A Word About the Obvious
So, as is no mystery to anyone, this post took me the longest to write of any that I was originally planning. That's because it's been the hardest to get right. (Originally, I was intending to write the whole thing in one go and post all the threads simultaneously; eventually it became clear that it was better not to do things that way and cause a huge holdup.) While I do not apologize for this, a few explanations for why this post took a long time to write are below.
For one thing, I was about to write this long post about how to make sure quizbowl people shouldn't act so much worse than people in other analogous activities and pursuits. But then I stopped for a second and thought: Is that actually right? There's an assumption that quizbowl is really noticeably worse on the whole than the rest of the (high school/college/young adult) world, which I'm not sure is entirely accurate. Nonetheless, there certainly are specific problems that quizbowl has which other similar activities don't necessarily have – i.e. gender parity. Are there concrete ways in which the quizbowl community is falling behind the typical norms of human communication and behavior? Or was I largely planning to complain that humans happen to be acting in typically flawed human ways? Is this whole conversation just an exercise in "why can't we just all get along" style wishful thinking? I'm not sure I have the sorts of empirical evidence and testimony needed to judge (but see below for more on that).
For another, the prospect of writing this post felt to some extent like an act of symbolic patricide. I wouldn't be where I am today if Matt Weiner hadn't believed in putting this world together right as I was entering it, and I wouldn't have made nearly as many inroads into community leadership if he hadn't believed I belonged there as a contributor and informed voice. To turn around and merely excoriate him for his imperfections would hardly be gracious, especially if a day comes when he does return here to read all this. And it wouldn't be particularly helpful moving forward if this post just consisted of "Don't be that guy, except do be that guy in a bunch of other ways." I should know (better than most!) that it's not possible to see anyone completely in black and white -- at several steps along the way I've been nurtured and trained by people who developed a reputation (deservedly or not) for obnoxiousness, and have had to develop a nuanced view of that reality. In any case, I had to figure out a way to write this which was of maximal general use and extended beyond the specific person who inspired the post series. As such, I had to take the time to write things in a maximally general way about problems I've seen across many people and spaces. Indeed, many of the things below have nothing to do with Matt Weiner in particular at all.
Lastly, and somewhat hypocritically, it's worth noting that if the goal of this post is to discuss treating people well, I'm not exactly qualified to write it. Look, folks: I'm no saint when it comes to any of this. I've said incredibly insulting things about people behind their backs before. I'm not proud of everything I've said or the way I've said it. I haven't been the best about reaching out to or befriending newer players outside my own team(s). I don't even trust myself to say I'm above average in this regard or any other. I can only say that I'm one person among many who has lived in, and contributed to, the environment of the game we all play. If it's better that I not say anything at all due to some past slight, then so be it. But I think I can venture some observations from my vantage point as a real, flawed person, which are nonetheless valid despite my own character.
So here they are. Enjoy.
"Center(s)" of Discussion and the people around the edges
One thing I hear a lot (and which I largely agree with) in discussions of how the quizbowl community works is that the most involved participants can often be an insular group unto themselves (a "center") within the much larger set of people who are involved across the country/world. Overwhelmingly, most people just attends tournaments with their school's team, maybe make friends with their teammates, and go home, and that's it. And of course, that's 100% fine. What I don't want is for there to be barriers, real or perceived, for people who do want to do more and expand their quizbowl social connections out to other teams & circuits.
As I've written about elsewhere, I definitely felt in my early high school days that a rather insular clique of high school players in the class year or two above me was judging acceptance largely by one's skill at the game. I resent this even now, long after I've greatly surpassed all of those people in skill.
It takes a lot of effort to "break in" to the group of maybe 80 to 100 people whose friendships and discussions sit at the center of the quizbowl community at any given time. Not everybody does this by becoming an extremely skilled player, though that's of course one way to do it. Empirically, it's quite possible to just kind of show up and be present until one becomes a voice at the center of things. Nonetheless, a lot of people don't really know how to get more connected with their quizbowl peers. And others still (even among the set of skilled editors and players) have little desire to do things like come on IRC or whatever (which is also 100% fine), though it's hard to say how much of that is due to something repellent or off-putting about the nature of discussions at the center of the community. To put my cards on the table: I'd like for there to be more openness and fewer barriers in all of this.
How many prospective members of the "peripheral" community actually finds the quizbowl community to be insufferable enough that they don't want to be part of the game at all? Is there anything we should do or is the problem entirely with them? From that point onward, how many people would like to become more central to the game but feel dissuaded from doing so? And of that group, how many were merely disinterested versus directly put off by the way quizbowlers interact? It's extremely important to get some voices in here which we don't normally hear – the high school friend who thought about joining quizbowl and then decided against it, the talented players who choose to drop away before the end of their time as students, the fourth-scorer on a title contending team, etc. etc.
