On one of my favorite online communities, Omidyar.net, I have seen great debates about inclusion in community. There are those who suggest that everyone should be heard and everyone has a right to say whatever they want to say within community. And those very people suggest that if what is said offends anyone, then that sense of being offended says something about that person. Sometimes I wonder if I agree. Perhaps to some degree.
But I think the whole argument stems from a blurring of the line between what a society is and how it should hold itself and what a community is and how it should hold itself. Societies can and I think should be comprised of diverse individuals within broad geographical shared space, functioning as large scale loosely connected citizens working together across differences for common good. Communities, while they can also be diverse in many regards, also are groupings of choice. One may live within a geographical perimeter of a community area, but can choose not to be part of that community. One may live far away from a community and still feel a part of it. It is a grouping of choice. And that makes all the difference.
Communities are collections of individuals (or families) that are tightly woven, usually of relatively smaller scale, bound by some commonality–often of interest or practice.
The practices that makes a society thrive, I suggest, are different from those that make a community thrive. For a community to flourish, we need to have commonly agreed practices. What is acceptable and what is not? And those things need not be, indeed must be, different than those that govern society as a whole. Who is inside the community? Who is outside? That critically determines the safety of the space for community. That determines what conversations can take place inside the boundaries of the community.
When Resource Generation brings together young affluent social justice activists, they create a safe space for conversations that could not happen elsewhere. Those conversations would be more difficult or impossible in a mixed generation community or a mixed wealth community or a community permeated by raging capitalists. And when that safe space opens up, then sharing happens. Sharing in a safe space opens people up to sharing more than their ideas. They share of themselves, forging their identity. They may share their belongings or other resources as well. Sharing follows from trust.
When community members slip into society-defending postures, justifying safe space destroying activities as free speech or other critical freedoms in society, that slippage makes false argument at the cost of community safe space. While we all may deserve the right to free speech, a community deserves to be able to construct norms around what is acceptable and unacceptable within that community. And they deserve to have the power to enforce exclusion. Within the Omidyar.net community, the cry for free speech has allowed any activity that is not completely clear spam to be allowed. And the cost of that free speech has been the safety of the community. Where raging loons rampage against multiple individuals and addressing them in words merely feeds the loon or troll with attention, then safe space and conversations of trust disappear.
For online community to evolve toward great collaboration, trolls must be addressed. Wikipedia attempts this in several ways–trolling comments are removed. Content that is contentious is marked as such. Debate over content is available while not marring the output of the site. When we see trollish or spamming behavior in other communities that fail to moderate or govern themselves, navigation of the space gets mired and difficult (Facebook, Tribe).
I look forward to discovering spaces for community online that have self-governing tools, as onet does, and community practices that foster safe spaces for conversation, collaboration, and community identity development. I suspect one way this may be possible currently is through smaller communities focused very selectively on shared interest as can be developed on tools like Ning.
As I said on omidyar.net
Goddess, please grant me an online community with conversation tracking, project management, acknowledgment, knowledge management, and high quality transpartisan collaborators trying to take action toward a better world for all of us!
Yes, and acknowledgment includes one with tools and practices that will help create effective semi-permeable boundaries for community to self-regulate effectively.