Calling Out Oppressive Behavior at Noisebridge

Calling Out Oppressive Behavior at Noisebridge
(An Open Letter to the Noisebridge Community)

[Trigger Warning, talking about oppressive behaviors in detail]

I think there are two fundamental issues that are broken in the foundation of Noisebridge right now:

1. Emotional Censorship
(i.e. we must speak ex-act-ly in a monotone, engineering way and cannot, under any circumstances, express anger or raise a voice).

2. Protecting Oppressive Behavior through Censorship
(i.e. if someone says a certain behavior is “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “ablest,” etc. it is met with much anger and flak / retaliation and they are told they are “name-calling”).

I’d like to get into those 2 items, but first would like to provide some background:

I’ve been coming to Noisebridge for 10 years (since 2010) and, for whatever its worth, have been a “capital M member” for 5 years, since 2015.
In that time, I’ve seen a lot of things in the community, some good some bad.

In the early days of Noisebridge, one of the first things we had to addressed as a community was the harassment and sexual assault of women in the space. Some people believe this appeared only after #Occupy. That is false. One of our founders, Jacob Applebaum, was himself accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault. This was a problem in our community from the very onset.

Noisebridge used to be close to 50/50 men and women in 2010 - 2011. We used to host Food Not Bombs in our kitchen making food for people on the streets downstairs. It was a “golden time” for many - we garnered a lot of attention, donations, and support and we were featured in books, videos, and more.

By 2013 the mistreatment of women in our community reached a head, and many women left to be a part of their own (safer) feminist collective, Double Union. While I’m really glad that women have their own space, I was sad to see so many of our fellow hackers leave because we failed to prioritize their safety.

After that, I saw many people of color leaving Noisebridge - many black and latinx members were being forced out of the Mission due to landlord greed and increasing evictions in 2012, and they would come to Noisebridge. Some were unexcellent and sleeping in the space, but many were wonderful members of our community.

Many, if not all, were pushed away because of the 2 points listed above, exacerbated by white fragility and a refusal to incorporate different cultural values into the space. I saw PoC members gaslit, spoken down to, demeaned, and neglected until they left the space altogether.

After that, I’ve been seeing our LGBTQ members leaving. Similar to above, members, both old and new, continued to leverage their privilege and homogenized cultural views to silence, talk down to, intimidate, and belittle the different perspectives from our LGBTQ friends. Well, they branched off now and started a different, Queerious Labs.

The disabled have never had great access to Noisebridge, but that community has been largely forced out since 2018, when the elevator was destroyed by someone calling the police on a woman of color for taking some glasses. The police showed up with shotguns and the fire department cut open the elevator and damaged it, and it has had problems ever since.

I’ve documented other access issues elsewhere, including the all too common blockading of the wheelchair entry with bicycles, e-waste, and other items. Noisebridge has never offered braille, sign language interpretation, or remote classes. The list goes on.

… So what’s left? Noisebridge has become a place of 90% straight white men that look like me. I should’ve spoken up about this a lot sooner, but I was selfishly operating from that same place of privilege. It wasn’t until I needed wheelchair access to the space that I experienced firsthand just how destructive our community can be towards minorities.

I experienced the flak, retaliation, and outright discrimination for expressing any views on oppressive behavior or calling it out (like I am here, we’ll see what happens…)

I experienced what it was like to be punished for expressing any anger. I was told that calling out oppressive behavior was “name calling” and “unexcellent.”
This is one of the very best ways to protect oppressors and/or people who express racist, sexist, homophobic and/or ableist views. It is a form of censorship that is highly concerning.

More and more nowadays, important decisions, blocks, bans, and agendas are pushed by social capital, bandwagoning, condescending white speak, rules lawyering, and other unsavory tactics. These are part of almost any social group, but I’m concerned to see these becoming the majority tools used in the Noisebridge community “process.”

The “be excellent” policy has always had issues, although we’ve worked out many of them in the past. However, as the demographics of our city change, more and more people are struggling to get by. The new people that are coming to Noisebridge are often operating from unexamined privilege, with little involvement in PoC, LGBTQ, and other communities. As they become “Capital M” members of Noisebridge they gain more social capital and more say in the community. If these newer members don’t know about our past and our larger neighborhood community, we lose a lot.

