Abolish membership

I would like to propose that we abolish membership.


How would 501c3 status be impacted?

OK, so there’s the legal issue, “what do we tell the fuzz when they come looking for those Members we mentioned on our bylaws.”

Since reality is made of words – and legal entities, double so – I will assume that the solution to this is a matter of manipulating words in one way or another. E.g. if we say, “everyone who walked through the door between one hour ago and the next 10 minutes is a Member”, that seems pretty soluble.

(Note: not saying we should literally do that, only that this would constitute one possible working solution out of a very large set of possible coding-in-English solutions.)

The deeper question would be around evaluating what would be lost and gained by dropping the institution of Membership.

We’ve had part of this conversation in a few places (on Discuss, in person, Slack) already. If I were to sum up the arguments:

  • Linguistic constructs like “Membership” only exist insofar as people can discern the concept from other concepts and feel the presence of that concept in a meaningful existential way.
  • Since Noisebridge’s inception, it was supposed to NOT matter that any given person was a Member in terms of everyday reality.
  • Since post-Reboot, the creation of the “Philanthropist” concept has induced the concept that there are statuses that DO matter in terms of everyday existence (to wit: RFID tokens).
  • If becoming a Philanthropist “matters” in some way, then so too must Membership…
  • …but in a Noisebridge where formal Consensus items have been supremely minimized, it’s very unclear how becoming a Member matters, or is distinct from Philanthropy.
  • Membership as a concept is confusing in relationship to Philanthropy. At a recent General Meeting, it became obvious people couldn’t readily discern the idea of one from the other, which is a problem, since – the Philanthropist level being far easier to accomplish – why should anyone brave the more involved process being a Member if it appears to offer nothing over being a Philanthropist?
  • Largely because of previous, but also because of a coherent campaign of attack on the integrity of existing Members and/or the integrity of the institution of Membership itself over the past 2 years, Membership has greatly dwindled to the point where it is unusual for newer people to even make contact with people who are Members.

In sum, the arguments I have heard (some of them coming out of my mouth) for abolishing Membership revolve around status confusion, or even status resentment.

The main arguments for keeping Membership:

  • Membership at its best represents a longer-term trust network for community that is capable of withstanding the normal ebbs and flows of Noisebridge culture.
  • Without it, we might not have a fully functional Consensus organization without entrenched individuals who’ve been vetted for the trust required for them to be able to potentially Block something.
  • Without it, we have to come up with a replacement concept required by our 501c3 legal status.

I wrote all this to help set up the conversation. Now it’s your turn! :rainbow:


I want to pick apart this one a little bit.

Attacks on Membership have come in various forms, but one that seems most recurring is a claim that an anarchist community isn’t supposed to have a classful structure. I think that is a true statement on its face but also a needlessly reductionist description of how we organize.

Often this gets reinterpreted to mean that Noisebridge can’t have any distinction at all between individuals in the space in terms of access, control, position in the power structure, etc. Philanthropy was introduced because of a controversy over who is permitted to unlock the door. It wasn’t transparent how you got a key to the space, how you got added to the RFID system, etc. Philanthropy made an invisible system visible by writing down what we agreed on and having that idea live outside any one person’s brain.

Think about that for a minute. People objected to a social mechanism to determine who gets access as an example of a class system and the answer was to remove the social component. Now philanthropy is, for the most part, a technical process. Fill out a form, find a bureaumancer who can sign off on it, then you’re pretty much guaranteed approval.

In fact, there is no controversy at all in this until the discretionary act of revocation is employed. Revocation of philanthropy is dependent on a person’s place in the invisible web of trust. If you’re tight with the right people, you can get away with anything. Or so the assumption goes. And to an extent, this is true. So revocation of someone’s philanthropy inevitably brings up claims that the institution is just another vehicle for replicating a social class structure in our community.

I’m not convinced that this is bad. I argue this is reductionist because this approach assumes that the dominant culture has corrupted the process by allowing an individual’s biases and prejudices to be the primary reason for revoking someone’s philanthropy. Of course everyone has bias, but I think at Noisebridge we’re a lot more cognizant of it when we go into these decisions.

I think membership is a kind of certification that you’re able to identify your own internal biases and actively offset them. It’s impossible to put them aside, and in fact putting them aside means you’re unable to tell if you’re inviting other structural biases to take hold in their stead.

This only works with a sufficiently diverse membership where others are helping to offset each other’s.

We don’t have a sufficiently diverse membership, but philanthropy is much more diverse simply because the barrier to entry is so much lower.

I would propose we abolish membership and further amend philanthropy to utilize a random time-since-last-visited-weighed sampling of philanthropists who have visited the space in the last 7 months to determine questions of revocation and other responsibilities formerly designated as membership concerns.

