It's been a while since my last post, one reason being that I made my way to the US for an extended research visit. I am currently in New York, the city that never sleeps (as indicated by there being about five 24-hour stores in a 100 metre-radius of my appartment). Yesterday, I attended an interesting seminar on social and ethical implications of computing, hosted by Microsoft Research, in which the key speakers were Helen Nissenbaum and Jonathan Grudin. Their main theme was the role of values, such as privacy, autonomy and democracy in information technology and systems design. They explained how easily seemingly neutral technologies become biased. One way of preventing such bias is by making the values that are to be promoted by the technology explicit, and give them due consideration in the design process.
The talk triggered some deep questions. My own focus on virtual communities is the role that norms play in defining acceptable operational and evolutionary community behaviour. Norms are self-defined rules and conventions on which consensus has been reached by the community. Values and norms are closely related. Helen sees values as getting filtered through a context into norms. This seems to be a good starting point for analysis. Many questions need to be addressed, however, to further explore this relationship. What are the characteristics of this mediating context? Are specific types of values related to particular sets of norms? Are values the main source of norms, or just one of many factors to be analyzed simultaneously? Vice versa, how do the norms governing a particular community operate as filters on the values important to that community? Much more can and needs to be said about this important determinant of virtual communities. To be continued.