What is most sad is that we don’t discuss as a community what we’re doing wrong when it comes to diversity. We tend to blame the victims of this behavior and continue with business as usual.

Can we take a step or roll back and appreciate the loss here?
We’ve lost so much diversity in our community and so many good people have left - we should ask ourselves why that is (and self-examine).

One of Noisebridge’s great strengths is that it is always been a fluid, changing place. I think we can address these issues with:

  1. A diversity sub-committee led by minorities.

  2. New policies that provide safe space for people to speak up about oppressive behavior, with safe space to vent / express anger around discrimination (“proven” or felt).

  3. Cultural education workshops (especially on white fragility), and a de-escalation workshop that members have to attend

  4. Anti-harassment education workshops that members have to attend.

As a white male engineer, I can relate to some of the monoculture here. I think there are a lot of benefits to the culture of Silicon Valley and all the precision and exact-ness that has made leaps and bound in technology over the decades. But I also appreciate how narrow and confining that culture is, that we can also explore and appreciate different forms of hacking and emotional expression.

Noisebridge is located in a diverse and vibrant community - it would be nice if we could learn and grow from this diverse environment and explore these options for encouraging broader participation in the space. This will support more funding, more community engagement, and would benefit Noisebridge as a whole.

Note to admin: Please do not edit this post without my consent, thank you.


Another term for what you named “emotional censorship” is “tone-policing”.

Same idea: Whatever oppression you’re experiencing or have just had done to you, you’re not allowed to be mad about it. Getting mad about how you’re being treated, and expressing that anger (or fear, or wariness, or other emotion) invalidates any complaint you may have about any such treatment.

Even calmly naming an emotion can be met with tone policing. “What do you mean, I make/so-and-so makes you feel afraid to come here? That’s not very nice!”

The onus is not on people subject to racism, sexism, ableism, etc. to be calm in the face of such treatment, or in their efforts to end such treatment and structures. It is on those perpetuating them to calmly receive the news that they have been part of a problem, to listen, and to work to be part of solutions instead of problems.

And yeah, it sucks to be told you’ve said or done something racist/sexist/ableist/whatever! It’s not fun! And you probably (hopefully) didn’t intend to do such a thing!

But as the saying goes, “intent is not magic”. You can be part of a problem without meaning to. You can do something you thought was OK that actually harmed someone, or harmed a group of people. And the problem is almost certainly not entirely you; these -isms tend to be patterns and power structures rather than one individual person’s individual acts. But patterns have elements; you can contribute to one of these patterns or power structures even if you’re generally in favor of equality and not trying to contribute to a problem.

We, and our actions, make Noisebridge; and if they make Noisebridge a racist, sexist, ableist, or otherwise oppressive place, we need—each of us needs—to reckon with our contribution to that, and not lash out at those who’ve named the problem.

I support what Zach has written above. We need to be able to address *-isms with an open mind and heart, ready to listen to criticism (even when it comes from anger or pain), and accept our own responsibility for past and present wrongs and our responsibility to make Noisebridge a welcoming and inviting space for all.

Ignoring or dismissing problems isn’t excellent. Fixing them is.


Fascinating meta-narrative. I’ve been at Noisebridge basically continuously from 2009. Here’s how I see things.

  1. Noisebridge has never been anywhere close to 50/50 male/female. Never.

  2. The formation of Double Union definitely had to do with Noisebridge being a skeezy place for women. That alleged “golden time” for you, @Zach, was in the thick of the sexist nonsense. You’re right that it “came to a head” in 2013, but what that doesn’t mean is that Noisebiridge “became worse” – it had always been fairly shitty for women. 2013 was just the moment when we could convince the community to finally fucking kick out Patrick Keyes, which broke the floodgates around all the other broken stairs in our community. We passed the Anti-Harassment Policy that year.

  3. The most queer-diverse time for Noisebridge was roughly 2014-2016, in my estimation. Victoria was an important part of the Reboot. There were several trans and gender-queer folk I don’t remember the names of, notably a trans POC woman who was most likely homeless coming to the space every day and helping out and sometimes DJing in the space. She liked my outfits.

  4. We’ve always had a problem with POC-diversity. One of the biggest flowerings for diversity in Noisebridge happened around 2016 in the wake of the Reboot, because we had J running the circuit-hacking classes reaching out to local schools.

