feel duly chastened.
This is fascinating and brings me up a bit short. The context's a bit complicated; let me explain.
In the academic field of anthropology, there's a journal called HAU. (Or Hau. Always seems to be styled in all caps, but it's not an acronym – it's a Maori word – so I dunno.) It's an open access journal; it was founded to be
open access, and was just sold/given/transferred(?) to the University of Chicago Press, and is being converted to a traditional "closed access" journal. That's not the big
It's having a #metoo moment: people involved in HAU are coming forward (in some cases anonymously) to make very serious accusations against the guy who pretty much single-handedly is in charge of it. Those accusations include violent assault, financial shenanigans, and bullying and dirty dealing with volunteers and contributors all by this one guy, Giovanni da Col. The Twitter hashtag is #hautalk . (h/t Metafilter
In the course of this controversy erupting, last Tuesday (June 19), someone made what I found to be an extremely
interesting post, which I commend to your attention: Prof. Ilana Gershon posted "Pyramid Scheme. #hautalk"
It is a discussion of how the software system HAU was using shaped interpersonal interactions in ways which facilitated a malignant actor in a position of authority getting away with abusing his power.
Though she doesn't put it this way explicitly, she's describing how tyrannizing one's organization was an affordance of their journal management platform.
The thing I found so arresting about her account is that the very things the software did that she persuasively argues facilitated these abuses, they're things I thought were good ideas for software like this
. In fact, I think just about everybody who thinks about how to build a platform like this and has deep experience in volunteer organizations would think they were good ideas; presumably the people who designed and wrote the open source software they were using – Open Journals Systems – thought they were good ideas, and that's why they built the software like that.
What Gershon explains is that OJS facilitates the management of – this is the fundamental nature of an open access journal – a very large, complex volunteer enterprise with many, many contributors in many different roles, and where many contributions are small in the scale of the over-all endeavor. In any large volunteer enterprise, you have to find a way to leverage many small, time-limited contributions, to stitch them all together to make a coherent whole.
Like anybody who has ever done any online volunteer coordination, I've long thought, "Jeeze, a good software platform could help with this enormously." I've fantasized about building such things for specific projects, and started sketching out E-R diagrams in my head. Given even cursory contemplation, there are two obvious candidates for streamling through software implementation. First, automating out a whole bunch of manual coordinative communication, so tasks and resources (draft documents, e.g.) could be automagically routed to the next party and the people in charge get a dashboard so they can monitor what's going on. Second reducing the administrative tasks that otherwise bulk up volunteer commitments - to make it such that volunteers could just
do the part they're interested in, whether that's academics doing academic writing or coders programming or musicians composing, and not have to also, say, do a bunch of formatting or holding committee meetings or document prep or whatever. That is: to make it possible – feasible – for the organization to have volunteers do one
of a thing instead of needing volunteers to take on an on-going role where they agree to regularly do that thing many times.
These are, on the face of them, such obviously good ideas for volunteer organizations coordinated online (which today is all of them) that I am not in any ways surprised that they're baked into the OJS software.
And the consequence
of those functionalities – which, in retrospect, is 100% head-slappingly obvious – is that they simultaneously instantiate a pattern of vertiginously hierarchical power relations (hence the "pyramid" of Gershon's title), while isolating individual contributors from one another, so nobody knows what's going on.
It hardens power hierarchies while eliminating witnesses.
Gershon talks about how this interacted with academics' avoidance of "service work", but there's nothing here specific to academics. All volunteer organizations have this problem: if volunteer roles are constructed to involve a lot of tasks beyond what the volunteers like to do or are willing to do, they are likely to volunteer less or not at all. I'm thinking of someone I know who got great joy out of volunteering at a food pantry – so long as she could just stock shelves and didn't have to deal with the general public; when her circumstances changed such that she couldn't be there when the truck arrived, and her only remaining available role there was working the counter, she quit.
One of the forms this problem takes is people who are willing to do various forms of work, just so long as they don't have to attend meetings. That's a common one. And it's not illegitimate: there are volunteer organizations I
have never joined and never done work for, for no more reason than that I couldn't make their scheduled meetings. But, as Gershon's account suggests, when someone comes up with a software system which indulges volunteers' wishes not to have to have any meetings at all, you wind up with a volunteer base in which everyone is deeply isolated, where the only contact one has in the organization is the person who has authority over your volunteer work.
From the perspective of someone wanting
organizational power so they can get away with being a petty tyrant (or not-so-petty tyrant), that's a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel situation.
I recommend you read Gershon's post for yourself, especially if you have anything to do with social software and/or volunteer organizations: Pyramid Scheme. #hautalk