Beehaw is a community

From the early stages of conceptualization of what we wanted to do differently, up through the feedback we’ve been getting as Beehaw has been growing, there’s been a consistent narrative and push back from certain individuals about how we’ve decided to run things here. To be clear, these are the individuals whom are either on the fence, those who are not enthusiastic about our mission and voice it elsewhere, and to a lesser extent comprise of some of the individuals we have since banned from our platform. The narrative typically takes the side of ‘open/free speech’ is tantamount and that any suppression of said speech is unwelcome (typically said in a much more hostile way). As I’ve experienced this push back, I’ve slowly gathered my thoughts and realized what I believe is a fundamental disconnect between those who have earnestly and openly adopted our platform and those who fight against it.

Beehaw is a community. Communities are organic. As a community grows and shrinks, everything about the community fundamentally changes. Most online social spaces don’t operate as communities on the same level that communities do offline. When communities are run in a way that the members of the community do not like, the community often splinters, or leaders are ousted. Websites tend to have much stronger incentives to stay on a platform and leaders (platforms) are much more resistant to this kind of natural control by the members of the platform (you can’t exactly overthrow Facebook). However, communities still need to have some kind of rules, and because the size of a community is much more amorphous online (in general also much larger), the default state we’re used to online is one of semi-authoritarianism with explicit rules.

If you’ve ever spent some time deeply involved in an offline community, especially if you’ve done so as an organizer or otherwise involved in the management or running of a community, you’re probably at least somewhat aware of the kinds of discussions that communities regularly need, in order to keep them running. Communities are not perfectly homogeneous, and many communities value diversity. However, get enough humans together and there will always be disconnects of values, boundaries, wants, and needs. Navigating these disconnects can be as simple as ensuring that two people don’t sit near each other at an event or as difficult as engaging the majority of the community in a discussion about what kinds of behavior are acceptable and what aren’t. Discussions happen at all kinds of different levels and involve different groups of people to reflect where the disconnect happened and involve the parties necessary to resolve the disconnect as well as to manage the emotions, needs, wants, values, or boundaries of people who were hurt when this disconnect happened.

If you’re not familiar with running communities, you’re probably at least aware of this from simply living with other humans. It’s rare that two people both desire everything the same- disconnects over how clean a house should be, where to place objects such as kitchen utensils, how to interact with or ask for permission to use objects owned by another person or that are for shared use, and other such disconnects are commonly discussed when cohabitating with another human. These discussions can be as simple as asking your housemate to clean their dishes within a day of using them to allow for the space you like in a kitchen when cooking or may be as complicated as months or years of discussions, debates, or fights and can cause a serious strain on the relationships between the involved parties. Many children are often ecstatic to move away from their parents because they’ve been strained by these kinds of disconnects and the often inadequate resolution of conflict.

While there are some limitations with regards to governance and some design considerations on the kind of community we would like to grow here, ultimately Beehaw is a community and at the core of that community is the desire for a stronger community experience. One thing that offline communities do a much better job at, is navigating these discussions. Online communities often operate at a scale which being cold is the only feasible way to operate a platform, and thus explicit rules enhance the ability to scale moderation and enforce behavior. Unfortunately, this kind of framework results in pushing out minority individuals, reinforcing an echo chamber and in some cases promoting some very not nice behavior. Our goal is to create a platform in which nice people will want to stick around so that the experience is less toxic than other websites and because of such it needs to resemble an offline community - the rules must be more open to interpretation and the way the rules are interpreted needs to be a community effort.

Which brings me to the reason I’m writing this post in the first place - many free speech advocates and others who’ve pushed against the lax rules have offered suggestions of making the rules more explicit, of weakening the need for community discussions. Many individuals who’ve participated on this website and received bans have explicitly resisted having a discussion about whether their behavior was acceptable or not. These are both incompatible with the vision of this website. We want this to be a community - this means that discussions about behavior should organically arise. When someone violates a rule they aren’t banned immediately, but rather reminded that they need to behave appropriately. In the offline world, this might resemble a friend asking you about how you treated their friend, a pastor pulling you aside and talking to you about how you’ve seemed on edge lately, or security asking you not to vape inside their establishment. What this resembles depends on the severity of the behavior, who’s around to witness the behavior, how others react to and respond to said behavior, and a variety of other factors. The more severe the behavior, the more severe the reaction. Extreme measures are reserved for the most heinous of actions and the analogous behavior online (preemptive banning from our platform, de-federation, etc.) is treated with the hesitancy and respect it deserves. Someone being banned from an establishment they’ve never attended doesn’t happen out of the ether - it happens because people in the community express this wish and it involves a serious enough crime for it to be justified (such as a history of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or other heinous acts).

If you’re worried about how our rules are explicitly open to interpretation, that’s on purpose and I hope the text above helps to clarify the vision that I have (and others of the community share) around how I’d like to see this community evolve and what we’d like to think we’re doing differently on this website. I’m not banning people for no reason or simply because they don’t agree with me. I want people to disagree with me. I want diverse opinions in here. But I also need this place to be nice and members of the community need to be willing to hold each other accountable in creating that kind of space. Of note, I’ve never banned a single person without openly discussing what happened with other individuals who participate in this community and asking for their input. I can’t promise this will always be the case, but I can promise that I’ll be open to having a discussion with any community member who feels that something unjust happened with another user or to themselves.

@Gaywallet
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If this post resonated with you at all or you have been enjoying this community, we could really use your donation. We’ve only got a few months left in the bank to keep running this website. If you have a few dollars to spare, please donate. If you have any questions about what the money is going towards, the linked opencollective page has more information and transparency and myself or @admin@beehaw.org would be happy to answer any questions you might have.

@hfkldjbuq
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Rules can only do so much as it was written down. They incentive burocracy.

The narrative typically takes the side of ‘open/free speech’ is tantamount and that any suppression of said speech is unwelcome (typically said in a much more hostile way).

I’m not too sure about US in specific, but there are democratic countries’ law where free speech is not an absolute guaranteed right; it cannot go against other laws, human dignity, …

@Gaywallet
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Even in the United States, thinking it is above reproach is ignorant of existing law. It may be enshrined in the constitution as the first amendment, but speech absolutely is limited by law in certain situations.

@hfkldjbuq
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Exactly. people who try to argue for some views using free speech as basis they might be either ignorant or have bad faith.

GadgeteerZA
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Yes, my country has “freedom of speech” but it is not absolute. It is criminal to shout “bomb” in a crowded place like a theatre or at an airport, as it is also for being racist, sexist, ageism, etc. So what is being discussed is more about partial freedoms which imply some lines being drawn. Some lines are criminal boundaries and others are societal.

This is a community with it’s rules and we can choose to be here, or we can join a different instance with different rules that suite us (that is our freedom of choice), or even start our own instance if we wish with our own rules. Certainly, on some other instances with greater “freedom” of speech, there has been a lot of unhappiness (not everyone liked that freedom), and many left those instances, because they felt abused.

The whole point of the Fediverse and decentralisation is NOT to be the same everywhere. We have different likes and dislikes and even interests, so pick an instance that is closest to your values and go with it. There is no need to stay where you don’t feel a reasonable fit with your own values.

Here is a blog post that I know really influenced my feelings about moderation and rules in online communities, and came up a lot in discussions of what we wanted Beehaw to be. I think we all really just want Beehaw to be a place where nice people want to stay…

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