This post is about three behaviours I’ve tried to unlearn over the last decade or so. I’ve used social media in my examples because it’s something which will be familiar to most people.
If I discussed particular situations I’ve witnessed at in-person events, or experiences I’ve had as a parent, these wouldn’t necessarily resonate with everyone reading this. To be clear, though, my aim in writing this post isn’t focused only on behaviours around social networks.
Let’s talk about safety. I remember some work done at a school I worked in back when the UK had an influx of Polish migrants. The pupils, who were still learning English, were shown a map of the school and asked to place stickers with different expressions. We were not expecting them to put the ones for ‘fear’ where they did. The reason it was surprising to us was because our lived experience and mental models as teachers was so different to theirs.
Safety is a complex thing, especially in the digital age. I can sit here typing on my laptop and be completely physically safe while feeling psychologically unsafe. It’s not hard to find examples: a former England footballer was scared to leave their home recently after social media comments by an influential figure. We live in a world mediated and controlled by language, so what we say — and allow others to say — matters.
Connected to that is unsolicited feedback or advice. This is a particularly difficult one to unlearn, especially as I’ve been brought up to try and be helpful. If someone is sharing in a private conversation or a social media post about something they’re struggling with, are they actually asking for help? Or are they just venting?
I’ve learned to check; it’s easier and less awkward than you’d think. “Sorry to hear that. Are you just venting or are you open to suggestions that have worked in my experience?” is something I’ve asked on social media. I’ve received a range of responses, and at least 50% of the time people will say they’re “just venting”.
The third is around using other people’s stuff without their consent. I have struggled with this one, because I don’t believe ‘intellectual property’ is a thing. But that’s different to asking for consent. In society, the word ‘consent’ comes up most often in relation to sexual activity, but consent is an everyday practice. It’s a way of foregrounding relationships; it’s a form of respect.
For example, while there might be nothing wrong from a technical or legal standpoint with ‘scraping’ public posts on the Fediverse, people still find it creepy and have tried to do something about it. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it weird if someone showed me an AI model which they’d trained on my blog post (even if I’d like to do that myself!). Asking is better than not asking. Always.
You may or may not have noticed that there is no mention of gender in what I’ve written above. I’ve done this on purpose, because so many people are scared off by the words such as ‘feminism’ or ‘intesectionality’. What I’ve discussed above makes the world better for people who are not like me, but it also makes the world better for people like me.
A year ago, I realised that competing with other people via Strava wasn’t good for my physical or mental health. I wondered about setting up a friendly Fediverse instance for exercise-related updates and chat. This turned into exercise.cafe, running on Pixelfed.
A year later, I’ve posted screenshots of most of my runs there, as well as swims and gym sessions. Other people have done likewise about the different activities they’re into. One person in particular (@ryancoordinator) has been using it every day.
It was only yesterday that I was once again describing how I subscribe to the SOFA principle of starting things but not necessarily keeping them going. So I’m delighted that, at a time when I was thinking of shutting it down, Ryan has volunteered to take over the ownership and running of exercise.cafe. We’re currently in the midst of handing things over, but I’m really pleased that it will keep going.
Ryan has experience of running all kinds of platforms and events, so I think that the site is in good hands. If you’re interested in joining exercise.cafe, registrations remain open!
I’ve noticed this week some Mastodon instances ‘defederating’ not only from those that are generally thought of to be toxic, but also of large, general-purpose instances such as mastodon.social. This post is about governance processes and trying to steer a way between populism and oligarchy.
The first thing I should say in all of this, is that I’m a middle-aged, straight, white guy playing life on pretty much the easiest difficulty level. So I’m not commenting in this post about any specific situation but rather zooming out to think about this on a wider scale.
What I’ve seen, mainly via screenshots as I rarely visit Twitter now except to keep the @WeAreOpenCoop account up-to-date, is that Elon Musk has run some polls. As others have commented, this is how a Roman Emperor would make decisions: through easy-to-rig polls that suggest that an outcome is “the will of the people”.
This is obviously an extremely bad, childish, and dangerous way to run a platform that, until recently, was almost seen as infrastructure.
On the other side of the spectrum is the kind of decision making that I’m used to as a member of a co-op that is part of a wider co-operative network. These daily decisions around matters large and small requires not necessarily consensus, but rather processes that allow for alignment around a variety of issues. As I mentioned in my previous post, one good way to do this is through consent-based decision making.
Using Loomio, the social.coop instance that I currently call home on the Fediverse, makes decisions in a way that is open for everyone to view — and also for members of the instance to help decide. It’s not a bad process at all, but a difficult one to scale — especially when rather verbose people with time on their hands decide to have An Opinion. It also happens in a place (Loomio) other than that which the discussion concerns (Mastodon).
So when I had one of my regular discussions with Ivan, one of the Bonfire team, I was keen to bring it up. He, of course, had already been thinking about this and pointed me towards Ukuvota, an approach which uses score voting to help with decision making:
To “keep things the way they are” is always an option, never the default. Framing this option as a default position introduces a significant conservative bias — listing it as an option removes this bias and keeps a collective evolutionary.
To “look for other options” is always an option. If none of the other current options are good enough, people are able to choose to look for better ones — this ensures that there is always an acceptable option for everyone.
Every participant can express how much they support or oppose each option. Limiting people to choose their favorite or list their preference prevents them from fully expressing their opinions — scoring clarifies opinions and makes it much more likely to identify the best decision.
Acceptance (non-opposition) is the main determinant for the best decision. A decision with little opposition reduces the likelihood of conflict, monitoring or sanctioning — it is also important that some people actively support the decision to ensure it actually happens.
The examples given on the website are powerful but quite complicated, which is why I think there’s immense power in the default. To my mind, democratic decision making is the kind of thing that you need to practise, but which shouldn’t become a burden.
I’m hoping that after the v1.0 release of Bonfire, that one of the extensions that can emerge is a powerful way of democratic governance processes being available right there in the social networking tool. If this were the case, I can imagine decisions around instance-blocking to be able to be made in a positive, timely, and democratic manner.
Watch this space! If you’re reading this and are involved in thinking about these kinds of things for projects you’re involved with, I’d love to have a chat.