This is about the exercise of power. It’s a recurring rant of mine. At one point I wrote it all down as part of a comment. Since then I’ve had several occasions to refer to it, and others have done so as well. This will probably keep happening, so I might as well make it a standalone entry.
There’s a process I’ve seen in many times and places, where people mistake a thing one does for a thing one is.
I first spotted it in clubs and concoms. In the beginning, you have a task-based system: “Okay, Ferdy’s running the huckster room and Lulu’s doing hotel and banquet. Mo’s just about got the program pulled together. We’re not doing a daily newsletter, so Felix, your work is finished when the pocket program’s delivered. Think you can take charge of the fruit punch in the consuite in the evenings? It’s just a little bit more than Margie can handle.” Felix says sure, no problem, and does fruit punch duty at the convention. As a joke, someone sneaks the line “Fruit Punch Czar: Felix” into the published committeee list.
The job’s not a lot of trouble — arrange for fruit punch, keep an eye on the punchbowl, police the area — and it gives Felix a reason to hang out in that end of the consuite in the evening. This works out well. Felix is an amiable soul, and a lot of people wind up hanging out in his area. The “Fruit Punch Czar” thing gets immortalized when Felix wades into an incipient fight, and one drunk and belligerent would-be-combatant says “Who the bleep are you?”
Felix instantly replies: “Fruit Punch Czar, with powers of High and Low Justice anywhere within fifty feet of the punchbowl.”
“Oh,” the drunk says meekly, and subsides. So after that everyone refers to Felix as the Fruit Punch Czar. But really, that’s just the way Felix is. If he were given the job of hanging out in the main corridor holding a rubber duck tied to a string, Felix would do it — and would still be wading in to stop fights and sort out problems, and would still accrete a random group of cheerful conversationalists around him.
(Why sort out other people’s problems and adjudicate disputes? Felix would say it’s because it’s a good thing to do. He’d also say that anyone can do it, which isn’t true; but it comes naturally to him, so he thinks it is.)
After a few years, the job is up for grabs. Felix and spouse have had their first kid, and are busy. This is where the saga of Yorick begins. Yorick is no Felix, to put it mildly, but he has a flaming yen to be Punch Bowl Czar, dispense High and Low Justice, and be at the center of the coolest gathering at the convention. At the annual committee meeting where everyone settles out who’s doing what job, he and his like-minded crony Jan make a real push for the jobs of Consuite Coordinator and Fruit Punch Czar. Margie says fine; she’ll run the Green Room instead. Someone else takes on publications.
Yorick is way into being Fruit Punch Czar because he thinks it makes him Felix. Do I need to describe the whole dysfunctional sequence of events that follows, winding up with a bitterly destructive committee fight four years later because Jan and Yorick are upset that plain convention attendees have been “usurping the powers” of the Fruit Punch Enforcement Squad — members of which wear matching FPES t-shirts and have, according to Yorick and Jan “paid their dues” by working as gophers and dogsbodies for the Fruit Punch Department?
Isomorphisms: I’ve had some interesting conversations about moderation with Ken Fisher, community godfather at Ars Technica. I mentioned a bizarre phenomenon I’d seen on various forums: longtime regulars being sharply reprimanded for explaining local customs to newbies. The term used to describe this supposed misbehavior was “backseat moderation.”
Ken said he certainly didn’t agree with that policy, but he knew what prompted it: busybody users running around on boards playing pretend-moderator, telling other users that You’ve Been Bad, and The Moderators Are Gonna Get You For That. It tended to happen, he said, in forums where the moderators were a separate class from common users.
That made sense. If users see moderation as a high-status role rather than a task, some of them will inappropriately imitate that role, instead of helping each other create community and good conversations by imitating what they’ve seen moderators do.
I know a similar principle from conrunning: if you get a volunteer who only wants to do security, the last place you should assign them is security. Odds are you’ve got someone who wants to be in charge, but doesn’t understand that authority is 95% responsibility and 5% action, and that power is a transient role in events.