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Explicit and implicit norms in online groups

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Social interfaces are designed and deployed to support ongoing geographically dispersed gatherings of people drawn together by common interests and the conversational power of textual exchange. Through this activity – in which participants engage in a process of writing for others and readings what others write in return – a number of complex phenomena are apparent: questions are asked and answered, information is sought and provided, people chat about matters both trivial and profound. And, as they come to know each other over time, participants can come to perceive the space where they interact as a kind of home, a place in which something like a community can take shape. As in other social contexts, such social groups develop their own sets of norms, which they use to define those behaviors and attitudes they accept as appropriate for their members. Over time, these norms become embedded within the very fabric of the community’s interactions and expectations; they become a guide, a rubric for how to behave within the community, as well as a benchmark for the degree to which newcomers are perceived and either welcomed as full members or treated with the suspicion due outsiders.

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.

Explicit Norms are codified in formal written documents such as FAQs, and user agreements which outline the purpose and expectations of the group. Such norms are distinguishable from rules in that, even though they are codified in FAQs, they often have no institutional imprimatur beyond the general agreement of group members; thus, they may lack formal mechanisms for invoking sanctions, and can be subject to debate and contention within the group they purport to govern. In online settings, explicit norms, since they are formalized and openly articulated, function as public expressions of a community’s standards of rightness and wrongness in social behaviors.

In ideal situations, explicit norms are directly linked to the group itself through some kind of formalized process of development and review (an example can be seen in USENET FAQ documents, which are typically re-posted regularly for comments from group members). Thus, they can be distinguished from truly external norms like rules or laws that may be imposed truly from outside. Typically, documents outlining explicit norms might address acceptable topics for discussion, defining a group’s normative areas of interest, or might provide specific guidelines for behavior, such as the “do’s and don’ts” of posting practices. They form what could be called the baseline normative expectations of the community, making explicit the fundamental conventions and parameters that govern behavior and interaction within the group. They both document certain definable aspects of the worldview a group holds of itself and paint a portrait of themselves through which they can present that worldview to the outside world.

Implicit Norms, by contrast, are not formally codified, but emerge socially through the day-to-day interactions of the group. These norms may or may not ultimately be formalized, and often are not even explicitly voiced, but are widely understood and accepted by group members and are used informally to define and police acceptable behavior within the group. Often, documents delineating explicit norms make oblique reference to the existence of implicit norms (without defining those norms directly), acknowledging a give-and-take between explicit norms and actual normative behaviors, and encouraging newcomers to spend time observing group postings for some time before engaging in active interaction.

Because implicit norms are embedded in the discursive activities of an online group rather than being explicitly documented, they are tightly linked to the overall character of the group, giving it much of its discursive flavor and pushing its participants in the direction of certain topics of conversation and certain ways of engaging with each other. As a result, implicit norms can emerge in many different ways as a group persists over time; for instance, because newcomers may or may not enter the community with any kind of understanding of its implicit norms, responses to such an entry may reflect the potency of implicit norms as the newcomer is evaluated according to their influence. Implicit norms may also affect the ways in which participants establish their individual and group identities within their shared space, how they refer to each other, the degree to which they accept or reject pseudonyms or other expressions of creativity, the degree to which they tolerate flaming, humor, or off-topic posting, etc.

One of the most interesting impacts of implicit norms is the way in which they influence what could be called the “structure of the ‘meta’,” as groups spend time either dissecting their own discussions or directly focusing on issues related to acceptable behavior and group norms. Such “meta-discussions” – discussions about discussions – can draw discussion and attention away from a community’s nominal shared area of interest into long, often detailed and sometimes seemingly interminable tangents devoted to the dynamics of interaction itself. While these discussions are often strongly disparaged by community members—who can view them as distractions from more interesting matters—they can also serve as a primary mechanism through which groups can interrogate the boundaries of what is acceptable, can construct norms through channels other than the formalized structure of the FAQ, and can enforce a certain degree of compliance to those norms.

Gary Burnett
Associate Professor, College of Communication and Information, Florida State University

Note: a fuller discussion of these issues can be found as part of a study of norms in two Usenet newsgroups in the following article: Burnett, G., and Bonnici, L. (2003). Beyond the FAQ: Implicit and explicit norms in Usenet newsgroups. Library and Information Science Research, 25,333-351.