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The Philanthropy construct may be simpler in process than Membership, but it’s no less social. You need a Member to sign off on that. You alluded to this by saying “bureaumancer”, begging the question of how we create and revoke Philanthropists. So… how does this work?

(Keep in mind, I’m not describing what should be. I am describing what IS.)

Why did we decide that Members should be the ones to sign off on new Philanthropists? Because Membership represented a vetted trust system.

If I had to put that vetting of trust into words, it would be thus: “We trust you enough to be a more permanent long-term part of this community, entrusted with the sacred and terrible power of Blocking Consensus and the ongoing stewardship of the space, helping safeguard Noisebridge against the forces of non-Noisebridgey-ness.”

Because it is very difficult to disMember someone, that trust is not given lightly.

And because this is not lightly-given trust, this is a tool we are able to wield for experimental purposes like “Philanthropy” that we would not have otherwise.

So. In order to feel good about abolishing Membership, I would need to understand how we replace that tool with a better one.

In short: the Philanthropy construct isn’t actually as simple as it seems on its face.

It’s a bit like saying, “websites are as easy as putting HTML in a directory!” and neglecting to think about the fact that computers don’t just serve up HTML pages when asked unless there’s a web server there.

“Why do we need Apache, anyway? It’s just taking up a bunch of space…”


It would be cool if some of the other people who were opposed to membership bc of the above mentioned reasons (eg “it functions as class stratification in an anarchist organization”) participated in the conversation noisebridge is having in this thread.


What about making membership a circular buffer / boxcar filter. If eviction was set at say, 40 people (no limit on re-applying), it would provide some amount of balance between stabilization and fresh (or at least active) blood.

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This seems like a solution provided to a problem we don’t actually have.

Membership is an unlimited resource we can and should scale to as many people as we can confidently extend trust to.

We’ve never had a “too many Members” problem. Right now we have a “way too few” Members problem.

Occasionally we have a “that person shouldn’t have become a Member” problem, which is a problem that, if it is occurring at high frequency, is best solved by improving the vetting process. If it happens once a year or less, that’s probably an optimal tuning.


To me it seems that it could be very problematic to need to trust someone not to irrationally block Censuses items just because someone wants them to have 24/7 access.

This could result in making people more hesitant to hand out Philanthropist status if Philanthropists suddenly have far more power.

I think that Members have earned the trust they have and, even as a Philanthropist myself, I have no problem with these people being of higher official rank than non-Members.

Other than the recent fracture caused by a person that felt entitled to become a member, have we had a problem with membership?

I’m not sure it’s accurate to say Membership itself has ever been much of a problem; it’s how we handle what Membership represents and how we award it that fluctuates and generates problems in various ways.

There was a period of time in which people tried to incept the “Council” as a construct, wherein Members became more like Philanthropists are now, and actual participation in Consensus would entail becoming a “Council Member.”

This was a very unpopular move, but it gave way to the invention of “Associate Members” later on, which eventually become “Philanthropists”.

The reason some people wanted to create a specific “Council Member” designation at the time was that it was felt there were “too many” people who’d achieved Membership and thus “too many” people entitled to being able to block Consensus.

The evidence for there being “too many Members” was that a lot of Members were turning out to be drama queens and shit disturbers. This was early 2014; check the Meeting Notes and you’ll see a huge upswing in Consensus Proposals that have something to do with banning a relatively recently-made Member.

The learning we took was that vetting new Members required much more discernment than we’d previously been giving it.

(The Reboot followed a few months after that, which provided sort of a “fresh start” feeling to fleshing out the Membership.)


This descriptor is selling the 2014 reboot a bit short, but it was an intentional choice to cleanse our space and community - and it worked really well.

Our upcoming move is not an intentional cleansing, but it is my assumption that’s one route that our community will take, that people with unexcellent intentions will stay behind as a memory at 2169, and the people with healthy expectations will move forward with the physical space because they will be the helping hands getting us set up.

What are your thoughts on the impact our move will have on our community, @nthmost? If cleansing our community of unsavory behavior is the goal of abolishing membership, and if my assumption is correct, we can simply use the move as a reboot.

If the question of abolishing membership is more about preventing drama, fortunately we’re in a period where big shit happens but we’ve been able to deal with these situations mostly amicably. In recent years we’ve fortunately not had a great deal of drama, so while abolishing drama llamas along with membership might have been a valid reason in the past, it isn’t now.

This was early 2014; check the Meeting Notes and you’ll see a huge upswing in Consensus Proposals that have something to do with banning a relatively recently-made Member.

There’s a massive cache of archives. If what you’re referencing is relevant to today’s culture, it’d be more helpful for you to dig up and point out specifically what you’d like to discuss regarding this point. You know exactly what you’re looking for, while we do not.


  1. blocking consensus items
  2. granting philanthropist tokens
  3. “vauge feeling of responsibility that people seem to qualify/quantify individually”
  4. a soft trust from members of the community that do not know them, or sometimes distrust… a christening of sorts, and sometimes referred to as “the exalted status of membership”. Basically you become ‘the man’ in terms of Noisebridge as an institution. Fuck the man.

