Documentation | How to cope with meltdowns in communities (John Coate)

Imported from the hackpad: Dropbox Paper. Thanks to Walter Van Holst, Costantino Bongiorno, Noemi Salantiu for contributing to note taking.

Speaker’s notes in full here:

Photo credit: @communalspoon

I started living collectively since I was a teen. I lived with eight other people in a bus. We travelled the United States for a while, then we settled down in Tennessee, and started a commune that still exists in the form of a cooperative. So we lived with the people we worked with; and at the beginning we did not really know each other. The bus context shaped our interaction: whatever we did, even a simple thing like having a meal, we simply would have to sit in a circle. It got very intense.  Had to talk to the others directly about problems.

We were hippies, and this was wartime in the US with the Vietnam war. The police did not like us and did not want us around. We needed to be a real community, because the context pressed us into being one. And we did: we had problems, but we stayed with it.

After this tour, we did not want to go back to our old lives, so we bought 1000 acres of land (later another 700) in Tennessee, where land was cheap (70,000 USD). So we had land, we started with a load of buses parked up.  We had a spring with some freshwater, but we had to build our whole infrastructure. If you wanted to take a shower, you needed to find a spring, cap it, install a pump, erect a tower, build a bathtub etc. It was challenging, but we did it. Eventually we had 6-700 people; you did not know everyone anymore. We founded an organisation called Plenty International, that did “good” locally and also internationally (disaster relief in Guatemala). For example, we squatted a building in New York City and founded a free ambulance service. Then we moved to Washington D.C. and founded the first bilingual free clinic. Even recently some of our people were involved in helping out in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina.

What that gave me is the idea that it is actually possible to build a collective. It’s difficult, but you can build deep trust relationships with people who start out as total strangers to each other.

We made mistakes, we were too leader-oriented; we had too many rules that became a sort of dogma. When we were growing older, we fired our guru. We changed from being a collective to being a cooperative.

That was when John left.

The counterculture was a crucial element in the founding of the personal computer. So I moved back to California and started working at the WELL (The WELL - Wikipedia), the first real online community, pre-Internet, started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. The WELL sold computer network access to people mostly in the SF Bay area. And I realised that the power of relationships carried over to online relationships.  Did everything I could to strengthen relationships. The WELL was not in the computer business, it was in the relationships business.

Community is one of these words that have forty meanings to it. User-centered social behaviour. Communities as bundles of relationships. Or even better, an ecology of relationships. Community is when the people declare it for themselves, not when someone else says they have something in common.  What I have learned about is that it takes time: don’t do it if you don’t have the time to allocate to it.

Coping with meltdown:

  • Decide that YOU won't meltdown ahead of time. "Have a big fuse", don't lose it, even when everybody else does. People would write to me and say "I can't stand this, I can't take it." And I would reply "It's all right, hang in there. Stay with it. It's worth it, you'll see."
  • Design the community's ground rules. Is there going to be moderation? Enforced by whom, how?  hierarchy, consensus, consensus -1, do-ocracy. 
  • Use decent software - better the tools fewer the rules.  Think about saving time.  sharing links, able to ignore people is very useful, placeholders (get back to where you were), jump from private interaction to public. Simplicity makes things great. Think about how you go from public to private conversation and vice versa. In my opinion there is no service out there that is "perfect": some are too simple and inadequate, some are very powerful but difficult to figure out.
  • The nature of human attention- people get addicted to it.  Some people say stuff just to get attention.  Bigger community grows more less socialised people will want to join. 
  • Attention makes things grow (less makes it shrink) last word syndrome.
  • Beware "last word syndrome". It's not a big deal if the other guy has it,
  • Don't use ad hominems – do not do rhetoric on your brethren (
  • The hardest things to do are the easiest to say, for example "world peace" 
  • Affirmation, finding something good in a person
  • Being positive is risky, it takes guts. I'm willing to get burnt by someone because I'm open by default.
  • Conflict  easy to get in difficult to get out  especially online. Dont seek it or avoid it (can cause resentment avoiding)
  • Conflict can strengthen bonds. When you solve a conflict and move on, the next time you have one you will know you can get over it, it's not so threatening. 
  • Separate emotion from information. Sometimes let the emotion slide and concentrate on information.
  • Oversupply understanding. Some people are better than others at choosing their words.  People have different emotional states at different times, for different reasons and this effects interactions
  • Even if you do all that, sometimes things do get weird. When that happens, my advice is too slow down, look before you leap.  Take attention away from trolls.  Sometimes you'll have to take action and kick the troll out. Booting people out can be very  difficult / complicated.   Sometimes they come back and integrate  sometimes for revenge. It's easy to get too hang up on democracy, and the free speech argument is often used to support trolls. Bongbong blog - Wouldnt boot people would just use disenvowelment (strip vowels from their posts.)

Where do you draw the lines? The law of two feet

The farm did have cult like elements, but you could always leave.

“Never mistake a clear vision for a short path” -Paul Saffo

Tweeted from the session…

John Coate making us realize we were born 30 years late #LOTE5 @Edgeryders @communalspoon — Antiheroes SI (@SIAntiheroesFebruary 26, 2016

"We made mistakes, we were too leader-oriented. Eventually, we fired our guru. " @johncoate at #LOTE5— Alberto Cottica (@alberto_cotticaFebruary 26, 2016

RT @zoescope: “it was hackers and hippies who got the idea of ‘personal computers’ not big companies” #coate #TheWELL #LOTE5 #community — Dazinism (@DazinismFebruary 26, 2016

Beware of the Last Word Syndrom. Life advice from @johncoate #LOTE5 — Antiheroes SI (@SIAntiheroesFebruary 26, 2016

“The more control users have over the tools they use, the fewer rules you need.” – John Coate #lote5 — Meredith L Patterson (@maradyddFebruary 26, 2016