Poisonous people

As I work to re-shape our community, I’ve been brushing up on open source philosophy. I’ve already mentioned “Producing Open Source Software” book, which is great, but can be somewhat dry at times. A more recent book that covers more of the team related issues is the excellent “Team Geek“. In particular the chapter on “Poisonous people” is really well worth reading.

One passage summarizes some underlying themes of my current series of blog posts:

“But there’s a danger here. In general, it’s not healthy to spend one’s time stewing in an ocean of negativity—it tends to eat you up and can create more conflicts in the long run. The term poisonous person is a nasty label and automatically creates a dividing line between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (those nasty jerks). There’s a better way to think about the problem. Instead of running your team as an elite fraternity with a mission to repel mean people, it’s healthier to create a culture that simply refuses to tolerate certain negative behaviors.”

Our community currently has a number of disrespectful people who could be classified as “poisonous”. However, I have good news for these people: I’m wiping the slate clean! Everyone gets a fresh start. As of today no one is poisonous! Hooray! \ø/

However, if you decide to go against the updated principles I’m stating in this blog post series, you should expect that people will confront your behaviour. One point of these blog posts is to provide bite-sized chunks of information that can be used to succinctly state updated project policies. If you encounter a person who is communicating aggressively, is being disrespectful or is hindering the community from moving the project forward, please remind them of these blog posts. When you encounter a problematic person, post the link to this blog entry and respectfully remind them to improve their behaviour.

I would also like to propose that we organize a group of volunteers to form what could be called: “Team Respect“. If someone in the community finds a person who is going on a “no-vote spree” or is entering useless and aggression filled tickets into jira, then they can call on Team Respect to jump in. Team Respect should engage this person, link to the relevant blog posts/project policies and remind them to be respectful. The team should also review the actions of the person — if the team feels that the actions by this person were uncalled for, the team should work to counter-act their actions. For instance, if someone goes an on unjustified no-vote spree, the team members should evaluate the edits in question and if they “improve the database” then they should vote yes on the edits, improve the edits to remove the objections or even approve the edits outright if they are auto-editors. Use your best judgement, of course!

The basic idea behind Team Respect is to make being a disrespectful person no fun and frustrating. At the same time Team Respect can raise positive feelings in the community by working together and protecting the work for polite, respectful people. And the polite, respectful people whose work was protected will be more inclined to contribute in the future.

5 thoughts on “Poisonous people”

  1. This is reasonable in general, and I for one am happy to try to remind people about the whole being respectful thing. But it does require some actual consequences if consistently ignored, or people will probably just get tired of repeating the same thing faster than the other side will get tired of reading it… We’ve already tried to link things like the “Don’t vote No” post in the past and people just keep doing their thing since it’s so easy to ignore.

  2. The concept of “actual consequences” really rubs me wrong. 😦

    First, thinking in terms of “consequences” is a lagging concept. It indicates that the community is broken and implies that it cannot be fixed, unless you dole out “consequences”. MusicBrainz has existed many years without stated consequences, because in general consequences don’t really work to deter people’s negative behaviour.

    Second, instead of thinking in terms of consequences, we should find social means of counter-acting bad behaviour, which really was the point of my blog post in the first place. What sorts of tools can we find that don’t use the concept of consequences? How can we effectively counter-act an poisonous person? Team Respect, aims to do just that — what other social constructs can we come up with?

    Third, I am open for preventing editors who have too many unresponded emails be limited to make more edits. I don’t think of this as a consequence or punishment, but a limitation on someone’s ability to do more harm. How should we do this? This one is very tricky!

  3. This could be accomplished with the new in-site messaging system. Maybe have the ability to tag messages e.g. as “feedback” and require the user to read/respond to messages with certain tags.

  4. I can’t stand don’t like to use the term “poisonous people”. (I’m complaining about questioning the chapter that ruaok links to, not the post itself.)

    Yes, that chapter does clarify later,

    “It’s naïve to think of individuals as purely good or bad; it’s more constructive and practical to identify and reprimand the intolerable behaviors”

    But they’ve buried (what should be) the lede. That should be the first and second sentence in the chapter, it should be repeated ten times in the body, and once more at the end. And it still wouldn’t be enough.

    We already have a strong cognitive bias towards labeling people instead of identifying specific behaviors and contexts. The last thing I want to do is reinforce that bias with a “simplifying piece of rhetoric” like “poisonous people”.

    “Wiping the slate clean” sounds good great.

    edit: tweaked some formatting, added a link, struck a few phrases to decrease the negative vibe. (sorry for the negative vibe!)

  5. I toed the line with this label. I won’t bother with specifics (and I’m not using anything identifying for that same reason) but it wasn’t until late last year that another editor took the time to open a dialogue with me about my behavior (which, to be clear, wasn’t negative 100% of the time). He has my thanks for that, whether he knows it or not. I feel as though some of my own incidents could have been avoided if someone like him had taken the time to open a discussion like he did (even if it was in the notes of an edit at the time) at an earlier time. Hopefully those similar to myself, who necessarily aren’t being deliberate about their behavior but are drifting toward it gradually through specific circumstances, will benefit from people volunteering to work toward resolving any issues that might have contributed to them wanting to act in such a fashion.

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