The people attracted to social media come in many flavors.  People hope to gain a host of different experiences, from making friends, to tossing around ideas, to finding others who share similar experiences.  Unlike the real world, geography makes no difference, and often many surface issues like looks, disability or gender make little difference, either.

This makes figuring out community norms much more difficult.  In a geographic locality, one of the limitations on someone’s actions is based on proximity.  You may decide to ignore the fact that your neighbor never puts his trashcan back for three days after garbage day, because you like the guy personally, and have a lot invested in being good neighbors.  Online, the neighborhoods are often loosely defined, and often there is not as much forethought that goes into actions before they are taken.  Likewise, this also means people sometimes assume and read much more into actions than is necessary or wise, from time to time.

For example, I sent someone an email the other day.  It was a post to a group, outlining some ideas I had.  One of the people in the group took this collection, and turned it into a substantive blog post, riffing on the ideas I set forth.  I had no idea how to respond to this.  Clearly, they had beaten me to the punch on the blog post about the topic at hand.  Fair’s fair, and the post was not “exactly” what I had written, but it was pretty clearly an expansion of the points I wrote about, almost point for point, in order.  Is this plagarism?  Is this just propogating new ideas to a wider community? I really am not sure, but I know it made me a little uncomfortable, especially since there was no real credit given.

It made me think we need to consider, at least every once in a while, what the community norms are for our different communities online.  No one is eager to come up with, or perpetuate a code of conduct, but we kinda have to figure out what the unspoken rules of the web are, if there are any.  Without some sort of guidelines or sense of what’s right and what’s not, we’re all just making this stuff up as we go along, and it’s hard to figure out what the proportionate response is to slights, intentional or alleged.

Questions I have include:

When should you take something personally, or should you always assume innocence?  Should you just email the person and ask for clarification if you aren’t sure?

When someone screws up or offends you, when do you let it pass, and when do you call them out on it?

When do you keep your feelings to yourself, and when do you express them?  When do you name names, and when do you speak to someone anonymously, hoping they take the hint?

When do we reasonably expect someone to have prior knowledge of us/our blog/our website, and when is assuming people “know who you are” actually hubris?

All of these questions deal with daily situations everyone encounters in social media.  For example, someone makes a comment on twitter you think is overly snarky or stupid.  Do you stop following them, or assume they are just having a bad day?  When do you ask them if they are ok and if you can help?  Likewise, when you are having a crap day, what is appropriate to share in your blog or through twittwr/pownce/jaiku, and what is off limits?  Family issues?  Personal issues?  friend issues? business issues?

I think these lines are different in every circumstance, in every case.  The answer to all of these questions (and I would love to hear yours) is probably “It depends.”

I just know there are days I wish I had a book that had lists of things like “one snarky comment on twitter = 1 or 2 sarcastic pointed twitters”.  Without such guidelines, and by knowing people on the wenb simultaneously fairly well and not at all, finding the “right” response often seems like guess work.  We’re all trying to develop our sense of what is right and what is normal, without the interpersonal responsibility boundaries that guide us in real life.  And somedays it’s tough to always know what is right and what is wrong.