Social Norm Development in Online Communities

This entry is part of my research project for the class of Networked Rhetoric at Stanford University. For more information, click here.

When you log onto Facebook, or Twitter, or your social network of choice, there are things about the site you just know. There are unwritten rules that every online community has, and certain rules of etiquette that emerge as the sites evolve. As these networks mature, many of these rules actually get written down by bloggers around the internet. Social norms on social networks are important because they tell us what the community is like and what it values. As you view different networks around the web, you see that they all have their own structure and personality, and norms turn into features that become the fabric of the site. The question I want to answer is: What are the norms on the web and where do they come from?

The main source I want to focus on is a compilation of short articles from Wired Magazine about the new rules of the internet. Here they give a how-to manual and advice for the uninitiated on what to do when you are presented with the web’s stickiest situations (they aren’t the only ones with ideas, see an etiquette guide and more tips). Our social networks are communities, and as we interact more deeply with them, we develop passionate ideas about exactly how they should work, and strong feelings about liking and disliking certain features.

I get the sense from reading these “style guides” that there are lots of inconsistencies between how different people think the networks should work, but certain patterns emerge. The level of trust that a site expects its users to display highly affects the way people use it. Wired recommends that you don’t Google stalk before a date or lie with your Facebook profile image. These become real concerns as social networks become a larger place of daily life. It’s fascinating to see Wired’s take on how to act on the web, and what the norms are, but I get the sense that there aren’t any hard and fast rules.

In my research I’m currently exploring how social norms and etiquette work on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Stack Overflow, and Reddit, and also reading about how real world norms map over to the digital space.

Let me know if you know of any good sources that relate to the topic of social norms and their development in web communities!

Jeremy Keeshin 2012

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Social Norm Development in Online Communities

  1. Cristina says:

    Oh, internet etiquette. – What strikes me as most interesting about this topic is how although the internet lies in a state of limbo separate and outside our world of imposed social norms and culture, we still expect to see a certain kind of behavior represented on the internet. This behavior is a reflection of our own culture and upbringing. That said, it might be interesting to look at some psychosocial studies regarding the development of culture or traditions. Perhaps, try to identify which culture the internet represents the most. I would assume Western. It would be interesting to see in what ways it follows Western traditions and morals, but on the other hand how it departs from them.

    P.S. Youtube comments are the WORST in terms of real substance. Also, in terms of the amount of disputes. Maybe it is because the internet disguises the identity of its users, and thus they are more likely to actually speak their mind? Hm.

  2. Austin Myers says:

    I’d love to see how the social norms of different websites differ based on what is expected from the community – Facebook is expected to be a discourse for friends, so more is expected than on twitter or reddit.

    Also, reddit is an interesting story because the reddiquette ( has actually become a source of contention and debate over the course of reddit’s history – the rules changed and have been added to support the growth of the community. Different subreddits (which are communities of their own) have different rules and different standards for what passes as a good link, the discussion changes for each community.

    And if you’re looking for where breaches of etiquette come from or why some have called the internet a morally devalued place, remember that lots of internet users (alas, I was one) grew up on 4chan to get a sense of what the internet is like. Lots of internet uses believe that the simple fact that you can’t have your posts traced back to you means that you can get away with saying literally anything, post any image no matter how shocking, flame anyone, and in a growing disturbing trend today, using the internet to ruin someone’s life. As 4chan got overcrowded and people spread to different sites, 4chan’s ethos got spread all around the internet. I think a good essay will have a discussion of anonymity and how not actually tying your identity to what you say has a large effect on how you view netiquette.

  3. Madeline Wright says:

    I think your ideas are extremely original as well as pertinent for today. Although I am an avid user of Facebook, I have never really consciously thought about the rules and regulations that govern the site socially, and I definitely haven’t thought about these rules being written down for all to see and respect. However, I guess almost everyone is annoyed by those people who seem to transgress the accepted social norms on social networking sites, such as posting millions of status updates in a row about absolutely nothing, or for some reason still having a Simpson cartoon character as a profile picture. I think it could be interesting to find information or compile your own information on what specific rules are regarded as absolute and the top regulations not to transgress. I also agree that bringing in psychological data regarding online behavior in relation to real world behavior. In any case, I think you have a very important and relevant topic that many may not even consciously think about.

  4. Emily says:

    Hi Jeremy,

    One thing that might be interesting to look at would be the threat of real-world norms imposing extra restrictions on internet norms – for example, the panic about employers/college admissions officers/grandmothers logging on to Facebook and judging you from what they find. Though it may otherwise be permissible for a college student to post party pictures within the relative safety of their Facebook social network, this threat of their profile being judged by real-world standards and causing them to lose out on real-world opportunities (like job offers!) tends to affect how people present themselves online. I definitely can think of a few overachieving Stanford friends whose Facebook profiles are all business and no personality, for this very reason.

    This sort of ties in to what you’ve talked about with anonymity. Perhaps an interesting research question would be, Are a social networking community’s norms more tied to real-world norms when anonymity is removed from the equation? Even 4chan has some pretty strange social codes, but they don’t resemble ANY sort of real life norms… is it this anonymity that allows users to build a wholly original set of norms/codes/ideologies from the ground up?

    Hope this makes sense 🙂

  5. ccrvisitor says:

    I think that many norms on the internet are driven by the websites themselves and adopted by the people regardless of any initial reluctance. This makes me feel that many internet norms are not a good reflection of the people who actually follow these norms. This applies more to a website like Facebook than to Twitter. On Twitter you see something completely different happening. People are the ones driving the norms. Things like hashtags and @ replies where created by the users and only later adopted by Twitter. These are a truer reflection of what people expect/want from a social network. It would be interesting to compare artificially created norms such as liking something on Facebook to something more organic like a using a hashtag in a tweet.


  6. ccrvisitor says:

    I think this is a very interesting topic to research. I agree with what Charles said, I believe that these networks make the rules for themselves and then people follow them. Nevertheless, I might be wrong, and, for example, one thing that you can do is do a little bit of research on how Facebook decides to change its options – such as you can’t be a fan of a page, you can only like it, or other such examples. What I mean is, do these social networks make the changes according to their users preferences, or is it the other way round?

    And I also believe that people join certain social platforms because of the rules (written and unwritten) that these have. Or they don’t use others because of their rules. These social platforms are, after all, just like real-life social groups, and people joining them are many times similar (or have similar interests). I think that you can look at these norms by looking at who’s going on these sites – group-related norms, similar to norms in real life.

    Maybe this study helps:


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