J was one of the first to leave in 2018 because of the bullying environment created at Noisebridge by some of the people who went off and started Queerious Labs. J, a guy who came from basically nothing as a Hispanic kid in LA, self-taught in electronics and the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, stopped coming to Noisebridge a few months before Mitch Altman, Scotty, Patrick, almost-me (I’m too stupid to leave), and several others gave up on Noisebridge as well for similar reasons.

And by the way, I think it’s extremely important to note that the clique of people around in 2018, a couple of whom happened to be trans women, weren’t thinking about diversity at all when they systematically made Mitch Altman feel like shit.

Mitch Altman is a gay electronics nerd who grew up in an era when just being a geek would have been enough to get you beat up. Being a gay geek in the 70s was like a death sentence.

To say Mitch was retraumatized by the bullying atmosphere that these people created would be an understatement.

Whittling that whole period of time (2018) down into a narrative that effectively says, “Queerious Labs was started because Noisebridge is anti-trans-people” is thoughtlessly disingenous at best, so I will mark this one down as “@Zach doesn’t actually know what happened,” which allows me to keep my opinion of you in the positive.

To end on a positive note:

I’m extremely optimistic about continuing to increase our diversity over time and I am continuously looking for ways to make sure we’re recognizing and honoring people whose cultural alignments aren’t Silicon Valley white-cis-normative.

I’ve also been frustrated over and over again by our inability to keep an elevator running at 2169 Mission St. It sucks to feel helpless to accommodate our less-stair-able members and I’m looking forward to literally getting in on the ground floor of something new very soon.


Zach, I like some of what you have to say here, and I will defend your right to say it all till the end, so please don’t interpret the following as “negative”. It is intended to be constructive criticism. I am simply pointing out the things I think need work, and not mentioning what I think is fine or I feel I don’t have enough info on. With that said:

2. Protecting Oppressive Behavior through Censorship
(i.e. if someone says a certain behavior is “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “ablest,” etc. it is met with much anger and flak / retaliation and they are told they are “name-calling”).

I would just be careful to think about what you are saying here Zach. I have not personally witnessed any censorship, and I hope someone would point out to me if such a thing were happening. No one is telling you not to speak your truth, and not to spill your feelings. When you refer to a specific thing as ablest, it can be easily interpreted as labeling the person who said it as such; that will be called out as name-calling. You should expect that. People don’t like to be called something that they aren’t. I don’t think that flak == censorship. I IMPLORE YOU: Please do not confuse honest criticism with discrimination. Two very different things. I’m sorry you feel like you are fighting against the machine or whatever it is here in this case. These issues cause everyone who talks about them so much anger and frustration because we actually all feel like we are trying to help each-other and do the right thing here. And to have something you say be misinterpreted as “ablest” when it is actually intended to be the opposite, hurts quite a bit as well. I would just suggest you try to think about that perspective before you use that sensitive word. Maybe say things like: “you see how what you just said can be construed as ‘ablest’, don’t you?” Something like that comes across so much more as a criticism of the idea and not the person, I think.

Sorry in advance, but I have to say, I don’t think these types of things usually work out that well. BUT: I’m happy to be shown more data, or more arguments for this. Its just that, imho, these things almost always seem to backfire and end up causing problems that kinda defeat the purpose of their own existence. The intention is noble, but in practice, I haven’t heard of a ton of good outcomes from this kind of approach. Again, happy to be proven wrong. This kinda goes in hand with

We are going to likely see a split here among folks in regards to this topic. My current thinking is that the ideas espoused by white fragility are misguided and present a real roadblock to actually tackling the issues that they purport to be helping solve. (Everyone should read white fragility probably btw and come to their own conclusions about it. Or at least listen to the talk linked.) This is a much longer discussion, one in which I’ll have to take a lot of time to collect my thoughts on, but definitely one we should have, as I think it is QUITE HEAVILY related to our current schism amongst the “political left” in our society. Which of course reverberates down to the more local level, i.e. within our little community here. And actually might have a lot to do with much of the tension that we are experiencing here in this ongoing community discussion about accessibility and able-ism.

New policies that provide safe space for people to speak up about oppressive behavior, with safe space to vent / express anger around discrimination (“proven” or felt).

