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What Russel Brand and Jonathan Ross can teach us about the value of community norms

30 October 2008 12 Comments

For anyone in the UK who lives under a stone, or those people elsewhere in the world who don’t follow British news, this week there has been at least some news beyond the ongoing economic crisis and a U.S. election. Two media ‘personalities’ have been excoriated for leaving what can only be described as crass and offensive messages on an elderly actor’s answer phone, while on air. What made the affair worse was that the radio programme was in fact recorded and someone, somewhere, made a decision to broadcast it in full. Even worse was the fact that the broadcaster was that bastion of British values, the BBC.

If you want to get more of the details of what exactly happened then do a search on their names, but what I wanted to focus on here was some of the public and institutional reactions and their relation to the presumed need within the science community for ‘rules’, ‘licences’, and ‘copyright’ over works and data. Consistently we try to explain why this is not a good approach and developing strong community norms is better [1, 2]. I think this affair gives an example of why.

Much of the media and public outcry has been of the type ‘there must be some law, or if not some BBC rule that must have been broken, bang them up!’ There is a sense that there can only be recourse if someone has broken a rule. This is quite similar to the sense amongst many researchers, that they will only be able to ‘protect’ the results they make public by making them available under an explicit licence. That the only way they can have any recourse against someone ‘misusing’ ‘their’ results is if they are able to show that they have broken the terms of a licence.
The problem with this, as we know, is two-fold. First if someone does break the terms of the licence then frankly your chance of actually doing anything about it is pretty minimal. Secondly, and more importantly from the perspective of those of us interested in re-use and re-purposing, we know that pretty much any licensing system will create incompatibilities that prevent combining datasets, or using them in new ways, even when that wasn’t the intention of the original licensor.

There is an interesting parallel here with the Brand/Ross affair. It is entirely possible that no laws, or even BBC rules, have been broken. Does this mean they get off scott free? No, Brand has resigned and Ross has been suspended with his popular Friday night TV show apparently not to be recorded this week. The most interesting thing about the whole affair is that the central failure at the BBC was an editorial one. Some, so far unnamed, senior editor signed off and allowed the programme to be broadcast. What should have happened was that this editor should have blocked the programme or removed the offending passages. Not because a rule was broken but because it was not appropriate for the BBC’s editorial standards. Because it violated the community norms of what is acceptable for the BBC to broadcast. Whether or not they broke any rules what was done was crass and offensive. Whether or not someone is technically in violation of a data re-use license, failing to provide adequate attribution to the generators of that dataset is equally crass and unacceptable behaviour.

What the BBC discovered was that when it doesn’t live up to the standards that the wider community expects of it, that it receives withering censure. Indeed much of the most serious criticism came from some of its own programmes. It was the voice of the wider community (as mediated through the mass media admittedly) which has lead to the resignation and suspension. If it were just a question of ‘rules’ it is entirely possible that nothing could have been done. And if rules were put in place that would have prevented it then the unintended consequence would almost certainly have been to block programmes that had valid dramatic or narrative reasons for carrying such a passage. Again, community censure was much more powerful than any tribunal arbitrating some set of rules.

Yes this is nuanced, yes it is difficult to get right, and yes there is the potential for mob rule. That is why there is a team of senior professional editors at the BBC charged with policing and protecting the ‘community norms’ of what is acceptable for the BBC brand. That is why the damage done to the BBC’s brand will be severe. Standards, where it is explicit that the spirit is applied rather than the letter, where there are grey areas, can be much more effective than legalistic rules. When someone or some group clearly steps outside of the bounds then widespread censure is appropriate. It is then for individuals and organisations to decide how to apply that censure. And in turn to expect to be held to the same standards.

The cheats will always break the rules. If you use legalistic rules, then you invite legalistic approaches to getting around them. Those that try to apply the rules properly will then be hamstrung in their attempts to do anything useful while staying within the letter of the law. Community norms and standards of behaviour, appropriate citation, respect for people’s work and views, can be much more effective.

