Jonan Scheffler interviews Manager of Community Relations at Storj, Jocelyn Matthews, about camaraderie, community building, and the concept that in a sense, all communities are virtual, whether you're physically going somewhere or not, because the concept of community – the meaning of community – really exists in your head ::mind blown:: 🤯
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Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome back to Observy McObservface, proudly brought to you by New Relic's developer relations team, The Relicans. Observy is about observability in something a bit more than the traditional sense. It's often about technology and tools that we use to gain visibility into our systems. But it is also about people because, fundamentally, software is about people. You can think of Observy as something of an observability variety show where we will apply systems thinking and think critically about challenges across our entire industry. And we very much look forward to having you join us. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of The Relicans podcasts on developer.newrelic.com/podcasts. We're so pleased to have you here this week. Enjoy the show.
Hello and welcome back to Observy McObservface. I am Jonan Scheffler of New Relic. And before we get started, I want to remind everyone we've got an upcoming conference that we're going to be at as a team. The Relicans here at New Relic we're going to be showing up at FutureStack in May. And you should definitely go and register for FutureStack because we have the silliest, weirdest track ever, and it's going to be a lot of fun. And you can find out more about it on therelicans.com/futurestack. And with that, I am very happy to introduce my guest, Jocelyn Matthews. How are you, Jocelyn?
Jocelyn Matthews: I'm doing great. Thank you for asking.
Jonan: I understand that you work for a company that has a name. What is that company’s name?
Jocelyn: So the company is called Storj, and it's spelled S-T-O-R-J. A lot of people ask me about the pronunciation; it’s just storage. And we do decentralized cloud object storage.
Jonan: Having a bit of an unusual name, I have to spell it for everyone, sometimes several times. I will say, “I'm Jonan,” and then they say, “Jona?”
Jonan: “No, it's Jonan. It’s like Conan with a J.” “Conaian?” And I'm like, “Well, okay, we're getting warmer. Let's try one more time.” [chuckles] I have often had to spell my name out. But it's interesting to work for a company called Storj that is spelled with a J., And it's not even like the thing where we used to drop vowels. You got a whole new letter in there. So you do decentralized storage. I suppose there are probably SCC rules that require me to disclose that at one point in my life, I bought some of the tokens that are -- I don't even know if they're still called storage tokens. But I don't know how I happened across it. I had a friend who was doing something, and I said, “Hey, you should buy this thing.” And so I put whatever amount of money in, and then very promptly lost access to said crypto wallet, and it's gone forever. But I hope that you become a very, very successful company, so I can have a really good story to tell about how I caught a fish, and it was this big. I feel like that's the technology person’s modern equivalent of those fish stories that grandpa used to tell us. “Well, I'd be a multi-billionaire if I hadn't lost my bitcoin wallet on that hard drive I threw away.” [laughter]
Jocelyn: Yeah. I mean, did you look in your sock drawer? Maybe it's there.
Jonan: It’s probably in my sock drawer with that giant fish that I caught that time. A decentralized storage platform is one thing I think -- actually, your company is quite unique. Maybe give us a little bit more detail, and then we'll dive into talking about all sorts of interesting things because I have a lot of questions for you, actually.
Jocelyn: Yeah, sure. So basically, the vision of the platform that we have is to just be the storage layer for the decentralized internet. And we have a platform where when an object is uploaded into our platform, it's default encrypted, and then it gets split up into 80 or more pieces. And then, those pieces are distributed across thousands of statistically uncorrelated nodes and ISPs. And those are spread out in almost 100 countries at this point. So the benefit is that there is no single point of failure, and there's no centralized location. So there are benefits there for things like outages and downtime and bit rot; those problems pretty much go away. And then, if your node goes offline for any reason, your file can be reconstituted from about one-third of the pieces, the 80 pieces that it was split up into.
Jonan: So we’ve got to lose 60% plus of the countries on your list of 100 countries.
Jonan: And in that case, you probably have greater problems than, hey, where did my JPEG go?
Jocelyn: I think at that point, if you're encountering bit rot, at least it's not a surprise.