One thing I've noticed among some elite players is a sort of snarky, dismissive, or judgmental attitude towards people who aren't as skilled as themselves, or who play quizbowl without being as invested in it. This is utterly toxic and I recommend strongly against having it. For one thing, this sort of scorn is a very easy way to cut off promising future writers, players, teams, and organizers, by making them feel unwanted rather than welcome to try taking on something new. For another, you have no idea who's going to emerge out of the pack out of spite that you overlooked them, and become impossible to ignore (because they're crushing you in-game).
It's also possible to find a pretty high barrier to entry due to the large amounts of inside jokes and big "cast of characters" in the channels where important discussion happens; what's more, that set of people is mostly talking to each other in familiar terms because, well, they know each other already. Because in some sense this is inevitable in any human community, it's not like this is a "problem" that can be readily "solved" beyond increasing the general level of openness toward meeting new people and a willingness to explaining what's going on to newer people. But it's definitely something I felt when I was making this transition (late high school and early college) and it's worth pointing out here to see if others have felt the same.
For longer than many other activities, quizbowl has been locked into an Internet-centric model of community. Most teams play pretty much only in one local geographic region, and few are able to attend tournaments very far from where their school is located until nationals roll around. As such, many people who come to be great friends across regions see each other only a single-digit number of times a year "IRL". The major quizbowl organizations also have rely on digital communications to organize themselves across large distances. Now, the Internet is really really great – no need to add to or modify that sentiment here – but I think its centrality to the community has had some warping effects on the way people act, both on the web and in reality.
At the risk of sounding like a bad elementary school PSA, it's worth saying some obvious things at tis juncture: An unfortunate truth of the Internet is that everything you say on the Internet exists more or less permanently. The things you type can easily be pasted or saved or taken out of context. Especially given how small the community of dedicated quizbowl people is, it's often unclear in places like Facebook groups, the IRC channel, or even these forums, when a person is just venting "off the record" versus when they're speaking officially for one or more of the organizations they represent. Your demeanor in a private chatroom may well have serious effects on how people interact with you in person in public. What's more, people are often willing to say things behind a computer screen that they aren't (as) willing to say in person. This means that attempts to be two-faced with people usually fail, because both of your faces are going to be blatantly visible in short order. I'm not sure what else to say on this level besides "we all, myself included, should be more conscious of all of the above," so I guess I'll just say that.
This is more of a nuisance than a serious problem, but worth noting nonetheless: Because many people act mostly over the Internet while only meeting each other in person a single-digit number of times a year, it's easy to interact with another person as though they're a bundle of HSQuizbowl posts and tired memes rather than, well, a person. I've had a few relatively strange encounters over the years where somebody has referred to an online in-joke about me or somebody else without actually having met me before. And I tend to find that being put in a box where I have to play a self-parody version of myself is very awful -- it's a pretty serious barrier to more human forms of interaction and feels pretty off-putting. Some of this weirdness may also be inevitable so long as we interact largely on the Web, but I guess it's worth thinking about when it makes sense to reference that tired in-joke from eight years ago and when it doesn't.
There's also a problem now that people can just brag about themselves (or someone else) on the Internet to create an undeserved and self-perpetuating public perception. Because most people won't be able to check in and verify claims like "x-and-such is the best statkeeper in the game" or "you're a big fiend if you don't acknowledge my teammate as the best science player in the game" very readily, some number of reputations that grow on the Internet are in fact based on nothing. It's important to try and ensure that claims, particularly superlatives or self-promotional claims, are backed up by real evidence wherever possible, or are contested as unverified or untrue.
One rift which existed while Matt Weiner was a prominent quizbowl leader was the proper attitude towards "civility" in discussion with people whose ideas or effects on the community were bad. On one side, the idea went that attempts to be "civil" with bad influences was, in effect, giving them a free pass for their bad behavior and denying that anything was wrong. On the other, it seemed clear that it was possible to dissociate the tone or style of one's criticisms from the criticism being made, and that it'd be long-term unsustainable to rush to invective.
There are two questions still worth asking about this, I think. Is there any barrier between dismissing bad quizbowl practices and bad people? (It often seemed like Matt Weiner's side of this debate answered this question with "no" -- or at least, assumed that people who didn't quickly work to shed their bad quizbowl ties after conversation are bad people who could only stick with bad things because of some underlying psychological flaw.) Secondly, is there a barrier between rightly denouncing a person for their bad conduct and insulting their character "as a person"? (These two John Lawrence posts are both quite good on this topic, so I don't think I need to rehash all of the past debates about this here.)
