Thinking about conflict resolution and improving the feature to remove users

Conflicts are an inescapable part of communities, of working and being together. Much can be done to avoid them, but depending on the size of the group it tends to be inevitable that at some point someone’s membership on it should be reconsidered. At best, the conflict is based on misunderstandings. At worst, it is because of a really toxic person who is doing damage to other people and to the project they’re part of. There are many cases to suggest the removal of a group member. But who should make that decision? In most softwares it takes just one person to press a button.

A unique system to remove users from a group

First requested as a way to remove users from a group, the Karrot team wanted to tackle this issue by trying something different than the usual administrator system in which one or very few people could use and abuse their admin powers. What came out was basically a voting system open for a period of time for group members to discuss and decide whether a person should to get removed from the group, stay in it or if the voting and discussion period should be extended. This is one feature that makes Karrot quite unique in relation to other community-organising softwares out there. This should not be taken as just some oddity, but rather as a conscious choice about the values embedded in the code, recognizing that no technology is inherently neutral and disembedded from social and power relations. Just as much as a traditional admin system implies a certain power structure resembling a kind of implicit feudalism, in which administrators have power over their community subjects, the way this feature has been designed is about democratizing this particular decision-making power over removing or not group’s member. This kind of design is also reflected in Karrot’s trust system, which allows people to become editors of a group or to start this voting process against someone based on the number of trust carrots they’re given.

The bigger picture: governance, conflicts and issues affecting a group

We need to put this feature in a larger context. It’s part of a more general ambition of making Karrot into a tool for groups to be able to self-govern and solve issues and conflicts collectively. When the so called conflict resolution feature (described above) was conceived, the idea was to extend its procedure of deciding on someone’s membership in the group to different kinds of decisions that the group would like to make. Group governance is a topic that we’re constantly exploring and implementing though other features, like the upcoming agreements feature, and while the topic of conflict resolution is part of it, it is a huge topic in and of itself that is actually far from being fully covered by this existing feature. During recent discussions with the groups using it, we realized that we have been hastily calling it “conflict resolution”, when actually it is not more than a process to decide whether someone should stay or not in the group. After all, the means to resolve conflicts are way beyond the use of one feature or tool. It usually involves much work using other tools, as simple as e-mail, phone calls and cakes (they calm the spirit) during face-to-face interactions. We’ve got quite concrete examples from groups using Karrot that have set up their own routines in the event of conflicts and breaking the rules (if you want to get investigative, check out the notes from Karrot Days). Using the existing feature to remove people from a group is usually a culmination of a longer process that tries to deal with issues in which the target person had been part of. In my own foodsaving group I heard many times that starting this voting/discussing period is usually seen as too drastic but necessary in some cases.

Now, we are talking about community organising, in projects that are often based on 100% unpaid work and are purpose- (instead of profit) oriented. There will not be an HR staff whose job is to keep people away from trouble that might affect their work, to keep employees motivated enough so as not to let any issue affect the organization’s bottom line. Instead, the whole point is to help groups self-organise and be better equipped by the software to deal with issues that affect the group negatively. Much can be gained from a proper process to solve conflicts and issues, both on an individual and collective level.

A bunch of ideas have been brainstormed at least since the feature was introduced, like:

  • graduated sanctions (e.g. temporary block for activities, or signing in), based on Ostrom’s principle for governing the commons.
  • escalating model to mediate conflicts, starting on a smaller scale involving less members of the group before it reaches the whole group
  • and in more recent discussion with groups some new ideas, like anonymous flagging and guiding people towards non-violent communication.

Collecting user feedback and revisiting the feature

Different from our two previous design processes, this one was not about creating a new feature, so it did not make much sense to follow the basic stages and methods by the book (whatever the book is). Things played out much more organically, because the feature for removing a user has been there since 2019 and discussions have been taking place at least since 2018. What we did was basically revisit the topic, go through old threads and prepare a session during Karrot Days to discuss more broadly with people from different groups. We from the Karrot team had also a few sessions dedicated exclusively to the topic. Additionally, I had myself some first-hand experience from my group and Vasilis had a few interview so we could collect some feedback of how people used or reacted to this feature.

