ira_gladkova ([personal profile] ira_gladkova) wrote2012-08-03 09:16 pm

Criticism, Negativity, and all those Blues (includes That Tag Wrangler Letter)

(Apologies about the lack of Minutes Monday this week -- there were no new minutes to discuss, but lots of interesting stuff next week!)

Recently some tag wranglers were talking publicly about a letter the staff had sent to them about negativity and criticism. Separately but contemporaneously, one of my closest friends, [personal profile] seventhe posted about her ambivalence towards the OTW.

So! Let's talk about that.

Criticizing the OTW, Inside and Out

First up, I hope it's clear from clear from my history that I have no problem with criticizing the OTW.

Here's the thing. I think criticism is healthy. I think it's necessary. Feeling like you're in a place where you can't even criticize your experience? Where it feels like your experience is being erased? That's terrible. That's about the worst working environment possible. Leaving people in a place where they feel they can't criticize or recount negative experiences is the worst thing the OTW can do to itself and others.

But many of us have seen that there are a lot of issues around criticism of the OTW. I think this comes back to the basic tension inherent in the OTW: fannish project vs. nonprofit organization.

Fandom in general has a complex relationship with criticism: hesitance to criticize labours of love; cultures centered around improvement and constructive criticism; cultures centered around positivity and protection from crit; harshing people's buzz; different attitudes towards critical analysis of canon and fan works; pleas for honest reviews.

On the nonprofit org side is an expectation of professionalism and of a culture of service. This includes being open to and prepared to deal with criticism, up to and including anger and undiluted negativity, all in the name of improving something in service of the mission. However, not even this is without complexity: nonprofit orgs are often run in part or entirely by volunteers, or have limited resources in other ways. This impacts the ability to deal with criticism efficiently.

The OTW lands in the morass in between.

The path to sustainability lies on the nonprofit end of the scale — we cannot forget our fannish cultural roots, but to persist in our mission, we must adopt structures and practices suitable to nonprofit organizations. And here is where criticism comes in:

If you expect us to act like a nonprofit org, you have to treat us as a nonprofit org.

So here are some things I think are useful to keep in mind vis-à-vis criticizing the OTW to make criticism maximally effective:
  • Be aware of the space and audience when you criticize.

    Venting wherever you feel the need is great; please keep doing that! Posting in your own spaces about org feels is great. Do it! However, while complaining in your own spaces is valid, it is not a path to action.

    We're embedded in fannish communities, and news tends to travel; fannish projects often change in response to indirect criticism and commentary. It's not unreasonable to suppose something similar of the the OTW: we're pretty much trained to this by how fandom functions. And it's true that sometimes, this does work.

    But we can't expect it to.

    It really saddens me to know that a lot of valid and valuable critique of the org is expressed where the very people who can do something about it are less likely to see it. This includes people who aren't volunteers posting in various private spaces as well as volunteers voicing complaints in org spaces that aren't optimized to get those complaints to where they need to be heard.

    Let me be clear: no one is obligated to give their opinion to the OTW or anyone in it. But if you want us to take action on something that's bothering you, it's most effective to come tell us about it.

    Crit is most effective when given to the right audience. While the OTW still suffers from transparency issues, there is quite a bit of information out there about what our various parts do and how to contact us. If you're not sure where to address a particular complaint, ask! This will help you be heard where it matters most.

  • Keep in mind our limited resources.

    This is related to the "but it's volunteer work" idea that often gets deployed in conversations about org crit. The fact that we're all volunteers doesn't make us or our work immune to criticism; let's just dispense with that right away. However, it does mean that we have limited resources for dealing with criticism, both material and psychological.

    This is not at all particular to the OTW. All nonprofits run on limited resources. In our case, this is not only time taken out of the rest of our lives, but time taken out of our fannish lives as well: limited time taken out of limited time.

    In terms of material limits, this means that we often run slower than anyone — including us! — wants us to in addressing criticism. We're not paid professionals, and our turnaround time is the intersection of many people's limited availability. So when a complaint comes to us and nothing seems to happen, this doesn't mean that we aren't listening or that it doesn't matter to us: much more likely it's a combination of limited resources and poor transparency. We definitely need to work on letting people know that we're working on something and giving updates.