The common thread seems to be a “chain of organizational legacy” bestowing trust over time.

Problems it solves:

  • How does the “chain of organizational legacy” select who can disseminate 24h access.
  • How does the “chain of organizational legacy” select who can continue the “chain of organizational legacy”?
  • How does the “chain of organizational legacy” select who can block consensus items?
  • How does the “chain of organizational legacy” decide who is ‘the man’ or receives “the exalted status of member”


  • Why can anyone apply to be a member? Why is there an application process and not a selection process?
  • Why isn’t the board the “chain of organizational legacy” if we have complete control over the composition of the board? Just because the board is a bureaucratic term doesn’t make it a reflection of pop culture American concepts of boards.
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Actually, a selection process could be awesome for encouraging membership! It could shift the intention of new users to philanthropy and community involvement. It would be great to add expiration to membership so it can change and evolve over time, status reverting to philanthropy.

Members could be the ones who add new classes by example, attend the meetings and review all consensus items.

Anonymous blocking should be removed. It exists on distrust. Members who publicly block consensus can do so on the grounds that they will withdraw their membership, philanthropy, or both.

Just quick thoughts!


The other situation where I can think of anonymous blocking is in fraternity rushes. Those organizations have rotating membership by default (you eventually leave college) and I think it makes more sense in that context.

Also fraternities aren’t a general model for community, just a niche one that is both stable and doesn’t work for most people.

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How do you square this against the fact that this phrase only appeared last year – after 11 years of it not being a thing?

Well, it IS a selection process, effectively. I’m not sure why it would improve things to make it so that only people who are “selected” are allowed to become Members. Isn’t that a doubling-down on exclusionary practices?

We tried that and it felt like tyranny. See also 2014.

This kind of arrangement also typically leads to bitter power struggles that rip hackerspaces apart. Talk to @tdfischer perhaps.

I mean, if Membership feels “exalted” and we don’t like this, why would we want to do it 10x harder?

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You’re conflating two things that actually have nothing to do with each other.

The Reboot enabled the space to shed a whole lot of people who weren’t contributing anything to the space (and also weren’t Members, but that doesn’t really matter) and were just using the space essentially as a home.

We didn’t lose Members during that time; on the contrary, we added a bunch and strengthened the involvement of the Members we already had.

If you want a prediction of what will happen if/when Noisebridge moves, it’s that people who are excited by greenfield projects will step up and gather more social capital; people who have been doing a lot of maintenance will become less seen; and people who don’t like doing anything will fade out. Nothing to do with current status.

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I actually want to disagree with this in part, if only to reach a deeper point. I don’t think having a selection/nomination process is exclusionary in and of itself. It is a tool, and just like any other tool, it could be used for integrative or segregationist purposes. I also don’t think you’re making this argument, but it is what I want to expand on.

I think what people actually intend when they oppose something like this at Noisebridge is to oppose a system that reinforces systemic bias. That bias can exist in either form of membership application, Nomination from Within vs Publicly Available Application. Both of those are really just slightly different ways to start The Process, where The Process is the same in each. That process being:

  1. Some hacker starts on the journey to become a Member
  2. The group considers the merits of the hacker
  3. The hacker is either made a member or not

In one version, you start the journey by grabbing a paper from the binder and submitting it to the meeting. In the other version, you start the journey by someone else grabbing the paper from the binder. Both versions still require that we have consensus on someone becoming a member, which is a highly discretionary process; it is absolutely rife with bias. Changing how one starts their journey to becoming consensed upon as a member doesn’t remove this fact. Maybe Nomination would cut down on frivolous membership applications, if we lived in a reality where we had more applications than processing bandwidth.

Something I’ve noticed, is that nobody seems to really question the consensus part. If we really wanted to work on removing discriminatory elements from The Membership Journey, we might consider something like a only-slightly-discretionary scoring rubric in addition to the discretionary consensus process.

Ultimately, if we want to be less exclusionary, we need to Slow The Fuck Down And Talk With Each Other. I’m still frustrated that Matt’s membership application was summarily blocked and nobody wanted to talk with me about it, given that I was one of his sponsors. My interpretation of the need for sponsors on the membership application is that you would know who to talk to about the person being considered.

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I agree with this completely.

The part I want to focus on in comparing these two modalities is the locus of agency.

In the version of Membership process that we have now – someone selects themselves for possible Membership – the locus of agency is on the newbie.

In the hypothetical version of Membership process in which someone is selected to become a Member, agency lies with the current Members.

In the latter process, I would expect that the problematic feeling of Membership being some “exalted status” would worsen considerably.

IMHO, a hackerspace should always endeavor to keep the sense of agency in the hands of individuals.

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