However we answer the above from here on out, we have to be able to be honest and direct with each other about our track records as contributors to the game. If somebody whose tournament direction and circuit-expansion efforts have all ended in failure opines publicly about the best way to direct tournaments or expand a circuit, for example, it is definitely incumbent upon people who know better to point out that somebody's record of failures, so they aren't taken seriously. (For this reason, "all opinions are equally valid" isn't and can't be the standard we use in discussing issues of importance. And if attempts to be polite are causing bad advice and harmful personalities to proliferate unchecked, it is a serious issue.)
And let's be real: there are often people who are so awful for the game's health that they must be exposed and driven out. Anyone who has been found cheating must be expelled immediately, as cheating is an existential threat to the fairness of the game. Below that, there are people who do have horrible ethical records or bad behaviors that they won't apologize for or admit to, which need to be discussed publicly. Even before his cheating was exposed, Andy Watkins was regarded by many as a pernicious influence – and it's in part due to people throwing up "civility" in his defense that he was able to keep protecting his reputation all the way through many months of NAQT membership. We need to be able to talk honestly about when someone is beyond the pale in ways that work. (And much of this might not be suitable for these forums – it might make more sense to go directly to organizational leadership by private message, for example, if someone was behaving unacceptably in an official capacity.) I think we're doing better at this than we were in 2011, but it's still worth checking in about.
It's entirely predictable that people will get offended when they feel they're being insulted or attacked. Some amount of that will happen in any sort of controversial discussion about anything. Nonetheless, I think as a merely tactical matter that it's often ill-advised to leap out there in arguing with someone and ascribe some hidden motivation to them. More often than not, this will result in fervent denial (regardless of whether the motivation is actually there) and a lack of willingness to cooperate or change in the future. Sometimes that's helpful, when a person wouldn't do that anyway, but there's some risk of driving people further out of orbit who would otherwise be more conciliatory.
I have noticed that a mindset has developed among many organizers of this game after dealing with years of threats from Chip Beall, CBI, etc. that good quizbowl is a fragile and precarious activity which is always "under siege" by nefarious forces. For a long time, this was earnestly and visibly true in a way that younger players today might never appreciate or understand. Progress was piecemeal and bad quizbowl organizations and bad people were in fact trying to destroy it at every stage. But good quizbowl has developed as an institution greatly (due in large part to the very people who held this "siege" mentality) over the past decade and more. And that mindset may not be applicable as often (or as universally) anymore. For the most part, the level of distance in "badness" between the sides of arguments on these boards that I support and the side that I oppose has shrunk VASTLY in the 8 years I've been doing this. But the tenor of rhetoric has often remained at the same height. While there certainly are areas where there is much work to do to even get most teams out of the clutches of corrupt or awful-quality question organizations, places like "the top bracket of ACF Nationals" surely aren't in the same situation.
As a side-effect, I worry that an attitude of constant threat-detection might spill over into suspicion towards newcomers, or toward people who started off playing bad formats but earnestly seek change. I wonder if this has negative effects on recruiting or expansion.
Effects of Quizbowl-Induced Stress (or: "What is it like to be a Matt?")
With the exception of this post, I have been more free of quizbowl responsibilities during the past month than I had been in any of the preceding seven years. During a few weeks of decompression, I've been able to think back on the game's effect on my overall well-being, both during the most ridiculous period of intensity thus far (March through June this past year) and overall.
While doing a million things this spring, I could feel my patience with other people starting to deteriorate – it was hard to deal with people who were frustrating me or else run the risk of yelling at them / being quite short with them. I felt my sense of long-term planning, and thoughts of my future outside the game, start to dwindle away, as there were too many projects in the immediate present which needed to be handled now-now-now for anything broader to matter seriously. I felt more temptation than usual to think in grandiose or self-aggrandizing terms about my own role in the community (thoughts that I had "saved" quizbowl) coupled with a complete unwillingness to acknowledge them publicly due largely to the hard work of other people also busting their butts under the same amount of stress. Many of my other social obligations fell by the wayside. And this transition was quite rapid, over the course of just two or three months. I have a much easier time imagining, now, what it'd be like to live that way for the sake of quizbowl for years, or almost a decade.
