musing about online social norms

Since the earliest days of Usenet and email, people have complained about how much easier it is to be mean online than offline. If you spend enough time on public forums, it’s hard not to run into mean-spirited rhetoric: defamation, hate speech, flaming, etc. The latest story of helicopter parenting turning deadly highlights how easy it is to deceive to be cruel. Discussions of using mediating technologies for the purpose of bullying often rely on arguments about how technology aids and embeds malicious acts by reducing the consequences of breaking social norms. Governments often seek to ban technologies because of mean-spirited interactions that take place.

Of course, what’s at stake is fundamentally a philosophical question, the precise one that got me kicked out of my 9th grade English classroom: is “man” basically good or evil? (I argued that man was basically evil, but apparently this was the incorrect answer and I wouldn’t back down.)

There are all sorts of forces that limit social behavior in everyday life: fear of legal consequences, fear of social consequences, fear of damage to our bodies, lack of functional capability, whether potential gains outweigh costs, etc. Our legal system takes these forces into consideration and this is where punishments like jail (or the death penalty) operate at disincentives. Likewise, we often try to regulate structures so that it is functionally impossible to commit an act that is perceived to be collectively “wrong” (legal or social). Yet, in truth, we rely primarily on the things that are essential to humanness: desire not to face physical harm and desire to fit in socially.

Mediated environment throw these forces for a loop. I can say anything I want here and you can’t punch me. At least not while you’re sitting on your computer reading this. And I have a reasonable expectation that your potential anger will dissipate before you see me again. Furthermore, this fear of bodily harm is very ephemeral – we are much worse about evaluating whether or not an act will result in _future_ bodily harm than determining if it will result in immediate harm. The lack of immediate harm is key here.

The bigger issue has to do with social consequences. I have no way of determining if you’re nodding along or scrunching your face in disgust and violent disagreement. I have to imagine your reaction as I write this (and I’m imagining the nods). I have no way of adjusting the next paragraph according to your implicit responses while reading this paragraph, both because I can’t see you and because you’re reading this in a time-shifted manner. Furthermore, unless you explicitly provide feedback (like comments), I have no real understanding that you’re out there let alone what you thought of my post. The lack of social feedback sucks, but the lack of immediate social consequences can be far more dangerous.

Impression management is a core process of human participation in social situations. I try to present myself in the way that I want to be received and based on your feedback, I adjust my presentation. This is not easily learned and teenagers often struggle with this (thus, an “identity crisis” is when one’s imagined self doesn’t mesh well with how one is perceived) but adults are by no means perfect at this. We all learn through experience which is why social interaction is crucial.

Yet, in mediated environments, impression management is stilted. There’s no implicit feedback and explicit feedback is minimal at best (“nice picture” isn’t really informative). The immediate social consequences are also not there because there’s no way of knowing if someone just walked away. As a result, social norms aren’t really enforced online and without this re-inforcement, it’s easy to break them without even knowing it.

This gets even trickier when you remember that networked publics bring together people from all sorts of environments with fundamentally different sets of social norms and expectations. Many imagine a melting pot where a new set of collective norms evolves, but because it’s hard to provide social feedback, that doesn’t happen. It’s more like a rotting salad bowl.

Now, add in the fact that people regularly seek attention (even negative attention) in public situations and that public forums notoriously draw in those who are lonely, bored, desperate, angry, depressed, and otherwise not in best form. Mix this with the lack of social feedback and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. There are few consequences for negative behaviors, but they generate a whole lot of attention.

The question remains: is this the fault of the environment? In some sense, yes because the architectural underpinnings of these environments don’t allow for social feedback or meaningful social (or bodily) consequences. This is where legal folks get into a tizzy because they think that legal consequences will solve everything. For this reason, they often argue against anonymity, viewing it as a barrier to regulating social behavior online. Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. While legal consequences certainly limit some people from some acts, they certainly do not limit everything. If they did, we wouldn’t need jails and murder would be a thing of the past. More problematically, most of what needs regulated in social environments online is not a rupture of law but a rupture of social decorum. “He’s being mean” is not something that the law really wants to involve itself with.

