Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

16 Jul 2020, 10:41 a.m.

Misunderstanding What It Takes To Make Recurse Center's Social Rules Work

In a contentious thread on MetaFilter about race and racism on the site, one user lauds the bit of Recurse Center's manual about how if you are corrected for breaking one of the four Social Rules, you should just accept it, apologize, reflect a bit, and move on. The user, praising the way a particular user took a correction well, says, "I want to move to a world where this kind of confrontation can be so normalized and painless." Yes! I'd like that too! I'd also like for more people and groups to make progress on following the four Social Rules themselves: No feigning surprise, no well-actuallys, no back-seat driving, and no subtle -isms.

I'm not going to say this in the MetaFilter thread because it would derail things, but I'll blog it here. I have participated twice at Recurse Center, my first batch being in late 2013, and I've participated in MetaFilter for over ten years. The significant differences between Recurse Center and MetaFilter are similar to the differences between RC and Wikimedia, which I briefly discuss in "Hospitality, Jerks, and What I Learned" (a keynote about RC that I gave a few years ago at a Wikimedia conference, back when RC was known as Hacker School). And these differences would make it a lot harder for a website like MetaFilter to take this particular aspect of the Social Rules and make it stick. Maybe even impossible.

In this post, I am trying to be descriptive about what works, and what makes good outcomes more likely, not to prescribe what individual people or institutions should do.

Key logistical differences

Every Recurser has dedicated specific time to participating in a shared cause, there are gatekeepers who only let some people in in the first place (interviewing participants to check whether they are pleasant people to collaborate with), even when we're online most conversation is in a private space that only other Recursers can see, and there are under ~2000 Recursers, and (I believe) most Recursers trust RC staff to handle incidents well in case we need to escalate a report to them. And the vast majority of Recursers started after the Social Rules, in their current form or close to it, have been set as policy. And, till this year, every Recurser also had substantial experience of in-person interactions with other Recursers, including (at least since 2013, when I first participated in RC) an orientation session going into the social rules and modelling a correction and someone accepting that correction.* (RC is now remote and online, till at least the end of 2020. The orientation session is now via a videocall.) All of these elements help Recursers trust and understand each other, lower their defensiveness about being corrected, and correct each other with less worry that the other person will respond badly.

Also, pile-on/snarky responses to subtle -isms (such as racism, sexism, and homophobia) are not allowed, and Recursers are asked to only talk about distressing politics and -isms in spaces where every conversational participant has explicitly opted in to talking about that (to avoid distracting people from learning about programming). To quote the manual:

If you see a subtle -ism at the Recurse Center, you can point it out to the relevant person, either publicly or privately, or you can ask one of the faculty to say something. After this, we ask that all further discussion move off of public channels. If you are a third party, and you don't see what could be biased about the comment that was made, feel free to talk to faculty. Please don't say, "Comment X wasn't homophobic!" Similarly, please don't pile on to someone who made a mistake. The "subtle" in "subtle -isms" means that it's probably not obvious to everyone right away what was wrong with the comment.

We want the Recurse Center to be a space with as little bigotry as possible in it. Therefore, if you see sexism, racism, etc. outside of the Recurse Center, please don't bring it in. So, for example, please don't start a discussion of the latest offensive comment from Random Tech Person Y. For many people, especially those who may have spent time in unpleasant environments, these conversations can be very distracting. At the Recurse Center, we want to remove as many distractions as possible so everyone can focus on programming. There are many places in the world to discuss and debate these issues, but there are precious few where people can avoid them. We want the Recurse Center to be one of those places.

The "please don't pile on" guidance helps reduce one's worry that publicly correcting someone will cause an unpleasant pile-on, and helps a participant who's being corrected avoid the urge to get defensive. And discouraging discussions of -isms in common-area spaces that Recursers are likely to participate in by default (the "living room" and its online equivalent) means that everyone who has explicitly opted in to having such a discussion is likely to be more thoughtful and careful about participating in it. (For more on the opt-in suggestion -- and on the fact that, yeah, this means allies may learn less about fighting bigotry, because we don't talk about bias as much -- see Allison Kaptur's blog post "Subtle -isms at Hacker School".)

Of course, "accept corrections gracefully and move on" is generally good advice for an individual to try to adopt in one's own behavior in general!** I try to do this myself! But it really helps to get practice someplace where everyone is trying to do that, and RC helps everyone practice that skill. I was a lot better at correcting and being corrected on Day 90 at RC than I was on Day 1. And the particular systematic expectation of that behavior at RC depends on a sort of pact that everyone signs up to -- that today I'll correct you straightforwardly and nonchalantly about feigned surprise, and you'll accept that correction quickly and with good grace, and then tomorrow maybe our positions will be reversed, and you'll correct me politely about a subtle -ism and I'll take it well. That we will both be open and vulnerable to correction, and will both try not to get defensive. The structural forces I have listed earlier in this post massively help everyone trust in that pact. And there's a Recurse Center Code of Conduct introduced in mid-2017, which we know we can escalate to in case someone's behavior has been really egregious.

