Norm(s)!

· long story short

norm from cheers - greeting him when he entered was part of fitting in at the barOver the years as I’ve made a study of online communities and other forms of sociality, I’ve discovered (of course) a lot of other people doing important research work in the field. When we started writing our book I reached out to one such friend, Gary Burnett, a professor of communication and information who’s been doing excellent work in precisely this area.

In fact, not two years ago we appeared together on a panel at a Grateful Dead conference at U. Mass where we spoke about how Deadhead communities (and “communitas”) were fostered, enhanced, or splintered by the advent of online communication.

Gary contributed an essay to the book on explicit and implict norms in online groups, using insights gleaned in part from the formative USENET network. This is a topic Erin and I knew we wanted to drill down on, as its been long understood that healthy online communities seem to succeed best when participants have a clear understanding of acceptable norms of behavior.

Why the distinction between explicit and implicit norms? I’ll let Gary explain:

Social norms may be defined as a set of values particular to a group, the purpose of which is to provide a sense of balance, a mechanism by which people may gauge what is “normal” and acceptable in a specific context or situation. Such norms are not defined by outside factors; rather, they emerge directly from the activities, motives, and goals of the group itself. Social interfaces function as settings within which such a process may take place. The sociologist Robert K, Merton, in a classic formulation of social norms, distinguished between attitudinal and behavioral norms. However, since attitudes are visible in online settings only through visible behavior – only, that is, through the medium of textual production – it seems more appropriate to think of norms in online interactions in terms of a different distinction. Online social norms can be divided into two types: Explicit and implicit norms.

To find out how exactly these types differ and what roles they play, you’ll need to first read Gary’s essay and then delve further into the rest of his published work.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)

Are we doing any good?

· Design, Social Design, User Experience

image of a cathedralOne of my favorite essays published in our book is Matte Scheinker’s, called Are we building a better Internet?.

I asked Matte to write about ethics because it was a burning topic for the book and one that he and I used to kick around a bit as an oft-neglected issue in web design and development.

There are tradeoffs in customer acquisition, in growing a network, in handling privacy concerns and the related disclosures, some of which we are seeing at play right now in the controversial launch of Google Buzz, that we both felt do not always get the attention they deserve.

And yet when I speak about ethical issues and the inevitable conflicts between values and business goals and community interests and individual rights, I find that there is a hunger for seriously considering these topics. We all sense that we are “playing with people’s lives” in this work and that it matters how we do it.

Matte has a great way of easing into the trickiest questions:

Imagine for a moment what today’s design decisions will do to mold the Internet’s future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you’d want your kids to play?

Sometimes we get lucky and it’s not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don’t sell user data because you’re short on beer money. Don’t keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don’t read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren’t as clear-cut.

… but you’ll want to read the whole thing™.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)

Putting the social in the mobile

· Design, Mobile, Social Design, User Experience, Yahoo!

calder mobile - satelitesMy continuing series of blog posts linking to essays published in our book, well, continues now with Billie Mandel’s Designing Social Interfaces for Mobile, in which she writes:

Contextually speaking, mobile phones are by definition social networking devices. Breaking out of the classic phone/phone book mental model and transforming that experience to include 21st century-style social networking, though – that’s where the fun challenge is for designers. Asking ourselves some mobile-specific questions can lead us as a community to create some exciting, disruptive social interfaces for mobile.

See also her essential list of do’s and don’ts.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)