Open communities vs closed communities - what's more inclusive?

8 October 2015

I’m a big ‘open’ advocate, and inclusivity and diversity are very important to me. Over the past few months, though, I’ve been wondering more about “closed” communities - and, I have to say that I’m seeing more and more benefits of them. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I’m finding more and more that closed communities are actually more inclusive than many open ones. Let me explain why.

Let me start with definitions, at least as I understand them. For me, an open community is:

  • one where anyone can join (whether this be a mailing list, or a physical meet up group, event or conference)
  • where processes and decision making happens transparently - whether this is by an elected group of representatives, or, more likely, as a group decision
  • one where anyone (newcomers, and long time community members) are welcomed to speak and voice their opinion
  • one where the majority of communications are made public (eg. the archives of mailing lists are made public by default)

And a closed community is:

  • invitation-only
  • only members of the community can access resources, see the mailing list archives, etc.
  • decision-making might happen transparently to members of the group itself, but these processes are not made public

As I said earlier, inclusivity is close to my heart, and from first glance at a closed community as I’ve defined it here, it seems to be the opposite of that.

But what I’m seeing is that within closed communities, someone, or some event, has brought a certain group of people together for a reason. They’ve already been identified as being trusted individuals, with a shared interest and affinity, and, crucially, zero interest in trolling each other. Being in a closed community which has been convened by someone you know and trust is essentially being part of a safe space online or offline - and, sadly, these are somewhat rare on the internet, especially for women and marginalised communities.

In a similar vein to the line of argument that this piece takes on newsletters being a new safe space for women - invite-only mailing lists are the places where I read some of the most valuable content I interact with online. Sometimes this is through people sharing experiences that they just wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about publicly; other times, it’s talking about topics that would attract too much negative attention online from trolls, or asking for advice about sensitive but important topics.

I’m noticing a similar trend in the quality of conversations, debates and discussions that I’m having at different styles of offline events, too. Over the past four years, I’ve attended a huge range of events - ‘open’ festivals, unconferences, traditional conferences with panels, small and big workshops… and in all honesty, the places where I’ve learned the most and done the most valuable work have been the closed, invitation only events. Retreats, work sprints, or workshops with smaller groups of people have been where I’ve felt like I’ve achieved and learned the most.

That’s not to say that I’ve not enjoyed many of the larger, open events - I’ve met lots of fascinating people, had great conversations, and listened to great talks. But inevitably there’s a person, or multiple, who say something sexist or racist, or the person who interrupts women on stage, condescends, makes offensive assumptions about me or others… and generally reduces my enjoyment, and the enjoyment of others. Perhaps I’m naive, but this simply hasn’t happened at smaller events where every single individual has been selected by someone I trust.

And the same with many open mailing lists and discussion fora- there are people that are known for trolling but who don’t get removed from the community, people who are aggressive and annoying - and, essentially, people who put off the rest of us from contributing as we would otherwise like to.

Obviously though, there are ways in which these closed communities are not inclusive; the main one being that there’s inherently a gatekeeper somewhere there. There’s no denying that that is the opposite of inclusive by very definition, and it’s this that I find difficult to reconcile. I will say though that many of the invite-only mailing lists have been pretty flexible to letting people in upon recommendation from other trusted members, or from people who others have interacted with online. Similarly with the invite-only events, often a group of trusted people are asked for recommendations for others - which, though it doesn’t totally remove the barrier to entry, does reduce it.

So, as a long-winded answer to my initial ponderings: which of these communities is more valuable? For me, they serve different purposes. Open communities are good for hearing from wide groups of people, sharing things that need lots of publicity (like job adverts, or notices of events), and for networking - but for valuable, intimate conversations, I actually much prefer the closed, invite-only communities and events.

I’m still unsure, though, on whether this is a good development or a bad one, though. Otherwise put, what I’m essentially saying is that I don’t feel 100% comfortable at large events, or in large online discussion groups, and I have to admit that thinking that makes me sad. But until there are better-enforced codes of conduct, and more thoughtful online- and offline-behaviour of other people, I’m not sure there’s any other pragmatic option.


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