Of course, it's also the case that being a high-stakes competitive player can bring its own stresses and sources of unpleasantness if one doesn't possess unreal amounts of poise. I've been on both sides of frustration-induced outbursts after a game didn't go the way I wanted it to, and I've been on three sides of a serious push towards competitive success (i.e. I've been pushed by others, I've pushed others, and I've pushed myself), which can often feel quite awful when it starts being a chore. When I wasn't careful, that was also a pretty major source of irascibility, though perhaps one which was more readily comprehensible from the outside.
But all the above symptoms/effects are contingent -- there are a lot of steps along the slide into stresspocalypse where a person can arrest some of their mental subroutines to retain (or gain back) perspective. As I've written about elsewhere, adding some variation to one's plate (doing a weird fun game format in practice instead of a standard match, writing a bunch of easy questions to offset a long string of writing hard questions, what have you) can keep the game fun. Judiciousness regarding one's commitments (as I've beaten the drum for elsewhere in this series) can also help. Sometimes, just being conscious of the need to beat back one's inner frustrations and remaining outwardly polite becomes easier the more one does it. I'm sure people do all kinds of things to manage stress and stress-related proneness to frustration, and I don't want to comb through the whole Internet for reliable ways of doing so, but perhaps people who have been around for a long time can speak to what has worked for them.
This segment has two lessons. The first is that the level of organizational overburden in this community (how many people exist, what they're doing, whether anyone is overburdened, etc.) has a correlation with how people usually treat one another across the board. Of course, there are people who contribute a ton who don't fall into this trap – I don't think I've ever seen Seth Teitler or Jeff Hoppes be angry about anything, ever -- but perhaps it's worth saying that undue amounts of qbstress are a risk factor for irascibility.
The second lesson is that taking care of yourself is an important part of ensuring that you can treat other people well. I can't speak to exactly what has been going on with Mattw, and this may well not be applicable to his situation. And the scope of the crisis this spring probably isn't a situation from which general principles about self-care can be reasonably derived. But: people need time off, people need breaks, even the most dedicated people need another outlet sometimes instead of being in 24/7 quizbowl mode. Don't let yourself get destroyed over quizbowl -- as important as it is to many of us, it is at heart something we do because we expect it will be fulfilling and entertaining. (After all, there's no prize money at the end of the day.) If it's not doing that, either temporarily or permanently, it's worth taking a look into what you can do for yourself instead of soldiering on as if nothing's wrong.
On emotions / emotionality
I've gotten the sense since very early on that there is often something of a damper on sharing (or having) emotionally-meaningful personal experiences while around quizbowlers, as they're just sort of dismissed most of the time. But maybe that's changing, and maybe it ought to. I was really heartened to see the posts that Eric and Ike made in the wake of ACF Nationals. And I did what I could to do more than the usual pro forma messages at the NHBB Opening Ceremony this year and again in the President's Message section of the NSC Team Handbook this year. Perhaps we got more teary than usual because we were working to the bone over the past few months and our minds were all out of whack, or perhaps people just are more emotional than they ever let on. Or perhaps I'm just projecting. But it certainly seems lately like a lot of us have figured out how to express our positive feelings in a way that we hadn't before. Either way, it's been good to see people do a little more to let their positive feelings out, even if it involves shedding a tear or two. I have a much greater sense that we're here for each other.
One thing I regret about this community is that there's often a lack of joy in it as you go up the levels. People who exult when something they've been waiting for finally comes up are often mocked. Designing a creative new question and sharing it with people is often a joyful experience, but it often gets lost in the shuffle of nit-picking negativity during set discussion. Certainly the "eureka" moment along the lines of "wait, I can write a six-line linguistics tossup on zero" is one that very few other people in the wider world will understand. I'd like to see more awareness of all of the good feelings this game can bring in the discussions we have about it.
I think it'd be unrealistic if I argued here that everybody should "just be nice to each other" or any similar platitude. There is wide variation in personality type among quizbowlers. Some people are naturally more shy, or more prickly, or whatever. Nonetheless I think there are some things everyone can do to make this community a warmer and better-functioning one overall:
- Thank people for the work they do. It's amazing how far a simple "Thank you" can go towards making someone feel as though they're a valued contributor rather than a nobody.
- Be attentive when things seem to be going wrong for somebody, and care about perspectives other than your own (ESPECIALLY if your perspective is "extremely skilled player on an elite team" -- it's likely that you're not often forced to think about what's good for people outside your standpoint, incl. things that would result in more players reaching your level).
- Don't be fake with people you dislike. Sometimes it's better to just not engage at all, or to engage for "strictly business" purposes (emails about hosting, joining up as co-editors or teammates at open tournaments, etc.), than to assume that you have to pretend to be all buddy-buddy.
