The "catalyst" role is critical to freenode and an essential building block of effective communities. No one is required to be a catalyst, but the users who perform this role ensure the smooth and efficient functioning of the network.
The IRC platform does not automatically produce a stable culture of cooperative effort. Even in cases where cooperation is intended, misunderstandings and personality incompatibilities can result in an extremely chaotic and hostile environment. Catalysts help prevent and resolve misunderstanding, calm the waters when users have difficulties dealing with each other and provide examples of constructive behaviour in environments where such behaviour might not otherwise be the norm.
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 behaviour and by generally reducing the level of confrontation rather than confronting users with problems.
Channel and network administrators may be catalysts and, indeed, are encouraged to take on that role. Channels which recognise the importance of the catalyst role will foster more effective coordination of effort. An important characteristic of successful catalysts is the infrequency with which they wear authority or invoke special privilege. freenode volunteers and sponsors are advised that an understanding and appreciation of the catalyst’s role is essential to understanding the nature and intended purpose of the network.
An effective catalyst is:
- Relaxed. To keep things calm, you yourself must be calm. Learn the skills of staying genuinely relaxed. Know your limitations; when you can't handle a problem situation calmly, get calmer heads involved.
- Open-minded. It is easy to make assumptions about other people's motivations. When you decide someone is behaving maliciously, you have made an assumption about their motivation which may be difficult to disprove. Try to make your assumptions about other people's motivations as positive as possible.
- Responsible. Peer-directed projects are a group activity with a strong need for responsible individual behaviour. Rumours, innuendo and gossip can derail projects and ruin reputations. If everybody knows something is true, who is "everybody?" Did the person you are talking to get their information from documented, factual sources, or is it hearsay? If you cannot be sure of the answer to those questions, should you be passing on what they have said?
- Unobtrusive. It is not necessary to invoke authority to help solve a problem, and far better if you do not. Look for an opportunity to nudge the situation into a more productive track. Do not criticise the user if a quiet change of subject, or a private conversation on a completely different topic, can help make the problem fade away.
- Realistic. Accept the personalities of your users and concentrate on problem resolution. Do not expect people to suddenly change their personalities to make problem resolution easier.
- Careful. Everything you say will be interpreted by the users with whom you interact. Consider how your remarks will be interpreted before you make them. Make sure the message you convey is the one you intend.
- Attentive. Understand the situation you have walked into before you act. Question your assumptions. Look for signs that you may have misinterpreted the situation, in order to avoid causing difficulties for a user who did not create the problem.
- Minimalist. Do not do more than you need to in order to resolve a problem. A problem scene is often the wrong time and place to set policy. Concentrate on the resolution, and on collecting information you can think about later.
- Courteous. Even under time pressure, courtesy costs little and impresses people a lot. It is not about whether working with the person is easy or difficult; it is about setting the right tone.
- Cooperative. Look for opportunities to get people involved in the resolution of their own and others' problems.
- Someone with an internal locus of control. Catalysts concentrate on solving problems, not bestowing blame. Treat the situation as the problem, accept the users for who they are and try to figure out how best to help resolve the difficulty.
- A user. Remember that you are not in charge. Everybody runs their own little corner of the world. Let them do the job they are capable of. Just help the process along as unobtrusively as possible. Other catalysts are users as well, and nobody is perfect.
We are all just here to do our best to keep things running well.