(Note: This is the first of a series of blog posts which will be written in conjunction with the Peer2Peer University (P2PU) course on Open Governance I am participating in this fall.)
First was an interesting case (PDF) dealing with the culture of 2 troops of baboons in a National Park in Kenya and how it changed after some very special circumstances were brought on them. Some background: Baboons are not the nicest species of primates. In fact, they are very similar to chimpanzees in that the males fight a lot and there is some very strict hierarchy. Though for a male to keep his high rank he needs more than just violence, he needs to make prudent social connections, especially with the females in the troop.
The troops of baboons in question, the Forest Troop and the Garbage Dump Troop, lived pretty close to each other; one in the forest and one very near a garbage dump (it was put in their home by a newly developed tourist lodge). After the Forest Troop members find out about this new found gluttony of food (which was making the Garbage Dump Troop fat and lazy) some members of that troop decided to go over every morning and fight the Garbage Dump Troop for access to food. The members that did this had special qualities as explained by Robert M. Sapolsky who studied the two troops.
The Forest Troop males that did this shared two traits: they were particularly combative (which was necessary to get the food away from the other baboons), and they were not very interested in socializing (the raids took place early in the morning, during the hours when the bulk of a savanna baboon’s daily communal grooming occurs).
This wasn’t the end of the odd-luck of those two troops. One fateful year tuberculosis broke out in those troops, spread by contaminated food in the garbage dump. Most of the members (male and female) of the Garbage Dump Troop died along with all of the males from the Forest Troop that fought every morning for the food. This left the Forest Troop with a very unique group of baboons: a 2-to-1 female to male ratio and the males who did remain were much more social and much less violent. There still was hierarchy, but it was much looser than before. “And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other — a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.”
Now, this is all well and good, but what happens when new baboons enter the Troop? Baboon males leave the troop they were brought up in when they reach puberty and since it has been over 20 years since this peculiar selection bottleneck occurred there are no original (ie: less violent and more social) males in Forest Troop. Many new (average) males had entered the Troop but the same loose hierarchy, less violent, and more social culture endured! Basically, when new males join a traditional troop, it takes 63 days before the females will have sex with them and 78 before they will groom them. In the Forest troop, the time span is 18 and 20 days, respectively.
Living in a group with half the typical number of males, and with the males being nice guys to boot, Forest Troop’s females become more relaxed and less wary. As a result, they are more willing to take a chance and reach out socially to new arrivals, even if the new guys are typical jerky adolescents at first. The new males, in turn, finding themselves treated so well, eventually relax and adopt the behaviors of the troop’s distinctive social milieu.
Part of the “reading” assignment was a Radiolab show (“New Normal”) that interviewed Dr. Sapolsky about the baboon case. While the rest of the show was not assigned, I listened to it anyway.
The segment after the baboons was about Silverton, Oregon, your typical small town where everyone knows everyone else and is about even politically (2004: 54% to Bush, 45% to Kerry, 2008: 48% to McCain, 50% to Obama). To over-generalize, the kind of place we all used to live in before we started moving to big cities. Silverton had a cinema owner that was known by everyone. Not just because everyone knows everyone, but also because when this cinema owner took your ticket to see the movie you noticed his painted fingernails. Stu Rasmussen is no longer just the city’s cinema owner. He is now the mayor (and was a 3 time city council member). Additionally, Stu is the first openly transvestite mayor of a US city.
The part of this story that really affected me was when they recounted what happened after he was elected mayor. A group from Kansas (I presume the Phelps) took it upon themselves to go to Silverton and make their disgust known. The usual signs were waved around (“God hates Fags” “God hates Stu” etc). A few members of the city took it upon themselves to do a counter-protest on the other side of the street. A few guys came back wearing dresses and had signs saying “God Loves Stu.” But it wasn’t just a few guys. After a while many more people showed up, and many in the “wrong” gender of clothing. Grandmas, blue collar workers, and young children all showing their support of someone they have known their hole life. That is all. These people don’t see Stu as “that transvestite.” They see Stu as the guy they went to High School with. The computer nerd who would fix people’s computers for them. The guy who takes their ticket stub at the movie theater on the weekend. They weren’t protesting in support of someone being a transvestite, they were protesting in support of Stu, the guy they all knew as well as they knew their own brother.
Under the right circumstances, a small can be the most progressive place on earth …. And it is exactly because everyone is all up in your grill, you are forced to know people.
The writing assignment for this week is to discuss the social norms around a community that I participate in. I have chosen Ubuntu.
It is interesting to try and think of the social norms that affect governance in the Ubuntu community. This is mostly because I see much of the governance in the community as process based not norm based. I could have an odd view of this as I am a member of the Membership Review Board for the Americas. But, I think the process in our community is there to reward the social norms we want to encourage (and disincentivize the norms we don’t, hopefully). And if we aren’t doing that, then we need to re-think our processes.
The process that I am most familiar with, and is (luckily) probably most related to the above cases is the membership process. The membership review board accepts new applications for official Ubuntu membership from community members. These applications are normally wiki pages that outline the persons involvement with Ubuntu (in whatever fashion) and (hopefully) include some testimonials from current members of the community. The first thing they must do, before we even consider their application, is to sign the Ubuntu Community’s Code of Conduct. This document outlines in plain language what it means to be a member of the community with main highlights such as “Be Considerate,” “Be Respectful,” and “Be Collaborative.”
Then, we take a look at their recorded involvement with the community. Really, any useful and sustained (more than a couple months) involvement in the community is rewarded; everything from forum assistance to leading a LoCo team to writing documentation. This is, however, where many members of the Review Board make a point to ask about the applicant’s involvement with their Local Community Team. Why? Because we know that members who are active in their LoCo team not only feel a greater sense of belonging themselves, they also share that sense of belonging to new members of the community who are just starting to get involved. This is a first step among many in our community’s social grooming process. Going to Release Parties, other conferences, and just hanging out on IRC are all great ways to be introduced to the community and how it works.
After we have discussed their involvement we look at their testimonials. We look especially for testimonials from other Official Ubuntu Members and people we know personally and trust. This makes sense. If you can’t know everyone in the community (I know I can’t, our community is HUGE!) then someone who you trust telling you that someone you don’t know is doing good stuff really helps us make the membership approval decision. I could probably talk about this method of growing a community for a while and dive into a ton of research on social network graph theory, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I believe that our community is a very welcoming one, more closely related to the new Forest Troop than the old troop.
All of these above requirements for membership are outlined on a wiki page so that new members of the community are able to know from the beginning what is expected from them if they wish to be rewarded with official membership. And a similar process is outlined for LoCo teams as well where we, again, try to encourage good social norms while discourage negative ones.
I think that our explicitly stated membership requirements and idealized norms (CoC) actively encourage new members to learn about how our community works, what social norms are really important, and how they can learn to act within those norms productively. And the observing aspect (learning from doing) is probably the most important part.
Because then, if we all get to know how the community works along with the members of our local community area (either physically or topically) then we will be a part of something more akin to Silverton, Oregon where we appreciate our colleagues not because of what makes them different, but because of our shared experiences.