So then how do we fix it? Is it a matter of design? Do we need to bake in social feedback loops and consequences into the core of our technologies? If so, how?

Alternatively, is there a way to socialize people into an environment where they do “what’s right” simply because it’s right? Of course, this question extends beyond the internet. I fear that as a society, we are relying more on legal regulation and less on social regulation and I can’t work out why. But, perhaps the problem is not the internet but a general lack of collectively understood everyday norms. Older people certainly spend enough time bitching about “kids these days,” but there are all sorts of contributing factors for building and maintaining collective social norms is hard: age segregation, class segregation, homophily more broadly. We can blame overworked adults, cars, lack of public spaces, single family social units, and other such bits on contributing to homophily and the lack of collective social norms.

But here’s where I think that there’s an interesting sociological puzzle. What network structures result in strong collective norms? What forces are needed to create those kinds of social network? (This is a classic question of tolerance… we know fairly well that diverse networks have higher levels of tolerance, not surprisingly.) Given that universal unitedness isn’t really going to happen, what are the structural changes that increase norm maintenance?

As for the internet, mass media hype aside, I bet that the internet is statistically nicer than it was when I was growing up. While many public forums and community sites like Slashdot are still bogged down with crud, most people are going online to interact with people that they know. There’s only so much you can get away with when you’re going to see the person the next day. Time delay might not be ideal for social feedback, but it certainly helps.

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9 thoughts on “musing about online social norms

  1. jrb

    I think you answered your conundrum (“I fear that as a society, we are relying more on legal regulation and less on social regulation and I can’t work out why.”) in your second paragraph, when you said back in 9th grade that man is basically evil. (tongue only slightly in cheek)

    IMHO, what gives the people who abuse these networks a large measure of their power is their anonymity.
    It’s the Wizard of Oz for the next millenium – the curtain is the anonymous net.
    An unsettling question with regard to social norms is: how many of us would actually be tolerant if we didn’t have to be, owing to the fact that in real life we often have to declare it and associate it with our names? The popular media loves to play on the latest freudian-slip-du-jour of the Don Imuses, Dawg the bounty hunters, and others, while many in our society mumble “There but for the grace of God…”.
    How many of us wish we could simply say “Silence, whippersnapper!” instead of try to reason with someone outside of our circle of close friends?

    As you said, there’s only so much you can get away with when you’re going to see the person the next day. But if you’re _never_ going to “see” that person, apparently the sky’s the limit.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a place for anonymity on the web, but it is clear that as a society we’re not close to establishing the social norms (and I wonder if we ever will) to handle it with universal grace.

  2. Brian

    I wonder how much different our society would be if no one worried about being ‘nice’. If we, like the rest of the animal kingdom, lived and let die. Would we still be nomadic cave dwellers?

    Or is it just unreasonable to think out? Maybe humans arent neccessarily Evil by nature, in that it’s in our nature to want to be loved, and accepted. Is it just those that aren’t, that fail somewhow to get that love and attention they need, that lash out, and get ‘mean’?

    I feel like that if Anarchists suddenly got their way, and there for some reason was a ‘great culling’… eventually we’d re-establish some kind of Order. Perhaps a King of the Hill would come in and rule by the Fist.. and then eventually that would upheave, and we’d come full circle to another Republic.

    So by that line of reasoning, Humans aren’t good or evil.. they are self-motivated to *act* good by the general desire to survive, and create patterns, or Order. Given the chance, however, most of us, like we do online, let it all hang out, and act the way we’d *like* to. Purely self-interested, emotional, and with a strong desire to assert dominance (be ‘accepted’).

    Online, I see three types. The ‘been-there’s: these are the ones that insist on proper grammer, usually know what they’re talking about, and are usually helpful. They assert their dominance by typing in (oft-attempted) well thought-out English, heavy reliance on ‘knowledge’, and snarkyness. The ‘ignorant’: these are the ‘lolomgz u r c00l’ people, who don’t bother to do any thinking or research for themselves, and generally want what they want, and you’re there to provide it for them, your own interests be damned. These fine folk assert their dominance by vulgarity, usually. Finally, the ‘newbies’ – they can range from ignorant to wise, and eventually settle into either camp.

