A personal letter to my CHI colleagues

Please. Stop. Think. Choose CHIndness!

It is great that people in CHI are prepared to raise concerns and issues. As an always-learning-growing community, we need to hear these concerns to make CHI events better. But it is how those concerns and issues are being raised that I think we really need to stop and reflect on. What is happening now, especially via social media, often feels negative, hurtful, and unproductive, and can also drown out the attempts at providing constructive feedback or more general community efforts to make the conference better.

My hope is that we can find different ways of raising issues, engaging in discussions and effecting change that are respectful, kinder, more compassionate, and more solution-focussed. At the end of this post I propose some strategies for how we collectively might grow a kinder more care-ful culture. You can skip straight to there if you want to (or read the key points here), because first I want to lay out the arguments and experiences leading to the proposals.

So this post is long and I make no apologies about that.

Setting the CHI context

I’ve always loved this academic community because of its generous supportive culture and because we do research that we passionately believe is important for making technology work for people. But something has been changing these last few years and it is no longer feeling like a safe supportive space. I’m reflecting here particularly on my experiences with CHI18, CSCW18, and now CHI19; on my sleepless nights (despite trying to be on holidays right now), on comments from our organizing team (see later).

Signing up as a volunteer for conference organization shouldn’t have to involve the emotional labour and distress that it now increasingly needs to deal with a never-ending stream of often ill-informed complaints.

So CHI should do something about this! (A cry we increasingly hear in the social media echo chamber.)

But there is no CHI.

There is a research area about CHI topics that many of us self-identify with (I know, that’s strictly grammatically incorrect ☺), so we can say there is a CHI community. There are conference events called CHI (and other related events) where we can publish our work, grow our CVs, have impact, and meet up with each other.

So you are CHI. We are CHI (side note: interestingly this was the CHI2010 theme).

The work to make CHI work

Our upcoming CHI conference event is being organized by a huge team of volunteers, your and my colleagues, making up the organizing committee, overseen by volunteers working on the CHI Steering Committee, enabled by volunteers working on the SIGCHI Executive Committee (EC), and supported by a host of other volunteers who contribute in all sorts of other ways (and not forgetting all the volunteers who review papers etc.). These teams are made up of real flesh and blood people, imperfect (well some of us at least), passionate, choosing to donate huge chunks of time and effort to make this event happen, to have something that this community can identify with. As an example, the CHI19 Organisers Slack channel summary for last week said “Your members sent a total of 2,838 messages”. And that doesn’t begin to reflect the emails and work across all the tracks around those messages.

Moreover, everyone is doing this work on top of their day job; time they give to enable you to have a CHI conference is time they are not spending with their own students, writing their own papers, playing with their own families and friends. But they/we choose to serve our turn in this way and contribute back to this community. Some heroes are even doing this for a second year running to help transition the learnings – Anna Cox as TPC and Anind Dey as Papers co-chair – both huge roles.

Every little part of a CHI event, down to whether the cookie is chocolate chip or plain, or the fruit an apple or a banana, where every chair is positioned, how 1216 items are scheduled across 304 sessions so people don’t have to be in two places at once… everything you touch and experience at CHI is from detailed, specific, deeply thought-through work performed by these flesh and blood people. Willingly. Always with good intention. Always seeking to create a great CHI experience for you, to enable good intellectual debate, to promote equity and diversity as best we can.

The CHI event is always going to be a ‘satisficing’ event, albeit aiming to make decisions as optimally as we can. It is too big, there are too many competing concerns and constraints, not least budget and space, and it will never be possible to keep all of the people happy all of the time.  Many of the decisions around CHI are also out of the control of the chairs and the organizing committee, some even outside the SIGCHI EC. The dates and venues are chosen way in advance before chairs are in place. Even things like the demographic details collected on the registration form are set by ACM not us.  But we work around and with the conditions we have and do the best we can. It will never be perfect, even with best intentions and there will be perspectives and trade-offs we’ve not anticipated or seen in being focused on trying to create a particular positive outcome for the community.

And that is why we are a learning growing community and continue to respond to challenges and try to do better every year (see our recent ‘countdown to CHI2019’ blog post on some of these initiatives in response to your previous feedback). We need every one of us to be part of this learning and growing, and making the community work better for everyone, because we cannot know/do/consider everything by ourselves even though we try. We can always do better, see different perspectives, make different choices. And that is why we take feedback seriously and consider it a learning opportunity - we make changes where we can,  within satisficing reality constraints, and we also document this so that future chairs don’t have to relearn the same things.

Hence why constructive feedback from the community is so valuable. And why academics, trained at being critical and having strong opinions, are so good at identifying issues. Exploring how to best address these issues is what makes us a good learning community.  

But not in the way it seems to have been happening lately.

The unanticipated additional work

Something different seems to have been happening recently, amplified and fueled by social media, about how this feedback is communicated and to whom. In my reading of it, there seems to be an increasing meanness to comments, accusatory tones, a quickness to judge, to jump to conclusions without understanding the context or constraints or what has been done, and so on.

I have seen your CHI volunteers, your colleagues, crying, talking about being kicked in the guts, being deflated, being stressed, being demotivated, feeling like all their work is for nothing and why did they bother, being emotionally exhausted. This is from junior as well as senior people. Some examples:

“I have been pretty stressed by all of the anger about the [current topic under social media discussion]. I feel so invested in chi that those comments hurt.”