Jonan: Right. Yeah. I would expect that the data center is offline as the earth is opened up into the hellscape and everything is falling in; that would make sense.
Jocelyn: Right on. You saw the meteor coming at that point. [laughter]
Jonan: Yeah, you knew it was coming. Don't go looking for your JPEGs too late. Get them all downloaded first.
Jocelyn: Yeah. You're screaming at the sky like, “Noo, my cat picture, what will happen to it?”
Jonan: [chuckles] Exactly. Okay. So you have had an interesting career. I actually want to start at the beginning with your schooling because you've been in the community for a long time. But you started off doing computer science and EEE stuff. Why don't you tell us a little bit about where you started off here?
Jocelyn: So the theme of my adult life has been me doing whatever I thought looked interesting at the time. So I was an engineer for quite a while. I went to UC Berkeley and pursued studies in Anthropology and Cognitive Science there and was exposed to a lot of ideas that -- I had worked in industry before. I didn't just go from high school straight into college. I had a lot of experiences that I brought and used as a lens. And then, when I came back into the industry, I did the same thing again. So it's almost like refractive, where I then took these theories and concepts, and they influence how I approach the work that I do now. I've had a lot of weird jobs. So I was a radio DJ for two years. I was a teacher for a while. I built websites and did stuff with, if you remember, Oracle.
Jocelyn: I did a lot of data nerd stuff.
Jonan: They're called Java now.
Jocelyn: [laughs] And then I was thinking, well, I'm really interested in culture and how people think, how things are made, how things are conceptualized. And when I really looked for a way to crystallize all of those interests together, sometimes people say, “Oh, you've done all these things that aren't connected.” But to me, I feel that they're very connected because they all create this funnel. And when you come down to the bottom of the funnel, what you have is technical community, and adoption, and usage of technology. So I'm very interested in what technology means to the people who use it and also what the people using it mean to technology.
Jonan: This is fascinating to me, actually. I hope this isn't too creepy, but it's pretty regular practice for me. I'm going to have somebody on the podcast and go looking through their LinkedIn.
Jonan: And I'm looking at this LinkedIn, and I'm like, okay, you got International Relations and Affairs, and then Information Technology, Identity and Social Change, and then Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Developer Advocacy, and then the Full Stack Development in Adjunct Faculty and on and on and on. And it is a very interesting career. But I absolutely understand your case that all of this is additive, and at the bottom of that, you find people as the common element here. I feel very much the same about my own career though I have a much less impressive LinkedIn profile. I spent time dealing poker and working in manufacturing and selling cars, and the list goes on. I had maybe 30 or 40 jobs over this decade that I was working all sorts of things. And then I came back into tech, and I still feel like those all add a lot of value to the work that I do here. If you're supposed to walk onto a car lot and ask a stranger for $40,000, then just being like, “Hey, you want to come to my conference talk?” That's a much easier pitch. It doesn't even cost -- I will sell you a seat at my conference talk for 20 grand, Jocelyn, because we're friends now. I’ll give you a discount.
Jocelyn: Oh, sure. Yeah, I believe nothing goes to waste. You may not realize it, or you may not even think consciously about how a past experience affects what you're doing now. The whole being greater than the sum of the parts is something that just happens on this meta-level. I can share with you I grew up a Jehovah's Witness. And I'll tell you what, when I go to a trade show -- I knocked on a lot of doors as a kid.
Jonan: [laughs] You don't have a problem doing it now.
Jocelyn: No. And I said to a co-worker once I'm like, “You know, this might sound funny, but I honestly think my background really helped.” And he was like, “You know what? If you can make someone talk about God in their own living room…” I was like, “Yeah, giving away a t-shirt is nothing.” [laughter]
Jonan: Right? It's totally fine.
Jocelyn: Yeah. I can make you take a Watchtower in your hand while you're trying to commute to work, getting you to do a product demo; that’s easy pickings. I don't go around thinking about that all the time, but there are just all these experiences that you have that build up into the energy that you bring into every interaction that you have, and the toolkit that you have to address situations that you want to go a certain way or participate in. And it's just so funny how these things bubble up in this unique combination of all the different things that you've done in your entire life. It really combines to make something unique.
