Customs — on getting by in physical and digital spaces

31 Jul

Customs LinesRecently, I was traveling internationally and got stuck in a crazy long Immigration, Baggage, Customs maze of lines.  An hour and many crying children later, one of my travel companions admitted that when she was a child, she had thought that Customs was where they told you about the customs of the county that you were going to be entering.  (Here we drive on the left side of the street, here we take siestas, here we run with the bulls…)  Customs would be a kind of very brief download of the cultural information that you needed to get by in your new place.  You’d know what behavior was expected of you and of everyone else.

Actually, Customs is just a place where you wait in a line, turn in a form, and maybe get your bag searched.  It’s really not that exciting.  I think I like her way better.  It’s nice to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Community ManagerI’m going to be taking over admin on a LinkedIn group and I’ve been reading about different group rules.  Should groups be open so that anyone can join or closed and require admin approval?  What should you do if people violate the community rules?  Do they get warnings before you kick them out?  Most interestingly, I’ve found that a lot of admins, community managers, etc.  seem to have let the power go to their heads.  They’re all about warnings and kicking people out.  But, the rules aren’t clearly posted, and usually they don’t even seem to be defined at all.  (Except for a pretty standard clause about the spirit of the community.)

Pool RulesWouldn’t it be nice if all communities, everything from countries to social media user groups, gave you a rundown of the customs before you joined?  I’d like to know when I’m (metaphorically) eating with the wrong fork.  (Although, let’s be honest, I probably need to be told when I’m physically eating with the wrong fork, too – any place setting with more than six pieces of silverware confuses me.)  When you’re part of a physical community and you violate one of the rules, ruffling feathers, you can get “the look”.  That look from people around you that says, “What the Hell?!”  Hopefully, after getting “the look”, you’ll be able to figure out which written or unwritten rule you violated, change your behavior accordingly, and go back to being an accepted member of the community.

But, in a digital space, there is no equivalent of “the look”.  There aren’t any non-verbal cues, because there aren’t non-verbal interactions.  Everything’s communicated via words.  A profile picture can’t scowl at you.  Can’t give you subtle shake of the head to say, “Stop talking about that.”  Can’t smile encouragingly to let you know when you’re on the right path.

Troll in the dungeons!

So, how do you know when you’ve violated an online community’s customs?  Well, I guess if someone posts “Troll in the Dungeons!” you’ll know.  Short of that, it’s hard.  People get angry, feathers get ruffled, and no one has any way of knowing until it finally boils over.  You don’t get to see the early warning signs – before frustration turns to anger.

It would be great to have some sort of way to communicate, “Hey buddy, just wanted to let you know that you’re stepping on people’s toes here and need to back off a bit.”  Sure, I guess you could just type that – I just did, it wasn’t too hard!  But, somehow, people seem hesitant to do that.

Just think of the expressions that I’ve used (without really even thinking about it) so far to describe violating customs… ruffling feathers, boils over, stepping on toes, need to back off.  They all describe physical actions.  And, like many colloquialisms, they make much less sense in a digital space.

Community Cork BoardBut, digital spaces do have cultures, norms, and customs.  All caps is shouting and it’s rude.  I assume everyone knows that.  But, every once in a while I see a comment (usually an aggressive and illogical one) written in all caps and realize that everyone doesn’t know about that “rule”, which seems to be the number rule of the internet. (Well, maybe it ties with don’t mess around with 4chan.)

If some members of our digital community don’t know about such a basic custom, there are probably a whole lot of others that they’re missing out on as well.  Customs (not the kind with lines) would be a great solution.

Questions of the day: Any community managers or admins out there?  What are your group rules?  How do you communicate them and enforce them?

Also, what do you see as the “rules” of the internet?

MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole.  Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at

6 Responses to “Customs — on getting by in physical and digital spaces”

  1. Paul Leroux July 31, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    Actually, the time to bone up on a country’s customs (or any community’s, for that matter) is before you enter its territory. I educated myself well in advance of trips to Italy and Poland. It made my travels more pleasant, and my knowledge impressed the locals. Two birds with one stone 🙂

    • Maggie O'Toole July 31, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

      Yes, Paul, of course you’re correct. I probably should have mentioned that I am a big researcher of culture and countries before I travel. (So much so that my siblings always fear that I will use the trip to try to teach them things and whine preemptively when I say, “I read that…”) Unfortunately, you don’t have the same ability to research (largely unwritten) customs for digital places. (The customs metaphor was just too good to pass up, but I guess it probably could have used some qualifications.)

  2. Geek Squirrel July 31, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    On the subject of customs in other countries: One of the things that helped me considerably was reading the book “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.” The author made an interesting point about French culture. When westerners go to Japan, they realize that the country has a very old culture with customs and etiquette that can be confusing and a little intimidating. Most westerners will try to learn at least a little about Japanese customs in order to respect their traditions and fit in, and will generally feel embarrassed if they mess up. Well, French culture goes back just as far as Japan, and they have their own set of customs and etiquette, only many westerners don’t bother to find out about it and feel insulted when the French react rudely to them.

    Just learning a few of the finer points of French culture made all the difference on my last visit. I found that by and large they were helpful, respectful, and some of them were downright friendly, even in Paris. I wasn’t an expert in French culture by any means, but I found that even a small attempt at understanding the etiquette (not just the language) went a very long way.

    • Maggie O'Toole August 2, 2011 at 11:38 am #

      My brother went to Japan with his then girlfriend last year. She’s Japanese and he’s not. In case they got separated, she gave him a card (written in Japanese) that basically said “if lost, please call” with her name and phone number. It was awesome.

      You’re very right about at least making the effort. Even if you don’t succeed, most people appreciate the effort. My French is fairly terrible, but I did try to use it whenever possible when traveling in Europe. (I was able to order lots of delicious Belgian chocolate, which is clearly the reason to learn a new langauge!)

      Unfortunately, I think that the issue that I’ve heard from a lot of friends about traveling in France is that often the person that you’re trying to communicate with speak better English than you do French and there’s this feeling of “are you enjoying watching me struggle?” At this point the snotty French/stupid American issue has become such a well known cultural belief that people on both sides probably walk in to each interaction with strange expectations.

  3. georgettesullins August 1, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    I co-administer a high school site…the high school where I taught. I try to help my lead administrator by approving their joining the group. Some “candidates” for membership I know, many I don’t know. So I ask them a simple question. Briefly tell me about two or three of your favorite teachers or staff members. That usually verifies their authenticity. Thankfully, we haven’t had any rude or offensive behavior. Then, I guess I would yield to my other half. You’re right, when I was asked to do this…I had and still have questions so read this with great interest. I see room for a sequel, MaggieCakes. Very good topic.
    btw I made a comment back in March regarding an achievement of my alma mater. It baffles me that I remain the top influencer to date since all I did was supply information. Folks keep commenting on that discussion. Now, what to do with all that influence? Any ideas?

    • Maggie O'Toole August 2, 2011 at 11:28 am #

      Is this a LinkedIn group or an independent website that calculates influencers? I’ve only seen those types of calculations on LinkedIn and Klout. Either way, I don’t think you can do anything with your influence other than revel in it. It’s part of the gamification of social media. No extra lives, but you can still count your coins and brag about your high score.

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