I am contracting continually a debt of gratitude which time will never see canceled. There is a treasury from which it will be repaid, but I do not dispense its stores. – Dorothea Dix
I sometimes wonder what the point of doing all this is. Why do we work, why do we create stuff, what drives us to do the things we do? It can’t just be survival or money because after a certain point the effect of having stuff seems to plateau. We do things because they matter to us, and get involved in activities and causes that seem worth spending our time on.
What underpins the thinking we do in those situations? How do we determine what seems a good use of our time, a worthwhile endeavor? Right now, sitting where you are, what are the things you do that matter to you? And why do you do them?
One of the reasons I think about this is because I spent a lot of my early life moving around, living out of suitcases. That meant always entering situations where people knew each other and I had to find a place in a new space. The easiest way to do that was to find and join groups that were interesting, that offered a way for new people to get involved and engage with others. Although I have been in one place for a long time now, I still like to work with groups. In the midst of a pandemic, where we can’t go out, many of us are probably rediscovering the magic of online group social activity and trying to get involved.
So what do you need for something like this to work?
Being clear about your contract with each other
I joined a university led program which started by emphasizing the idea of contracting. We were contracting with each other, the leader explained. They were contracting to support us, give us information, operate a program. And we were contracting to engage with the material, do the work, do our part in learning and participating.
It’s an interesting word, “contracting” when used in that context. It clearly has a very specific academic definition. Now, if you’re going to approach it in an academic way the first thing to do is find every instance of the word as it’s defined in various papers and create a table listing all of them.
With the help of Webster, then, we have the following that seems appropriate in this context:
“To enter into, with mutual obligations; to make a bargain or covenant for.”
In some of my other posts I’m a little dismissive of lawyers. I wanted to be one, but I failed to get into law school and what I’ve see of lawyers makes me wonder how good some of their work is. But, the realization I’m coming to is that what lawyers do – their function in helping us contract with each other – is perhaps absolutely fundamental to human society. It’s actually so important that perhaps we cannot leave it to the lawyers. Maybe each of us has to take responsibility for ensuring that contracts work for the benefit of humanity rather than for the protection of the powerful.
Terry Pratchett captures this, with his usual wit and insight when he talks about how nobles, the ones who own everything, once had to use swords and fight to get what they have. And then they realized that instead of all the fighting they could just hold pieces of paper that declared their ownership and the sword fighting stopped and they used the processes of law to protect their interests. But, as Terry points out, the nobles have a contract to own the land but they also have a contract with the people that live on the land and nurture it and that contract is just as important and, even if it’s not written down, breaking it will result in consequences.
You can call this a psychological contract and, in an ideal world, the written down contract and the psychological contract will mirror each other. But you have to get there first.
Talking it through
The place where it all starts is by talking it through, by having a discussion and getting ideas out and shared with the others that are part of your group. There are tools and approaches that you can use when you do this. You can run a brainstorming session, get on a whiteboard and draw it out, write letters to each other.
Let’s take an example of a specific community, the Internet Engineering Task Force or IETF.
Here is a quote that sums up their approach.
‘The IETF community works mostly online, guided by the informal principle: “we believe in rough consensus and running code”.‘
The IETF uses Requests for Comments (RFCs) as a way to set out their approach to a new standard.
Here’s an example of one: RFC 2549 – IP over Avian Carriers with Quality of Service, although I assume you get the joke…
And there are hundreds more. The point is that these folks worked out a way to work across huge distances and text, written words that set out how to do things were hugely important. They had a process, a secretariat, mailing lists, forums, discussion groups and all the other elements that allow a group to engage and converse and chat. Importantly, the conversations are documented and retrievable and that’s again a sign of the good functioning of a group – that someone takes on the responsibility and effort to document what is going on and what decisions have been reached.
So, one of the questions you have to ask when you want to set up a community is how people are going to engage with each other, how are they going to have discussions, debate different points of view and come to an agreement on how to move forward? The mechanism you choose and the technology that’s involved will influence who joins you and how they participate. That’s probably why the basic requirement for politicians is to be able to speak – we can all, in theory, say we want to say and so speeches and debates are a normal form of political contracting. For those of us that prefer to write rather than talk, the Internet offers different groups and choices.
But when it comes down to it, you have to be able to engage and then eventually put it down in a contract.
Capturing it in words
At this point I have a slight tangent to go on. I go a lot of visual thinking work and there are various groups involved in this space. Many focus on the art and the style of visual thinking, and there are a range of applications of their work, from documenting proceedings to helping a group work through a complex problem. But many of these approaches stop when the art is done, as if that is the final product and now it’s over to you, the group, to do what comes next.
What comes next, I’m starting to realize, is the contract. The tools we use in visual thinking help us to talk things out using another medium. In addition to speech and text, we can use images and space and geography to document and link and test ideas and connections and come up with a firmer conception of what we want to happen. Eventually, we need to write this down in text, in a contract that clearly spells out what we have uncovered during the talking out phase of our work. Again, this is not a contract in the legal sense, where a lawyer gets involved but a contract in the sense of a bargain or covenant, a promise to each other to make and keep mutual obligations.
But, of course, between the talking and the contract are a few more steps. These are the proposals, the requests for comments, the intermediate documentation that is considered and negotiated and which eventually becomes a contract.
All this has to happen before you can add and remove people to your group, beyond the core group of founders. The founders will debate and discuss and create the initial contract and then set it out in a way that new members can engage with. These are the rules of engagement, the code of practice, the community rules. Of course, you need ways for people to debate and discuss and change them over time but you do need them. And they need to be simple, especially if money is involved.
The longevity of a group is perhaps directly related to how these rules work. For a long time the rules were unwritten, unsaid, managed by a group of elders. Once they started being written down more people could relate to them, work within them and challenge them if they were unfair. Few clubs would dare to put a discriminatory process in writing and that’s a good thing. Shining a light causes evil to scuttle away.
Here’s my conclusion from all this. If you want to build a community make some rules, write them down. Try and balance things, aim for a rough consensus and working operations. And then get on with it.
As a friend of mine says about why this is worth doing. Go alone, and you can go fast. Go with others and you can go far.
In the next post I want to talk about news and how news can help hold your community together.