    We also have psychological and emotional limits, and that's where the tricky thing about "tone" or "attitude" comes in. I can't say "don't be angry at us" — that's a load of crock. I can't even tell people they "shouldn't" be "mean" to us. What I can say, though, is that it's counterproductive.

    I'm deeply allergic to forced positivity, but at the same time, it's vital to recognize that an encouraging working environment is essential to volunteer work. And feeling able to voice criticism is an essential part of an encouraging working environment. The opposite is toxic. But there's a definite balance between freedom to criticize and respect for others and the work they do. Negative feelings happen, and if you need to express them, you should do it! But see above about spaces/audience. Our work is not sacred. But I do think it's valuable and should be treated as if it has value. Aggressiveness and antagonism damage the work environment and make it less likely that your problem will be addressed. We all want to make things better, but it's harder to do that from under a pile of bad feelings, and eventually we run out of the psychological resources to do so.

    The bottom line: If you value the OW and its projects as a part of your community — and if you're criticizing the org in an effort to make it better, I assume that you do — then value us as part of the same.

So I think criticism is great, but I want it to work. I want criticism to be effective and to lead to change. How you criticize and why is your business, but if your goal is the same as mine, then I think these points are essential to keep in mind.

Now then, about a particular recent incident centered around criticism.

The Letter to Tag Wranglers

In this context, I need a disclaimer: I am also staff on the Tag Wrangling Committee. All the usual caveats apply: one out of many, working as a team, no magic wand. But I want to be clear that this is how I have access to this information. I try not to conflate my Board and TW staffer roles, but in this case, I'm speaking about general org matters using information obtained through the lens of a TW staffer.

That said: recently, the TW chairs sent a letter to the TW volunteer mailing list about expressing negativity and criticism on the list. This letter was written in part because of some wranglers' reactions to the on-list announcement of the Category Change Workgroup (post on that later). There have been a lot of misconceptions about this letter floating around so, with the permission of the TW chairs, here is the full text of the letter, so that we are all operating on full and accurate information (emphasis mine; links redacted but noted):
In the recent discussion concerning the Category Change workgroup, some questions were raised concerning criticizing the Org and the Archive, and antagonism and potential hostility on the wrangling mailing list.

To begin with: it is entirely fine to be angry or frustrated. Every one of us in the OTW has some criticisms we can make about the Org; there's probably not a single person up and down the volunteer line who is 100% satisfied with it (it's a major motivation for why many of us volunteer, to help improve things!) And raising and openly discussing these issues is the only way to fix many of them.

However, when you are criticizing aspects of the org on the internal wrangling mailing list, we ask that you keep in mind two things:

First off, the wrangler mailing list is a closed list, only visible to wranglers. If you are criticizing aspects of the Archive/Org beyond the immediate scope of tags and wrangling, the people who most need to hear your criticisms are not here to hear them. Even if some of them are present (we have wranglers from nearly all the committees and workgroups) they may not feel comfortable responding to such criticisms on a closed list, without discussing them with the rest of their committee/workgroup (and therefore having to share internal wrangler discussion).

This does not mean you cannot discuss the work of other parts of the Org on the wrangling mlist, as much of it directly or indirectly impacts what wranglers do (though we ask, for the sake of reducing off-topic list traffic, that you keep such discussions focused on how they pertain to tags/wrangling. If you'd like to participate in more wide-ranging discussions, the OTW forums [link] are a better place.) However, when you do bring up criticisms, avoid being openly antagonistic or challenging, and try to keep to constructive and productive discussions centered on specific issues, rather than general subjective opinions. (e.g. "My friend's Support ticket about xxx was never answered" is okay; "Support is totally falling down on the job" is not. Likewise, "the Archive's search sucks" isn't helpful, while as "search would be more useful if it included wrangling relationships" is constructive.)

If there is an issue you feel the tag wrangling committee should be dealing with, you are encouraged to email the staff [link] or chairs [link] about it, as well as bringing it up on the wrangler mailing list. You can see current issues under discussion in our meeting minutes [link] (pages for future meetings list the upcoming agenda); past minutes are also linked from the newsletter [link] (which is required reading for all wranglers.) Meetings are held in the wrangling chatroom, so all wranglers can read the full transcripts [link] if you want more detail than what's in the minutes; you are also welcome to lurk in the meetings themselves (and bring up any questions in chat after the meetings; usually some staff stick around.) If there is an important issue that hasn't been raised in these venues, please feel free to go ahead and email the staff about it; we will add items to the agenda on wrangler request.

