Over 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.)