Family Matters: How Geek Communities Turn Dysfunctional

“My people!”

If you’ve ever followed Twitter as your friends walked into a conference or convention, you’ve seen this. Someone sees a fellow cosplayer, a T–shirt from their favorite obscure fandom, 201–level discussions of issues that are ignored in mass media, or even the simple lack of the background nonsense they deal with everywhere else, and they are home. They’ve found their people.

“Our baby!”

A software startup, a magazine, a political campaign, an event, or an organization—there is nothing quite like seeing all your hard work and sacrifice build something new. Creation is a heady thing that only becomes more intoxicating when shared. When you create together, you don’t have to wait for the final product to exult. You can celebrate each accomplishment, each step of realized potential, as your baby comes to be.

In these family–like, affinity–based, collaborative creative spaces, we often use the language of family. We take our lonely pursuits and turn them into opportunities to connect. We use the world’s indifference and hostility to spur the building of spaces where we belong. We create bonds that can, in the best of times, give us what family gives.

Unfortunately, many of the problems of these spaces are the problems of family as well. We pressure each other to conform to the way “we” do things, whether our traditions are helpful or harmful. People play favorites, both in relatively harmless and grossly toxic ways. Abuse is perpetrated, both among peers and across inequities of position and resources. We protect the family as a unit over the individuals who make it what it is.

Most of all, we have deep emotional investments that make addressing these problems more complicated.

There’s no Dear Abby for affinity and creative groups, and that’s a pity. We could use the perspective of a trusted total stranger on our problems. Call her Dear Affie.

Dear Affie: People are talking all over the internet about bad things that have happened in my group, but none of them talk to me about it. How can I do anything if they don’t talk to me? Are they trying to destroy me? –Out of the Loop

Dear Loop: There are lots of organizers/leaders in your position all over the web. Some of them do have enemies, so I can’t say whether these people really are out to get you. However, odds are that they’re not.

So many people have had so many headaches reporting problems that there’s very little trust in organizers right now. Instead of reporting and risking being ignored or otherwise side–lined, many people who’ve had problems are speaking out publicly, trying to make it obvious that they’re not alone and to make change at a cultural level rather than one resistant group at a time.

Is that fair to you? Again, I can’t say. I don’t know how you (or the other people in your organization) have handled previous complaints.

Still, you can take action. Make sure you’re ready with good procedures when someone does bring you a problem, so you don’t become a bad example. Talk to other organizers who’ve been praised for handling complaints well and find out what they’ve done. Make it easy for people to find your principles and your procedures.

If you trust your process, ask the people complaining to contact you directly. Remember, though, that they’re doing you a favor. They’re under no obligation to you, especially after they’ve had a bad experience. Remember too, that if they trusted you completely, they’d have already talked to you. Finally, don’t take this step unless you’re comfortable with your follow–through. People who complain now will complain more if you fail them.

Use this opportunity to make things better, and the world will notice. Best of luck to you!

Dear Affie: I am done! After everything I invested in my group, all the hours I put in, all the bumps I’ve smoothed over, all the content I’ve created, they’ve made it entirely clear to me that I’m a second–class citizen and always will be to them. The “needs of the many” (read: “unearned self–esteem and protected ignorant biases”) will always outweigh even basic consideration of the needs of us “few” (though we’re so few only because they keep bleeding us out). There is nothing good left, nothing worth saving. I’m out. No advice needed. I’m just writing to tell you because I know they won’t listen. —Burned and Burnt Out

Dear Burned: Ouch. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot. You’ve got my sympathy. Take some you–time, and best of luck to you wherever you land.

I have just one quibble. Unless you’re talking about a very small group, you probably weren’t the only one fighting. (If you were, hats off to you!) The work other people have put in—the work you put in that they’re carrying on—is worth saving.

That doesn’t mean you have to do the work to save it. You’ve done what you can do. You’re more than entitled to take care of yourself and move on.

Just don’t tell the people who still want to fight that their fight is useless. Everybody gets to pick their project, that broken thing they’re willing to invest in fixing while they have the energy. That’s how change gets made. That’s how you’ve made change, even if you can’t see it from where you sit.

So thank you for what you’ve done, and may your work be better rewarded from here on out.

Dear Affie: Why do these people have to be so demanding and divisive? Why won’t they just shut up and let us enjoy our group already? —Anti–Drama

Dear Anti–Drama: Who is “us?” Who are “these people?” And who owns “our group?”

I understand being upset by people fighting. That’s entirely natural. Downright civilized, in fact. However, it’s impossible for one side to fight on its own. If people were given what they demanded, there would be no fight. And usually, in these circumstances, what people are demanding is an equal stake in the group they’re part of.

