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The Evolution of Perl Monks: Chapter 714

(of an ongoing saga)

Primary Points

  1. That personality conflicts are an inescapable element of a community, and
  2. That a community needs rules before it is justified in punishing its unpopular or seditious elements, and
  3. That princepawn's departure is a failure on the part of the Perl Monks community, not on the part of princepawn

Point One: Where are you, Solomon?

Communities are constructed from the complex relationships of people with, in the case of Perl Monks, shared interests. A community of one person is unlikely to have "politics", a word with dirty connotations. A community with two or more people experiences politics in short order. The holier-than-thou often openly disdain politicking. But community politics are, at the basic level, nothing more than the resolution of conflicts between individuals.

It is most often the case that individuals will aggregate into factions weighing in on either side of an issue. This creates the advantage of numbers -- in an era or place without formalized government, a larger faction will have more success in whacking other factions upside the head with sticks. Under a formalized government, a large and powerful faction can wield their sticks against a dictator (a revolution) or a ruling faction (a different kind of revolution).

The second order effect is that it is unlikely that all members of a faction will agree wholly on anything, including whatever issue is at hand (providing they even remember the issue, what with all the smacking and bonking people about the head). A faction is a community within a community, and differs somewhat in that the members of a faction usually agree to present a united front during the conflict over a particular issue. Factions tend to be unsustainable unless there is a mechanism in place such that members are willing to give up several degrees of freedom over the long term.

Perl Monks is more of a community than a faction itself, but has suffered from personal conflicts and conflicts between loosely knit groups over a number of issues. The latest source of friction has been between princepawn and a number of monks acting out their individual consciences. It would be entirely acceptable to dismiss princepawn as chaotic element who refuses to conform to what is commonly accepted as proper conduct. It is more appropriate though to examine the existing practices, the roles of different members of the community, and the aforementioned codes of conduct.

Question 1: Is Perl Monks a strong community in its own right, a faction of the Perl community at large, or both?
Points to consider:

  • Perl Monks provides an alternative resource to places like #perl, with a higher level of tolerance for ignorant questions (or so the story goes).
  • Perl Monks uses the metaphor of a monastery as a model for behavior, etiquette, preservation of knowledge. Monasteries are often hierarchical organizations with strict rules for membership and protocol enforcement mechanisms.
  • The Perl community has no qualifications for membership, no particular goals (just the shared interest of using and bettering perl), and no overarching metaphor or behavioral protocol enforcement.
  • Perl Monks the group does not have a great deal of influence over the development of Perl the language (or does it?), which is the only power in the Perl community worth having (or is it?).
Question 2: Does Perl Monks have its own internal factions of people easily swayed by emotion or awe or demagoguery, or is every member an individual who forms fluid alliances based on his/her ethical stances and ability to reason?
Points to consider: An Innocent Post degenerates

Point Two: Perl Monks Municipal Code HC344-b: Thou shalt not refer to Perl as PERL

The codes of conduct and community roles have been shaped so far with a powerful concept, the concept of metaphor. But the Perl Monks community cannot grow and evolve forever fueled only by the monastery metaphor.

The first problem with using a metaphor as a means of framing a community is that it is difficult to find a really effective metaphor that does not break down on close examination. The second is the danger that the line between metaphor and reality will start to blur in the minds of community members. Examples of both these points are easy to find.

In the case of the first point, for instance, the hierarchical organization of a Christian monastery follows naturally from the proposition one, that its residents are all in service of God's will, and proposition two, that God is in the monastery and everywhere else as well. Thus, the need for at least two levels of authority (God and !God) in the monastery makes sense. But Perl is not God, Larry is not God, and vroom is not God (neither of the latter ever having made the claim). One can argue that we must have many levels of monks at PM, instead of equality for all, but we do not find God when we reduce the argument here.

In the second case, one doesn't need to read very many posts to realize that a few members have lost track of the fact that Perl Monks is not actually a monastery*. All of the preconceptions that one has about monasteries are not necessarily correct or applicable. They are useful for conveying a great deal of community philosophy in a single word to a new user. The word is pregnant with thousands of years of history and precedent, and acts as a marvelous clue-stick for supplicants and applicants alike. The metaphor should be retained because of its power. The power of connotation though is such that the rules of actual monasteries are taken to be the case in Perl Monks. (For example, exhibiting humility before God because God is greater than the individual does not translate to exhibiting humility before Perl.) Unlike physical monasteries, Perl Monks does not yet have formalized protocols with an accompanying set of enforcement mechanisms.

This brings us to the question of Perl Monks rules and enforcements thereof. Nowhere is it written that monks must be polite, have a sense of humor, and like Perl. There are implicit mores and written "suggestions", and sure it would be silly for someone who didn't like Perl to want to be a Perl Monk, but the fact remains that there is no formalized code of conduct.

