Friday, February 26, 2010

High Trust, High Responsibility Communities

[This is a blog version of a lightning talk I didn't give at PyCon]

People Hacking is as old as time, and every long lasting organization engages in it. One example of hacking people (and the title of this post) is to tell people you trust them. This "trust cue" invites reciprocity -- people behave well because you've signaled that you expect them to. Google's "don't be evil" motto works this way; the company has promised the outside world that it should be trusted so internal employees feel pressure to live up to the promise.

You can do the opposite and tell people that you don't trust them ["negative trust cues"] and people being people their behavior is predictably cautious and non-cooperative. I once worked for an ex-DEA prosecutor and to put it mildly the employer-employee relations weren't stellar.

The Python community has many positive trust cues going for it. The coding end is open source so everyone is a volunteer by definition, and volunteering for anything is a positive trust cue. Likewise PyCon introduces people face-to-face and having met someone as a real-live-person (even once!) invites an obligation to be more forgiving in the sterile world of email and bug trackers (was he being a dick or just having a bad day? I've met him, must have been a bad day). I got my commit bit after never having one of my many patches to CPython accepted*, but curiously not long after I met the guy who had rejected them (Raymond Hettinger, who was working the registration desk when I checked in).

I am/was a member of a large number of long standing volunteer orgs (most are fraternal**) and have seen many variations on trust cues: the big ones are the Boy Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, the Kappa Alpha Society, and the Free Masons. None are as old or put as high an emphasis on trust cues as the Masons - everything is setup to do charity and avoid conflict. It is prohibited to drink before/during meetings***, discuss politics, or discuss religion. The taboos are so strong that there aren't legal punishments for violating them - you are trusted not to violate them so (by reciprocity) no one does. Very few of the members are half as smart as the average lunch table at PyCon, but it is impossible not to like the members of my lodge because every time I see them they are doing charity: giving blood, contributing to food banks, etc. The trust cues are through the roof (one side effect of that is a very high attrition rate -- people quit because the activities are quite stolid and boring).

So the Python community in general and PyCon in particular inculcate positive trust cues (when was the last time your saw a post titled "PyCon sucked?" never). That said, I ran away from the python-d7y list because it was so loaded with negative trust cues. See Anna Ravenscroft's PyCon2010 talk for very healthy ways to promote positive trust cues and eschew negative ones. The topic mandated the opposite of the "no politics, no religion" of my other, more boring, org and the results were predictable. The d7y list was mostly harmless but 5% of the talk was by people that had no skin in the game (and hence no expectation of kindness or reciprocity). To be vague and ablative the demands of the 5% was a laundry list of negative trust cues: censorship, name-and-shame, and other minor atrocities. As a result most discussion of the list actually took place off the list because plain discussion on the list was impossible (par exemplar was one of the moderators emailing me off-book "I wish I could +1 but I can't. We need a new list.").

In closing the Python community exploits human nature in the form of trust == responsibility pretty well. I am happy to be exploited thusly because I'm human and it tickles my humanity. Assign bugs to me and - if I've met you or have met someone who has met you - I'll be quick to close it with a more delicate comment than otherwise.

* My patches weren't bad or wrong, they just weren't enough of a speed boon considering the maintenance overhead to be added to the stdlib.
** I have three brothers and no sisters so that's where I'm at ease. Though until recently (last century) "fraternal" meant "brotherhood of man" instead of the narrower "male only" so there still exist some mixed sex and female-only orgs that have "fraternity" in the name.
*** The "no booze" is very unusual for voluntary associations in the US. Most clubs have a members only bar that is the major fundraiser for the org. For instance, when I lived in Pennsylvania I was a social member of the King of Prussia Volunteer Fire Company - I was one of the thousand members who didn't fight fires but paid $30/year for my membership card (you needed to be nominated by an actual fire-fighter to join but like most orgs this was a technicality -- they were mainly interested in keeping out people who couldn't find one related person to say something nice about them)


Suresh V said...
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mark said...

Interesting, thanks!

Jack Diederich said...

BoingBoing has a related post Larry scares a room full of liberals where Larry Lessig goes wide of the mark but hits the high notes anyway. Put differently: Larry is right that members of "the right" care more about community in the concrete but "the left" more in the abstract. The gap is closing as non-partisan houses like "maker's spaces" gain hold. Let's have more of that.

Faster please.

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