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The Heart and Mind of a Catalyst

SportChick on 2007-02-23

As the staff has so recently begun this blog, I've been carefully thinking about freenode and what make it different from so many other networks. Ask 10 people and you might get 10 different answers, but I have my own theory, which I thought I'd share with you here. The difference is, quite simply, the people that populate the network - and their heart and drive to make it something better. For a long time, though I was operating a channel of my own, I never realized that freenode officially encouraged the sort of behavior that I often employ - self-mediation, moderation, arbitration, catalysing, or whatever you want to call it. But indeed, freenode has an entire section on its website about the importance (and role) of a Catalyst!

What is a catalyst, you might ask? "Catalysts try to resolve problems, not through the use of authority and special privilege, but by fostering consensus, gently nudging participants in the direction of more appropriate behavior and by generally reducing the level of confrontation rather than confronting users with problems...[while] Channel and network administrators may be catalysts...[a]n important characteristic of successful catalysts is the infrequency with which they wear authority or invoke special privilege."

The freenode section even goes so far as to provide some key functions/skills of a catalyst: to remain relaxed, open-minded, responsible, unobtrusive, realistic, careful, attentive, minimalistic, courteous, cooperative, in a problem-solving mode, and humble. Reading through that list and digesting what is described/suggested can be intimidating, but in fact, it makes a lot of sense. For example, how could I possibly, as a catalyst, help to calm a situation down if I am not relaxed myself? Nor could I ever hope to help resolve a disagreement or situation if I have pre-conceived ideas of what is happening and what the resolution should be (as opposed to having an open mind and hearing out the parties involved).

As I mulled over the role of the catalyst and considered its application not just to freenode, but to daily life, I realized that even if someone were not "naturally" endowed with the demeanor of a catalyst, the skills can be learned. Becoming a catalyst is a choice - one must demonstrate a willingness to put aside things like pride, indignation, blame, annoyance, frustration. Instead, focus on identifying the issue and helping to resolve it. I have found in many situations that diffusing a situation is most effective when done in /query. When you have an opportunity to discuss something in /query, you can avoid embarrassing the person you're speaking with. Also, frankly, showing that you care enough to find out what's going on and how you can help is often a large part of the process.

Be aware of cultural and language differences. Not only may there be differences between disputing parties, but there may very well be differences between you and the person you are speaking with. It is extremely easy, particularly in the flat, toneless text of irc, to misinterpret someone's intentions or even the actual words they use. Don't be afraid to write in complete sentences. Determine whether you and the person you are speaking with share the same native language. (That is not to say that if you don't, you should avoid catalysing - but merely that you should be aware of how easily you will (mis)understand one another). Age differences, perspectives, it will all have an effect on your ability to communicate clearly with the person you are talking with.

Each opportunity to catalyse will be drastically different from every other. I encourage you to learn from your mistakes (we ALL make mistakes - whether large or small). Don't hesitate to go back over a conversation after the fact and look for areas in which you can improve your skills. Read the Catalyst section of the freenode site periodically - use it as a "refresher". Be self-critical but not critical of others. Realize that you won't be successful catalysing every situation and don't be discouraged from trying.

In short, become the person you would want to have available to help resolve a dispute that you might have - impartial, attentive, open-minded, courteous, and humble. Catalysing is a thankless job in some respects - you often won't have a lot of people saying 'gee, thanks for taking care of that'. On the other hand, your channels will be much more effective and enjoyable places to spend your time. Help keep freenode the wonderful place that you, the user, have already made it! Become a catalyst today!