- At the same time, don't just ignore people whom you think you're better than, or else other people can reasonably draw the inference that you're a huge jackass.
- Unless the outreach/expansion situation changes drastically soon, there just aren't that many people in this game, so it's important to interact as best you can with the ones who are here.
- Ascribing motivations to other people which they're unwilling to agree that they have (or don't admit to having) is a great way of getting said other people very mad at you. This is probably the single tendency which Matt Weiner had which I found most frustrating to see; even when his ascriptions were accurate, the conversation never went anywhere good after this happened.
- People remember how you treat them. Reputations stick. And in the end, your reputation is the only thing that matters. There are no prizes in this game – we wouldn't be doing it if we didn't have some intrinsic reason to keep coming back. While people still remember you, what do you want them to say? And how do you plan to impel them to say that, as opposed to things you hope they don't say? Keeping that question in mind is an imperfect, but helpful, heuristic.
There's also no norm for departing from the quizbowl community (in part because of folk awareness of Weiner's Law #2). The assumption is that everyone will stay around forever, and to some extent that people who choose to quit are defective in some way for making that choice. It's okay to not do quizbowl forever. But we have got to learn to do that in ways that aren't destructive, or which don't leave the remaining community scrambling.
I had a teammate who showed a lot of promise, who decided to quit after only two and a half years of quizbowl participation. Said teammate was intensely devoted to becoming a university professor in a very specialized subject, and ultimately made the call that there was no way to continue on that path and do activities which weren't either (a) directly contributing to admission to graduate school or (b) a way of rejuvenating one's mental, physical, and emotional health. Since quizbowl fell into neither category for this teammate, it had to go. I was certainly sad to see this person leave, and suspect that this person could have gone on to great things in the game with more dedication to it. But I couldn't let myself begrudge this person their choice. In fact, we're still very close friends and I suspect we will be for years yet. While it's not the way I had wanted things to be, it's a situation I was able to learn to live with without hard feelings. I wonder how often that happens more broadly.
What's more, it's possible to turn down quizbowl responsibilities if they'll be too much for you -- in advance. At the club level, I'm obviously a big fan of requirements of the form "This is the tournament that makes us the money we use to attend events; if you don't staff, you don't get to go to any events this semester/year". I'm talking about the level above that – joining up to write sets, becoming an officer of an organization, or what have you. For example: I turned down a spot on the editing team for ACF Regionals 2013, and I don't regret it, given the amount of high school writing I was doing, the expectations of my first year as team captain, and the like. And I've nonetheless worked on Regionals twice (once as head editor, even!). But I turned the position down in August 2012, months before the first packet came in.
Ultimately, there's no perfection here – it's often the case that unforeseen comes up out of nowhere and people do have to resign mid-task. But that should be the exception and not the rule. We really ought to change the default time for disengaging from "in the middle of an important responsibility, which gets abandoned as a consequence" to "at a reasonable breaking point between responsibilities, so the things currently being done still get finished even if some future things have to get reassigned."
At some level this is probably going to fall on deaf ears, because the people who would be willing to disappear without contacting their co-writers / teammates are the exact people who aren't going to be bothering to read the many thousands of words in this post. But perhaps my writing it will help influence norms in a better direction, even if most people don't read it here.
As the "Praise Song II" thread confirmed, the final appraisal of Matt Weiner's contributions to quizbowl will always be tinged with some amount of frustration with (and worry about) him, even among his most devoted collaborators and proteges. On one level, this is par for the course in appraising anybody. I don't believe there are any saints, and even if others do, it's certainly the case that virtually all people have both great strengths and profound flaws. If you disliked the way Matt Weiner did things, his way is just one among many of doing things while still remaining completely under the good quizbowl aegis. It need not be the default.
Ultimately, human interaction isn't an analytically solvable problem. There will always be jerks. There will always be interpersonal conflict. People are complicated, and it's often hard to predict how they'll react or what they'll be motivated by. Nonetheless, I think it's worth thinking a little more about ensuring that our community is optimized for being, well, a community, and making sure our defaults and institutions aren't set in a way that's needlessly off-putting, rude, or personally destructive. We owe ourselves, and each other, that much.
That said, I am only one person among many. Perhaps this is because I've been around for so long, and have weathered so many crises where others decided they'd had enough (interpersonally and otherwise). It seems like this was a topic many people want to get their thoughts out about -- I am very interested in hearing what others have to say on the broad topic of "how to make the community surrounding quizbowl a more pleasant place to inhabit". Even if it doesn't relate directly to anything I've said above, and especially if there's something in this broad sphere that I neglected to mention.