Mar 17 2009
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
With all the discussion lately about the rights and wrongs of online speech and conduct, I recently discovered a 2003 piece by Clay Shirky, appropriately titled “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” (someone posted it in reference to the ginormous Brockmann brouhaha). Shirky’s insightful analysis of online communities tracks what he (borrowing partly from psychologist W.R. Bion) sees as a consistent pattern of group development and dissolution: a group forms and solidifies around a common purpose and the establishment of external enemies around which the group rallies. However, over time, the very thing that initially formed and grew the group starts to work against it, especially if the group does not have a constitution that establishes a shared set of rules:
So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the software, but because it’s being used by humans. Bion has identified this possibility of groups sandbagging their sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally came to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary. Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the universe of possible behaviors, we’re going to draw a relatively small circle around the acceptable ones.
He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.
Constitutions are especially important in free speech environments, Shirky argues, because groups inevitably tend to revolt against themselves (isn’t this an ingrained political truth by now, too?), and the more freedom people have, the more potential chaos and rebellion.
I am not certain I agree with Shirky’s insistence on formal community constitutions, but I do think he’s right that groups can easily dissolve on the very foundations that built them, especially if they do not have something important or compelling enough to redirect the more destructive patterns of group behavior. I hadn’t thought a lot past this point until last week’s excellent discussion on internet anonymity, and more particularly after Jessica’s thoughtful question about the difference between Will Shetterly’s “outing” of a fellow blogger and the Maryland court’s ruling to protect online anonymity:
But isn’t this exactly what the justices did in the decision Jane discussed? Extend anonymity to online individuals on the same basis it is protected for physically embodied individuals?
I knew instinctively that the answer was “no,” that the Maryland court and Will Shetterly’s positions were not identical. But it took a while for me to discern that while both were focused on rules and on rule-making (and breaking), Shetterly’s argument was essentially ethical and the court’s was, obviously, legal.
And the difference is as important, even though it’s hard to distinguish law and ethics sometimes, because we tend to compress them so often in our discussions of online speech and conduct. Take the Shetterly incident, for example. When Will Shetterly got angry at a fellow blogger, he posted her full legal name online as part of his response to her, even though she blogged and participated online under a pseudonym. He later defended himself by pointing out that her legal name was already attached to her online LiveJournal account, and therefore he wasn’t “outing” her as people charged, ultimately writing a post on Internet anonymity in which he argued that
In the world Behind The Keyboard, nicknames are connected to faces or voices or mailing addresses-they’re ultimately legally verifiable, though you may need detectives if someone you only know by a nickname shafts you.
But in Life Online? A pseudonym is just a pseudonym, not a nickname. Log out of gmail, make a new account, and you’re a new person, walking free from all the shit you’ve made.
The post seems to turn on this whole notion of having a name that is “legally verifiable” as a way to be accountable online and in real life for what you say and do. Which, besides providing a convenient rationale for Shetterly’s own actions, also tries to tie the notion of anonymous speech online to legal responsibility.
In some cases – defamation, for example – that tie is explicit. Although even then, an accusation of defamation does not prove defamation, which was the whole point of the Maryland decision Jane discussed; in that case, the court held that someone could not force an online outlet to release someone’s “legally verifiable” identity based on an accusation of defamation. Legally speaking, people are entitled to a certain protection of anonymity, ironically, for the same reason Shetterly ultimately changed his mind and tried to wipe clean all references he made to the opposing blogger’s legal identity: he was publicly shamed into doing it by the online community. In and of itself, public shaming is not unlawful; however, there are things that flow from the loss of anonymity that can be, like harassment, stalking, defamation, etc.
And at some point speech can be chilled in an environment that does not appear to welcome diverse opinions. DA gets charged with this sometimes, and I can certainly see how some of these conversations would seem intimidating and not particularly diverse to people whose views do not mesh with whatever majority emerges at any particular point. There are times I wish there was more dissent in our threads, that we could have more extended debate, with people on different sides of an issue arguing strongly and passionately – and fairly — for their different positions. The problem is that no one can be guaranteed that her view won’t be challenged, and not everyone likes to argue as much as I, uh, as some of us do.
In any case, most of the issues we have with online speech and conduct are not legal in nature but rather ethical – that is, they are not covered by legal principles but rather by codes of conduct that emerge from and are tacitly or explicitly agreed upon by the members of any identifiable community. Here’s the thing about the law: it’s a narrow, artificial, and sometimes bizarre paradigm. There are many wrongs and hurts people endure every day that have absolutely no legal remedy. Just because someone is an a-hole toward you does not make them legally liable for your offense, even though every one of your friends, family, and casual acquaintance and commenters think they’re out of line.
