -- they don't realize that for "normal" people (sensitive whiners), reason and emotion are complementary; being logical helps you navigate social situations better. Being logical and being an asshole are orthogonal.

I don't know if this is the same misconception that enables assholes on non-engineering-related fora, or if maybe it's a tendency that generalizes to all assholes.
posted by klanawa at 12:50 PM on October 23, 2018 [21 favorites]


Or maybe i'm not being empathic enough myself...
posted by klanawa at 12:52 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


RNTPynchon: I agree that the doing is *much* more important but I suspect there's a place for the written. It seems more of a tool to guide things. I agree that the major active effort are the mods (or equiv) but I think they might have a tougher job wo one. But then, I don't think even that would work if it was a highly toxic community. It has to be an interplay of the (good) people at the site and the structures and efforts to keep it so.

May it continue here.
posted by aleph at 1:08 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


You'll often hear engineering or engineering-adjacent people (almost always boys and men) claiming that they don't get along socially because their insistence on logic and forthrightness triggers the crybabies. (c.f. Slashdot)

I think a lot of people are unhappy because they're very uncomfortable in social situations, and they can feel better about themselves if their discomfort is the tradeoff for having extraordinary abilities. The alternative is knowing they're just missing out on a positive social life, with nothing in return. It's a face-saving lie nurtured by the frequently-toxic environments around certain interests.

Anyway, I wasn't trying to fetishize written statements, I just wanted to know if there's a written code of conduct anywhere, since it never occurred to me to look for one.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:09 PM on October 23, 2018 [19 favorites]


I'll add, too, that of course it's easier to blame other people than to accept your own shortcomings.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:25 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


I worked in online community early on, in some pretty frontier places. It is possible to guide a community into a positive space, and once that culture gets firmly established, it's much easier to maintain. But it does take clear messaging, consistent respect, and the ability to eject toxic members when clearly needed. Good role models help too... status rewards for people who are doing good in the community and compassionate... all the tools are really out there. But they are rarely thoroughly implemented. Which we need to fix. IMHO.
posted by emmet at 1:31 PM on October 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


Note: Everyone needs a hug.
posted by merriment at 1:44 PM on October 23, 2018 [10 favorites]


basically, being decent is less about writing what it means to be decent and more about doing what's necessary to maintain decency.

This was the big takeaway I got from STET - our values are not what we say, but what we do. You can have a comprehensive code of conduct, but if you are finding excuses for holding people to it, then it's meaningless.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:04 PM on October 23, 2018 [5 favorites]


That sounds suspiciously close to "Put up or shut up". Probably why I don't talk much.
posted by aleph at 2:18 PM on October 23, 2018


But do you put up?
posted by clawsoon at 3:17 PM on October 23, 2018


Regarding Stallman's entry into this, I frankly find his statement of intent pretty off-putting. Specifically:

A code of conduct states rules, with punishments for anyone that violates them. It is the heavy-handed way of teaching people to behave differently, and since it only comes into action when people do something against the rules, it doesn't try to teach people to do better than what the rules require.

This right here is bullshit pandering to the people who have been freaking out about any kind of requirement that you, I don't know, not treat people like shit as a general rule. It's also pretty standard RMS-style privileged white dude thinking.

It's easy to think of a code of conduct as being heavy-handed and proscriptive when you're unlikely to ever have your ability to even be present in a space be wholly dependent on there being a hard and fast rule that says no, someone cannot advocate for your exclusion.
posted by tocts at 3:34 PM on October 23, 2018 [10 favorites]


In the Linux CoC discussion, the high-status participants made this explicit: As Ted T'so put it, "decide how much someone appears to be a member of the community before deciding how and whether their thoughts are relevant." This is great when the person being ignored is promoting the subjugation of women and old men marrying prepubescent girls (real), but not so great when Sage Sharp gets hounded all over the Internet for bringing up problematic things Ted T'so has said and suggesting that maybe he shouldn't be one of the people making decisions about harassment claims.

For what it's worth: Ted T'so said that in response to a random right-wing troll. He also suggests a quick membership test:

"do a quick check using "git log --author=xyzzy@example.com""

In Sage Sharp's case, that gets me 374 linux kernel commits (which is plenty. Admittedly, all from a few years ago).