Instead, we have the accompanying half in place: an enforcement mechanism (voting) for monks to use, and without rules, to abuse with impunity. Rules must have teeth and teeth must have rules. Certainly voting was not originally envisioned as a mechanism to punish the unpopular. But it is tremendously naive to think that no one would ever be influenced to vote based on the writer of the post rather than the content. Perl Monks has several thousand enforcers running around with the ability to enforce completely arbitrary rules at the whim of their individual motivations. Even the most thoughtful person rarely takes the time to face their own motivations in enforcing rules, such as "Am I following my principles?" or "Have I ever questioned my own principles to make sure they weren't blindly inherited?".

Expand these questions about individual motivations to a vast web of community motivations and you will encounter weaknesses. One weakness is that if there are no formalized rules and we rely on the good judgment of the average monk, there is room then for the demagogue who can influence monks (through words, prowess, or other means) to subjugate their internal sense of principle. S/he can then control their collective enforcement power to either shape their vision of the rules, or merely punish threats as they arise in a chaotic system. A community may, as a whole, prefer to risk this possibility rather than implement written rules.

If there are formalized rules, an altogether different but common system failure occurs: the failure of most communities to recognize that the seditious and unpopular element that merely questions the existing rules is not, in fact, dangerous. These are the people who prevent the fossilization and institutionalization of codes that over time lose meaning or relevance to a community.

Question 3: Would you say that Perl Monks actually is a monastery?
Point to consider: Languages and words evolve to fit their times...

Question 4: Would retaining voting on nodes but getting rid of XP negate the opportunity for the power-hungry to make up the rules by putting together factions of votes?
Points to consider:

  • XP whoring would be harder
  • Group-shunning would have to be done verbally, not with mass downvoting
  • People might stop voting completely if there is no "reward"

Question 5: How did the practice of banning white shoes after Labor day finally go out of practice, and why did it exist in the first place?
People to consult: a certain master of trivia

Point Three: What Do You Call a Group of Camels?

Princepawn is unpopular. That is not really up for debate. Personality perhaps comes into play, but also the content of his posts and the danger that is perceived in them. He has questioned informal community practices (mass downvoting), arbitrary actions by people with power (refusing a request for a picture in the monk rotation), and the very center of the community's existence: Perl. As an outsider and a person who will say out loud what others do not, his actions are not just valuable but are an ongoing necessity.

Without a gadfly type of element who forces the community to defend its reasoning, the reasons may themselves be forgotten, though the rules go on. A gadfly has a difficult path, because s/he must be part of and apart from a community. It is not for the author of this post to say that princepawn is the "right" person to take on this role, or that any one person should do so. But the role itself is valuable, and though princepawn's personality may grate, many of his questions deserve abundant respect.

Though it may be the decision of the community to do otherwise, it is the opinion of the author that a formal set of rules is necessary. Why? the number of new users registering every day leads to a conclusion based on practicality -- that the popularity of the site and the need for its services will overwhelm a delicate unwritten system based on deep personal respect, graciousness, humility, and learning. One doesn't need to look far to see a formerly close-knit community of the smart and computer-literate overwhelmed by popularity. The most resilient community will be the one that embraces the seditious voice and allows it to prune away the dead or useless bits. Whether it is just one lone voice or a occasional note in every monk's voice does not matter. Perl Monks is not any different from any other community -- its denizens will herd instinctively to protect the interests of the community. The question that matters is not whether it is resilient enough to withstand attacks on Perl, but whether it is resilient enough to understand its own best interests, to transform itself as necessary, and to thrive as a result.

Question 6: Is Slashdot a grand failure or a notable success as an online community of self-described nerds?

Question 7: Would you question everything? Or do you believe that some questions go too far and it should be incorporated into the rules that certain things should be left unsaid?
Consider the following:

  • Is it acceptable to be harsh with new users? Is it acceptable to be harsh with people who are harsh? It is acceptable to set any rules at all?
  • Should a democratic society such as the United States do away with the anonymous vote completely? Should Perl Monks?
  • Is vroom's demonstrated bias against princepawn warranted?
  • Do merlyn, gnat, Dominus etc. deserve to be worshipped as heroes? Does it damage the community at large to have Saints with power and influence, or does it give new users a valuable goal to strive for?
  • When one person persecutes four entirely different people to the point that it is a persisten pattern, should it be noticed and acted on or swept under the rug?
  • Will the use of Perl die out in the near future as it becomes bogged down with bureaucracy at the top levels? Should Perl die out if there is an as-yet-unspecified language that is more intuitive, more efficient, and faster to write in? Does that language already exist?

this post brought to you by neshura, faction of one, with the fine editorial input of jlp, Macphisto, and vroom

In reply to Chapter 714: The Long Chapter by neshura

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