Basically, in the last few years we've managed to run a pretty clean ship--people like and help each other, and when they don't, the conflict doesn't burn down the things we've already built or prevent people from coming and building more good things. For the benefit of anybody else in RPGs, in games, or anywhere else, I want to talk about how we got there.
The word is much abused, but it means something. Toxic waste isn't just bad, it's bad in a way that spreads. "Toxic" implies infectious, dangerous to more than just itself and its immediate victim. If your community is big and attractive enough, nothing in the world can stop someone bad from showing up sooner or later, but there are lots of ways to stop their badness from becoming toxic and affecting other people.
One painfully obvious step to avoiding toxicity that nobody ever takes is clearly defining harassment and then applying that definition to everyone equally. No moderators, no arbiters, no excuses, just: make your policy clear. And amend it if you have to.
The most important parts are not that every community defines harassment the same way as every other community (not even all the US states manage to do that) but that:
A) There is a definition
B) Its terms are not ambiguous
C) It applies across the board to everyone in the community--every behavior which matches it is called harassment and no behavior which doesn't is.
I put my suggestions for a definition of harassment in the comments below the blog entry, because they're an aside from the main point.
Kinds of Communities
There are basically four kinds of communities, defined by how they deal with bad actors. One is good, two are bad, one is ok sometimes for some things. We'll start with the ok sometimes one:
1. See No Evil Hear No Evil: No Accusations, No Investigations, No Accountability
This is the kind of community that most businesses aspire to be and that many mainstream game spaces effectively are. The D&D forum Enworld runs like this for the most part, as does (to the chagrin of many), the mainstream comic book industry. Their watchwords are things like leave the war outside, no drama, no politics, "just play games" etc.
The idea here is basically: never talk about anything important--or outside the (strictly-defined) business of the community. The advantage of these communities is they can get a lot of collaboration and work done--they build wikis and make How To vids, they spread technical and reference information, they offer places to discuss the best approaches to practical problems, they allow people to hone their craft regardless of ideology. They work fine so long as everyone involved is a good person though they tend to be kind of dull.
The real disadvantage is that they are completely vulnerable to abusers and can do nothing about them. If a company, for instance, is accused of failing to pay a freelancer or publishing something racist and then the company itself claims they did pay them or they aren't racist then the community basically has no tools to deal with that besides deciding the whole thing is "drama" and ignoring it.
The freelancer who didn't get paid or the community that suffered through a bunch of racism or the company that got unfairly accused of a thing it didn't do is still stuck with a real problem the community didn't address. They get to sit there and watch money go into the pockets of people who are dickheads at best and possibly criminals and there's no way to stop it. Nobody of a remotely activist bent is going to be happy with that and the neutrality of the people who run these spaces in the face of even the most blatant injustice can be repulsively smug. Tone-policing is normal here: suspicion doesn't fall on the side at fault but on the side that talks most about the problem.
Now on to the good kind of community:
2. Good Community: Accusations Lead To Investigation And Accountability
This is not a drama-free zone--both activism and practical work can happen here. People are free to address injustices that go well beyond "They forgot to include a Con stat for the pig-man on page 16".
You can say someone didn't pay you, you can say someone sexually harassed you, you can say that a game is racist, you can say someone eats other gamers and hides their corpses in bespoke Dukes of Hazzard lunchboxes. But you or (if you claim to be too traumatized to discuss it) your friends and allies have to actually answer questions, provide details and give evidence of the abuse--and address counterarguments, apparent incongruities, suspicious circumstances, even questions you think might be asked just to waste your time. You don't have to argue with trolls, but if you're dismissing someone as a troll, you have to clearly state why--and apply that definition of "troll" across the board. You don't have to answer every person, but you do have to answer every question. And the people who asked have to acknowledge they heard your answers, not just run away.
If you're not involved you have to either go "I don't know and I don't have enough information to make a decision"(and then say or do nothing and admit you don't care enough about whatever principle is involved to find out) or, if you want to claim to care, find out everything both sides have to say about any point or detail that helps you make your decision--every piece of evidence or reasoning both the accuser and accused have to offer has to be on the table and anyone who is making a decision must be able and willing to speak to all of it when asked and must be, basically relentlessly, hopelessly overinformed. Everyone needs to be able to talk to at least one person who has access to all the arguments and counterarguments on both sides.
Sometimes the truth may be literally unknowable--but if you're going to pretend you care, if it's technically knowable (especially if it's all googlable), you need to know it. If you're taking someone's word, it has to be because you have no choice--and if you're basing your decision on trusting them, you have to say that "I didn't look into because I trust Dave. Why do I trust Dave? Well...".
And once everyone looks at the evidence they make--collectively or individually--decisions about how to enforce accountability on either the accused (if they did it) or the accuser (if it was a false accusation). If somebody is a dick or a liar then people decide they won't talk to them or buy their stuff. If it's something the person can reasonably apologize for, they ask for that apology and for a change in behavior and people do something about it if they don't get it.
Even without explicit rules, this works. One reason we've been so productive in recent years is people who do bad things get called out, the reasons they got called out get discussed, the people doing the calling are available, and once someone is called out they know it will matter and all of this is considered normal. It's a golden age of games right now for a reason.
