Norms, Laws, and Code

If we want to organize a group of people to do something online, and we’re not planning to just hire everyone to perform specific tasks, then there are only a few basic options. We can try to build agreement, we can set up rules, or we can write code that creates or constrains the possible actions. I’ve begun to think of these as norms, laws, and code.

I’m thinking about these things because, like many people, I am trying to understand how to use online platforms to get people to work together in some productive way. As Joel Spolsky points out in “Modern Community Building,” this is a very new project and we know little about it. If an online community has a goal, or even any way to say whether it’s “doing well” or not, then it requires a particular type of more-or-less specific behavior from its members. That requirement is a constraint on free choice. Online communities have some combination of informal agreements, formal rules, and software that makes certain types of actions acceptable or unacceptable, possible or impossible, easy or hard.

Norms are agreements about behavior. Within any particular community or culture they define what “good” is, what “rude” is, and what “moral” and “valuable” are too. They can be thought of as more or less arbitrary social constraints on acceptable actions, such as idea that men don’t wear dresses. But they also encourage things we want, such as the idea that helping a stranger is a worthwhile thing to do. In the online setting, norms are how we recognize “good” behavior such as helpfully answering someone’s question, versus “bad” behavior such as trolling and spam. Norms are “all in people’s head” yet they are real in that there are social penalties for violating them, such as a loss in popularity, conflict with other members of a group, or shunning.

I understand laws as formalized rules backed by force. In many cases laws are codifications of norms (e.g. the criminalization of theft) along with pre-defined penalties for violation, backed by an authority with both the ability and the will to enforce these penalties. Laws can also govern the provision of rights or rewards, as in tax refunds or the requirement that health insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. In the context of an online social platform, “laws” might also mean “rules,” standards of behavior enforced by the site’s owner or other authority and backed by threats such as account suspension.

And then there’s code. Code influences social action whenever people interact with one another through the use of software — that is, social software. Lawrence Lessig has famously argued that code is law, and I am indebted to him for getting me thinking about how code constrains our free choice. But I don’t think law is the right metaphor. You don’t get punished for “violating” code; you simply aren’t able to do things that your software doesn’t allow. Code is more like physics, the basic possibilities of a universe. Or it is like architecture, a built world that has walls which are no less real for being human inventions. Code is the background context that defines what is and is not physically possible. Even if I were completely unconstrained by norms and laws, I couldn’t use a software feature that does not exist.

Code also influences action in the positive sense of what is easy or convenient to do. This is the concept of an affordance in psychology and user interface design. Ease of action is important because changes in degree eventually become changes in kind; although it was possible to create a blog before platforms such as blogger and WordPress, there wasn’t a lot of blogging then because it required hand-editing of HTML pages. Similarly, the fact that anyone can publish anything online doesn’t mean much if there is no way to find it. Web search doesn’t create a global network where anyone can publish, but it makes the network massively more practical.

Norms, laws, and code all apply together in any piece of social software. Consider a discussion forum. There are norms which regulate acceptable behavior — things like prohibitions against trolling, requests to stay on topic, the sort of things encapsulated in the netiquette that evolved with the very first internet discussion systems. Then there are laws, hard rules. “Anyone making racist or hateful remarks will be kicked off the forum,” and that sort of thing. Violations of the rules are judged by an authority who also has the ability to apply non-voluntary penalties, like a moderator who can suspend user accounts. Finally there is the code itself. Email is very different from recent social networks because it gives the user no way to make a completely public post, nor any “subscription” or filtering tools to let the user indicate which public posts they want to see.

Most functional online communities include all three elements. Wikipedia features a volunteer-mediated dispute resolution process, which starts with non-binding recommendations (norms) but can eventually escalate into administrator-enforced temporary or permanent bans (laws). There are various pieces of user interface which support user requests for moderation and allocation of moderators to cases (code).

Different online communities have different norms, laws, and code. “Be civil” is one of Wikipedia’s core policies, whereas 4chan is much more freewheeling. Most news sites retain the right not to publish your comment (rules enforced by an authority), whereas sites such as Slashdot and Reddit rarely delete anthying, preferring instead to punish worthless contributions by downvoting and other mechanisms which starve them of attention. Of course downvoting is not possible without appropriate software, which means that code influences norms. More precisely, code shapes both problems and possible solutions. If it’s not possible to make public posts then we don’t need to worry about privacy; and if we have the ability to restrict the distribution of each post then we have a tool that can be used to address privacy concerns. But any solution which involves people voluntarily working together for their common good — like downvoting —  still requires norms or rules.

In short, we can we can convince people, force people, or make certain things possible or impossible, easy or hard. These are the levers we have when trying to get people to work together online toward a common goal. The ability to pull these levers is not evenly distributed among the members of an online community; it’s easier for moderators or other community leaders to promote new norms, laws and rules are typically the creations of site owners or administrators, and code is ultimately under the control of whoever causes it to be written and installed. So there is a politics here. We can talk about whether a social platform is more authoritarian or more democratic, and every choice of rule or code has political implications in terms of who is empowered to do what.

Because they involve non-consensual limits to behavior, these constraints also have bearing on online rights. I find it hard to get upset about limits to “free speech” in someone else’s blog comments. Dave Winer eloquently makes the case that having your own blog means the ability to “craft your own medium,” and you get to set the rules. But when a privately owned online platform becomes integrated into the life of very many people, its norms, laws, and code start to intersect with things that could be considered basic freedoms. This is why there was such an outcry over the real names policy for Google+. Requiring the use of legal names online privileges the already powerful, and removes a crucial tool for online privacy. If personal freedom, empowerment, and participation are important to us, then norms, rules, and code of large online systems cannot be created arbitrarily; they have to serve the users’ basic human interests. This is a point thoroughly explored by Rebecca MacKinnon. But of course every online service provider is also constrained by the laws of the jurisdiction it operates in, which means that an online community can’t choose its rules arbitrarily. Not only does every online social system have its own politics, but those politics intersect with other spheres in complicated ways.


16 thoughts on “Norms, Laws, and Code”

  1. This is a tiny fillip on what you’re talking about, but when I think of the type of online community exemplified by people making posts in an online forum (Hacker News, say) or comments on a busy, highly trafficked blog (Talking Points Memo, etc) I generally think of the level of discourse falling into three “buckets”:

    * Free speech zone. No holds barred, anything goes (think 4Chan)
    * Civil Discourse zone. You can say an idea sucks. You can’t say “You suck!” (Metafilter)
    * Living room zone. I consider this an extension of my personal, private space. Anything that would get you kicked out of my living room will get you booted out of here. (Many millions of blogs about the writers’ personal experience).

    Different levels of discourse promote different kinds of freedoms. It’s hard to imagine 4Chan rules promoting a free discussion of, say, the issues faced by someone going through a gender transition. But the more restrictive norms of the Living Room Zone probably would stifle a Metafilter, and Metafilter will never have the raucous vitality of 4Chan.

    So it’s not really about less free or more free — it’s about what level of discourse promotes the very specific kind of freedom of speech that each one exemplifies.

  2. Yep, I think you’re onto something Lisa. Different standards of discourse for different spaces.

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