Online Culture and the Law of Two Feet

Well, after 4 years I recently left an Internet Forum which I’d grown very attached to.  The reason I left was pretty straightforward to me, and in my ‘Bye Bye’ post I simply commented that I was leaving because the culture of the site had changed.  I’d always told users of the site that if they didn’t like the place they should just move on rather than throw hissy fits at how the place was run, so it would have been hypocritical of me to do anything else!

I thought that I’d made my reasons pretty clear, until a user of that Forum posted a comment questioning what I meant by culture.  And it’s a good question, that has set me thinking.  So, for what it’s worth, here’s some thoughts on online culture and when to move along.  So, here’s a few thoughts.

First of all, what is meant by culture in general?  As always, you get a lot of choice with definitions.  I liked these three:

  1. a particular society at a particular time and place; “early Mayan civilization”
  2. the tastes in art and manners that are favored by a social group
  3. patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance. …

I believe they apply equally to an Internet Forum as they do to a ‘real world’ community; what differs is the way in which the culture is expressed.  Online it will be in words and other media, either in real time or time-shifted; offline it will be in words, media, activity and face to face interaction, again either in real time or time-shifted.

I started also considering ‘Ethos’:

“The disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement “

so I guess that the Ethos of an Internet site is the outward manifestation of it’s culture? 

Which led on to ‘Rules of Conduct’, which I’ve always regarded as the stick with which to support the two previously defined carrots.  Within any comunity, there are always rules of conduct backed up by consequences which help maintain the culture.  On an internet site these rules of conduct may range from none existent through to fairly tight. Ignoring for the time being the ‘Laws of the Land’, I think it’s fair to say that in general terms the Rules are rarely required if all users of an Internet site follow the Ethos of the site and respect the underlying culture.  This is, at least, what I’ve always thought to be the case.

Culture isn’t static; it evolves.  The degree of evolution (or even revolution) depends, I believe, on the following:

  1. Rate of turnover of users of the site
  2. Strength of the culture and the degree to which the ‘Site Elders’ (old established members and the controlling authorities of the site) support the existing culture.
  3. The comfort of the vast majority of users with the existing culture.

When the culture changes, there is often going to be a correspoinding change to the ethos of the site, and hence eventually to the Rules.  Should the cultural change be the equivalent of a ‘hostile takeover’ then it is up to the elders to apply the rules of the site to maintain the culture;  should the change be evolution or the acceptance of the need and desire  to change by the population of the site, then the role of the elders is simply to accept the cultural shift and smooth through it’s effects by amending the rules.

My own feeling is that whatever the cause of the change, changes to Ethos and Rules are a given if cultural change takes place or is allowed to happen.  Should those changes not happen, the result is a community which is almost schizophrenic; the culture may have changed but the public ethos and rules may not have altered to go with that change, resulting in inconsistency.

And so to the rule of two feet…

The ‘Rule of Two Feet’ or ‘Law of Two Feet’ was something I encountered many years ago; “If something isn’t working for you, go somewhere else and find something that WILL work for you”.  Another, rendition of this Law is “The people who attend are the right people”.  It is a Law driven by culture and ethos; if follwoed by people it does tend to prevent cultural change and development in a community except in very specific ways.

  1. If enough people walk away, the culture may collapse or be changed to stop the loss.
  2. The people who walk away may, if sufficient in number, gather together to form a new culture with which they are happy.

What usually happens to people who follow the Law is that they find communities with cultures and ethos’ that suit them.

Which brings me to my final observation…why, if an online community has a culture and ethos that someone finds unbearable, do they spend large amounts of time and energy fighting to change it?  Why not go and establish oneself elsewhere?

0 thoughts on “Online Culture and the Law of Two Feet

  1. Interesting points, Joe. The culture of everything seems to constantly shift. In every job I’ve done there has been a period when all of the staff got on well and they were quite happy workplaces; everyone knew what was expected of them and did their parts well. But then a couple of people leave, some new people are recruited, and they bring with them a different culture, and the others find that their workplace has completely changed at which point it is probably best to leave.
    I was thinking about this the other day when watching a news report about teenage drinking. Everyone seems to be looking for easily identifiable reasons for this phenomenon – I suspect what has happened is that our culture has slowly and unconsciously become more tolerant of drinking at a younger age, and is only now realising that this was a bit foolish. The interesting part is that the citizens of this country are now demanding that the government acts – but it wasn’t the government who allowed this culture to develop, but the citizens. Any government attempt to change the culture of the society they are elected by seems doomed to failure – it is the citizens themselves who need to change the culture, and they need to do this consciously. Unfortunately we now live in a very passive society, and most people demand that their problems are resolved by someone else.

  2. Thanks for contributing, Tea Fan!

    I would agree that culture today is a rapidly shifting creature. I don’t know whether you’ve come across the concept of Future Shock, but I believe that we’re finally getting there and we’re all becoming, to a greater or lesser degree, what John Brunner called ‘Shockwave Riders’.

    I agree with your comments about Government and citizens; to me this reflects a general pre-occupation with rights over responsibilities. I’m old enough to remember the ‘Social Contract’ as a concept, and it seems to me to be a case of ‘Contract Terminated’.

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