Similarly, as far as I can tell, none of the people hounding Sage Sharp on twitter are kernel developers.

So: I'm not doubting that there's a risk here, but I don't see it in this particular case it's being used as a way to deny Sage Sharp as someone with a legitimate voice. (But, it could be that I'm missing stuff.)

(What I'd disagree with in Ted's message is his suggestion that this is an "all sides do it" thing. As far as I can tell, the non-developers dropping in to the conversation from out of nowhere are all pretty much all on the CoCs-are-evil side.)
posted by bfields at 3:45 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of people are unhappy because they're very uncomfortable in social situations, and they can feel better about themselves if their discomfort is the tradeoff for having extraordinary abilities.

There's also the expectation that you should already know how to navigate social situations, which if you don't know, means you can't ask, you can't get help, you're mostly told there's no resources you can use to fix the problem, and you don't have anything to go off. The only options usually presented are "you should already know this" or "be a pariah". It's genuinely easier to make a place that can tolerate a complete lack of social graces than to fix your own problems, if you have skills that are valuable.

(It turns out there are resources you can use; a great deal of my socialisation I owe to two books that were extremely helpful.)
posted by Merus at 3:50 PM on October 23, 2018 [7 favorites]


Merus could you share them?
posted by Wretch729 at 4:21 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Merus: There's also the expectation that you should already know how to navigate social situations, which if you don't know, means you can't ask, you can't get help, you're mostly told there's no resources you can use to fix the problem, and you don't have anything to go off. The only options usually presented are "you should already know this" or "be a pariah".

My sister told me about an education conference she was at in which a teacher told the group, with self-satisfaction, how when a student was mouthy in class the teacher would look the other way if they saw that student being harassed by other students in the hallway. My sister - a special needs aide - stood up and told the teacher that it is a shitty thing to respond to somehow who is trying to engage with you but doesn't know how to do it well by letting them be bullied by other students instead of thinking about how they, as a teacher, might be able to help the student learn better social skills.

Anyway, the room got really quiet and nobody said nuthin' about it after that. Luckily she doesn't work at the same school as that teacher.

I forget how that applies to the topic at hand, but I'm pretty sure it does somehow.
posted by clawsoon at 4:23 PM on October 23, 2018 [15 favorites]


Nothing Jeff describes sounds like empathy, which is mainly about listening. It's more like professionalism.

Empathy is still relatively easy to implement, because it is generic. No one needs to know you or your history. You can be empathetic toward a stranger.

By contrast, acting "like a group of friends who care about each other, no matter what" is ambitious. I've been on MetaFilter for years. I still don't get the sense that other commenters recognize me (warmly or otherwise). This ain't Cheers. Maybe that's fine. I keep coming back, I guess.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 8:15 PM on October 23, 2018 [9 favorites]


"how when a student was mouthy in class the teacher would look the other way if they saw that student being harassed by other students in the hallway."

That pretty much sums up my experiences with bullying in school... Continual, and quietly sanctioned by the school, who turned a blind eye to it because they didn't like me (I was both mouthy and anti-authoritarian, so I *understand* why they didn't like me, but their conduct didn't help me 'respect' authority). I learned not to hate bullies - they are everywhere, but to realize they are permitted encouraged by the administration - and the administration was the enablers of my bullies.
posted by el io at 9:17 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Cichlid, I would guess that Metafilter's format, in particular its inability to do threaded comments, would contribute to this.
posted by Baeria at 12:22 AM on October 24, 2018


I found the title sadly disturbing and ironic in that the choice of words casually encode violence and only demonstrate the increasingly militarization of online discourse that I've been noticing these days
posted by infini at 2:13 AM on October 24, 2018


Nothing Jeff describes sounds like empathy, which is mainly about listening.

Yeah, that the piece is almost entirely about spotting "bad" writing behaviors and says almost nothing about trying to read and engage more productively makes it seem like he hasn't really thought through the entirety of the problem, as if it's only a one sided affair that the right guy can come in and fix by seeing and tossing out those "few bad apples" that don't fit the community profile. That may be fine in some instances as there are people who seem to like to cause problems, but it certainly doesn't cover all or even most instances where communities come to grief. Conflict can come even while holding genuine belief in conversational importance, but still run into problems in how people engage each other and their assumptions around how others reply. Empathy requires a bit more than just carrying a guide to spotting bad behavior.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:54 AM on October 24, 2018


We are in the midst of community discussions to this effect in my immediate IRL surroundings and there is a large "empathy" contingent, with whom I identify.

