Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Upholding Social Norms - Part 2

I didn't intend for Upholding Social Norms to be a multi-part post, but the conversation has become compelling and widespread. It's a subject that has reached a certain resonance around the Second Life resident blogs, and the comments on this blog alone have been thought provoking and highlight the complexity of the topic.

Here are a few other perspectives from the personal blogs of fellow Second Life residents:
There may be more, if so please let us know in the comments.

Coincidentally, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society launched the Publius Project today. From the announcement :

Publius brings together a distinguished collection of Internet observers, scholars, innovators, entrepreneurs, activists, technologists, and still other experts to write short essays, foster a public dialogue, and create a durable record of how the rules of cyberspace are being formed -- with a view to affecting their future incarnations.

The first essays are now live:

We take our inspiration and mode from the Federalist Papers, but our goal is to highlight a variety of perspectives on the evolutionary process of rule-making in cyberspace. The early American context and perspective is supplanted by our modern, global, and diverse experience. The notion of a singular constitutional moment is replaced by a vision of multiple forces shaping the structures that both open and constrict online spaces. Participants will reflect on the various elements of this loosely-joined architecture and consider how traditional understandings of regulation, control, and governance are manifested and constructed anew in cyberspace.

Berkman can tap industry leaders across a wide display of disciplines. The first three articles are worthy reads, but I noticed the one important element. They are touching on the same points as the rest of us "non subject matter experts".

John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society sets the context for the discussion:
The ability to govern activities online is not the exclusive province of the state, and the line between public and private action is getting blurrier, not clearer, as more of life moves into the networked public sphere.
Lines are indeed blurring, but how those lines blur do matter and I believe that without conscious and deliberate discourse, things will merely evolve to a point of the lowest common denominator. How else can we positively shape social norms in spaces in which there is a permeable membrane between the real and the virtual?

Some (removed ref to Chestnut Rau based on clarification in comments) argue that the Second Life Terms of Service are necessary and sufficient means by which we can regulate, but Prokofy Neva argues strongly that the Terms of Service are arbitrary, abusive and over broad and in turn residents cede too much power to the private corporations that sponsor them.

One might argue that *any* rules in the form of a Terms of Service or otherwise could be interpreted as too stringent and therefore stifle social interaction and the subsequent norms that emerge out of it. Quoting from David Weinberger's article:
The fuzziness of norms is their strength. We need the looseness of norms to enable us to be with one another in surprising ways. The narrower, more explicit, and less ambiguous the norms, often the deader the social interaction: “Come now, Marjorie, you know that we raise our hands before speaking.” Norms are not rules that have yet to mature. Rules are norms that have failed.
If you believe Weinberger, then the Terms of Service will fail us, just as Prokofy claims. However, that does mean that there must exist some tacit governance to keep the community healthy and alive. How then, does tacit governance evolve, thrive and be effective in a large, growing, and diverse community like that of Second Life?

Esther Dyson provides an interesting perspective on that issue as she provides the following illustration of her experience at a seminar with a group of Russians.
In Russia, there’s a proliferation of laws, but the overall system of governance is mostly tacit in practice. (That’s not to say that there is not a lot of excruciatingly explicit paperwork, but most of it is irrelevant.) This tacit system – of connections, unspoken rules, shadowy powers - leads to all kinds of maladies. Those in power can act as they like almost with impunity. Those without power but with an understanding of the rules can mostly stay out of trouble.

But those who don’t understand the rules, or who question them, can lose their freedom or even their lives. (As Russian politician Boris Nemtsov once pointed out [in paraphrase], “Yes, there is freedom of speech. But that does not necessarily mean freedom after speech.”

Tacit laws are difficult to understand, to share with newcomers and to spread across a large population. Tacit laws are also more prone to unfair balances in power and influence, which serve as particularly bad influences on new and emerging markets as those afforded by virtual worlds.

Now I don't know about you, but I feel stuck. Outright written rules fail us, and tacit governance is nearly impossible if not unbalanced at scale. Where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us at the root, the elephant in the room, with that which is so ill defined that while we write laws around it, socially we embrace a tacit governance that allow us to rationalize our circumvention of legality in a case by case way.

That root, is trust.

I thought Kevin Werbach may have nailed it with his article entitled "Steering to the Edge of Trust", but sadly he presents a largely technocentric "Abundance trumps governance" argument which is a necessary part of the discussion but leaves me cold. I personally keep coming back to simple human trust which is often mediated (at least partially) by well designed technology.

Like many fellow residents, I don't have answers. I have still more questions.

Do the Second Life Community Standards and Terms of Service establish some baseline for defining the expectations of a "trusted" environment in the world of Second Life?

What makes the Terms of Service, as Prokofy suggests, over broad?

The Terms of Service and Community Standards are written rules to which we all agreed to abide; are they failing us?

Are there more powerful tacit governance structures within Second Life?

If so, what are they and how are they adopted, reinforced, spread, and modified?

What else am I missing in this discussion?

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