You can say whatever you feel like saying, right here. I believe. We also have #bravespace channel set up in Slack exactly for this purpose.

Maybe not mandatory to attend, but I’m all for workshops and classes like this.

Diversity is important. Cultural awareness is important. We should most definitely keep these at the top of our list of stated values at Noisebridge. I’d encourage you to please continue working on this Zach and not give up. There is an accessibility task force and a thread here on discuss wherein ppl are collaboratively drafting up language for a accessibility policy for NB. I think to not have your input on these things would be a travesty. <3 Stay excellent.

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@nthmost - in the interest of historical accuracy, Patrick Keyes was banned from Noisebridge in March of 2011.

@Mark I have to say, the aggressiveness of at least one response I received when attempting to politely call out ableist arguments elsewhere on this forum makes me inclined to agree with @Zach that there’s a real problem here. In the course of that discussion, I witnessed (and experienced) several attempts to shut the conversation down with tone policing and censorship. And to be clear, I was very deliberate in calling out positions rather than people; as in, “when you say this, it comes across like this,” rather than “when you say this, you’re a terrible person”.

At this point, I hope everyone is waking up to the concept that we all harbor implicit biases and knee-jerk defensive reactions that serve to protect our own privileged positions in the world. I think it would make way more sense to call it “privileged fragility”, because I see those same psychological mechanisms at play in discussions about other systems of power / oppression (sexism, ableism, ageism, etc.) - and honestly, if you don’t think it’s real, you’re dismissing the shared lived experience of millions if not billions of people (women, PoC, disabled, older, etc.). Not a very constructive place to go, in my opinion.

As @boredzo says, we need to be able to talk about the patterns and power structures that favor some groups at the expense of others if we’re going to dismantle them (implicit: this is a desirable outcome). In order to do that, I believe we’re going to have to start with the assumption that everyone else is participating in the conversation in good faith, that their experience is real, that it is different from our own, and that while nobody is perfect, everybody can learn to be better.

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Thanks Rikke.

I’m completely in agreement that everyone harbors implicit biases and that we all need to work on them.

I’m also of a mind that leaning too far into the mentality that some identities are always victims has negative consequences for everyone.

One of the people who helped me develop a more nuanced point of view was a Noisebridger who, in 2018 (a fateful year to be sure), told me she didn’t feel safe at Noisebridge because of the Safe Space policy.

Of course I found this self-contradictory, so I got curious. Well, what I learned is that people who are highly traumatized have the highest requirement for safe spaces: they need places where they can act out their traumas without getting demonized for it. Noisebridge in 2018 had become a place where Safe Space meant “freedom from discomfort”, and as such, this friend of mine was not safe. Indeed, she came close to getting kicked out several times after getting triggered by people who refused to listen to what she needed.

The importance of naming the implicit “for whom?” in “safe space” cannot be overstated, because safe for me doesn’t necessarily mean safe for you if we are different enough people.

This is why I created a Brave Space instead, where the expectation is that you will not be prevented from experiencing discomfort, and we will all be held to the same standards of Excellence.

I hope that this conversation in general turns more towards ways to define Excellence.

I was definitely thinking about this thread when I wrote what I did. Can you quote me some specific things in the thread that struck you as such? I really don’t see it. Just trying to be honest. If I have a bias here, I want to examine it as well.

Sure. I read the following quotes from that thread as examples of tone-policing. To be clear, I don’t know the people involved very well (or at all, in some cases), so I can’t say whether they were intentionally delivered as such or not, simply that that was my experience at the time.

Accusing [personA] of bigotry against the disabled for promoting do-ocracy over bureaucracy, and accusing [person B] of the same for catering in-person events to people attending in-person, is a really disgusting thing for you two to do. I would like you to apologize to them for those smears.

I don’t have any major issues with the stated goals of your consensus items. What I do have a problem with is the climate of this discussion[…]

By calling everyone who disagrees with you a “bigoted ableist” you’re not facilitating discussion. You’re shutting it down.

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Yeah… uhh… I have to say, I think there’s a huge difference between “tone policing” and “wishing the conversation wasn’t so stabby”…

There are legitimate complaints nestled in those quotes you pulled. The even more confusing thing is that these quotes are all from different people for different reasons.

