Friday, May 09, 2008

Upholding Social Norms

Recently, I've been observing what I consider to be an erosion of social norms within the growing resident population within the virtual world of Second Life (SL). I think to some extent, this was to be expected simply due to the explosive growth but I do think there is something a little more "meta" going on and I wanted to share a few observations. Before I go much further, I should say that the following represents my personal world view and is not intended to extrapolate to the general populous. It may simply speak volumes about the Second Life residents I encounter, and have little to do with the average population but at the least, it may provide food for thought and discussion in a larger context.

When Grace entered Second Life in Feb. 2006 the feel of the community was akin to Mayberry, USA. By that I mean, the population was less than 150,000 and residents were generally neighborly, helpful and glad to see you. I was fortunate enough to stumble into the tranquil community of Mill Pond as a home base but I spent most of my time traversing the grid, trying to get my head around the world as it were. Nearly every day of my first few months in world I heard "Welcome to Second Life" as I met new people and visited new places. There were leagues of well organized groups and individuals whose focus was to help acclimate new comers, from NCI to the Shelter and educational groups that taught basic skills. Inherent in these exchanges, beyond just building skills, were simple reinforcements of social norms and acceptable behaviors. It wasn't overt, it was kind and gentle and in the spirit of keeping the world of Second Life a place of community and collaboration.

Beyond the new resident centers, object lessons in de facto social norms were consistently reinforced by my fellow residents. This included simple things such as: greet and welcome people, be kind to newbies, excuse yourself when you left a group conversation, etc. It also included more subtle practices, such as waiting until you've established a bit of a relationship before you offered friendship - at that time calling cards were helpful without the implied social contract of a friendship. This was reinforced somewhat by the feature set because then your friends could not only see if you were online, they could also map you by default. This single point, beyond common courtesy, was a good deterrent to quick friends.

I realize I sound like some old geezer sipping a glass of sweet tea and reminiscing about "the good old days", but really I do have a point beyond simple nostalgia.

Reflecting upon my early Second Life social experiences and those today I see dramatic changes, especially related to social privacy. For example, part of the subtle but consistent reinforcement from the early community was that the separation between one's Second Life (SL) and real life (RL) was assumed, and the merger of those two was the decision of each individual to be exposed, discussed, etc. at their discretion and without prompting and if shared, certainly held in the utmost of confidence. I am not talking about the philosophical arguments related to immersion versus augmentation here, I am referring to simple courtesy and what was then a seemingly set of shared values and social contract terms that embraced the construct and consequences of what it meant to have social privacy.

Social privacy wasn't cast as "hiding behind your avatar" nor were the Second Life Terms of Service waved about by town criers, it was woven into the culture of the early era community and it was reinforced accordingly. Sharing someone's real life information and private chat logs with a third party was not only frowned upon, there was almost a scarlet, maybe crimson, letter cast upon those residents that were careless in that regard. Social privacy was considered paramount, and unfortunately I see that particular aspect of the Second Life culture eroding every day without obvious consequence.

In the material world there are forces that shape our social behavior such as fear of legal and social consequences and attendant regulation, which are largely choreographed by immediate and appropriate feedback. Often in the real world the law often becomes the lowest common denominator to constraint and social decorum.

However without feedback methods, those same consequences in online communities including Second Life are often missing, especially with a Laissiez-faire approach to oversight even in light of the Big Six. The "law" here in Second Life boils down to the Terms of Service, which clearly most people don't read or are otherwise immune simply due to the lack of obvious consequence. Without the means of consequence we know humans will push until there is some edge, and we are left with an eroding and destructive community.

Real world law is not the answer. Real world law doesn't solve destructive social behavior in communities and just to be clear, anonymity is not the problem. The arguments about identity verification and trust, while tuned to the real world, are inherently flawed in a space where new ways of thinking availed because of anonymity and the constraints it imposes. Additionally, no legal system is going to dirty itself by trying to moderate "Don't be a dick".

So what is the answer, or maybe what are the questions?

Are there different moral codes and norms that we are willing to adopt in online spaces to accommodate this new medium? If so, does self-moderation work in large and diverse social spaces to reinforce social norms? For example, are *you* willing to ...
  • gently remind that new friend that just said something like "obtw ABC XYZ is rly a dude irl" that sharing or even discussing another person's real life is not acceptable?
  • delete the notecard someone just dropped on you that contains a private conversation and kindly remind them not to do it again?
  • even if you think you've "fallen in love" with another resident upon first sight, are you willing to give that resident the social privacy they rightly deserve?
  • speak up in a public forum when a resident is being mistreated?
  • defend a fellow resident's right to anonymity?
  • remind the resident that disrupts an event with repeated transmissions of advertisements, sounds or even chat spam, that they might find a better outlet?
  • write a blog post reinforcing your view of social norms?

Well, are you?

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