And based on Shirky’s argument, I would argue that we should not underestimate the importance or urgency of paying more conscious attention to shared ethical codes. Because as things stand now, when people get pissed, they sometimes invoke some type of legally-inflected threat or language, which can easily have the effect of inflaming or chilling conversation. And the vast majority of the time, there is no legal issue at stake, and the ethical issues get quickly reduced to mutual charges of what basically boils down to ‘you’re a poopy head and you don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Ideally, we rely on people, especially grown-ups, to regulate and moderate their own behavior, a basic notion of some ubiquitous social contract informing expectations for online behavior. So even if Will Shetterly did not do a legal wrong in publicly posting information that is publicly available, as one of his commenters explained,
. . . you were angry enough so that you would have deliberately revealed her private information if it had actually been private in the first place. Which is, from their viewpoint, basically the same thing. It’s the principle that matters. Not the petty details. Heh.
In other words, it’s not the fact that the information was already public that matters; it’s the fact that Shetterly was mad enough not to care, because his intention was to call this person out and take away something he thought she did not deserve: her relative anonymity, as fragile as it may have been. That Shetterly wants to invoke pseudo-legal language to “explain” his reasons behind what he did does not make that language applicable. In fact, if you think about his argument that it’s easier to find out people’s legal identity in real life, it’s completely belied by the ease with which he got a hold of and published the identity of the blogger whom he opposed.
More generally, though, what I find most objectionable about Shetterly’s actions is that because he has decided not to claim a certain right (the right to speak anonymously), he decided it was okay to deny that right to someone else. In the same way he had a right to make the choice for himself, so should the other blogger. If Shetterly did not like the other blogger’s choice, he does not have to interact with and/or read her. But to take away a right he also had strikes me as Shetterly exercising his own rights twice simply because he could, or because he didn’t think through the implications of his actions, or because he was pissed.
I think what Shetterly did was ill-considered, and I think it’s an important ethical issue because it does not just impact the individuals involved; it sets a community standard and identifies a boundary across which certain speech and behavior are not okay for the ongoing welfare of the community. Some communities will thrive on wider boundaries, some on more narrow ones. Some communities will prefer a broad tolerance for speech but a narrower approval of behavior. It will depend on the purpose, make-up, and structure of the community, and on the contexts in which various speech and behavior occur.
Two fundamental questions are what ethical rules should apply, and how should they be applied? This is the problem with ethics: compared to how people perceive the law, ethics can seem soft and slippery. I would argue that in this sense they’re not much different from the law, but that’s an unnecessary tangent. More importantly, I would argue that it’s the softness, the difficulty in discerning and applying ethical rules, that makes them so valuable. Because they require thoughtful generation and application. They require reflection, comparison, context, conversation. They require community participation. In fact, I would argue that it’s not the rules, per se, that are of utmost importance; rather, I would argue that it’s the process of working toward the rules that counts, because it’s that process that engages the community as a community. And that, consequently, the rules will always likely be a work in progress, as long as the process of the work is taking place.
Another key, in my opinion, is to recognize that many of our recognized communities will have members that also belong simultaneously to other communities. And further, that people who are members of the same community may have different roles in that community. I believe that much confusion and conflict emerges from the elision of differences inherent to distinct roles. For example, authors and readers occupy different roles. Authors profit economically from their writing, and the name under which they write is identified with and connected to that economic profit. Consequently, they may have a narrower margin for speaking out under that name. Readers, by contrast, may have more freedom in speaking out, but they also do not gain an economic benefit from doing so. The roles are different. Which means that the standards of conduct are going to be somewhat different.
That does not necessarily mean, as some believe, that readers are/should be held to a lower standard of conduct; it simply means that they are/should be held to a different standard, but one, hopefully, that is at the same level of ethical conduct, taking account of the different roles. The trick, of course, is identifying these different roles and expectations and applying appropriate standards of conduct.
The issue gets a little more complicated, I believe, when it comes to strongly connected or overlapping communities like readers and bloggers, where many readers are themselves bloggers. The more overlap you have, the more confusing it can get, because it becomes more difficult to distinguish the elements that go into determining different standards of conduct. Should the blogger be held to a higher standard than the reader, and if so, what and why? And what about when authors are speaking out as readers? If they do so under their author name, does that automatically connect their words to the economic consequences of their work?
If you’ve been following the larger RaceFail ’09 controversy, you know that it’s been going on since January. I do not believe that the conversation will ever resolve, in part because there are too many individuals with valid, competing interests who have a stake in the debate. But is that such a bad thing? We are, perhaps, too hungry for resolution and unreasonably intolerant of the natural flux of dynamic organic systems. In an ideal world, there might be a perfect balance of priorities and expectations, but in the “real life” of the Internet, a fixed community is a comments closed, defunct community.
Still, if you could construct your ideal community online, what would it look like? Would there be explicit rules and what would its foundation be? Free speech or not? What’s the most important rule you would want to see implemented and why?