Creating just online social spaces

Aria Stewart is a programmer living in Boston working on open source, Unschooler, former owner of an Internet service provider in Colorado, a hiker, lover of science fiction, and studies networks (both social and computer) online interaction and social structures as a matter of habit.

The last two months have seen two Slack chats start to support marginalized groups in the technology field, LGBTQ* Technology and Women in Technology, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about how to run the spaces effectively, not just being a place for those who it says on the tin, but to support, encourage and not be terrible to people who are marginalized in other ways than the one the particular group is trying to represent.

This is a sort of how-to guide for creating a social Slack that is inclusive and just, and a lot of of this will apply to other styles and mediums for interaction.

The problem begins thus: How do you keep a Slack started by a white gay cisgender man from reflecting only that as a core group? How do you keep a women in technology chat from being run entirely by white women of (relative) affluence afforded by tech industry positions, leaving women of color, trans women, people with disabilities out in the cold?

Making just social spaces is not a one time structural setup, though things like a good Code of Conduct is an important starting place, and there are difficult balances to strike.

Make sure there is sufficient representation. Social spaces grow from their seed members, and as it’s been studied, people’s social networks tend to be racially and genderwise insular; White members beget more white members; men bring more men, especially in technology as we’ve found. If a space is insufficiently representative of the diversity of experiences that should be there, people will leave, having seen yet another space that isn’t “for” them. So, too, power structures reflect the initial or core body of a social group, and a social group will tend to reflect the demographics of those in positions of power, creating a feedback cycle that will be hard to break without a lot of effort. Seed your network as broadly as you can, and put people without homogenous backgrounds in power.

Empower a broad group. A few admins can’t guide and create the shape of the space alone, so empower users to make positive change themselves.

Plan for timezones. If your chat starts off with US users, you will find that they will dominate the space during US waking hours. You may find an off-peak group in Europe, with an almost entirely separate culture. Bridging the gap with admins in other timezones to help consistently guide the shape of the group can be helpful.

Your users will have reactions to media posted. In particular, seizure disorders can be triggered by flashing animated GIFs. Building an awareness into your social space early can help make sure these are not posted or restricted to certain channels. Likewise, explicit imagery, upsetting news and articles can be marked or restricted, even without banning it entirely.

Plan for how to resolve conflicts. While outright malicious violation of a Code of Conduct can be solved by ejecting members, most cases of conflict are more nebulous, or not so extreme nor malicious that a first offense should involve removal from the space. Slack in particular has let the LGBTQ* Tech group practice a group form of conflict resolution. We created a #couldhavegonebetter channel. When a conversation strays off the rails, into vindictive, oppressive by a member of a relatively privileged group, or evangelizing views that make others uncomfortable, a strategy that has worked well is to end the conversation with “That #couldhavegonebetter”, force-invite the users involved into the channel, and start with a careful breakdown of how the discussion turned problematic. This gives a place to discuss that isn’t occupying the main space; those who care about conflict resolution can join the channel. It’s not super private, but it’s equivalent of taking someone aside in the hallway at a conference rather than calling them out in front of an auditorium full of their peers. De-escalation works wonderfully.

Keep meta-discussion from dominating all spaces. It’s a human tendency to navel-gaze, doubly so in a social space, where the intent of the members shapes the future of the space. That said, it can dominate discussion quickly, and so letting meta-discussion happen in channels separate from the thing it’s discussing can keep the original purpose of channels intact.

Allow the creation of exclusive spaces. Much of the time, especially socially, marginalized people need a place that isn’t dominated or doesn’t have the group who talks over them most: people of color need to escape white people, trans people need to escape cisgender people, people outside the US need space to be away from American-centric culture and assumptions, and not-men need to be able to have space that is not dominated by men. It has ended up being the least problematic to allow the creation of spaces that are exclusive of the dominant group, just to give breathing room. It feels weird, but like a slack focused on a marginalized group as a whole, sometimes even breaking things down further lets those at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression lighten the load a bit.

A chat system with a systemwide identity has different moderation needs than one that does not. A problem found on IRC is that channels are themselves the unit of social space allocation. There is no related space that is more or less intimate than the main group, and so conversations can’t be taken elsewhere, and channelization balkanizes the user group. With Slack, this is not true. Channels are cheap to create, and conversations can flow between channels thanks to hyperlinks.

Allow people to opt out generally, and in to uncomfortable or demanding situations. A great number of problems can be avoided by making it possible to opt out without major repercussions. Avoid lots of conversation in the must-be-present #general channel, howver it’s been renamed. (#announcements in one place, #meta in another). Default channels, auto-joined by new users should be kept accessible. Work-topical channels should be kept not-explicit, non-violent spaces, so they are broadly accessible. Leave explicit imagery in its own channels, let talk about the ills of the world be avoided. And keep the volume low in places people can’t leave if they’ll be in the Slack during their workday.

Good luck, and happy Slacking!