A Community is a Reflection of its Leaders


I've been in charge of a certain community for a very long time. Before my actual tech career started, even. Back when doing websites was just a hobby I didn't want to ruin by getting money involved.

I was put in charge of this community after only a few hours of effort: I wanted to learn something, I saw that a community didn't exist for this topic in some prime community real estate, and so I created one. Instantly, I was the leader of a community. Within weeks, people started pouring in.

The funny thing about being in charge of a community is that it doesn't require merit or community-building skills. Being in charge of a community merely requires that one have authority: The ability to decide who is part of the community and who is not. Because I founded the community, I had the authority.

My apparent goal was to build a community. My actions conflicted wildly with that goal. I built a community that reflected my beliefs, misguided and deluded as they were. But, I built it, and they did come. I ran my community as I thought one was supposed to. I treated people as I thought they were supposed to be treated, as I expected to be treated in other, similar communities.

I called myself a community leader. Put it on my resume and everything. I had no leadership skills, but I convinced myself that because people were still there, because they had not created their own space to be rid of me, that I was doing things correctly.

Like all authority, I had my delegates. And like me, they were not picked for skills in leadership. I told myself I picked them because their contributions were more valuable. I felt that they earned the privilege to exercise authority. They had merit, and what nobler design than to be rewarded for one's merit? But, really, I gave them access to my authority because I noticed them, because they stood out to me, and because they were like me.

Eventually, real life got in the way, and I disappeared for a while. My delegates went on. The community went on. The abuse of power went on. The machine ground on, exactly as I had built it to. I still held the keys, so the machine couldn't fix itself. But, it was made in my image, so the machine wouldn't fix itself if it could.

When I came back, I told myself I wasn't going to be the same asshole I used to be. That I would try to escape from doing all the far-too-common "genius asshole" tropes that pervade tech communities and try to help foster a more welcoming, inclusive community.

But, I kept my trust in my delegates. I felt it wasn't my place to second-guess other authorities. After all, didn't we all have the common goal of making a better community? Worse, my criteria for the selection of those delegates was the same. So, despite my personal growth, the community continued much as it had before.

I rationalized it to myself: These people embued with power had contributed in major ways to the community, and if I wanted them to keep contributing, I had to reward them with authority. The ability to remove people from the community was the reward I gave out for contributing to the community.

Months and years went by. The abuse continued. The community thrived in spite of it. That's the funny thing about topical communities: If you're a popular place to get help on a topic, if you're recommended by books and bloggers, if you're in within easy access of hundreds of other, similar communities, you can get away with quite a lot of toxicity and vitriol and still have a flowing river of users, though those users may be of limited variety...

Slowly, I started trying to deal with the problem. As I had feared, the community lost the contributions of those I deauthorized. It turns out, though, that their contributions were not worth the trouble they caused. Toxic members of communities can slowly trickle out poison. Toxic authority is a factory of venom that attracts more toxic people.

Their extraction was painful, but others were more than willing to fill in the gaps they left. All they needed was an opportunity in the vaccuum left by the removal of the bad apples.

Now, the community has a good set of leaders. It continues without the toxic authority that I had actively created, and then passively enabled. I can't honestly say it was an earth-shattering change: The users still come and go. Though, I hope now with more valuable contributors being encouraged to help, and more users being encouraged to learn and grow.

I still have the authority. But now I also have the responsibility. Nobody gave me either of them. I took the authority, and spent a lot of time learning the responsibility. Nobody could stop me, and nobody could do it for me.

To have absolute influence over a technical community, I didn't have to take a test. I didn't need to demonstrate leadership skills. I didn't even have to actually care about the community as a whole much of the time. All of which are why volunteer technical communities can be hostile, unwelcoming places.

1: #css on freenode, though that is not important to the story.