Jonan: And it's entirely unpredictable. I'm big on plans. I always like to have a five-year plan. And at one point in my life, I even made a 10-year plan. And then I work backward for how do I get from here to there? And as an exercise, this is valuable, but not a single time has even my two-year plan been accurate. Things change very rapidly, and we're all influenced by this butterfly effect of life. With the introduction of the pandemic this last year, having to reinvent how I do my job to some degree, find ways to engage communities in ways that I was not used to engaging communities has been a very interesting ride. And I actually wanted to hear from you about what that has been like because you work in community now. You're doing a role like that at Storj, and you've got some experience doing that. But I think that this environment that we've been in where we're all locked in our homes, and we're all under tremendous stress -- And I mean, better than half of our co-workers have never worked remotely full-time and in that environment, still trying to create this sense of belonging and something to hang on to and participate in using frankly pretty shoddy tools because the online community tools are just -- Like, you've been to a virtual event. How good is that as compared to a live conference?
Jocelyn: They’re trying. They’re trying their best.
Jonan: I know, oh yeah. I'm not trying to be mean.
Jocelyn: [chuckles] Yeah, I know.
Jonan: I'm just saying it's a less engaging experience. It takes a lot.
Jocelyn: I know. And you see them trying so hard, but the tools that people are using are just so kludgy and clunky that your heart goes out to them.
Jocelyn: So an interesting thing about the company that I work at is that we were already remotely distributed to start with. If there is enough of a concentration of folks in a particular city, sometimes if you want, they'll get you a WeWork space, and you can have, effectively, there's like an office in, say, Salt Lake City. We were lucky in that we had this decentralized ethos to start with and that we had a workforce that was really distributed across a lot of different time zones. So I think it wasn't quite as jarring for us as it probably was for people that are used to going into a mothership every day. And having that routine taken away from you very abruptly, I think, must be super stressful. I think that we definitely miss -- We used to have these quarterly all-hands where we'd all get together, and I really, really miss those. I miss seeing my co-workers in real life a few times a year. But other than that, we've weathered the storm surprisingly well. And I think it probably also has to do with the nature of our product. This is a good time to be in the data industry, to put it like that.
Jonan: Yes. Yes, it is. And a decentralized team for a decentralized data platform does make sense. But you're not having to adapt to the challenges in the same way as other teams are. They're still affecting you. How has it changed your work in the community work that you're doing there? In doing community relations, you're also having a hard time reaching people online or building those communities.
Jocelyn: There are folks that would come to see us at trade shows who aren't able to see us at trade shows. Swag definitely took a hit for a while because there was just such a glut on the post office and so much burden on delivery people that there were certain things that I just didn't really feel in good conscience, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m like, make someone risk their life to bring someone a sticker? I don't know if I would really want to be party to that.
Jonan: They're really good stickers.
Jocelyn: We have really cute stickers. [laughter] Our designer is named DJ, and I'm guilty of sometimes trying to sneak in and enable him with shenanigans. I've been trying to get him to do a plushy toy.
Jocelyn: I'm crazy about the idea of doing things that you have to be part of the community like really exclusive merchandise and stuff that you have to be in the swim and that you can't get any other way, maybe coming up with little mini-challenges. And I've definitely been encouraging him [laughter], and it's so highfalutin ideas.
Jonan: There are unique challenges like the shipping thing right now. But I think that in a lot of ways, it's made easier. I mean, we talk about virtual events; we talk about the shipping and the swag. It's different, but we have access to a global audience. I could see going forward it being very much complementary to the work that we do.