If you have an issue with the tag wrangling committee itself (either a specific conflict or in a broader sense) and you do not feel comfortable bringing your concerns to the general staff, you can email the wrangling chairs directly at [link]. Or, if you'd like to keep your concern confidential from the wrangling committee, you can contact the Volunteers Committee at [link]. You can also contact the wrangler OTW Board liaison directly; our liaison this year is Sanders [link].

If there is an issue in another part of the Org that you feel needs to be addressed, you have several options for getting in touch with the actual committee/workgroup in question. You can always email the wrangling staff list or the wrangling chairs; we coordinate with other committees, and can pass concerns on (at least if they're tag/wrangling related; otherwise we can put you in touch with people in a better position to handle them.) If your issue is outside the scope of tags and wrangling there are other options. Non-tag-related AO3 feature requests and bug reports should be submitted to Support (tag and wrangling related features and bug reports as always should be submitted directly to the wrangling staff.) Some of the org-wide chat meetings have open floors where cross-committee issues can be raised. The forums are open to all volunteers in the org, so any posts there can be seen by all committee staff and volunteers. Many of the committees/workgroups have mailing lists listed on the OTW internal wiki through which you can contact them directly (especially if a matter seems particularly urgent); many of them also make public posts allowing comments.

And of course, if you have the time, you always have the option to volunteer for other volunteer pools, committees and workgroups. Sometimes the best way to effect change is to work from a position which is responsible for that change.

The second thing to keep in mind when raising criticism on the mailing list (or anywhere else in the Org) is that every single person, on every committee and workgroup and any other part of the OTW, is a volunteer, just as you are; they are freely donating their time and effort to the Archive and the Org to try to make them the best they can be. Even if you do not approve of or agree with the work they are doing, please respect them, and the effort they are putting into that work. 'Respect' obviously does not mean 'do not criticize'; but when you do, keep it constructive, and try not to take out your frustrations on them. Assume they are acting in good faith, and be understanding that their own perspective on the issue may not agree with yours (or even if they do agree, your suggestions may not all be feasible or immediately possible; we simply do not have the time or resources to do everything all at once, frustrating as that is.) This includes every member of the tag wrangling committee staff, all of whom started out as regular wrangling volunteers, and are still active wranglers, in addition to our other committee duties; we strive to do as best by wranglers as we can, because we are all wranglers as well.

So, while it can be tempting to let off steam, remember there are over 150 people on the wrangler mailing list, and the odds are some of them are personally involved in whatever aspect of the Org you are criticizing. Openly antagonistic complaints can make the whole list feel hostile, and discourage some people from offering their own perspectives and criticism, if they feel that they might be attacked for it. Whenever you post on the mailing list, keep in mind that while we all have our own personal vision for what we want the OTW to be, ultimately we are all in this together, and the only way we'll get anywhere is if we cooperate, support, and respect one another in our work with the Org.

Thank you,
Emilie & Alison
Tag Wrangling chairs

I hope it's clear where my bolding relates to the points I made earlier in this post.

Before I get into discussing the letter, a little background on the tag wrangling list. The Tag Wrangling Committee consists of the staff and a volunteer pool. The staff is responsible for managing the volunteer pool, managing tag wrangling policies, and representing the interests of tag wranglers and tagging interests to the wider org. Tag wranglers are a very diverse group, including in terms of org involvement: many have positions elsewhere in the org, while for many others tag wrangling is their sole volunteer involvement in the org. This leads to a very wide array of depth and type of connection to the org. In addition, the TW committee had a rocky start with confusion over purview and communication leading to several incidents where wranglers at large felt unheard by the rest on the org. On average then, a lot of tag wranglers feel a bit left out of org doings, disconnected from structures of authority and yet expected to "play the game" in terms of following wrangling rules, filing complaints in proper places, etc. This puts a lot of wranglers in a frustrating bind: actively invested in org work yet feeling unable to affect it much. There are wranglers who do not feel like this, but I think that overarching average is important to keep in mind about the list.