“I was initially also upset that basically the first thing that was said to me regarding that was: it’s not perfect.  after I felt that so much energy and time went into getting it to the [improved] point where it is at.”

“Had a very bad nights sleep and still feeling super stressed right now.”

Your colleagues sign up willingly for a lot of hard work to make our CHI event happen. But they/we didn’t sign up for the huge amount of additional emotional labour to deal with this negativity. We are not your paid employees.  We have no agendas but to serve the community. We would love a community where it is psychologically safe, supportive and constructive.

We can do better. We can be better.

Proposals for a different way of engaging

So here are some proposals for how we might start to change the culture of discussion, debate in our community, and support more constructive learning. Feel free to add to these.  

If you think you have an issue you want to raise:

STOP, THINK before posting.

What is your real intention?

Is it to complain, humiliate, make a point, understand, seek information, find the right people to connect to, explore solutions, or some other intention?

Is social media the best avenue for this?

If you actually want something changed, the most effective strategy might be to go to the people who can make that change, and do so respectfully and reasonably. Do not expect that they will be reading CHI Meta or #chi2019 on Twitter. (I would even recommend that they do not as it is too stressful and takes enormous energy away from the actual job that needs to get done).

As an example, for all of the discussions around telepresence, the chairs only received 2 direct emails and only 1 positive suggestion.

Do you have all information to make the judgement you are making?

Is it possible there are perspectives you hadn’t thought about, constraints you don’t know about, actions already taken where the situation is actually improved albeit not to the extent you want it to be? Who can give you the answers you need?

As an example, if someone had have asked us we could have told them that we know CHI coincides with Ramadan (outside of our decision making). We had already asked the local chairs to collate a list of halal-friendly restaurants for after sunset eating. We also asked the party liaison chairs to let party organisers know they might want to consider halal options. We have now explicitly put in halal as a dietary option for those who do not fast, to more clearly communicate that it is considered.

What assumptions are you making?

Don’t assume the worst, don’t assume intentions that aren’t there. Don’t assume that you would have made the perfect decision if you were doing it. We can tell you from experience that, no matter how carefully you think you have considered something, you will still be surprised. Remember that all your colleague volunteers are really trying the best they can and want to do a great job, to be increasingly sensitive to a variety of concerns and perspectives, to make good decisions. Imperfection and not getting it quite right, does not equal a deliberate bad intention. Assume the best. Believe in your colleagues and believe they have good intentions.

As an example: no one deliberately set out to delay or complicate the production of the new template or to make life hard around the holiday time. The noble intention was to serve one of our core values around increasing accessibility (involving a whole host of other volunteers). The job just ended up much more complicated than anyone anticipated. And yes the timing wasn’t great. 20/20 Hindsight is a wonderful thing (as the recent telepresence discussions also illustrate)!

Is there a way of framing the issue orienting to solutions or exploring positive alternatives?

It is one thing identifying an issue but can we also draw on our collective intelligence to come up with some positive constructive ideas for possible solutions? Can you even offer to be part of the solution?

As an example: for all of the CHI template dramas (outside of our control but which generated a huge amount of extra work for chairs and authors alike) there was a wonderful community effort in the end, led by Sandy Gould with loads of help, to support people with Latex template tips.

Can you also consider what is working well, not just what is not working well, around a particular issue e.g., come up with three positive things (that are getting better or being done right or similar) before focussing on the complaint?

We have an evolutionary bias towards the negative. Otherwise we will get eaten by the lion. Recent psychology research shows that we have to more actively and deliberately focus on finding the positives because it doesn’t come so naturally, but the benefits of doing so are worthwhile.

As an example: while there is still good room for improvement in the registration form, there are also two very positive things. One  is that we (in particular our Equity chairs (Cayley McArthur and Cale Passmore) and chair Assistant (Katta Spiel)) were instrumental in getting the gender question changed by SIGCHI in their standard demographic questions, even if it can still be improved. This is great news because this impacts ALL SIGCHI sponsored conferences now. The second is that the issue of how demographic items (including gender) are collected has been escalated and ACM has now set up a special committee based on the feedback/recommendations from the CHI2019 Equity chairs, among others, to address these concerns. The outcomes of this will likely impact ALL ACM sponsored conferences. Step by step we are getting there.

Take just as much time and effort, if not more, to say thank you, to show appreciation - being specific, being personal, being generous.

You may already think you are grateful for so much that goes on but people won’t know if you don’t tell them. And everyone can do with encouragement.

As an example: I want to thank Carman Neustaedter for all his service work (and underpinning research) at so many of our conferences, to enable access for people who otherwise are unable to attend. He is passionate about this work. I also want to thank Carman and Tony, our telepresence chairs, for their thoughtful professional response to the raised concerns and innovating again on the solution to address the particular challenges of our upcoming conference (see their recent blog post and the new telepresence description).

We need the whole community to come together to create a community that is supportive, kind and professionally caring… for everyone.

Let’s call each other to account. Let’s find more generous constructive ways of engaging, reminding each other to look for what is working well not just for what is not, to orient to solutions not problems, to becoming part of the work to make CHI happen.

We can be the culture change needed to make that happen.

Choose CHIndness!

Geraldine Fitzpatrick

[Contact details for the relevant track chairs can be found on the CHI2019 Organiser page.]