Jocelyn: Yeah. So I'm also fortunate in that like I said, we're distributed across a lot of different time zones in a lot of different countries. And so we have a fair amount of different languages spoken, which has also been helpful during this time because a lot of the events that moved online are global events. So having folks on who speak German, and Bulgarian, and Chinese, and Russian has been an unexpected advantage. I think that at the beginning of the pandemic, what I was really seeing was shocking numbers for turnout. You want to talk about 10X. I was really amazed at how big the turnout was for a lot of these online events and that it continued. I thought, well, maybe this is some sort of anomaly or some sort of bump, but I'm still very pleasantly surprised at how high those numbers are. And I think it really speaks to the fact that when you're limited in your physical space, your mental space becomes so much more important to you and that sense of being able to range freely and to not feel constricted and to not feel earthbound. When you're in a situation where physically you might not be able to leave the house, very often it becomes so much more important to people. And so I think that is something with the work that we're doing with the community that becomes very important and very valuable to people. Everyone is talking about the Zoom fatigue, and yet you still see these high numbers for turnout for events. And so there's something there that I think is unique to community itself. People aren't having that warm, fuzzy feeling towards more Zoom calls.
Jonan: Yeah, I'm feeling similarly. I think when I'm at my computer during the day, people are just really having a hard time, in some cases, understanding boundaries for themselves. I've been working remotely for a long time, so I force the issue quite often. I'll just reject any meeting that's outside of my working hours, for example. I'd much prefer a results-oriented work environment where when you're working in DevRel, you're all over the world. And you may be working from 3:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., and that has to be okay. You just have to make that work. And now, managing a team and being here in my office all day, it would be very easy for me to just sit here and pull 14-hour days all day every day accidentally because I just let people book meeting after meeting, after meeting. And so you have to make space for all that. But when you're in that world, then it is a very refreshing break to be able to pop onto a call with some people who are just part of your friend group or your software community; it’s a very different kind of interaction. I've had a lot more Zoom hangs than I ever would have had before. And it helps me keep up with people who are on the other side of the world, which a lot of my friends are, having done what I do for so long. But I'm hoping that these online communities that we're forming become as sticky as the ones that we’ve formed over the years. They ebb and flow, but there's something about being in a physical space. I lead this Ruby meetup here in Portland, shout-out to my friends at pdxruby. But we were up to 40 or 50 attendees at our meetup before the pandemic. And now, when the day comes, we are pretty excited if eight people show up to the Zoom call. But it's different, and it's still fine. I just want that same cohesion that I feel like I had at those physical events. It's just not quite there for me.
Jocelyn: Yeah, that's interesting. When it comes down to it, all communities are virtual whether you're physically going somewhere or not because the concept of community, the meaning of community, really exists in your head. I think that there is a layer that the physical presence does give because we're pack creatures; people are social creatures rather. And there is something about being able to breathe the same air, which might be a while before we get back to being eager about breathing each other's air. But there are chemicals that we give off. There are responses that we have, physical responses to being in proximity to another person. Lots of people have heard about mirror neurons, and we start to mimic other people when we're around them. I think everybody has had that experience of starting to talk like a friend the more time you spend around them. You start to take on people's gestures. And there is a layer of the physical that is very hard to replace, but the effect of that physical is virtual if that makes sense. So the sense of belonging is always something that is at some sort of virtual remove where what does it mean to you to be a member of that PDX group? And the real impact of it has to do with your feelings, and your thoughts, and your emotions more than around, I don't know, pheromones or mirror neurons or things like that.
Jonan: That's a very good point. And all of that is in my head and, therefore, virtual anyway.
Jocelyn: Mm-hmm. Exactly.
Jonan: So you're saying that my friends don't really love me. It's all made up.
Jocelyn: Let me check my notes. I think that's what I have written down.
Jonan: [laughs] That’s exactly what you said, yeah.
Jocelyn: It's got a little star next to it. Tell Jonan nobody loves him, yeah [laughter]
Jonan: I think that's a really interesting point to make. It brings me back to a thing I've been thinking a lot about lately because we’re talking about mirror neurons and how we mirror each other's behavior. This helps us develop a level of comfort with each other. Like, certain personality types under stress enhance in different ways. I have discovered in human beings over the years that certain people who are very detail-oriented when they come under stress, the wheels come off in different ways than people who are less so. And one of the best ways to calm people in those circumstances is exactly that stuff like mirroring behaviors, and you come along, but not so far. For somebody who's stressed out that you're not adding to the panic, things like that.
