Case Study


Generally, online communities start without government, in a state of anarchy. In these communities, participants typically rely on an unwritten code of behavior drawn from the real world. Concepts such as politeness and tolerance, rudeness and obscenity are assumed to apply in the virtual community as in a real one. If everyone behaves according to everyone else's expectations, then a group without government can function smoothly. But in an anarchic society, "all hell breaks loose" (so to speak) when someone becomes a "social deviant." Since no one has (or chooses to use) the power to control deviant behavior directly, punishment is left to the other members of the community. There are two basic punitive measures for deviants: ostracism and "flaming."

Ostracism, a relatively passive method, is a solitary or collective action of "turning one's back" to the offender. This can be accomplished in a variety ways, depending on the community and its technology. There are two general methods of ostracism. The first and most basic way is to simply ignore any communication from the offender: deleting his unread emails, ignoring her posts, skipping over his comments in the chat room, etc. The second method is for offended members to technologically block any communication: with the @gag command on some MUDs or the ignore command on IRC, for instance. Other methods include such technical means as message filtering and selective "invisibility."

Flaming is the virtual equivalent of vigilante justice or shouting somebody down, and can be a solitary or collective action. In the typical scenario, offended community members berate and attack deviants, publicly or privately, with email, in the chat room, or with other types of messaging. In some cases, flaming might involve other tactics such as "flooding" or "spamming" that inconvenience or impede the deviant with multiple duplicate messages (sometimes to the point of absurdity) or nonsense information that must be cleared before any further action can proceed.

Anarchy is the standard in many communities.

  • Short-term groupings such as ad-hoc conferencing or email lists where governance structures are too cumbersome or deemed unnecessary
  • Focal interest groups where the chosen topic tends to focus interaction
  • Professional communities where "real world" codes of conduct control online behavior
  • New communities where the focus of interaction is unknown or expected to change

Anarchic communities tend to go through cycles of peace and agitation. For example, residents of a campus dormitory might use a dorm email list to distribute information of interest such as schedules of events in the dorm or to discuss current and relevant issues. Usually the list is pretty quiet, but one day, a resident posts an off-color joke or insults another resident. Feelings are hurt and sensibilities are offended, and soon the peace is broken. Within hours (or minutes often), everyone's mailbox is flooded with responses, ranging from calm requests for an apology to retaliatory insults. Eventually, the uproar dies down when the offender is put in his place or everyone tires of the issue. Relative peace sets in again, but it often isn't too long before the whole process begins again.