@broccoli in particular I think was pretty roughed up for no good reason. Like if you actually inspect what he’s bringing to the table, he was feeling a certain way about Consensus process in general due to previous events, and while I wouldn’t call that a rational argument against ADA consensus, this particular concern was a feeling that was met with some pretty outrageous suspicion relative to the “offense”.


" By 2013 the mistreatment of women in our community reached a head, and many women left to be a part of their own (safer) feminist collective, Double Union . While I’m really glad that women have their own space, I was sad to see so many of our fellow hackers leave because we failed to prioritize their safety."

Actually, i would not frame it this way, as a co-founder of Double Union, I never stopped being a member of Noisebridge and that’s true for a few other women as well. There were certainly a few people who came to NB once and bounced who then later became part of DU. Lots of NB folks helped us, gave equipment and furniture, even helped us move in and do the build out. And, post-founding of DU is when the anti-harassment policy discussions and creation took place. So I would not at all say that women left NB because of harassment to form another space and every time I’ve been interviewed about it I’ve had to say that.

In fact I think NB’s record on dealing with harassment has been good in that we have a policy, we’ve banned people for harassment or misogyny, and have been transparent about it.


@nthmost, I pulled these three examples precisely because they are from different people, nominally for different reasons, in an attempt to illustrate what I see as variations on the same pattern. Notably, they are all responses to the tone rather than the content of previous posts, which in my opinion is exactly what qualifies them as examples of tone-policing. I appreciate that your opinion may differ from mine, which is why I was careful to make it clear that this is my interpretation.

With regard to the specific complaints nestled in those quotes, the only one I would agree was legitimate was the single instance of @Zach calling @broccoli ‘bigoted’. In every instance of the words ‘ableist’ or ‘ableism’ being used, they were directed at specific arguments rather than at people.

To me, the interesting thing to talk about here is how to get past the defensiveness we (probably) all experience when somebody tells us that we have done or said something hurtful or harmful. Sticking with the current example, when somebody makes an argument that prioritizes the participation of able-bodied people (who can access the physical space) over the participation of disabled people (whose disability may prevent them from accessing the physical space), I find that to be an ableist argument. How would you describe it? And do you have thoughts on how to talk about it in a way that doesn’t trigger knee-jerk defensiveness?

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@Rikke I think Noisebridge certainly does have a problem with ableism, otherwise the elevator would not have sat broken and unrepaired for so long. I think if we make any commitment to provide access (for instance to the second floor) then we should also state what will happen if we do not fulfill that commitment i.e. we must terminate our lease on a defined timeline and move to a space where we can fulfill that commitment. Without stating the consequences for inaction people tend to follow the easiest path or the path that does not affect them.

I still have a lot of concerns about the health of the consensus process over the time of the pandemic… if you want to use this particular process then you must have discussion, listening, patience, time to think, time to understand, re-discuss, etc. It cannot be rushed. It should take input from all members of the community, not just “big M” members. I don’t think that it is possible to have all of this over zoom and discuss (not to mention the fact that many in our community are dispersed due to the pandemic), and I also don’t think that all the above exchange needs to happen (or is healthy to happen) in a public recorded forum. Clearly several people felt the need to go anonymous and made comments in the forum that were called out as ableist in their value judgement. This is fine. This is important. We can learn from this. What I think is dangerous is an environment where an invitation is made to a “consensus meeting”, and that if you attend you can only belong to either one of two groups - those who are for disabled people or those who are against disabled people at noisebridge, and if you have any question or reservations about the items as written or what the items actually mean as written, then you belong in the latter group. That is unfortunately not how you achieve consensus.


@David - I agree completely on the first point, that there is ableism at Noisebridge (and presumably varying degrees of racism, sexism, ageism, etc - because Noisebridge is not immune to the ills of the world around us). I really don’t think it’s intentional though, which is why my core question remains: how do we talk about it? How do we expose those psychosocial mechanisms that keep it in place even though none of us consciously want it? How do we get past the defensiveness that makes it so incredibly difficult to talk about the implicit biases and socialized behaviors and internalized stereotypes that we all have because we’ve grown up in the same society with the same (more or less, anyway) school curricula and the same TV shows and the same ads and the same pop culture influences?

