We're Made of Mud and Magic

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Community is messy, but if you catch the spoon in time, maybe less so

A single spoon in a sink In criminology, there’s “the broken windows theory“. Based on my day job managing a coworking space and my other experiences with shared spaces, I propose a similar theory for coworking and other shared spaces: the Spoon Hypothesis*. If one spoon gets left in the communal kitchen sink, it will take less than half an hour for a pile of silverware, mugs, and plates to accumulate in there too. It could be just as easily called the Abandoned Book Theory (for the library book not re-shelved), the Towel Theory (for the gym towel left strewn about the locker room instead of tossed in the hamper), or the Debris Theory (for how a random corner of a park can seem to collect garbage like a magnet), but the spoon is so emblematic.


Understand that the Spoon Hypothesis isn’t about the mess accumulating around the single abandoned spoon – that’s just an observation of a very real phenomenon. My theory is that if you can figure out a way to prevent the spoon from being left in the sink to begin with, you can keep the whole kitchen tidier. When people come into a very clean shared space, they are more likely to clean up after themselves. If you can come up with a system to make it easy for people to meet the minimal expectations – to put their spoon in the dishwasher – you won’t have to clean up silverware, mugs, plates, or even coffee grounds and food spills. Tackle the small origin problem and the rest will take care of itself (mostly).


Though the Spoon Hypothesis originates in physical problems in shared spaces, it can be extended to other community organizational issues. For example, a podcast I was listening to talked about a problem a group was having with potlucks: people weren’t bringing enough of whatever they’d signed up to provide. The solution was to create a simple list of how much people were to bring of any given kind of dish (x cups of salad, y number of veggie trays, etc.). The person said that not only did that solve their potluck problem, but that they noticed that people were more willing to help out in other ways too, like with clean-up after the event. They hypothesized that by drawing attention to one aspect of making an event run smoothly – how much food to provide – it drew attention to other aspects as well, and that giving clear instructions of what was expected of participants in one area freed those people up to think about other ways they could assist. They accidentally stumbled on a spoon problem and solved it effectively.


The problem with the implications of the Spoon Hypothesis is that it isn’t always easy to identify the spoon. If the problem is that your coven’s members don’t seem to take the coven’s events seriously – if there’s lots of confusion about where and when something is, people are frequently late, members aren’t prepared – that’s the messy kitchen. There may be individual reasons for some members to have trouble committing, but if the whole group seems to have an issue, there may be a systemic reason or two that can be at least be nipped in the bud. Maybe your group has chosen a communication tool that is inconvenient for the majority of members, maybe events aren’t being planned far enough ahead, maybe there’s an incomplete understanding of event logistics among the event organizers, or maybe the leadership is disorganized so it means the members don’t feel like they have to take things seriously.


Even once identified, solving the spoon problem isn’t always easy. To return to the shared kitchen, we’ve tried to head off the one spoon with signs, with written rules and reminders sent to members, with a kitchen orientation for new members, and with two dishwashers with signs about which one is dirty. The receptionist and I joke that we need a camera that compares the current sink to an image of the sink empty and sets off an alarm when they don’t match. My partner and I come up with increasingly elaborate hypothetical robots that would fling abandoned spoons out of the sink or that would follow offenders around making obnoxious noises. Other shared spaces have tried things like a layer of ping pong balls at the bottom of the sink to discourage putting things down, but who wants to clean the ping pong balls after a couple of days of people pouring out their leftover coffee and rinsing their lunch dishes over them? In the end, what has worked best so far is education. I tell members and staff about the first spoon phenomenon all the time, and after, they are more likely to spot the abandoned spoon and move it to the dishwasher, knowing that little favour has an effect out of proportion to the effort.


In the example of the chronically disorganized coven, the solution might be changing communication methods, setting deadline dates in advance for the usual events, creating a standard form for event organizers to fill out to make sure all the details are covered, or having the leader(s) re-prioritize. None of which are necessarily easy, but all will have longer lasting benefits than endless discussions about trying to be on time, dealing with the consequences of people being late, repeatedly lecturing people about living up to their responsibilities, or any other ways of dealing with the down-spoon consequences.


Here’s the sneaky part of the Spoon Hypothesis: knowing about it gives you a certain amount of responsibility. When you start to leave something where you know it doesn’t belong, there’s a little voice that reminds you that other things will accumulate because of it. And when you see a spoon, you won’t be able to ignore it.


Community building can be a messy process, full of miscommunications, dirty dishes, unsorted recycling, scheduling conflicts, and problems in both processes and principles. But maybe we can make it a little less messy by staying alert and cleaning up the first spoon.


* Not to be confused with the excellent but weirdly named Spoon Theory. Though it is really a Spoon Metaphor – and a very good one – and not a theory at all, it has become too widely known to be re-named.

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