We quickly realized there was a low-hanging fruit that could be picked, so we proposed to fix the notification system. Not only was it creating confusion when people got e-mail notifications which seemed out of context, because everybody in the group got subscribed to the chat (that would probably make sense in a group of few people). It also caused reactions against the people who initiated the process because they felt it was exposing others unnecessarily and that the matter could be handled in a more discrete matter. Social sensibilities played therefore a strong role in this and the design question was about how to involve people in the discussion without being a nuisance or intrusive, and at the same time not letting the person being targeted feel too exposed. The change we made is that everybody in the group should get a bell notification to let them know a process to review someone’s membership has started, without letting them get e-mail notifications for every message sent in the chat, unless they opt in of course. Another little tweak to make people aware of an ongoing process was to add a count on the ongoing “issues”, visible at the main menu.

Another change was about renaming the feature, so we went through all the texts where “conflict” and “conflict resolution” is mentioned and changed it to membership review. That might seem not very significant, but put into the context explained above, it should make more sense to groups that the feature is more about reviewing the membership of a user and so it can be plugged into the manifold ways they choose to deal with conflicts. Indeed, we discovered that many groups have their own policy for dealing with conflicts and that the feature is rarely used to solve a conflict in any other way than suggesting someone’s removal from the group, because it’s reached that point already.

One last thing we considered was to change the voting system. We got a couple of feedback from people who thought that score voting and its result were not easy to understand. However, we felt we did not have enough time and information to make a decision to change at this point. It’s amazing how much there is to consider from other voting systems, even if it’s single choice. We changed a bit of wording and we’ll continue following the user experience with the voting system to reconsider this in the future.

Final considerations on the process

The most valuable thing about taking up this topic again was to put things in perspective and re-model a vision for future designs and development of a more encompassing set of features for group governance and actual conflict resolution. Sometimes the valuable pieces of feedback and information are a bit scattered through time, on different threads, notes and conversations. It’s been worth not only gathering “old” information, but having renewed talks with different groups on their current experience using this feature and gathering people on a focused session like we had during Karrot Days. One thing I noticed though is that there was some kind of fatigue in trying to engage the community on this topic. Besides the session we had and some interviews conducted by Vasilis, it was mainly the Karrot team participating and deciding on the improvements. My feeling was that people got a bit tired of discussing this topic and felt they said everything that had to be said. It’s tricky to find the right balance between having a nice and inclusive participatory process to design and decide on improvements and to not be nagging the people who are part of this community. Nonetheless, the important thing is to take up the role of reaching out to make informed decisions that reflect the needs of different groups while aligning those needs with the value proposal of our project. And do it explicitly! That is why I dedicated some space in the beginning of this text to put the feature into this broader context. Looking forward to design and implement new ideas in the future!

Conflict resolution with possibility to remove user from group - long thread, since the feature was first designed
Add possibility to remove user from group · Issue #798 · karrot-dev/karrot-frontend · GitHub - the first documented request
[Brainstorming] Process to remove user from group · Issue #853 · karrot-dev/karrot-frontend · GitHub - first design and mockup, with discussion
Improving conflict resolution feature - notes

This text was written as a milestone for the NlNet funding

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Looking at modern democratic systems, built on values of open communities (which I believe Karrot wants to promote) and which embedded some of the learnings from the totalitarian systems of the XX century, full isolation/removal of an individual from the society/community they were part of - as a lifelong prison or a death sentence - is accepted and legally possible, if ever, for some very harmful individuals only, perhaps a serial murderers, who are considered dangerous for others and for who there is really no hope to re-socialize them.

I believe it is not because there is no social desire to get rid of some individuals, it is because these mechanisms are very dangerous ones, can be really harmful. When combined with power structures and poor governance practices, which enable misuses and abuses, they are tools for political, societal and personal oppression and repression, used to strengthen the most powerful ones and to silence those who are uncomfortable for them. It is what dictatorship systems rely on, and why they all collapse.

Similarly, in closed organizations, practices of excluding/removal of a member who was in conflict with a person in power by the rest of the group are called mobbing and in most of the European countries, afaik, they are penalized - because of the emotional harm it makes to the people who are being mobbed.

Personally, I was removed from a Karrot group (asked to leave, to be precise). Afaik, I did not violate any of the rules of that group and did nothing wrong in the spaces of it, except having a conflict (misunderstanding?) with one of the longer term member of it. The process took a few months and now it’s about a year since it finished.

Every other night I feel like a criminalist, a really toxic person, who is doing damage to other people and to the projects I was part of. I don’t think this is who I am, though… at least not during the days. I keep having flashbacks from the process and events that lead to it, not as often as earlier, still a few times per week.

Is there anything you could perhaps do to help me with this? It’s been quite damaging to me (and my surroundings)…

NOTE: I have some family experiences that likely make me more sensitive to some the issues here than an average person probably is. I grew up with a grandma who survived concentration camp, my family members were politically oppressed by nazi, soviets and then the communists. Some were killed (disappeared) and others were repressed for seeking the truth about what happened to their closest ones. It’s possible that the way how I interact with power structures is somehow affected by this heritage too.

I would like to interview people who got removed from a group as part of systemic consensus based conflicts-resolution-feature / membership-review-process. Would it be possible that you help me to get in contact with them?

I wanted to read notes from the Karrot Days linked above, but I stopped at the very first line of them:

Conflicts usually have (at least) two sides involved, and I’d like to give voice to those that did not have a chance to speak yet, neither during the Karrot Days nor probably earlier, when still in the group.

Recalling Jo Freeman from The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in the absence of explicit power structures, implicit ones often emerge, which for the least powerful individuals are even more difficult to navigate than any explicit ones [structures / rules].

I am not advocating here for the world with more structures or less, I am just curious how often the feature is used to strengthen the implicit power structure already existing in the group and how often it is a case of someone who is genuinely breaking the rules and is unwilling to cooperate with the rest of the people - keeping in mind potential harmfulness of the feature in cases when it was misused.

I also allowed myself to create a support group for and from those who’s become subject (or rather an object) of the process. It is called Karrot’s forgotten people and is hosted on the main instance of Karrot (currently). You may consider inviting people who’s been removed from other groups to that one, I’ll be grateful if you do so.

Removing a person from a group or circle isn’t an easy process for anyone involved. I’m sorry if that caused so many troubles in your case mariha.

Still I think it’s a necessary option for a healthy organisation, embedded in a good governance structure. I looked what sociocracy (a circle based, consent based, role based governance system) has to say about it and link to the Sociocracy for All forum as I can’t say it better:

When governance or processes aren’t clear, a lot of harm can happen. I hope for the Karrot groups that they come up with policies around this topic and the feature will either be integrated into the group’s governance or can serve as a fall-back option. One intention to build a process into the software and not give the rights of removing someone to an admin user, was to bring this decision to a group level and prevent power positions of admin users.

There certainly is an ongoing learning for the Karrot team, both in improving the feature and working on our own governance model.

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The short answer is: no. I don’t have any information on the users who got removed via the review process. Also it wouldn’t be conform with data privacy, to share anything about it. Looking into Karrot Days note is a good hint. From what I heard it hasn’t been used very often (I’m glad!) or maybe never by some groups.

Thank you for the answer, it’s nice to get one, even if it was not exactly the one I hoped for.

It seems to me that you might have mistaken some of your own insecurities with me being a real threat / danger for the project, and possibly interpreted my intentions too personally? (no need to answer here)

For some people emotions are true and honest expressions of their internal state, not an attempt to manipulate. I am not angry, if this is what you suspect. I was angry when I was tortured. I am free now.

Moving the discussion to the level of sociocracy and alike seems more promising to me than keeping it here. I’ll answer to that one, separately.

A bit on a side note… a person who made me leave the group would be surprised to discover how dumb the misunderstanding between us was - very unlikely for a similar situation to happen again though so probably not a big miss from that learning. There will likely never again exist a space where it would be suitable to reveal.

I am writing as an outsider, what makes providing any feedback a bit awkward to me, and I guess I am not even sure why do I care any more… I’ll make it partially as an answer, partially as a description of how the instance under is going to be different from

I read the links you posted, @nathalie. Thanks for providing them. It looks like similar process as in Karrot is indeed used in Sociocracy. There is no notion of potential harm made to an individual, and the aim of the project is what is being prioritized, which seems to me to be a mechanism under which people are instrumentalized for the aims / goals of the circle / organization.