I try not to level accusations at anyone. I have nothing to gain from antagonizing anyone, or making anyone feel like they can’t have bring up questions or reservations in a discussion without being labeled a terrible human being. This is not about naming and shaming, it’s about promoting critical self-examination. When I call out what I think is an ableist argument, it is because I want the person who made the argument to consider whether it is made from a place of abled privilege, and whether - if it were to guide real-world actions - it would contribute to upholding barriers to participation for disabled people. I sincerely hope that others will do the same for me, because I’m at least as blind to my own missteps as anyone else around.

To your point about of there being clear consequences, would you be willing to share that same argument in the (new) accessibility policy thread? I think it would make a lot of sense to raise the point there, at least.

With regard to the current state of the consensus process, I do appreciate the legitimacy of your concern, and want to honor that with further thought and conversation. I do consider it a bit of a side note in this thread, though - would you be amenable to taking it up elsewhere?

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Thanks for the correction Liz! As one of the founders I’m sure you’ll have a much better and clearer perspective on this than I do.

I spoke to someone this week who used to be a regular member but no longer goes. They told me that “Noisebridge is a boys club now” and they have an unhappy memory of the space
(fyi, they were never kicked out or part of any drama. They stopped going because of the culture at NB).

In 2018 (the last time I was able to physically access the space) a member told me in confidence that an abuser was being allowed in the space and although they had brought this to the attention of people, nothing was being done about it.

It makes me sad to hear things like this. That’s what I’m hoping we can change.

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Hey Zach, would just like to say, for whoever it is you are talking to, it is worth trying to consider what that person’s own internal mental and emotional state is, given any particular topic. I know its impossible to really, truly, get inside someone’s mind and heart, but attempting to do so is worth the effort. I’m sure you already know this, I just feel the need to underline it here. Someone having a negative emotional experience with Noisebridge might not necessarily be because Noisebridge is a certain way. It might be because they themselves are.

Just some food for thought. I would encourage you to explore further with these people about their experiences to try and get closer to the bedrock of it, if you haven’t already. We are all constant works-in-progress as people. Noisebridge, open as it is (which is to me, the most open of any community I’ve ever had the good fortune to be a part of), might just simply not mesh with some personalities.

If you feel it would help an outside observer better understand the situation(s) (and I personally think it would immensely), please supply some additional context, either as intentionally vague while getting the points across, or feel free to elucidate via dm-ing me more info (with the people involved’s permission of course), if you feel like it would help put these things in better context. As it currently stands, I have no idea what you are talking about, as I’ve never seen Noisebridge as a “boy’s club” (yes they are many “boys” in the community, that doesn’t make it one), and I just have a eerie feeling that this “abuser that no one did anything about” situation is either a) much more complex than your member friend let on, or b) this person kinda just let it slide through the cracks by maybe trying to tell people once or twice, and then kind of “giving up”, so to speak. We all have limited attention spans - we are human, after all. or c) something WAS done about said abuser, it just didn’t happen as fast as your friend wanted it to.

I’m very open to believing Noisebridge fucked up with these people, and that if that’s true, we can course correct, but I just can NOT assume that is the case. Hearsay is not evidence, nor is it actionable. I too am hoping we can change things - whatever things are able to be correctly identifiable as “needing change”.

If you go the route of messaging me privately, I’ll happily corroborate your and their accounts of things here publicly in this thread. Sorry to drag this thread out if I did so, but I do think it is quite important that we all take hard looks at these places where “things went wrong”, and give our best collective attempt at determining whether they were actually our fault or not.

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I’d like to move this thread over to the #safe-mode category, along with most of these useful tags. It seems like a perfect candidate for continuing this conversation in a category (“channel”) where it will not be crawled by search engines, but also accessible to all users with an account. :heart:

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This is insanely unexcellent
I put in my OP do not edit my post. You did it anyway.

Do not edit my post. It’s a discuss post. I’m discussing with the community. End of story.
Please stop hacking this discuss forum to suit your own personal views / desires.

Who edited the post? What was edited Zach?

Literally nothing changed on this post. I just scoured the 2 revisions for content changes. Zero things changed.

Looks like James moved the post to #safe-mode and then moved it back, which left a revision history on the post.

Relatedly to this entire post: