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The BehavioralNorms of a community are the expected modes of behavior for members of the community. These expectations can be explicit or implicit. Explicit expectations are generally written agreements or rules for joining or participating in a community. For instance, a forum might state that advertising and profanity are not allowed. (Interpreting "advertising" and "profanity" may depend on implicit expectations.) Explicit rules are usually set by the initial owner(s) of the community, and are made easily accessible to new participants (on the front page, in FAQs, etc.).

Implicit Behavioral Norms

Implicit CommunityExpectations are generally unwritten, or sometimes written but "unofficial". In a healthy community, implicit rules will form naturally, and can provide needed structure while retaining flexibility for growth or changing conditions. [Please insert more positive statements if you can.]

Implicit expectations may become a problem if they are far more strict than written expectations. Ugly and hurtful acts directed at those not "fitting in" with a community are something that many will face at some point in their lives. Implicit norms may also change at a slower rate than explicit rules. (Civil rights in the US provides many examples--the explicit rules were suddenly changed, but the implicit expectations changed more slowly.)

Communities will often experience some of the following problems due to implicit rules (CommunityLore):

Dilution
"The newbies just don't understand..." New communities are usually formed by extremely dedicated people. They are often extremists--more moderate people may be satisfied with existing communities. After a community is established, it often grows by accepting less dedicated or extremist people. See NoRespectForHistory.

For instance, consider a local "computer group" with a very broad focus. Initially, the group may consist of dedicated programmers and system-builders. As the group grows, members invite others with less experience, and they begin to ask for some presentations and events tailored to their experience. Eventually the group may split into more focused subgroups (like programming vs. system building, or Macintosh and PC groups). If it does not split, old members may be unhappy with the new ways, and new members may see the group as inflexible.

Interpretations
If I write "My damned computer locked up yesterday", is that profanity? If I used another R-rated (US theater code for "adult supervision required") word, it would certainly be profanity, but would it be inappropriate for the forum? If one says "George is an ignorant moron", it would be an obvious personal attack. If one writes "George seems ignorant of fundamental computer science", is that also an attack? See Wiki:CryptoCracy.

Direct disagreements
Disagreements are not always over interpretations--they can be real questions about the purpose and rules of the community. For instance, on the C2 wiki, disagreements include pseudonymity vs "real names", document/threadmode and signature issues, and the appropriateness of keeping/deleting off-topic material. A particular problem of implicit disagreements is that they are rarely decisively settled. (Indeed, people can even disagree whether the problem is solved.) See CommunityDoesNotAgree.

Insensitive people
Some people will not understand some implicit rules. Other people will understand, but not care. Some may even enjoy breaking the commonly-accepted rules. A few will even persist when directly requested to change their behavior. (Disagreement and sensitivity are easy to confuse, however.)

Oversensitive people
While some participants require extreme measures to convince, others will magnify the slightest criticism. Most people are highly sensitive to criticism from people they care about. Strong statements intended for less-sensitive people may have a larger impact on the highly sensitive.

(Semi-)Hidden hierarchies
Some people will have more community influence than others. Sometimes this is fair, but the fairness can be questioned. Implicit rules are often bent or broken for a few "star", "core", or otherwise prominent individuals. This can be a good feature of a community, allowing it to reward major contributors, but it can also arouse resentment in those who are not favored. See TyrannyOfStructurelessness.

Implicit expectations are important in most communities. Healthy communities should be aware of the likely problems, and be able to openly discuss problems or disagreements.

Explicit Behavioral Norms

See: Wiki:WikiSocialNorms

WardsWiki has a developed list of Wiki:WikiSocialNorms as practiced by the community. That page is intended as a 'succinct, accurate and gentle guide' for new visitors. 'Rituals' and 'Rules' have been codified within the community through shared practice; for example UnethicalEditing? (descirbing conditions of collaboration).

There are advantages to making these norms explicit and debated: it acts as a human-to-human process for an online community, rather than a black box technical process.

Jenny Preece, a research on sociability for online communities urges: "Etiquette online is not just nice to have, it is necessary," in her article Apr 04. (ref: Etiquette online: from nice to necessary; Communications of the ACM Vol. 47, Iss. 4 (April 2004) (grr, not available for free) ) She describes how every online community develops their behavioral norms, or etiquette. New visitors are introduced to the customs of appropriate behaviour there, and "the best mechanisms for [introducing customs of appropriate behaviour] are human"... wiki offers group-developed documents on these norms.

Therefore, a wiki community is developing their norms human-to-human, rather than building in technological solutions like HardSecurity.


My experience is that implicit rules develop as the community forms. They don't require any work to create, and stopping them is near impossible, though sufficiently influential members may help to guide them. For example, in one community, there has developed an implicit rule that a particular troll who has stuck around for years shouldn't be replied to. It's not a strong rule, as newbies are not admonished for doing it, but long-standing members will apologize when breaking that unwritten rule, and a member who continues to respond may receive a comment regarding the futility of the exercise and/or a barbed joke. A healthy community has to develop its own culture, and BehavioralNorms are part of that. -- MatthewJacobs


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