How To Prevent Infighting And Self-Destruction In A Community


Saturday, 7.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

Last century we needed lawyers; this century we need big, broad coalitions. When extremists decide to attack all our communities, they must hope that there will be infighting. But we have stood all for one and one for all. That is how we will win. – Benjamin Todd Jealous

It’s funny how certain quotes roll around in your brain, making you wonder whether their time has come again. One of those is from Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, who wrote that the stock market is a voting machine in the short term, but a weighing machine in the long term.

There are differences of opinion about what is short term and what is long term but I’m starting to wonder whether this statement applies more generally. Do you think that communities, businesses, societies are destined to always follow the popular vote or do they have periods of instability within longer periods of overall calm? Are things going to go the way they seem or are we going to find that things settle down eventually, when all is done, when all the votes are counted, when cooler heads prevail.

Now, I’m not referring to a particular election, although that’s clearly something that might fall within this area of inquiry. Instead, let’s look at a different period and ask what is going on, then and now, and whether things are changing, or whether they are the same but different.

A code of communication

In the early days of the Internet, when email was invented and we had Usenet, group emails and forums and all those things, people got very excited about these new modes of communication and piled into conversations with thoughts and opinions and energy. You had the invention of flame wars, long drawn out arguments between people and all the other things you see happening on social media today. You knew an argument stopped being useful when people started making comparisons to Nazis when talking about others.

This led to the development of rules about how you should act in these groups, and eventually started to be known as “netiquette”, a combination of network and etiquette. Just good, polite behavior online so that we could have a conversation, get along, have robust debates but end up in a better place than before. It’s hard to police this as well. All too often, posts pointing out spelling errors seem to be riddled with spelling errors themselves. Eventually, many communities find that it’s just easier to set out what’s expected in writing, so that people know what’s right and what’s wrong in the community they are thinking of joining. Free speech needs to be balanced with civil speech.

Is it hard to write these rules? Well, you could do worse than to start with looking at RFC 1855 – Netiquette Guidelines. This is from 1995 and you can adapt many of the rules to whatever community you’re building now. There are some interesting ideas in there, such as the economic impact of communication. The cost of communication is paid about equally, it argues, by sender and recipient. Spam, trolling, multi-posting may take up time for you if you’re doing that sort of thing but you’re also causing recipients to spend their time and resources on them as well.

What this also means is that if you want to join a community you will probably need to agree to support its declared position on various topics. That’s obvious when it comes to political parties. If you sign up, you sign up to their policies as agreed and communicated through their processes. You may disagree with some of them but if you want to be part of that community you work within the processes they have to voice your views, address your differences and abide by the eventual decisions.

What happens when there are no rules?

In my experience, perhaps your own too, there are two situations I see when things start to fall apart. The first is where people get together and no one really has the knowledge needed to put the basic administrative structure in place to enable civil conversations. People have a go at doing it and you end up with various permutations. Groups that encourage fewer rules find themselves constantly setting meetings to talk through things. Groups with detailed rules end up spending all their time interpreting rules and following processes, so that the only way to get things done is to game the system, understand and use the rules to your advantage.

And then there is power, the ever present pursuit of power. You have situations where someone new comes in and wants to make a difference – and the first thing they need to judge is loyalty, who is loyal to them and who is not. And then you have a purge. It happens quite organically, sometimes. People see the new person come in and decide to leave.

The thing with power is that it’s a faithless thing. The moment you get power is also the moment where it will start to drain away. The people beside you feed off you and so you have to be strong. The minute you show any weakness, the wolves start circling. Having power is not the same thing as being a leader. Perhaps the single biggest difference has to do with who is in control. A person who wants power wants control. A leader wants to set out a vision, a strategy, and then get out of the way of capable people who can execute.

And that means that an effective leader is also an effective communicator and, to do that, they must first be an effective listener. You need to listen to what is going on so that you can talk fluently about what needs to be done. But, of course, you can’t tell the difference between a leader who will leave a legacy and a power-mad crazy person who will leave a trail of destruction. Such conversations eventually take us to Hitler, and that marks the point at which this post should stop – as it’s reached the natural end.

The unhelpful conclusion, really, is this. The best you can do if you want to build a community that doesn’t implode is to set out some rules for the people who want to join your community. Create an environment where they can debate and argue and work to change the rules. If they can’t, they can choose to leave or choose to accept the rules. If you’re in charge, then get out of the way, support and help them to get thing done and spend your time removing obstacles.

Try and do the right thing.

It’s not really that hard to do…

In the next post, I want to look at members, how they flow into and out of a group and what we can do to make this process work well.


Karthik Suresh

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