There's an excellent article available on the Intarwebs (fount of all knowledge and wisdom, except for Wikipedia, which is right about a third of the time) called A Group is its own Worst Enemy, by a wise and learned gentleman named Clay Shirky. Go ahead and read it now, because I'm going to be pulling a couple of things from it to illustrate why internet, e-mail, and list dynamics can be astoundingly harmful to the well-being of the members of the SCA, and how circumventing this cycle reduces the amount of Drama Llama poop being flung about at any given moment.
Go ahead, read it. I'll wait. It's an excellent article. It's about much more than my little idea today.
The one quote that sticks out in my head like a beacon is:
...even if someone isn't really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.
How often do you see this happen on a list? Someone is identified as the "bad guy", and suddenly everyone is either for or against the group. All rational discussion has ended; there is no grey area. The group now has no hope of reaching a reasonable compromise, and everyone goes down in flames. The "enemy" is often innocent of anything but disagreeing with the leaders of the group, but you would think they'd been eating babies judging from the level of outrage and vitriol directed their way. In the worst cases, the group members will pursue the "bad guy" to other groups and try to discredit them there as well.
This is an unhealthy way to run any group, but it often happens. Before the Internets, this kind of character assassination happened slowly through gossip and rumour; now, it can happen in the time it takes to hit "send". To use the wonder of group communication to ravage other people with whom the group disagrees seems to be more popular than using that same medium to bring a group together and achieve things. As Shirky points out with his example of Linux users given the choice between coding or bitching about Microsoft, bitching wins every time.
Awareness of this dynamic can help to alleviate the effects and get a group thinking about accomplishments rather than bitching, but it takes more than one person to do so effectively. Every person who refuses to get involved in a flame war needs to put forward their wish to get going on positive projects; only then are the flamers embarrassed by the peer pressure of the group into behaving. Unfortunately, if only one person tries to speak up for reason, they are likely to be villified by the group and lumped in with the "enemy"; it needs to be - natch - a group effort. The problem becomes most acute when the voices of reason refuse to speak up; without vocal refusal to play along, the loudest voice on the list dominates, and new members cannot see that this is not acceptable behaviour.
At this moment, it is acceptable behaviour on some lists; this is unhealthy. Save it for the snark lists if you absolutely have to bitch.
Our big problem in SCA internet interactions is that we have no rules, and a lot of the time, no moderator. Shirky points out that without structure, the group destroys itself.
Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns [sex talk, bitching, demanding absolute loyalty to only one way of thinking - ed.]. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.
Why don't we take a stronger hand in dealing with negative people? I put a large amount of the blame on the misunderstanding of what the "right to free speech" actually entails. Everyone who has bleated about their right to say whatever they want in any forum needs to go back and look up their constitutional rights. Hell, I don't even come from this country and I know what they are better than most people. You're protected (to some extent) from Government censorship, but the SCA can put any rules on your speech that it likes.
In the SCA, you have no right to free speech. Those who think they can say what they want abuse the indulgence of people who believe wholeheartedly that "no-one's feelings must get hurt".
And that idea, my friends, is quite frankly a steaming pile of bullshit. Shirky's detailing of the history of Communitree in the 1970s is an excellent example of why it's a good thing to tell people to knock it the fuck off when they start being idiots. Pretending that people are noble, good, and will never abuse the conventions of the group is naivete of the highest order, and will get you fucked up the ass every time (using terms any less graphic fails to convey the end result of allowing people free reign to indulge their neuroses).
Someone who holds sway over a group simply because no-one wants to hurt their feelings by telling them to shut the fuck up is hurting far more people than their precious feelings are worth. I see time and time again that the people who scream the loudest about their "rights" on SCA groups are the least likely to give a damn about the rights of others. Who is hurting who? And why are they being allowed to get away with it?
Because we let them. We have fallen sway to the tyranny of the loud. It's a useful phrase to remember. Those who whine the loudest get the most attention in the SCA, and they know it. Forget the good people who don't make waves, who follow the rules, learn to interact with grace and politesse, it's the assholes, the whiners, and the tantrum-throwers that get catered to as if they hold the keys to the city. And I'm tired of it. I'm tired of people thinking it's perfectly okay to trash people and say things they would never dare to say face to face, and I'm tired of the absolute refusal of the group to come down and say "this is not acceptable behaviour" (edit: even worse, in the current atmosphere of "no-one gets hurt!" the person who says "unacceptable!" will be vilified for speaking up, therefore proving that it is perfectly fine with everyone for the "enemies" of the group to be hurt). I want those people to be told "put up or shut up". I want the people who haven't been assholes to get most of my time and effort, because they deserve it, not the screaming babies who refuse to play by the rules but also refuse to leave and find something more suited to their oh-so-delicate sensibilites. Instead, we let them upset groups and drive away the people who might be really good for the group.
This method is a losing proposition for everyone but the loudmouth, who gets tons of attention, all sorts of indulgences, and a group of higher-ups all standing around wringing their hands and saying "they're unhappy! It must be our fault!". They will never be satisfied. Sit them down, shut them up, and tell them that if they hate the status quo so much, they should book for greener pastures. Then use all that spare time you suddenly have for nurturing people who really do enjoy what the SCA has to offer.
When we allow the group to exist without any imposed rules or structure, Shirky says, we end up with a mess. Not because anyone actively wants to destroy the group, but because without structure, people's baser natures come out, people behave badly because they can, and no-one's going to say anything, let alone punish them for being assholes. This spills over into real life behaviour for the SCA, but the RL shenanigans are nothing compared to what can happen on a list. Flames, ahoy.
(I had the oddest experience once of someone who simply trashed me and my friends on an SCA list come bouncing up to me at an event like we were best friends, and what was said on line didn't count. I extricated myself as politely and quickly as I was capable of at the time. On-line interaction has an effect, and anyone who says otherwise is being naive.)
There are so many positive things that go with increased web communication - look at the SCA community on LiveJournal - people who have never met IRL can visit with each other, catch up on each others' lives, gain new perspectives on things, and seek feedback on any number of things. But drama rears its ugly head even here - fortunately, we have some control with filters and friend's lists, and locked posts to control part of it, but there will always be the passive aggressive types that leave scathing entries unlocked, just like we always get people who post letters to lists that should never have been sent.
By the way, I thank all of you, my readers, for keeping this journal relatively drama-free. It probably helps that I don't care or mind if I'm unfriended, and I think flouncing is childish. What you do comes back to you, I believe, and one should always treat others in the way one expects to be treated. Fight against the negative dynamic, and don't feed into the drama. Say what's right, say what should be said, and don't flame. Respect differing opinions, and state yours respectfully. Stick to your guns and call people out (politely) for negative behaviour. To paraphrase Gandhi, be the change you want to see on-line. The more of us that speak out, the better the SCA on-line community will thrive.
We communicate faster, better, and more comprehensively than we ever have before, but I think that we need to start thinking beyond "don't hurt anyone's feelings" for guidelines on SCA online communication. I think it's time.
(Quoted passages from A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy: A speech at ETech, April, 2003, by Clay Shirky. All rights reserved; if you choose to link or copy this post, please include a link back to the original article at http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html)