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The reality of banality: yet more lessons from a career in QA πŸ”—
1629266857  

A great deal of the conflict in online messaging software and social networks revolves around the idea that people should conduct themselves "better" as though that were in fact possible. A thorough reading of history will make you realize that Sturgeon's Law applies equally to interactions you have with others. When have we ever not had depraved maniacs for elites, mobs of raving heretics spreading all manner of nonsense, attention seekers and every other kind of nuisance which we are currently beset by? I don't think it's ever happened for more than brief stretches of time.

Layered atop this reality is the massively perverse incentives of the "social graph". Measuring engagement is essentially a flow meter on a sewer pipe. The fact that nobody has figured out anything better than this grotesque hack to produce relevant searches is a testament to the reality of our natures and desires.

As such, the idea that codes of conduct or "Zero tolerance" policies could even begin to address deficiencies in public discourse is beyond ludicrous. This has important implications for things such as open source projects and social networks. The more they commit to openness, the more "toxic" the discussion is guaranteed to become, as this necessarily means not filtering out 90% of the possible inputs for the simple reason that they add nothing substantive.

This is why projects with BDFLs (Benevolent Dictator For Life) actually tend to work. Maintainership almost always goes hand in glove with deleting clowns from your tracker, message boards and mailing lists. On the other hand, when you have a nebulous "open" means by which authority in a project is acquired, any fool can make a run at the crown and as such will make effort to be heard.

At that point, whatever group in charge has two choices:

  • Ignore the rabble
  • Engage with the rabble until overwhelmed by sheer numbers
As such it should shock no one at all why projects run by nebulous groups of quasi-nobility tend to turn out the way they do. It is an inevitability that the group's legitimacy is questioned if for no better reason than it has a larger attack surface (again, Sturgeon's law means most of your ruling council will be of dubious quality).

On the other hand, the BDFL is indivisible, and bad ones don't get projects off the ground at all. The normal selection mechanism of the Bazaar helps us here. The attack surface is minimal, and discourse is likely to be healthy.

The question then arises, Why does the BDFL always step down? Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Scaling projects is hard. Many people use the tricks of modularization and shoving as much code into data as possible, but won't go all the way and release control, making the breaking of the monolith academic at best.

Done properly this resembles a feudatory arrangement in the classical sense. Many overlapping claims to particular subsystems, but in general one overarching BDFL for each, reporting up the stack to the ur-BDFL of the project. This is actually a pretty good description of how the linux kernel's development works right now. I hope that like the Good Emperors they choose successors wisely rather than leaving the title(s) up for grabs.

Which brings me to the point of all this. The reason this arrangement works is because it is naturally efficient to have people become experts in the systems they work on rather than generalists who know nothing about everything. Even studies back this up. So why would anyone want to mess up a good thing over little things like them being wicked sinners and conforming with Sturgeon's Law in the other 90% of their life?

Because we think things can be different, despite millenia of evidence to the contrary. Human situations change, but their nature does not. Even the idea that "we want better communities" is usually just a cope masking a lust for vengeance over personal slights.

Even in those rare moments of greatness, we have to know mean reversion is right around the corner. But take heart! In the worst of situations you can also be sure a return to mediocrity can't be far off. So rather than lament our lot, why not embrace it? This is what I mean when saying "It's better to be happy than right".

Sure you're gonna work and talk with some absolute toads. So what? Get over yourself, and throw your inner child down a well (it's OK, Lassie will eventually rescue it). Getting emotional about it never accomplished anything.

Here's the practical advice. In a technical project, you will have to deal with a mountain of BS from validation seekers. This is the ultimate motivation of both the holy crusader and the troll and neither should be tolerated unless you enjoy watching your fora transform into a river of sewage. These messages can easily be spotted because they don't actually contribute anything concrete. Reward good behavior by responding promptly to actual contributions, and leave everything else "on read".

Eventually long-time contributors (and users) get emotionally invested. This is where most of the crusaders actually come out of, not realizing they're playing a validation seeking game. Gee, what if this project I invested all this time in is actually bad? Does that mean I'm bad? Impossible! It's all these heretics...

Remain vigilant against the urge to get emotionally invested in your tools and organizations. Sturgeon's Law holds and mean reversion will eventually happen. If you can't move on, you eventually become a fool screaming at inanimate objects and attacking phantoms of your own imagining.

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