Jocelyn: When I was talking about communities, communities or membership are things that are constructed. And I'll name check Benedict Anderson here. So Benedict Anderson is a writer who is famous for a piece called Imagined Communities. If you think about communities and also communities within communities, you have to really look at what a community is, what it means to be a member of the community, and how people envision themselves in relation to that as being both part of it and apart from it. So, for example, the classic example that is used is always nationality. So Anderson was very much writing about nationalism, but it's something that you can extend into basically any kind of community. I think a community is something that anytime you have two people; you have a community because you're existing in reference to each other. So if you want to think about it in terms of nationalism, I'm American, and I consider myself American. And when I say I'm American, that means something to me, but it also means something to you, right?
Jocelyn: And although we both agree that it means something and it's functional enough, meaning that we can build conversations on it, we can construct mental spaces around it. It's also flexible enough that it can also mean different things to both of us and still be a useful concept. And that when I say that the belonging is something that is so meaningful to me -- Why do people die for their countries? When I talk about being an American, I can never meet every other person in America. Even if I started traveling right now and went door to door shaking people's hands introducing myself, just turnover and mortality would be mean I could never possibly meet everybody in America. And yet, it's a meaningful enough construct that you can go to war over it. You can enact laws over it. You can defend borders over it. You can build walls around it. And so this idea of communities that build other communities, you also have all of these subgroups in America. So you have an infinite variety. It goes beyond ethnicity. I can say I'm a Black-American, or religion you could say you're a Christian-American, or you're a Muslim-American. These things have weight in the real world, even though they're entirely constructed.
Jonan: I'm impressed by the depth of your insight. I'm standing here in stunned silence and trying to track what this actually means practically for what we're doing.
Jocelyn: I think it goes back to the comradeship, right?
Jocelyn: What does it mean to be comrades with somebody, camaraderie rather?
Jonan: Yeah, I think it comes back to that shared set of values that we spoke about briefly that you find these things that it's not just about having something in common. If there was a tall club, I happen to be quite tall. I would probably not join tall club. I hope that you're not in Mensa. I wouldn't be surprised if you were allowed membership. It just seems like a thing that wouldn't be enjoyable to me if I could get into Mensa to go and hang out with other people who were there exclusively because they were smart by some standard devised on this test they've come up with. I want to know that I'm in a space not just for who I am, but I guess who I imagine myself or want myself to be and the parts of myself that I see to perpetuate. Surround yourself with the kinds of people that you would like to emulate. And I think that in the context of our work specifically, it means this common thing when you discuss community that you really need to focus on why you're there. What is it that you're trying to create in the world? And if you don't have a clear picture of what you're creating, then you're unlikely to be able to develop a cohesive community around it, even if the people in your community have a lot of things in common.
Jocelyn: I think another concept that I also find useful in thinking about how communities are built is there's a professor at Berkeley named Eleanor Rosch, R-O-S-C-H. And she did a lot of work in some really interesting directions, but I'll talk about prototype theory. I'm going to give a super little golden books version of it because I haven't engaged with her.
Jonan: Please. You've seen my bookshelf. Yeah, this is perfect for me.
Jocelyn: [laughs] So if you have categories and membership, and I think this goes back to camaraderie and community building, that there are members of groups but that some members are more member-ish than other members. And so one example that people will use is birds, so if you say, okay, what's a bird?
Jocelyn: A dinosaur that can fly, right? [chuckles]
Jonan: Yeah, they’re terrifying.
Jocelyn: I like birds when they're on a tree. I don't like them when someone's parakeet is flapping around my head or something; that always freaks me out. So which bird is more bird-ish, an ostrich or a blue jay?
Jonan: Blue jays because they fly.
Jocelyn: Okay. So the members of the group have these certain characteristics. And then you can have this sort of central prototype, which is the bird that's the birdiest list of all the birds. And then the further you move away from that, you can also start to see that reflected in reaction times. You'd be like, “Is this a bird, or is this not a bird?” And people are like, “I guess an ostrich is a bird.” But when you say let's say a robin, people would be like, “Oh yeah, that's a bird,” and it sort of pops right out. And so they've also found when people are learning concepts, that if you teach somebody using the most central example, that they'll retain the concept better than if you start with an outlier and work your way inward. And I think about that in terms of belonging, and also, there's a need to be careful about stereotyping. And I think in our industry, we see this happen. People really sometimes over-rely on personas. People will really sometimes over-rely on thinking that they know what the model member of the community or the demographic that they're looking for. And you can lose some really interesting ostriches. You don’t want to let ostriches slip through the cracks because they've got cool feathers to offer.