  1. Wilbanks, John. The Control Fallacy: Why OA Out-Innovates the Alternative. Available from Nature Precedings <http://hdl.handle.net/10101/npre.2008.1808.1> (2008)
  2. Wilbanks, John. Chemspider: Good intentions and the fog of licensing. http://network.nature.com/people/wilbanks/blog/2008/05/10/chemspider-good-intentions-and-the-fog-of-licensing (2008)

  • One thing about the Ross/Brand affair is that they seemingly were acting within the “community norms” of their audience, as shocking as that may be. It was only when it was brought to wider attention on the news that people started to complain.

    Is there a similar danger that, while scientists may understand the rules, written or unwritten, about what can be done with data put online, people from outside the academic community may then find they have access to it, and they may be used to an entirely different set of community norms?

  • One thing about the Ross/Brand affair is that they seemingly were acting within the “community norms” of their audience, as shocking as that may be. It was only when it was brought to wider attention on the news that people started to complain.

    Is there a similar danger that, while scientists may understand the rules, written or unwritten, about what can be done with data put online, people from outside the academic community may then find they have access to it, and they may be used to an entirely different set of community norms?

  • Actually, thats a good point. It’s also one of the main arguments used by the Open Knowledge Foundation that mandating, for example, attribution in some specific form is bad because expectations of citation differ from field to field.

    I suspect they actually went beyond the bounds of even their audience though, or at least a proportion of it. They had around 1000 complaints even before the media storm took over I believe. Those are numbers that are pretty much unheard of I think, usual figures are more around the 20-100 mark for something that really offends people.

  • Actually, thats a good point. It’s also one of the main arguments used by the Open Knowledge Foundation that mandating, for example, attribution in some specific form is bad because expectations of citation differ from field to field.

    I suspect they actually went beyond the bounds of even their audience though, or at least a proportion of it. They had around 1000 complaints even before the media storm took over I believe. Those are numbers that are pretty much unheard of I think, usual figures are more around the 20-100 mark for something that really offends people.

  • Related: the French Chef effect.

  • Related: the French Chef effect.

  • Actually seems I was wrong with my comment above. There were relatively few complaints before the mainstream media got hold of it. Which doesn’t change my conclusions particularly but does point up the importance of actually spotting issues that do deserve community opprobrium.

  • Actually seems I was wrong with my comment above. There were relatively few complaints before the mainstream media got hold of it. Which doesn’t change my conclusions particularly but does point up the importance of actually spotting issues that do deserve community opprobrium.

  • Another great post. But one could wonder. “If community norms are so effective, why do we bother with the legalistic mess that copyright has become?”

    I think part of the answer is that copyright used to regulate almost exclusively companies. And was then less of a mess.

    And community norms are reasonably efficient at regulating, well, communities. Not so much for companies. Therefore we have copyright *law* not copying norms.

    Cory Doctorow has some of this perspective.

    http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2008/11/cory-doctorow-why-i-copyfight.html

    Best,
    Anders

  • Another great post. But one could wonder. “If community norms are so effective, why do we bother with the legalistic mess that copyright has become?”

    I think part of the answer is that copyright used to regulate almost exclusively companies. And was then less of a mess.

    And community norms are reasonably efficient at regulating, well, communities. Not so much for companies. Therefore we have copyright *law* not copying norms.

    Cory Doctorow has some of this perspective.

    http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2008/11/cory-doctorow-why-i-copyfight.html

    Best,
    Anders

  • I was thinking, something that Deepak said on Friendfeed about the need for respect of licences and that was said at the OKF meeting I was at on Tuesday. CC licences have not, as far as I know ever been tested in court, yet there intent is probably more widely respected than copyright is. There is a sense in which the use of CC-BY to request behaviour and the community norms that have grown up around that are more powerful than any sense that things could be protected in a court.

  • I was thinking, something that Deepak said on Friendfeed about the need for respect of licences and that was said at the OKF meeting I was at on Tuesday. CC licences have not, as far as I know ever been tested in court, yet there intent is probably more widely respected than copyright is. There is a sense in which the use of CC-BY to request behaviour and the community norms that have grown up around that are more powerful than any sense that things could be protected in a court.