Your wording says they may have a legitimate dispute. You’re defining the group as yours and not theirs. That wording also tells me, if group ownership is the issue at hand, that you’re not a neutral party in this dispute. You’ve taken a side.

If that’s the case, step up and own that position. Don’t tell me “these people” are being divisive. Go ahead and tell me that you don’t believe “these people” have a stake in “your group.” It’s more honest.

But if that’s not your position once you stop to think about this? If you really do believe that your group should welcome all sorts of people? Then it’s time to stop laying the blame for divisiveness all on the side of the people being demanding. Take the time to examine their demands, understand why they’re making them, understand the opposition to them, and make your own support or opposition based on your best understanding of how reasonable they are.

If you don’t have the time or energy to invest in that, then stay truly out of the fight. Taking a side is a risky thing when you don’t understand them both.

Having indulged that fantasy, I now want Dear Affie to exist. I need that outside perspective as much as anyone. I want access to that broad understanding of how the dynamics of these fights play out, uncomplicated by anyone’s position in the fray. I want an arbiter, a counselor who isn’t an invested party in disguise.

Having been in the middle of fights like these, I want—more than anything else some days—for someone else to step in and be a god damned grownup so I don’t have to be.

Fighting with your family is hard. It doesn’t get any easier when it’s your chosen family. It can be worse. Economic independence, though it’s becoming harder to achieve, and weakening cultural imperatives toward the primacy of family mean that, if we need to, we can leave the families to which we belong by an accident of birth or marriage behind. Legal families are small, and there’s a whole world out there from which we can build families of choice.

Our affinity groups and collaborative communities are larger. Leaving them behind may mean abandoning hobbies, careers, political leverage, or the opportunity to talk to anyone who uses the same vocabulary we do. People sometimes establish the bulk of their personal relationships within a single one of these “families.” Walking away can get very tough indeed.

Staying and working for change isn’t much easier. We have few good models for setting boundaries with our families or for respecting the limits our family members set. We’re encouraged to define our emotional closeness by our lack of boundaries, no matter how toxic this can be. Our family members can leverage the concept of “family” to demand we fulfill obligations we would refuse to recognize from anyone else.

These dynamics can carry over to our family–like groups. The ideals around which we organize aren’t “family,” but we still go above and beyond in their name. We organize or educate or entertain. We invite strangers into our social spaces or encroach on theirs with our message. We overcome our reluctance to asking people for money. We pour our time into projects in amounts that are, ultimately, unsustainable and can distance us from our more traditional families.

Working “for the love” this way makes it harder to maintain perspective. We’re too invested, and our perceptions reflect that. People who point out problems are attacking us. People who fail us are betraying us. People who are up to their ears in their own problems are dismissing us. There is too much at stake to calmly set limits and trust we will be heard.

We resist the idea that bad things could happen among us. We have trouble believing that our friends, the people with whom we have so much else in common, the people who contribute so much else to our communities, our “family,” could do terrible things to one another. How can our families, these groups with which we identify, contain all the problems of the rest of the world?

We resist setting rules, some of us because we rely on the lack of rules to get what we want, but more of us because when we walked into these spaces, we felt we understood the rules. These places felt easy, at least compared to the rest of the world. They made us feel at home. Rules, or the people who enforce them, might tell us we don’t belong here either.

It makes changing anything all sound so impossible, doesn’t it? Yet things still change. They change even in these “families.” We just have to figure out how.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have tried to learn from the strife in these communities, both my own and others facing similar problems. I also have the admitted advantage of having a less–than–idealized view of family to start from. And I recognize that there are lessons we can learn from how healthy families operate—and how they don’t.

Healthy families work for the benefit of all their members. The members of healthy families share responsibilities and benefits. They all listen to each other, not just the younger generations listening to the elder. They make time for activities that everyone can enjoy.

Healthy families allow people to make mistakes but don’t shield them from the reasonable consequences of those mistakes. They treat adult abusers as solely responsible for abuse and act to protect the rest of the family from further abuse. They don’t require people to bury their feelings for the sake of group harmony. And perhaps most importantly, healthy families recognize when the problems they face are beyond their skills or perspective and seek the expert help they need.

If we’re going to treat our affinity spaces like surrogate family, it’s about time we learn those lessons. They’re not easy, but they have the potential to make all our lives much, much easier.

Now, who’s up for a Dear Affie column?

Stephanie Zvan

Stephanie Zvan is a Minneapolis–based writer and activist. She is part of a mysterious feminist cabal that openly tells anyone who listens that they’re here to make their communities more open and welcoming to everyone who’s willing to share. She’s been published from CarnalNation to the Ada Initiative’s blog to Nature Futures. When she’s at home, you can find her at Almost Diamonds on The Orbit.

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