It makes me wander if sociocracy, or at least this component of it, is a good choice for a scaffold of a community / democratically governed and participative group of people managing a common pool of resources / Karrot?

Or maybe, if we place people at the center, what are the boundaries of an inclusive community?
(for me - I think it would be intentional harmfulness, with a fuzzy region of what is considered to be a harm; whether a group can claim a conflict/person to be harmful for/threatening the whole community/state; how much of the harm the person perpetuating it received earlier and so what role the community/structures themselves played in that?)

Or, if the limited resources are in the center, and a need to manage them in a sustainable way, which with climate change and massive extinction of species is a real thing, how to achieve that aim? How much of their humanity Karrot groups are willing to compromise to keep being operational and efficient? Who would be the ones that are going to be discriminated, possibly eliminated, as slowing down the group / being not useful enough? (wait, but isn’t it why we are here where we are? or am I too radical?)
Sociocracy falls in this category of possible solutions.

I disagree that this is when harm happens. (and I wish it was not, but I can’t help that it recalls me “the banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt described). What I would agree with, is that clarity of governance and processes, including transparency and predictability, helps to improve the process itself to prevent similar harms from happening again and again (given enough courage of an organization to learn from the mistakes).


Note, that the harm that a group abusing its power on an individual can make is far greater than the harm that a single admin user could have made with the same decision being made.

If you punish someone with an exclusion from the group - it is as if they committed a crime against the whole group. What is more, if they have no clarity what rule they’ve broken, and they internalize the punishment, they feel as if they were excluded simply because of who they are. As if they were not worth to be part of any group. If others around don’t know why exactly the person was excluded either, they’ll exclude them too just because they believe there must have been a good reason to do so, if a whole group made such a choice.

If your intention was to prevent violence - than using greater power (of the whole group) instead of just single-person (admin) power does not seem like the best idea to me. So what to use instead?

  • If there are clear rules, there is no need for the whole group/community to assess if someone broke them or not.

  • If there are no rules, there are more options to choose from, what gives some flexibility but can also easily be abused to take an advantage of some existing privileges. As for me, in the fork I made, I plan to follow an approach of minimizing the harm. Or at least recognizing the harms that a punishment would make and taking them into account too.

    I’ll refer to Ostrom, who Karrot team was pointing to when I joined, who well deserves doing so (in my opinion), and who recognizes the importance of a potential harm made to an individual by sanctions being applied to them:

    Graduated punishments ranging from insignificant fines all the way to banishment, applied in settings in which the sanctioners know a great deal about the personal circumstances of the other appropriators and the potential harm that could be created by excessive sanctions, may be far more effective than a major fine imposed on first offender.
    Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, 1990, 2015, p. 98


There seem to be a few approaches to boundaries in Karrot:

  • Community has no boundaries / open-access institutions
    open knowledge (Wikipedia), open data (eg. OpenStreetsMaps), open source software, …

    Free exchange of ideas and knowledge is what makes humanity progress. Good ideas are the ones that get most popular adaptation.

    Community as a social concept that has no boundaries, which in technology is represented by Fediverse (ActivityPub), Semantic Web and Solid, an ecosystem of alternative platforms, which are an answer to capitalistic “walled gardens” and community lock-ins / Semantically Interlinked Online Communities (SIOC) W3C RDF standard to describe an (online) community refers to “online community sites [that] are like islands without bridges connecting them”.

    In FOSS movement, copyleft licensees (GPL alike) prevent free-rider problem from occurring, as opposed to more permissive licenses (MIT/BSD alike).

  • Clearly defined boundaries / as in commons
    Quoting Ostrom:

    Since the work of Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop (1975), the presence of boundaries constituting who is allowed to appropriate from the CPR has been used as the single defining characteristic of “common-property” institutions as contrasted to “open-access” institutions. The impression is sometimes given that this is all that is necessary to achieve successful regulation. Making this attribute one of seven, rather than unique attribute, puts its importance in more realistic perspective. Simply closing the boundaries is not enough.

