My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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social contract vs. guiding principles

Have i mentioned how much i hate lawyers?

Why is social contract changing to guiding principles?

Lawyers didn’t like “contract” in the name “social contract” because it does not have the structure of a contract. The principles are the same, though. Six Apart doesn’t want to kill LiveJournal. Don’t worry — I thoroughly screened them to make sure they weren’t evil.

from Brad’s announcement

The term ‘social contract’ does not come from legalese – it’s an ancient political theory with a rich history. In short, a social contract is a set of culturally agreed upon norms that help maintain social solidarity. In most cases, the elements of the social contract are never explicated or concretely agreed upon – they just become norms. In almost all cases, people give up freedoms because it is good for the society as a whole. Thus, elements of the social contract are usually articulated as “that’s just wrong” or “you just don’t do that.” Lying, stealing, cheating, killing… these are all things that fit into the social contract. Of course, many elements of a society’s social contract are written into stone through law but the social contract came first.

Guiding principles are not the same as a social contract. A guiding principle is what those in power, those building the system, those who are actually doing the structural guiding are seeking to achieve. A social contract is something that is culturally accepted by all parties. For example, as a guiding principle, spam avoidance means that the creators will do everything in their power to make LJ a spam-free service. As a social contract, everyone involved will do their damnedest to rid the service of spam.

I know that the intentions are the same and that the goal is to just be careful of legalese, but one of the things that makes LJ so special is that there is a social contract between the participants. This needs to be maintained for LJ’s culture to survive, even if the term is being removed from its legal cannon.

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10 comments to social contract vs. guiding principles

  • This is foolish lawyers and also cowed clients.

    Couldn’t Brad just have added a hyperlink to the dictionary of philosophy, in case anybody was confused?
    http://www.iep.utm.edu/s/soc-cont.htm

    “Social Contract Theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement between them to form society. Socrates uses something quite like a social contract argument to explain to Crito why he must remain in prison and accept the death penalty. However, Social Contract Theory is rightly associated with modern moral and political theory and is given its first full exposition and defense by Thomas Hobbes. After Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the best known proponents of this enormously influential theory, which has been one of the most dominant theories within moral and political theory throughout the history of the modern West.

  • Nice biblical reference to the ‘Big 10’. In the case of the first 10 commandments they were actually written in stone, but the rest of the 604 were not. Would you say that social contracts are part of the development of cultural norms as well? What comes first the social contract, or the societal norms? I happen to feel that the norm dictate the contract.

  • Glad you called that one–lot’s of eyebrows raised over here too.

    I was particularly surprised becuase, at my previous job, they were big on “social contracts”. And, this was a big enterprise promoting social contracts within the company and with their partners who are some of the biggest enterprises in the world.

    So, I know there were vast populations of lawyers all over the use of that term, yet it was used often and prominently–even encouraged.

    I don’t know–different lawyers ways, I guess.

  • joe

    Seriously, danah, do you really hate all lawyers, or are you, perhaps, over-generalizing here? Do I have to mention all the public-interest attorneys that fight for you digital rights every day (and during holidays too!)?

    I definitely see your point… that a corporate lawyer or transactions attorney saw the word “contract” – instead of the phrase “social contract” – and thought that was bad for everyone involved. That is, if it is held up in court as a legal contract, all sorts of things that are “bad” can happen… gap-filling measures (where if a certain type of clause doesn’t exist, a default or generic clause is assumed to be there), state-specific contract law (contract law is state law), etc. That would have been a mess.

    A better solution would have been to put (in all caps as there are legal decisions that require all caps for this kind of thing, believe it or not) at the top of the LJ social contract, “THIS IS NOT A CONTRACT IN A LEGAL SENSE, BUT A SOCIAL CONTRACT.”

  • A guiding principle is what those in power, those building the system, those who are actually doing the structural guiding are seeking to achieve. A social contract is something that is culturally accepted by all parties.

    I’m confused. Doesn’t that description make the term “guiding principles” quite accurate, and “social contract” rather less accurate? I mean, if the creators of the system are writing down a set of principles, then exactly by your definitions, it’s not in fact a social contract but a set of guiding principles.

    Am I missing something?

  • Joe – that first line can be read with the exasperated tone that i use when i flail my arms up in the air in full expression of Gahhh. Like when i come running in and scream about 202 or something. Basically, they don’t even get Vitamin Therapy status.

    Fred – yeah, they’re turning it into guiding principles but culturally, it has always been a social contract that the entire community works to maintain, not simply a set of principles for the technology developers.

  • joe

    totally hear you, d… what’s an emoticon for flailing ones hands? 🙂

    Is there anything else, semantically, that would incorporate the feeling of a “social contract” but avoid the use of the word “contract”. What about a “social pact”… is that the same thing? (I guess not… I know Debian[1] is pretty serious about their social contract.[2])

    [1]: http://www.debian.org/
    [2]: http://www.debian.org/social_contract

  • The distinction you’re drawing between “guiding principle” and “social contract” seems to me to be a bit confused. As I understand it a guiding principle is very much like a verbal expression of an idealized social norm – “I’ll do my best not to cause harm to others as I go about my life.” A social contract as typically used in philosophy, by contrast, is much more specific: it’s an abstract (and fictional) statement of the expectations and obligations by which ruler and ruled are bound – “For causing harm to others one expects to be harmed proportionally by the state.” It’s the theoretical intermediate step between habitually lived social norms and well-made laws. On LiveJournal, the terms of service document is the closest thing I see to a social contract (except it is actually a real and binding contract).

    On the other hand the guiding principles are just that: a set of aspirations but not a set of mutual obligations. They’re not in the terms of service because as a rule it’s not good business to make such ideals into explicit legal promises to customers. More importantly, guiding principles are NOT “what those … building the system … are seeking to achieve.” What one seeks to achieve is a goal. Guiding principles are, rather, more or less strict rules-of-thumb governing the means by which the goal is to be achieved.

    As I see it, if one were to combine the *spirit* of the terms of service and the guiding principles into one abstract, nonbinding understanding, then you’d pretty much have a complete social contract.

    So…it sounds to me like the lawyers gave their client good advice. Better they give good advice than bad, and then somewhere down the line some jerk takes advantage of the bad advice and hurts either the community or the technology developers.

  • mazarura orbet

    please send me informatio on when was social contract initiated,who are the participants,issues covered,and suggested way forward