Open, Free, Safe: Choose Two
Epistemic status: More of a heuristic than an iron-clad law. Hopefully useful for decision-making, even if it’s not a full gears-level model.
In software engineering, there is a famous dictum which Wikipedia knows as the Project Management Triangle, which takes the following form:
Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.
The essence of the triangle is to point out that while good, fast, and cheap are all potentially desirable traits for a project, you cannot usually (or ever) get all of them at once. If you want something good and fast, it will not be cheap; if you want something fast and cheap, it will not be good.
I have observed that a similar triangle seems to govern communities, especially online communities. I phrase my triangle in a similar fashion:
Open, free, safe. Choose two.
Let’s consider what this means.
The three vertices of the triangle
These words indicate something specific in the context of online communities:
Open means that anyone who wishes to may join the group. There are no requirements of expertise, professionalism, or documentation. You don’t have to pay to get in. Joining does not require arcane technical knowledge beyond knowing how to visit a webpage.
Free means that you are allowed to post about whatever you want, in whatever posting style suits you. A variety of interaction styles are allowed. The group may have a “topic”, but the borders of that topic are broad, and off-topic chatter is tolerated.
Safe means that you are unlikely to be verbally attacked, ostracised, mocked, or shunned for your behaviour. A safe community is one with low levels of conflict, or one on which conflict is carefully channeled and handled in a mild and congenial fashion. Safety means that you can let your guard down, and you can trust that other community members are not out to get you.
It should be obvious that all three of these traits are a spectrum rather than a simple binary. No group is entirely open (there’s always some kind of requirement to get in, even if that requirement is “you know how to use a keyboard’), and no group is completely closed once it has more than one member. Freedom exists on a scale, as even the freest groups ban outright spam. Safety, too, is never absolute, as interpersonal conflict is always possible even if the local culture discourages it.
Case studies of each type
Open, free, not safe: 4chan. 4chan is trivial to join. You can do and say almost whatever you want, there, and behaviour which would get you kicked out of most other places on the internet is totally acceptable, even normal on 4chan. As a result, 4chan is famously, outrageously, extravagantly unsafe. Abuse, mockery, insult and every other form of verbal violence that you can imagine are typical on 4chan. This becomes the main thing that 4chan is known for, alongside being a potent fermenter of memes. (These two things are probably related.)
Open, safe, not free: Stack Overflow and the related Stack Exchange network. Stack Overflow advertises itself as a site for professional developers, but there is no one checking this, and anyone can (and does) participate. SO, however, is explicitly not free. There are only two supported social verbs: “ask question” and “answer question”, and the site’s guidelines are quite strict about this fact. Notably, the verb “have conversation” is deliberately lacking. The commenting system is the only place where something like a back-and-forth exchange is allowed, and even there both custom and policy discourage extended argument. This strictness about the kinds of allowed interactions is arguably the main thing that allows the site to work.
Of course, one of the long-running complaints about SO is that it isn’t safe enough, particularly for new users who haven’t yet learned the community customs.
Free, safe, not open: Metafilter. It’s actually kind of hard to think of examples of this category, because sites which aren’t open tend not to enter the public consciousness. I choose Metafilter as one of the only sites I know of which is explicitly non-open (you have to pay a fee in order to get an account), but which has cultivated a long-standing reputation as a haven of good discourse, a fact which is doubtlessly related to this fact.
But really, the best example of this third type is whatever your favourite Web 1.0 forum was. Most good forums of this type had the virtues of freedom and safety because they were implicitly closed: web access was rarer back then, signup was often slow and tedious, the ostensible topics was uninteresting, and the site itself was so obscure that most people would never find it. These barriers to entry sufficed to make the group non-open in practice, even if there was no explicit rule keeping people out. But as has been noticed elsewhere (cf. https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/tscc3e5eujrsEeFN4/well-kept-gardens-die-by-pacifism), when implicit barriers to entry become too low many such communities collapse because they aren’t prepared to do the necessary work to maintain their borders.
Failing at all three
Getting two out of three virtues is a maximum. My thesis is that it’s not possible to have all three, but it is possible to have one or none.
I was witness to the decline (from my POV—others may not have perceived these events as a decline) of a group to help new professionals that failed in just this manner. The group was deliberately non-open: you had to apply to join, and your application required you to present work of acceptable level of professionalism. As a result, the tone and quality of on-topic discussions in the group were extremely high, and the group had a lot of pleasant socialising and off-topic discussion in their dedicated sub-fora. It was not open, but it was free and safe.
However, there was a faction within the group that decided that the forum wasn’t safe enough, particularly for certain classes of people (stop me if you’ve heard this one before). Members of this faction first engaged in a bunch of high-energy confrontations, decreasing everyone’s safety, then took those very confrontations as evidence that the group was unsafe. What followed was a slow downward ratchet in which the group became simultaneously less free and less safe, with an ever-proliferating thicket of regulations, moderators, and oversight groups, necessitated by a more and more frequent conflicts over the content of those very regulations and supposed infractions.
This should serve as a reminder that even getting two out of three is something of an accomplishment, and it’s possible to get none.
The problems of big social media
Consider Twitter. Twitter is stuck between three incompatible demands:
Twitter’s value is directly proportional to the number of users that they have, so they have a financial incentive to be as open of possible.
Moderation is expensive (even the automated kind takes time to develop and deploy), so all else equal Twitter would prefer to have a free social network where they don’t have to monitor user behaviour.
At the same time, their most influential users demand safety, and won’t tolerate 4chan-esque pervasive conflict.
What we observe them doing to “solve” these problem is an intermittent and incoherent attempt at automated moderation, supplemented by occasional human intervention against particular high-profile accounts. These efforts cannot really succeed in the form in which Twitter has deployed them, but they do signal (sort of) that Twitter is trying to limit freedom and enforce safety. I expect this to continue for the foreseeable future, as Twitter gradually and haphazardly becomes less free in order to ensure a minimal degree of safety, but doesn’t put more effort than they have to.
Every other social media site faces the same dichotomy: they have to stay open for financial reasons, but too much freedom and they come under fire for lack of safety. The counterpoint to this development is Discord, Slack, WhatsApp, Signal and the like. What these groups have in common is that they don’t put everyone into the same social universe, but rather create a framework in which you can easily and quickly create your own private groups, organised however you want, with local control over membership and moderation. This is a re-emergence of the Web 1.0 model, in which we once again have spaces which are safe and free because they have enforceable boundaries.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I actually don’t think that the choice between vertices of this triangle is neutral. There is a correct choice, and that choice is for freedom and safety, and against openness. Freedom and safety create great communities, while openness is at best a tax that groups must pay to avoid stagnation.
As described above, this is a choice that the big social media networks can’t make, because they need to be open in order to function, and this is why I find so little value in them. The hopeful future for the future of internet communities is that the model of Discord etc. becomes the new norm.
And if you’re running a site that’s not on social media at all, a genuine web forum, then you should understand what your job is. Build a gate and keep it well.
But you already knew that.