    Her first, out of 7+1, design principle illustrated by long-enduring common-pool resources (CPR) institutions:

    1. Clearly defined boundaries
      Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.
  • Group boundaries subjective to the power dynamics of the group / as in sociocracy

As for me, the two first approaches can coexist and interplay pretty well in the same organization, and the real issue was not related to the boundaries at all.

How they could coexist? If any limited resource is put in the center, and the need to effectively manage it, including protecting from over-exploitation, is used as a starting point to define roles and rules of access, this is what defines boundaries for me. Unlimited resources can remain accessible openly while limited resources can have roles-and-rules-based boundaries. A limited resource can be fisheries or pastries like in the studies Ostrom did, tools and space as in a makersspace, time commitments and money as in current Karrot team’s structure seems to be.

Boundaries are sometimes also used (and misused) as a defense mechanism, that allows to distance the subject inside them from the problem that remains outside of them, claiming it is not their problem (weather true or false). It has nothing to do with solving the real problem itself, even if they created it. They are usually forcefully established and I believe it takes a fair amount of arrogance and ignorance to those who remain outside of them to put so firm walls and close the doors. The borders like this tend to be infinitely high.
(compare to Europe’s role in colonialism/exploitative capitalism → conflicts in Africa → migration crisis → strengthening borders of Europe chain of reactions, or the wall at the Mexican-USA border)

As for me, in my case, the real issue was no-direct communication / distancing / strengthening the boundaries (! the solution was the issue !). Combined with a luck of conflicts resolution mechanisms and power structures it allowed to build high enough walls to forget about the world outside of them, for whatever reasons that I can only suspect what might have been.

What happened outside of the walls?

Power (of the group) + (personal) boundaries

Karrot’s tagline says: Start a group, become a community. By joining a Karrot group, I made an assumption, maybe wrong, that a community is something that you can belong to and that has no owner, unlike private property enterprises or kingdoms in feudal times, mentioned by @bruno in the post opening this thread.

And here is my toughest discovery:

Belonging to a group is not an external state that anyone except the person themselves can determine. It violates ones integrity to decide for them where do they belong and where not.

Given that, I plan to remove this functionality all together (the score voting / systemic consensus may be still great, for other decisions). I will not make membership subjective to the group judgement and punishment at all. I’ll advocate for the groups to have clear and objective criteria for membership, and make punishments which may go down until having very basic rights only, but still being a member of a community.

Sometimes, split of a community may be unavoidable, but even if it was only one person that is separating from the rest of the group, they both are equal parties and their basic rights needs to be respected. (I am referring to human rights here)

An example :wink:

(there is a power structure here, though…)

I host a Ukrainian mom with 2 little kids, we live together for over a year now, and we found our approaches to parenting are not compatible: for me her kids are forceful for my daughter and I feel that I need to protect her from them, especially the boy… and they believe he just wants to play and that kids should resolve their conflicts by themselves and this way learn to interact in a world where violence is a normal thing. At our home, we don’t kill spiders or pull away tails from lizards, either (and they do). My grandma would have not even kill a moskito, she believed every being has equal rights to live and we are not entitled to claim the space more than other animals are. At a forest we were always guests in the animals’ home…

We don’t kick out the family to the street and cut contact off, despite this is where they came from to us, after escaping the war. We help them find another home where they can stay, if nothing else, we’ll rent something for them until they can provide for themselves, even though I know most people would not do that [and the mom stopped talking with me anyways]. Some would say that our boundaries are not strong enough - we prefer to call it solidarity.

(I’m also thinking about my grandma who was taken care of by some good people in Sweden, after being rescued from Ravensbrück (KL) in the White Buses operation, what she was always very grateful for to all Swedes and Danes collectively, believing that they hold to higher standards of humanity).

I made this fork of the repo where I describe what I’d like to change in Karrot. It summarizes to being better at conflicts resolution and doing no harm. (I am not good at clear communication either, but at least I seem to have a heart (maybe, sometimes…). I am also aware that complete harmlessness is unrealistic.) Your comments and contributions are welcome there.

I’ll post an info about the fork and domain in the Playground group once it is up and running, if you don’t object.

I’d hope at least I gained immunity for this kind of violence.

You know where to find me, if you wanted to talk with me.

I wish you good luck and try to do no/less harm!