Online (on Twitter) I've developed this habit (unconscious at first) to do the labour of empathizing and arguing in good faith with people showing evidence of some entitled thinking. With good and bad results. Ultimately, it is *also* about privileged people's fear of losing privilege, because fear is fear and until they have that space to work through that, we'll be right where we started.

At this point, I think it is great strategy to be donating emotional labour to these issues, whenever you feel you are able. Sounds machavellian perhaps. But you never know who might be seeing empathy that is relevant to them for the first time as something worth aspiring to.
posted by ipsative at 8:33 AM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


At this point, I think it is great strategy to be donating emotional labour to these issues, whenever you feel you are able.

The problem with this is that in the long run, the "donation" of emotional labor winds up falling on the usual groups, who are already the most taxed. Not to mention that saying that we need to work through the "fear" of the privileged losing their privilege is a good recipe for inaction.

As I said back in the Stack Exchange thread, the answer is for communities to ban assholery,because often the problem isn't a communal lack of empathy so much as its a willingness to turn a blind eye to those who would abuse others.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:57 AM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


While following links that came from this discussion (though I forget the exact path - maybe somehow via this?), I found this discussion of what they call "radical candor™", which is about telling people that they're wrong while caring about them. It also talks about the danger of "ruinous empathy™", which is when you know that someone is doing something wrong, and you care about them, but you don't say anything.

I have noticed that trying to get someone on a better path works much better if you care about them than if you are telling them they are wrong and don't care about them.

As I said back in the Stack Exchange thread, the answer is for communities to ban assholery,because often the problem isn't a communal lack of empathy so much as its a willingness to turn a blind eye to those who would abuse others.

And the problem with that is that we end up with a few small empathetic communities surrounded by a nation of assholes who've been banned from those small communities.
posted by clawsoon at 9:25 AM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


And the problem with that is that we end up with a few small empathetic communities surrounded by a nation of assholes who've been banned from those small communities.

I don't see the problem
posted by infini at 10:23 AM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


And the problem with that is that we end up with a few small empathetic communities surrounded by a nation of assholes who've been banned from those small communities.

Actually, what happens is that when you take out the more prominent assholes and make it clear that assholery will not be tolerated is that the people who would normally tend towards asshole start checking themselves, because now they have to choose between assholery and inclusion - and being social critters by nature, we tend to lean towards inclusion.

I always find the argument that communities should expend their resources on "fixing" small contingents of people harming the community over using those resources on the majority of the community to be puzzling.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:34 AM on October 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


clawsoon: Not as much as I should.
posted by aleph at 12:14 PM on October 24, 2018


In the various online communities I've created, moderated, organized and such over the years, my best communities often had a clear set of rules and a sort of a three-strikes policy, with room to make sure people knew that breaking the spirit of the law was often as bad as breaking the letter of the law.

I've thrown people out of communities for breaking the spirit of the law by virtue of being completely inappropriate in a private setting with others without warning. Other times, I've done what I could to educate people as to why their behaviour was inappropriate and some of those people learned from those discussions. Some didn't.

My best-ever story is that I had a rule in a community once about using "gay" in the pejorative sense, as in, don't do it. A teenager once got a stern talking-to about it from me, though I did explain to him, in great detail, why that rule existed. A few years later, he was the one correcting others about being more thoughtful about what they say and how to say it and next time, they should be more considerate about the people who might be reading what they're saying.

It's instances like that one where I feel as though I've made a small difference in how someone thinks, through educating them as to why the rule exists.

So my general stance has always been: have clear rules ("common sense" rules don't last long if your community is growing), moderate as needed and explain the reasons behind the moderation, emphasize education, but tolerate nothing that egregiously goes over the line. (Which may vary based on your community.)

I've always viewed my communities as me inviting people into my home and we're all chilling in the living room. If you do something that makes that place uncomfortable for others or you, say, track dirt through my living room, you're gonna get talked to.
posted by juliebug at 12:37 PM on October 24, 2018 [7 favorites]


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