On Open Companies, Consent, and Safety (among other things)

We can't get to the future we want by pretending we're already there.

by Ellen Marie Dash (duckie) on July 21st, 2014

There are two goals of Open Companies, as I understand them. The first is to create companies that are actually considered trustworthy, instead of barely above the legal minimum for trustworthiness. That is to say, companies that go out of their way to make sure that they are doing right by everybody who interacts with them – owners, employees, customers and/or users, society at large, etc. The second is to create an environment where people can more easily become involved with the company.

While I like the ideals and goals of Open Companies, I find that the approach tends to position openness as an end in and of itself, instead of as a means to reach higher goals and values. While well intentioned, this approach to “openness” creates a shallow show with minimal tangible improvement, while also strongly reinforcing the problematic under-representation of marginalized groups.

I have discussed Open Companies before, including in Model View Culture’s previous interview with me about my work as a User Advocate for Gittip. The main purpose of this role was to bridge what appeared to be a communication gap between users and the primary development team. I ensured user feedback got to the appropriate places it needed to go in order for it to be acted upon, by breaking discussions down into actionable items. I also provided a means for users to provide feedback in a way that was entirely anonymous to the rest of the Gittip team.

Image of a metal bridge crossing a chasm, surrounded by pine trees in the sun.

CC-BY davebloggs007, filtered.

The general idea of Open Companies, as proposed by Chad Whitacre (the founder of Gittip) and elaborated on later, both in person and by the Open Company Initiative, is fascinating to me. I call out Gittip quite often throughout this article, as a side effect of it being the only Open Company which I have been closely involved with. I am doing this in an attempt to both help Gittip improve in these areas, as well as help other companies avoid these issues to start with.

Recentering: Outcomes over mechanisms

The vast majority of the issues Gittip has experienced when interacting with other people, groups, and companies seem to arise not necessarily from a difference in ideals and values, but from a difference in perceived prioritization of these ideals and values. By treating openness and transparency as an end in and of itself, instead of a means to an end, it gives the impression that openness and transparency are prioritized over consent, safety, and comfort — regardless of whether or not this is actually the case. In our attempts to create trustworthy companies, we have unintentionally made the situation worse: like traditional companies, our ignorance tramples those that wish to help us, but now we have turned it into a sideshow for all the world to see.

As we move forward, we need to treat openness and transparency as tools, not the end result. Let’s recenter on the problems we’re trying to solve—instead of the tools being used to reach it—and build out from there. Let’s stop pretending we can use one simple solution for a multitude of challenging problems.

Let’s give safety and consent the absolute highest priority, with openness and transparency prioritized explicitly below those. This means digging deep, properly articulating in detail what problems you are trying to solve with openness and transparency, and handling them individually or in smaller groups.

This will likely prove to be difficult, and needs to become an ongoing process, instead of a one-time occurrence.

The problems that need to be solved will also vary from company to company. However, the end result of this effort will be a more trustworthy company than the current approach can accomplish — and, at the highest level, this is exactly what we’re aiming for.

Transparency: Behold, the cinderblock

It is very easy to get from the ideal of Open Companies to the implementation that Gittip has taken: dump every bit of data you have about the company into a public medium. However, what you wind up with is a company that produces so much unorganized, uninteresting and irrelevant data that you can’t find meaningful information.

You try to find out what has been worked on over the past week, but it’s buried in the midst of an hour and a half of recorded, “open” videos. Even though it can be properly explained in a single-page summary, it’s left only in a time-consuming format. I know of absolutely nobody who has put forth the effort to translate Gittip’s recorded calls into a more usable format on more than one occasion.

“Transparency” by this definition is meant to help people see, in detail, inside of the company… even if it’s wholly uninteresting to the vast majority of people.

The thing is, this approach is not transparency, it’s a fucking charade.

A far more approachable alternative is to find out what information is wanted, and by whom, and break it down in such a way that they can get the information they need without digging through wholly irrelevant noise. Organize it in such a way that it can be accessed, searched, and cited, easily. As an example, I’ll approach the issue of chatrooms, since it is one I have a lot of experience with. The most successful approach I have seen is having a public chatroom with a few people who have access to the logs, and having them go through and create minutes of meetings and important conversations. The minutes are then made publicly available.

A chart of Apollo 14 Star Charts in a worn binder.

CC-BY Steve Jurvetson, filtered.

This can be done regardless of any company decisions about the publicity of internal discussions, and thus is applicable both to companies like Gittip, as well as companies that are more reserved about publicly logging all discussions.