Jonan: Yeah. I want to pause and apologize to all of our ostrich listeners. I see you, and you’re valid; you’re birds. I apologize.
Jocelyn: [chuckles] Yeah. And so I think there's a tension there between do you want to build communities that are specific, that are perfectly fitted or even overfitted for a particular type of person? What do you gain? But what might also be falling through the cracks, or what might you be losing? And clearly, it's effective to over-design for a particular type of central character. But as somebody who's always been a bit more on the ostrich side, I'm always looking for ways to make sure that communities are going to be welcoming, and available, and accessible for everybody. And I feel like it can be a little bit of a balancing act, especially when you have people who are very metrics-driven. It can be really challenging to support all of those different motives at the same time.
Jonan: I don't hear a lot of conference talks about data-driven community. But maybe we should. No, that's a terrible idea, actually, [chuckles] because I think that there are so many intangible components. I mean, absolutely, measure things and track them, but there is a risk there. I'm reminded of a chat I had the other day with the woman who founded Virtual Coffee io. I don't know if you're familiar with this. It's an online coffee meetup. Her name is Bekah. Bekah started this meetup during the pandemic to get that sense of community back and get in touch with developers and continue learning and growing in software when you weren't able to meet people in person. And then suddenly, Bekah was explaining that she almost actively tried to prevent the community from growing because part of what made it special was that it was this small intimate experience of just hanging out on a call with a few people and being able to be vulnerable and authentic. And now faced with the problem where a lot of people want that, how do you grow that and maintain it?
But one of the things that I learned that was unique about Virtual Coffee, I guess maybe not so unique, but that in order to become a member of the community and join members-only events, you need to have attended one of their Virtual Coffee meetings in Zoom that they have, and then you are granted access. So there's this barrier to entry. It's not that you went to our website and clicked a button. And then 90% of the people who have clicked said button don't actually become very engaged members of the community. But in the case of a mandatory Zoom call attendance, if you were someone on a 56K dial-up connection, you might have a difficult time with that. Or someone in a foreign country who didn't have the ability to gain regular enough access to the internet could stream; they would be able to go and download a forum and then review and respond to posts back home. But they wouldn't be able to just fit in in that format. I don't know. There are some complications. It's certainly a trade-off is what I'm getting at, that you make choices about how you are building your community intentionally and how you are building it in such a way that it is still an inclusive, and open, and welcoming space to the right kind of community members.
Jocelyn: Yeah. So I'll just name-drop real quickly one more person, and her name is Kat Vellos, V-E-L-L-O-S. She is the founder of the Bay Area Black Designers Group, which is a group that I've been associated with for years. I was on the steering committee for a while. She wrote a book; I think it's called We Should Get Together. It's about community building more from the non-technical side. And she also writes about adult friendship, which is a challenge that a lot of people have once you hit adulthood. You're just not meeting new people all the time to make new friends. There's actually a metric for if you see people X number of times in a week in an unstructured environment at unpredictable times, like basically bumping into them in the hallway, or in the laundry room at your dorm or something, there's a certain percentage or chance that the two of you end up becoming friends. And those encounters lessen as you move into adulthood because our lives become structured in different ways that don't afford for that.
But she actually has a rule. And for the Bay Area, Black Designers is that you can't join the virtual community until you've been to a real live event, which I think goes back to what you were just saying that also goes back to what you were saying about your PDX group. And she really has been very staunch in this sentiment that if you haven't been in the same room with somebody at some point that there's not this anchor to hold you in and make the glue of a virtual community. And it's so completely contrary to everything that we're doing in our TED communities right now, especially during the pandemic. But I have seen it yield results. So I thought that that was an interesting add-on to what you were saying.