What's been very frustrating for a lot of TW staff is that a lot of wranglers have been representing this letter publicly as forbidding wranglers to criticize. While there are many factors in play — wording of the letter, history of the wrangling committee and volunteer pool, larger org issues — that can ease a jump to that conclusion, I hope that looking at the full text of the letter makes clear the intent: to show wranglers the best ways to get their criticism heard. A sort of "how-to" on criticism, the same intent as my post here. This is furthermore aimed at people the OTW considers "internal" — we're expecting people to not only treat us as professionals, but also to behave like professionals.

Now, that's less simple than it sounds, because of the trickiness I mentioned above. In theory, wranglers are part of the org, and one of the functions of the TW committee is to make sure wranglers are heard. However, the OTW in general is struggling with professionalism, communication, and structure, and TW committee is no exception. I think the TW committee has made huge progress in this vein, but wranglers still have to operate on a lot of good faith before they can treat the rest of the org like professionals in turn.

From the staffer perspective, I think this, from a comment by [personal profile] cypher on [personal profile] seventhe's entry, puts it very well:
I've been staff on the Wrangling Committee for a long time now, until I had to take a hiatus this year because the stress of it was so unpleasant -- it's a very rock-and-hard-place position, where we have very little ability to effect change without going through other committees for help, and there have been a lot of instances in the past few years where we didn't get a chance to offer input on changes that would affect us, or where things our volunteers really wanted just didn't make it to the top of the too-long list of things for the coders to do. So there's a huge feeling of frustration and powerlessness sitting there like a big unfriendly rock on one side.

And then on the other side is the hard place of the volunteers who see us as the authorities/insiders and hold us accountable for everything that doesn't get done (or done fast enough) and every communication failure -- it's certainly not all the volunteers, but it happens often enough that a big unofficial part of being on the committee is honestly "be someone to blame."

Wranglers can themselves often feel stuck in a similar situation: accountable to users for a huge part of their archive experience (as well as being users themselves) yet caught against the large, slow machinery of the org as it grinds away beyond their direct control.

So I can understand where the frustration and negative interpretation comes from. But I continue to think that the key lies in treating the OTW as, well, an organization.

At this point, I must address a likely concern: how can I expect people to treat the OTW professionally when the OTW doesn't behave professionally?

To that I say: It's symbiotic. We need both sides of that equation to make it work. We are working hard on being more professional, and it will help us immensely to achieve that goal if people treat us as such. It's a good faith thing, I know — but for all that I love and approve of criticism, I think good faith from both sides is absolutely essential to the enterprise.

Given this, there's understandable difficulty in treating the org like a nonprofit with a hierarchy and proper channels of communication. For one, our hierarchy is poorly-understood both within the org and inside it: this is something we're actively working on. On the flip side, however, points of contact are not hard to find for anyone who goes looking for them. It's all about reciprocity: our nascent hierarchy can only be fully effective if people respect it and behave as if it is real.

This includes waiting while the machinery grinds along (or pitching in to push further up the chain) — and in the reciprocal direction, it involves communication and updates on the status of the grind. Hierarchy must be respected reciprocally. This is where the org is struggling, and I am going to be honest here. I keep saying it has to be symbiotic, and I mean it. We need all the help we can get: please help us.

So. People have criticism and negative feelings, not necessarily at the same time but not mutually exclusive either. It's up to each individual what they do with those, but if the goal is to help the OTW change for the better, I hope this gives a little insight into how we work and what the most effective ways to talk to us are.

I do feel that the OTW has at least one good thing going for it in this context: there are a ton of ways and venues to reach us, and overall there's much more availability of direct and personal connection with our personnel. That's pretty awesome — but it's also something that has to be treated carefully. That sense of personal connection can make it a lot easier to interact with us — the org as a whole or individual personnel — as if we're only fellow fans on a fannish project, rather than part of a nonprofit organization. We're both, and negotiating that line continues to be tricky.

As always, thank you all for your thoughts! I hope this helps.

(I also wanted to talk a bit about ambivalence towards the OTW, but this post is long enough already. So chucking that in the pile of to-do tl;dr.)

Post a comment in response:

Anonymous( )Anonymous This account has disabled anonymous posting.
OpenID( )OpenID You can comment on this post while signed in with an account from many other sites, once you have confirmed your email address. Sign in using OpenID.
Account name:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
HTML doesn't work in the subject.


Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.