October 20, 2017

Your community is what you make it

I know of a man who owns land in Montana. His dream is to prove a theory about design. For a small sum of money, you can lease some of this land — about a week’s worth of San Francisco rent will get you an acre for a year. Build a house. Plant a garden. Raise some pigs. And you can use his tractors, too.

But you can only do these things under his rules. His rules are somewhat strange to most people. You cannot use paint. You must listen to 200+ rambling podcasts. You cannot import compost from outside the property. You cannot use plywood. You can’t smoke pot. His dream, his rules. It has been slow recruiting people to join his effort. But that’s okay. It’s his rules, and he wants a community after his own design. He has chosen exactly what he wants his community to look like: people like him.

Can you imagine having an acre of land for cheaper than a week’s rent in San Francisco?

There has been much hand-wringing in the software community as of late as to what role product companies have in shaping their communities. Reddit struggled with hate groups organizing themselves in their forums. Because if we kick one group out, where does it end? Facebook has become the place that foreign powers manipulate US elections through advertising. Because what is the difference between opinion and facts, anyway? And Twitter, of course, has become a favorite home of white supremacists and nazis. Because you’ve got to be objective. In each of these cases, the companies have vehemently defended the rights of these obviously-bad people to use their service, while the vast majority of their users tell them to kick these obviously-bad people out. “It’s complicated,” they claim. A silly excuse for a company with thousands of highly creative intelligent people.

Despite what the executives of these companies may say, this shit is not complicated. Your community is what you make it. If you choose to make no rules, you have still made a rule. If you choose to give nazis a voice, you have chosen to make your community nazi-friendly. Rebranding that decision under the guise of free speech or objectivity makes no sense. When you make an environment friendly for nazis, it is a nazi-friendly environment regardless of the reasons it happens to be friendly for them.

There is this dream often used as justification. A digital platform that connects all with absolute freedom of speech. A modern day utopia of radical ideas being exchanged in a completely free environment. Executives say they have a moral responsibility to make this idealistic dream a reality. It’s a very Ayn Rand idea. It is important to remember that Ayn Rand wrote fiction.

In the real world, we often sacrifice our ideals because of the messy nature of reality. Capitalism… except for those subsidies. Freedom of religion… except no suicide cults. Second amendment rights… except no automatic weapons. For every ideal, there is always a reality. A reality where you have to draw the line — a subjective line — in order to preserve our morality, integrity, and way of life.

Your community is exactly what you make it. The man in Montana has lost members of his community because of his rules. Twitter has lost members of its community because of their rules, too. In fact it’s much worse — good natured people aren’t so much leaving as they’re getting poisoned and becoming toxic. The only thing worse than losing a user is turning them into a toxic user.

Twitter believes that somehow allowing everything means they’ve created an environment that’s friendly for everyone. But often times it’s important for a community not to have a person in it. Imagine a party with ten of your best friends. Now imagine a party with ten of your best friends and one nazi.

That is the really important thing about communities: they are made both of what you include and what you exclude, and each of those have equal weight. Not having a particular person is just as meaningful as having a particular person. It is the same with music: without rests, music is just noise.

I’ve long thought that product designers make their jobs seem far more complicated than they really are. Industry leaders act as if every decision is irreversible and of ultimate importance. But it’s not that complicated. It’s not some kind of tenth dimensional ethical chess, it’s just a lot of messy work that requires constant recalibration. You can have an open community and still kick out nazis. You just kick out the nazis. How can you call it an open community if you don’t allow nazis? Because you don’t want fucking nazis in your house. That’s it.

And maybe that decision will come back to bite them. But for science’s sake — can that potential consequence really be worse than having nazis in your house?

If you'd like to keep in touch, I tweet @kneath on Twitter. You're also welcome to send a polite email to kyle@warpspire.com. I don't always get the chance to respond, but email is always the best way to get in touch.