If you want to systematically make "give and accept corrections in this way" the norm on a message board where anyone can register for USD$5, there's no unifying purpose to why people join, everything we write there is public on the web forever, most participants never meet most of the other participants in person, there are tens of thousands of registered users who generally discuss ALL topics especially including -isms, snarky/dismissive responses to others' comments often are allowed, and the board itself is 20+ years old, that's going to be very difficult. There are significant structural barriers here.

It's also worth noting that the particular conversation that spurred this comparison is about reducing racist speech on MetaFilter. Many of the more vocal anti-racism activists on MetaFilter do not particularly trust most white users or the site's owner and mostly-white moderation staff, and are strenuously against civility norms when it comes to correcting racist statements. These are also significant differences between MeFi and RC, based on my experience in both.

"Community" and purpose

So far, in this post, I've said "message board", "website", "group", "users", "participants"; you may have noticed that I have not yet used the word "community." I am trying to be careful about how I use that word, because I think it subsumes some important assumptions.*** RC cofounder Nick Bergson-Shilcock wrote, "Having a genuine community requires that people know the other people around them, and that everyone shares some fundamental values and purpose." I agree. (I'd also say that a genuine community also has to have some kind of systematic way for the membership as a whole to affect/veto decisions that will affect them, which is a place Recurse Center falls down, being a privately owned for-profit enterprise that has no advisory board or other structurally empowered voice for Recursers in RC governance. MetaFilter is on its way to starting a user advisory board to specifically listen to the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color concerns.)

And my current assessment is that MetaFilter does not qualify, because most MeFites don't know most other MeFites, and because I think MetaFilter's shared fundamental purpose is ... thin in a way that bears more explaining but gets very wiggly.

The official MetaFilter guidelines say: "The fundamental goal of MetaFilter is for this to be a good, kind, generous, inclusive, and fun community on the internet." And the "About" page says:

Metafilter is a weblog ... that anyone can contribute a link or a comment to. A typical weblog is one person posting their thoughts on the unique things they find on the web. This website exists to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members.

I would bet that a survey of a hundred MeFites chosen at random, about why they participate and the purpose of the site, would show several disparate clusters of answers. General entertainment and information, shooting the breeze about whatever comes up, fun (but not in particular to create fun for others), fun (to create for/with others), asking for and giving advice about specific problems and opportunities, getting publicity for stuff we've made... I'd be curious what people would say about why they participate, what they think MeFi's purpose is, and how much it would align with the goal/purpose statements above.

In contrast, RC (from the About page) "offers educational retreats for anyone who wants to get dramatically better at programming. The retreats are free, self-directed, and project based." Which is pretty clear. Everyone at RC has signed up for the purpose of "becoming a dramatically better programmer" and I would bet that, if you interviewed a hundred Recursers chosen at random, they'd all say something very similar about the reason they participated/participate and about RC's purpose.

Knowing each other, and sharing fundamental values and purpose, is important here because it's the soil from which interpersonal and group trust can sprout.

And you need trust in order to be vulnerable, including the vulnerability of speaking up about something that's wrong, and the vulnerability of accepting a correction without defensiveness.

And

Argh this is already so long, and I haven't even talked about how "no feigned surprise" and "no well-actuallys" and "no backseat driving" all play into the trust and vulnerability, how bad-faith actors can potentially weaponize "no feigned surprise," whether MetaFilter even wants to be a nurturing learning environment (to the extent that such a varied group can be said to "want" something), the ideological position that it is never an oppressed person's responsibility to make any effort to help create an environment that helps people learn facts or skills relevant to fighting that oppression, what general lessons I would draw from this for your Internet-based group of choice, and and and.

But: I hope you get my point. The Social Rules are great. And/but they work at RC partly in concert with the shape, type, configuration of the place and its membership. And that shape is very different from MetaFilter's.


* Recurser Nat Quayle Nelson wrote a play called "Survival Instinct" (link is to a recording of a live reading) that includes a fictional portrayal of Recurse Center. Listen to the conversation starting around 11:00 to hear a Recurser beginning to learn the "no -isms" rule.
** But I do not prescribe this as a general rule for everyone reading this, because you know what? Sometimes you should push back, though realistically this is incredibly unlikely if you're in a dominant group regarding the -ism that you got criticized about. I am not the arbiter of "the social justice rules of engagement" and that is a whole other essay that I may or may not ever write or publish.
*** I recently ran into David Gurteen's definition, "A community is a group of people who share things in common, who work together towards a common purpose which they care about and who care deeply about each other." I am not ready to buy into Gurteen's thinking, given that Gurteen believes it is not possible to have a real conversation in text, only face-to-face and maybe via telephone/videocall, and I figure that definitions of community and of conversation are pretty connected.