Private jokes in a public forum

I went to Open Data Camp at the weekend. Like all good modern events in the techy/data space, it had a code of conduct. In the introductory session this was mentioned explicitly, but briefly. Be nice to each other. Try to be aware of how much you are talking, and help enable others to speak. If anyone says or does anything which makes you feel uncomfortable, find an organiser. So far, so simple.

The thing about a code of conduct, is no-one really wants to dwell on the reasons they are necessary. These are supposed to be fun, interesting events where everyone has a good time. You don’t want to kill the mood at the very start by going into a lot of details about all the ways it could end up being a crap experience for someone. Sometimes, light touch is the best way to go. Mention the CofC, say something like“you all know what it means to be a decent person” and then let everyone get on with it and hope for the best.

The subject matter, Open Data, is one of those areas where people can get really passionate, and rightly so. Out in the real world, it can be isolating to feel that you’re the only one banging the drum in your department/business/organisation. One of the functions of these kinds of events is to facilitate a coming together; to spend the weekend hanging out with like-minded people who also ‘get it’. Through these kinds of events, and the continuing social media contact between, the community gets very tight-knit.

The thing about being friends with someone is that can take an intellectually contrary position from them, and you can have a laugh with them. In the context of friendship, neither of these is intrinsically problematic. But, if you are in a public space, discussing issues at an event with a CofC, and you disagree with a point being made, it’s a good idea to not respond in the way you would if it was just two of you together. It’s one thing to jokingly call your mate a wanker because you think they’re being daft in private. It’s quite another to do it publicly in the middle of a session where the group comprises not just you and your mate, but a bunch of other people as well. People who don’t know who you are, and who aren’t privy to the dynamics of your relationship. Because I neither know nor care that you’re mates. All I saw was someone being (in this instance very mildly) verbally abusive to someone else in the room. Not two hours previously we’d been reminded of the CofC, it was hoped we all knew how to treat each other with respect, and here was someone flagrantly disregarding this instruction. But they didn’t think this infraction ‘counted’ because it was aimed at someone they knew. It was a private joke, between friends, and they thought that was a reasonable basis on which to disregard the ‘be nice to each other’ directive.

Bringing your private jokes into a public forum is risky. If you want newcomers to feel welcomed and included, don’t continually make references to things that no-one outside your original founding group is going to get. Part of a good CofC is that everyone should bear responsibility for exemplifying good behaviour.

I mulled over this throughout day one, and discussed it with Terry the following morning. He recounted a similar experience at an event some years previously. An individual rose to his feet to speak, and the hall suddenly filled with booing and hissing. Terry was flabbergasted, and horrified. What on earth was going on? Would the same thing happen to him if he wanted to contribute? Is this really how dissent manifests in this community? He asked someone, and was cheerfully informed that this was an in-joke dating back to some humorous occasion some years previously. Apparently no-one thought it would appear in any way unwelcoming to new members if they suddenly witnessed a room full of naked hostility for no discernible reason.

Stephen Fry caught the sharp end of this in 2016. He made what was ostensibly a rude and contemptuous remark during the Baftas about the appearance of Jenny Beavan, the lauded costume designer who had just won an award for her work. When this garnered criticism, Fry decried the “sanctimonious fuckers” complaining about his outburst, and promptly took himself off Twitter. Perhaps this was a case of over-reactions all round. But his initial defence was that she was an old and dear friend, and that this was a private joke. Which is fine, except that it is not reasonable to get upset if someone who isn’t in on the joke doesn’t get the joke.

I think Rebo puts it best in the Babylon 5 episode Day of the Dead, when he characterises human forms of humour as being “based on physical danger, embarrassment or rejection…” unlike the Minbari. Humour can be way to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Say something shocking or unpleasant, and then have a good old laugh at the poor fools who aren’t part of the inner sanctum and don’t realise it’s a joke.

On day two of the event I had the opportunity to participate in a session about improving diversity and inclusivity. So I shared these reflections and suggested that some of the aspects of their tight-knit community, the in-jokes and shared traditions, can come across as a bit alienating if you’re new. Perhaps a good Code of Conduct should speak more explicitly to this issue. And share the traditions and jokes up front with newcomers to your group, rather than letting them become a shibboleth.