Jonan: Yeah. When I'm thinking about it, I'm thinking about it from the angle of trying to prevent abuse. If you're a bad actor coming into a space, the higher the barrier to entry we can create, the less likely that is to happen. But even just calling it a barrier to entry calls attention to the fact that it is a real barrier, and you're going to be excluding people for reasons that you didn't intend. And so I think what I like about that example of the Bay Area Black Designers Group is that the in-person event is about humanizing people. You're not just in a chat room that you just dropped into some Slack you got invited to from an automated email request, and then you can be mean to strangers or misinterpret their meaning and disregard their humanity. You're in a different space with them suddenly when you've met face-to-face, and maybe that's part of what has made Bekah’s community grow so rapidly despite her attempts to slow that growth.
Jocelyn: Well, I think that there's also an element of safety there. So when you also start where you're talking about the abuse being a consideration, which is true to every community -- Lord, we should do another call where we just talk about codes of conduct and more to the point how they get enforced. I've seen some very grandiose statements out there with no plan to operationalize what will happen if someone actually breaks that code of conduct. I think just having black in the title of the group attracts hostility, and it's unfortunate, but that is a reality. And so some of the early meetups might be held in people's houses, and when you're putting something like that on Meetup, it's like, hmm. So there actually was a pre-vetting step even before you got to -- So actually, I guess there were two steps. There was the step to get into the physical event. And then once you were in the physical event, it was like, okay, you're a real person. You didn't show up wearing a white sheet over your head. [chuckles]
Jocelyn: Now, let's put you in the Slack rather than just having the Slack be open to any rando because that's something that because of the particular type -- all of these people who are members, like all of us belong to like a million; I probably have 20 Slacks open right now. And that step of vetting is not necessary in every context. It is very much about what type of community you're trying to have, what type of activities you're trying to build and what commonalities the people have. There are lots of groups where that step wouldn't be necessary. But for Bay Area Black Designers, it was kind of like, okay, well, let's put a few guardrails on this thing.
Jonan: I don't know how to say this nicely, but there are a whole bunch of people who don't have to think about that at that level. And it makes me very sad to think about this in these times, especially because of recent developments in the United States like the Black Lives Matter movement and highlighting the fact that some people just don't acknowledge that others in their country that they are Americans, that they are just fundamentally unsafe in their own country, in their own homes, walking to the grocery store. These are things that you need to consider. And seeing communities develop with guardrails that then have no enforcement layer, I think is a real problem in tech. I think it perpetuates the kinds of toxic culture that we see where on the surface a certain audience that is unfamiliar with what that might mean for a Black-American to put their address online. From a surface level, you're thinking, well, this is an unnecessary step, or I'm going to create this community where that's not necessary to simplify things and grow things. And you are accidentally excluding people and designing these communities then that are enabling toxic behaviors within the community. I have a more concrete example. I was involved in an issue with a meetup that I was part of organizing some years ago where we had a code of conduct that was adapted. It was actually exactly the Contributor Covenant; it wasn't adapted. And we have a similar group in the area that has adapted the same code of conduct to include a no public shaming clause. Well, interpreted one way that means then that no one can call anyone else out for violating the code of conduct. I guess this group of people who are well-intentioned are somewhat blind to the risks for parts of the population and accidentally end up creating quite dangerous spaces.
Jocelyn: Yeah. I guess I'll do an improv. I’ll do yes, and... which is, yeah, all of those things are true. And I also think that, to bring it back to your earlier points in the discussion around communities, building communities, is that when you have people who understand the desires, the drives, the experiences, the mentality, and the perspective of the community vision, they do think that way. So the reason that nobody fell through the cracks is because Bay Area Black Designers has black people at the center of it creating these policies. And when you live in this type of body, in this country, in this generation, and so forth, you are automatically like, oh, when I put my address online, something weird might happen. Because there are accounts on Twitter and stuff that are bots that crawl and just look for certain keywords to make trouble, and you kind of learn that. And you're like, okay, that happened to me once. How can I make sure that never happens to me again? And I think there's a message in there that is probably actionable for anybody listening to this, which is how do you build communities that build communities?