    The internet forums are generally populated by I’d say 20-40% ‘been-theres’, 10% or so newbies, and the rest is the ‘Ignorant’. It always a constant battle fought by the two major sides – the ‘been-theres’ trying to tame and ‘normalize’ the ‘Ignorant’, and the ‘Ignorant’ willfully refusing to change.

    I see this as a reflection of society as a whole. Most of humanity is stupid, ignorant, and willfully so. We are, for the most part, lemmings. We do not like to think for ourselves, and can be counted on to take the easier path. There is always a minority (large or small), who are the opposite, and we either revolt and make changes (American, French revolution), or sat back, sigh, shake our heads, and get snarky.

    semi off-topic: have you heard of ‘Black September’? What the old BBS users refer to as the month when AOL brought the Internet to the Masses (and according to them, ruined it)? I’d be curious as to your thoughts on that..

  3. cat

    Man is basically evil?
    I just posted a Time article by Jeff Kulger about what Makes us Moral.
    Had also personally thought he hadn’t really answered it satisfyingly… 🙂

  4. Steve

    Hi danah,

    Acouple of thoughts.

    (1) “I argued that man was basically evil, but apparently this was the incorrect answer and I wouldn’t back down.)”

    Jeez! Is this still what you think? 🙁

    (2) The one thing everybody online fears is loss of attnetion. The dreaded “iggy”. People will moderate their behavior online if there is the expectation that ticking people off can get them barred from access to their audience. This isn’t prefect – since they can always set of a new fake identity. But if they have invested in an identity, or their identity reflects a real offline identity, then the threat of electronic ostracism could be quite real. SNS software and practices can be designed to facilitate this.

    However – this is a two edged sword. The same free-for-all atmosphere that allows senseless and cruel meanness also allows the airing of important though unpopular postions on social and philosophical issues.

    It’s a tricky question.

    Just a thought,

    P.S. I hope you still don’t think mankind is evil. But if so, I’d be interested to know why.

  5. Tim Davies

    Really interesting post. I was making some notes along these lines (although from a slightly more philosophical ethics angle) over the weekend which I’ll hopefully write up shortly…

    One key element of those, however, was to reflect upon the way in which social norms in the physical world are negotiated.

    Not necessarily through explicit negotiation, more through implicit learning (in the same way adolescent development is a process of learning and negotiating social norms).

    Thus – (to present an oversimplified dichotomy) we might need either:

    1) To negotiate new norms that operate in the online space given the arbitrary ‘rules’ and limitations (limited identity management and social feedback loops) of the online space;

    In which case we may have a very different set of ‘online norms’ from our ‘offline norms’ (and indeed, I was pondering – a different moral code online… which seems slightly less comfortable).


    2) To build in feedback loops so the online world more closely approximate the offline world where we have already negotiated norms of conduct.

    But – we might observe that two of the key elements in negotiating norms offline are time and intensity of interaction. It takes time in any new social space for norms to be established – and new entrants into that space often upset the norms just by disrupting existing patterns of interaction and so require a re-negotiation of the norms which takes time. Yet the key element of many online (e.g. SNS) spaces is to make it very easy for new members to rapidly enter a community without needing to participate in introductions and renegotiating norms…

    (Ok – the picture is a lot more complex than that – and this confuses individual spaces with norms for the online realm as one space in its own right – but it should throw into the mix the role of negotiation as a concept here…)

  6. John

    Hi, This is all really interesting, I thought that I was the only one in the world who cares about where it is all going. If we rebel against the system, we are whiners, because the system itself defends its own lack of vision by labelling people that way. It is interesting too, that to have success (by capitalist standards) in capitalist life one has to be a conformist introvert and able to be inhuman and dishonest (or small degrees of such traits). If one is an extrovert, it will put the introvert-run system into panic, and ranks will be closed, and the extrovert shut out. Or perhaps I am just a manic depressive.

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