There are two downsides:
-It's a fucking exhausting pain in the ass. Especially as a community grows, paying attention to accusations and who made them and what they were about isn't easy or fun and a lot of people vote to keep a See No Evil Hear No Evil model or, more commonly, no matter how much they get out of having a community and the resources it provides they will deny being part of a community or having any responsibility for keeping it going. There isn't much you can do about a person who takes a penny but won't leave a penny, but that's life.
-The bad people don't go away, they just form an anti-community. Places like the Gaming Den are full of people who lie so much nobody else could tolerate them. The good news is these places never really get anything done other than harassment--their toxic members prey on each other and cause too much noise for any productive signal to get through. Which is a good transition to talking about the two bad kinds of communities:
3. Troll Playgrounds: Accusations Good, Investigation Meh, Accountability Never
This is the classic troll forum. 4chan, Gaming Den, theRPGsite at its worst, abusive Twitter communities work like this. Everyone is free to accuse anyone of anything, investigating the accusation is considered kind of gauche because even assuming the person did something there will be no consequences. Complaining about someone being a dick is cool but doing anything about it is strictly squaresville.
Because they don't have lives offline, active participants in such communities consider the conversation, including accusations, basically recreational rather than functional. Jean-Paul Sartre described them long ago:
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.
Obviously this sucks and everyone involved is thinking pretty short-term if they're thinking at all. Moreover, unlike See No Evil Hear No Evil, just basic functional conversations can't get very far because members are free to attack each other constantly and anyone wanting a real resource has to wade through mountains of that to get to anything useful.
4. Green Hell: Accusations Good, Investigation Bad, Accountability Never
This is the disaster you get when a community tries to combine the heady brew of activist morality with the thin white gruel of middle-class pop mental-health discourse. Public accusations are encouraged (all activism, by definition, requires at least implying someone somewhere did something wrong) but then are treated as a cry for help from a victim, never as something which might possibly impact the target unfairly (and rarely imagined to hit anything so concrete as their wallet, feelings are all that matter here). Above all, discussing the accusation in any way other than total approval is discouraged, especially if the accusation can be framed as forwarding an activist goal. The accuser is comforted and the accused is dismissed while everyone talks a lot about how responsible and empathetic they're being by doing that. Diya lays it out:
This kind of thing is so dysfunctional when both accuser and accused are in the community that these communities tend to rip themselves apart quickly ("circular firing squad"--this is why Gaming As Women disintegrated and The Forge turned into Story Games and then Story Games turned into a diaspora of connected angry cells on Google+) or else settle into a norm where only those outside the community can be safely attacked (omnidirectional firing squad, like RPGnet).
In sharp contrast to the Troll Playground, the Green Hell is characterized by an obsession with moral problems--but only in inverse proportion to their ability to do anything about them. If a member of a Green Hell baldly and publicly announced an intention to shoot a stewardess with a .45 and feed her corpse to a three-legged mule, they'd immediately have a long and fruitful discussion of global warming.
A lot of schrodinger's seriousness obtains here--on the one hand accusations are theoretically important and serious enough to result in boycotts or the accused or accusers losing work, on the other hand attempts to focus the community's attention on the details of what happened to establish guilt and innocence are met with:
"I'm tired of talking about this"
"I'm closing the thread since I can't monitor it"
"There's a variety of opinions here and they're all valid so..."
"I can't untangle this and we'll never agree so..."
"This is not the place to go down the rabbit hole of who did what..."
"This isn't a trial" (despite the fact someone is effectively going to be fined for what people think happened)
...as well as enthusiastic support for abstract platitudes about civility that dance around the issue of whether a human being did a bad thing to another human being and what will be done about that problem that we have here today with these people.
A hallmark of these communities is pinning responsibility for good behavior on vaguely defined terms (Imzy, a well-intentioned new community that I hope won't turn into a Green Hell defines harassment as "behavior directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress and serves no legitimate purpose" while not defining what purposes are legitimate or including, for example, behavior that tries to inflict emotional distress but doesn't succeed because the target is used to harassment) that do the work of announcing principledness without clearly saying what the principles are.
A lot of people would argue that this analysis excludes power dynamics: an unfair accusation from a powerless person is not the same as an unfair accusation from a powerful one. But this ignores the fact that the point of an accusation is always to be heard and spread and if it's true it always should be spread. Claiming false accusations from theoretically less-powerful actors somehow don't count is saying there is no point in making them and your community is already broken and doing things wrong because it always ignores them.
Green Hell spaces can be the most toxic (in terms of causing damage that spills out) not because the people involved have the worst intentions (they're not a Troll Playground, for instance) but because they combine constant insistence that conflicts over things like abuse are important with an ethic that demands no-one do the work to figure out exactly what abuses happened and who is responsible. This is a formula for constant chaos--everything is serious and nothing is resolvable.
Obviously few communities have formal constitutions or charters--and some don't even recognize themselves as communities. But groups of people who regularly talk start to get norms and cultures, and the better the culture, the better the work and the lives of everyone participating in that work are. There's lots of proof of this, but it's negative, it's stuff that doesn't happen. Although the problems in communities tend to come up most when bad things do happen and people go "What went wrong?" If you have any responsibility, a better way to think about fixing toxicity is: next time you see somebody put out something and it's smooth sailing and nothing goes wrong, ask them how that happened.
We have given you a republic--if you can keep it.