Openness: Your unlocked door weighs more than I do

My understanding of the term “openness,” as used for Open Companies, is that anybody who wishes to participate should be able to with minimal friction. The inner operations of the company being transparent and easily understood assists with this. The idea is that if everything that can be public is made public, then the onboarding process is just formalities and handling the legal side of things. However, the approach that is chosen is often what I feel can accurately be described as “radical transparency” — the very problem I pointed out in the previous section.

This approach is highly problematic for marginalized groups. One of the things I keep seeing pushed is publicizing people’s salaries. In our world, where marginalized people get harassed over the amount of money they make, it is sometimes not safe for a person to have things such a their salary made public. Some people (including myself, previously) have suggested simply making it opt-out. However, if you make it opt-out, it doesn’t solve the problem: the people who have opted out can very easily be inferred by omission.

Instead of trying to make a one-size-fits-all solution, we need to step back and solve each openness-related problem on its own accord.

Publishing all of the data you can doesn’t really solve any problems. For salaries in particular, I’d argue that, really, nobody cares what other people’s salaries are unless the ratios of compensation to cost of living are unfair. If two people are considered roughly equally valuable to the company, they should be able to afford roughly the same things. This isn’t about exact dollar amounts, it’s about the ratio of cost of living to compensation, and it is really fucking hard to get right.

So how do we solve this? One idea is to discard the self-selected salary approach that has become popular at some startups, and instead set clear terms for specifying how much somebody is compensated. This would likely be based on experience, how long they’ve worked at the company, and the cost of living in the location they are in, among many other factors.

The key is to make this process well documented, as objective as possible, and everything about it publicly documented.

If an employee feels they are not being fairly compensated, they can check for themselves that they are being compensated as much as the process specifies they should be. If they are not, they have what they need to speak out about it. If they are being compensated as the process specifies, but feel it is unfair, they have what they need to present a case for process being adjusted.

The key is to look at the specific structures and ramifications of a problem, and coming up with the solution that makes the most sense, rather than simply defaulting to an arbitrary notion of openness that may create structural problems of its own.

Safety: Implicit is insufficient

One of the things that has come up multiple times with Gittip is personal safety: the ability of someone to participate in the company’s activities without feeling they are making themselves vulnerable or putting themselves directly in danger. A prominent example, mentioned in a GitHub issue for Gittip back in December 2013, is that some people get harassed simply for asking for support for their work — including being accused of “begging” and people trying to police their spending. There are also many who have voiced weariness over joining publicly-recorded conversations, for reasons related to harassment (harassers having the ability to see what they say without anyone knowing of their presence) and privacy in general. The only way to handle this sort of problem properly is by explicitly placing consent and safety over openness and transparency.

I previously proposed that all companies should be explicit safe spaces. The problem is that there are varying definitions of safe spaces, and some people claim you can’t have somewhere be a safe space for everyone. I feel a space can be made safe for every person, but not for every idea.

Simply claiming that a company is a safe space is not enough. You must state who it is intended to be safe for and a non-exhaustive list of which ideas are explicitly allowed and explicitly disallowed. These lists always exist at least unofficially.

It’s time to Fucking. Own. Them.

Chugga chugga spaceship noises

Screenshot of Earth's atmosphere from space.

CC-BY Sweetie187, filtered.

At the end of the day, Open Companies don’t sound like a terrible idea. In fact, the end goals they’re trying to achieve largely overlap with my own: creating companies that are run in a way that makes them as trustworthy as possible, and making it as easy as possible for people to become involved. The problem is that the approach of publicly releasing all of the data you can is a non-solution: it is an approach that makes it appear that you’re taking action, but in the end it winds up creating an echo chamber for the existing problems in the world.

To me, the reason it turns into this echo chamber strongly mirrors what Andi McClure has previously said about college admissions processes: when you start with a system which is blind to race, class, gender, and disability (among other things), and throw it into a society which is very much not blind to them, what you get is (at best) a repeater of the previous and ongoing discriminatory acts that society as a whole perpetuates.

I got excited and jumped on the Open Company train. It seemed like such a magnificent idea! The problem is that it is not a train, but some glorious creation from a time where power dynamics and discrimination are almost wholly irrelevant.

Your train is a spaceship from the future, and nobody knows how to drive it. When laying out how a company is to be run, you absolutely have to take into account the realities of the world you live in. The reality of our world, right now, is that the simplest approaches to openness and transparency wind up simply creating yet another place where marginalized groups lose their voices.

These problems are hard, possibly even impossible, to solve entirely. However, we can do better. We can do far better. This is me calling on ALL companies — not just Open Companies — to step up. It’s time to stop sweeping these problems under the rug or trying to find a one-size-fits-all solution, and tackle each of them individually.

We can’t get to the future we want by pretending we’re already there.