And I think being very intentional about who's crafting your policy actually avoids a lot of those things that you were just saying about you don't want things to fall through the cracks, or you don't want people to be put into uncomfortable situations. Do you have to be exactly like the people in the community that you're designing for? I would say probably not. But that it's good to have some people who are like that at least available as resources, or in the mix, or on a committee, even if they're not the sole person driving decisions. And I think communities become much stronger when you do that and not just safer places to be but also just better. They're more useful. They're more interesting. They're more fun. So there are some lessons that I think anybody building any kind of community can really learn, even by just looking at a community that is nothing like you.
Jonan: Yeah. That's very well said. I admire the depth of your insight on this topic. I could go on talking about this for hours because it is fascinating to me. Thank you so much for sharing all of your thoughts on the subject. There are a couple of questions that I try to ask everyone who comes on the show, and I imagine one of them is more difficult than the other. So I'll give you the hard one first. What do you think is coming over the next year or so that's going to impact our work, the work that you and I do in community? What's going to change? What prediction could you make this year that we can come back and discuss a year from now?
Jocelyn: What I've learned in the past year is that my instincts are so much more sound than I had ever given myself credit for. I think that we have all learned a lot of things about tolerances, like in the engineering sense, like what we're capable of, what our breaking points are, what sharing forces do to us in a way that we really could never have uncovered under any other circumstances. It really took something as extreme as this. And I think the biggest change that we're going to see is that people are going to bring that self-knowledge into situations with them. So this goes back to the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. You can't not bring that self-knowledge into situations with you for the rest of your life. And I think there are going to be some really fascinating Pachinko-like bouncing off each other discoveries that emerge and really change society, change how we communicate with each other, and change expectations about how we live our lives.
Jonan: Yeah, I think everyone at home listening to this knows that feeling, that it's hard for any one of us to look back over the last year and feel like we didn't learn and grow significantly. And it will definitely be a very different future going forward. And to put that optimistic spin on it, the kinds of discussions and problems or challenges that we've had to face over this last year have been part of discussions that needed to happen for a long time. And now we are in a position to actually take that forward and effect change if we embrace it. And I'm very interested to see where this Pachinko machine ends up. I'm hopeful. So, then the easier question.
Jocelyn: Yeah, give me the easy one.
Jonan: The easier one is just what advice you might have for someone starting out earlier in their career who hopes to be in your position someday? I don't actually know that that's easier, even a little bit. But what would you tell a younger version of you?
Jocelyn: Wash my car. Get me the coffee just the way that I like it. [laughter] I thought that is a good question. I think that I've seen, strangely, I've seen bootcamps spring up for community managers. I would have never predicted that. I think that the way to become a community manager is to manage a community. And so find a community that does anything. I don't think it needs to be a tech community. I think that it's all about learning how people interact with each other, being able to spot warning signs when a conversation's about to go sour, learning how to deescalate, learning how to reel in other people outside of your community when you need support for things, building relationships with other communities that are out there. Like, if you have a sewing group, is there another sewing group the next town over where maybe you could be doing something? Do you know what their names are? Do they know what your name is? And I think that is really the key thing is that you have to learn by doing and just being really open to going through that process of all the different phases that a community goes through along with the overwork and sometimes uncomfortable situations where you have to insert yourself between two people that are having a fight. All of that stuff is what you can bring into running a tech community. And I think it is something that is more about temperament and motivation whereas the actual technical nuts and bolts you can learn that and you can be taught that, or you can research that. But the urge to make people feel good is more like a muscle that you have to exercise. And the way that you do that is by doing the work.
Jonan: Wise words. Well-spoken. I really appreciate you coming on the show today. And I want to give people advice on how to find you on the internet. Where could people come and find you and hear more brilliant advice on community management?
Jonan: I'm very much looking forward to it.
Jocelyn: All right. Thank you, Jonan.
Jonan: Thank you for coming. And for all of our listeners, we really appreciate you being here. This is your final reminder to come to FutureStack and build some community with us. There will be video games. We have some very interesting things planned. You should probably come. Go to therelicans.com/futurestack. And with that, I will leave you to enjoy your day.
Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of the rest of The Relicans podcasts on therelicans.com. In fact, most anything The Relicans get up to online will be on that site. We'll see you next week. Take care.