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The community delusion

The court clerk - if that's the right term - seemed slightly baffled by the number of people who showed up for Tuesday's hearing in Simon Singh v. British Chiropractic Association. There was much rearrangement, as the principals asked permission to move forward a row to make an extra row of public seating and then someone magically produced eight or ten folding chairs to line up along the side. Standing was not allowed. (I'm not sure why, but I guess something to do with keeping order and control.)

It was impossible to listen to the arguments without feeling a part of history. Someday - ten, 50, 150 years from now - a different group of litigants will be sitting in that same court room or one very like it in the same building and will cite "our" case, just as counsel cited precedents such as Reynolds and Branson v Bower. If Singh's books don't survive, his legal case will, as may the effects of the campaign to reform libel law (sign the petition!) it has inspired and the Culture, Media, and Sport report (Scribd) that was published on Wednesday. And the sheer stature of the three judges listening to the appeal - Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge (to Americans: I am not making this up!), Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger, and Lord Justice Sedley - ensures it will be taken seriously.

There are plenty of write-ups of what happened in court and better-informed analyses than I can muster to explain what it means. The gist, however: it's too soon to tell which pieces of law will be the crucial bits on which the judges make their decision. They certainly seemed to me to be sympathetic to the arguments Singh's counsel, Adrienne Page QC, made and much less so to the arguments the BCA's counsel, Heather Rogers QC. But the case will not be decided on the basis of sympathy; it will be decided on the basis of legal analysis. "You can't read judges," David Allen Green (aka jackofkent) said to me over lunch. So we wait.
But the interesting thing about the case is that this may be the first important British legal case to be socially networked: here is a libel case featuring no pop stars or movie idols, and yet they had to turn some 20 or 30 people away from the courtroom. Do judges read Twitter?

Beginning with Howard Rheingold's 1993 book The Virtual Community, it was clear that the Net's defining characteristic as a medium is its enablement of many-to-many communication. Television, publishing, and radio are all one-to-many (if you can consider a broadcaster/publisher a single gatekeeper voice). Telephones and letters are one-to-one, by and large. By 1997, business minds, most notably John Hagel III and Arthur Armstrong in net.gain, had begun saying that the networked future of businesses would require them to build communities around themselves. I doubt that Singh thinks of his libel case in that light, but today's social networks (which are a reworking of earlier systems such as Usenet and online conferencing systems) are enabling him to do just that. The leverage he's gained from that support is what is really behind both the challenge to English libel law and the increasing demand for chiropractors generally to provide better evidence or shut up.

Given the value everyone else, from businesses to cause organizations to individual writers and artists, places on building an energetic, dedicated, and active fan base, it's surprising to see Richard Dawkins, whose supporters have apparently spent thousands of unpaid hours curating his forums for him, toss away what by all accounts was an extraordinarily successful community supporting his ideas and his work. The more so because apparently Dawkins has managed to attract that community without ever noticing what it meant to the participants. He also apparently has failed to notice that some people on the Net, some of the time, are just the teeniest bit rude and abusive to each other. He must lead a very sheltered life, and, of course, never have moderated his own forums.

What anyone who builds, attracts, or aspires to such a community has to understand from the outset is that if you are successful your users will believe they own it. In some cases, they will be right. It sounds - without having spend a lot of time poring over Dawkins' forums myself - as though in this case in fact the users, or at least the moderators, had every right to feel they owned the place because they did all the (unpaid) work. This situation is as old as the Net - in the days of per-minute connection charges CompuServe's most successful (and economically rewarding to their owners) forums were built on the backs of volunteers who traded their time for free access. And it's always tough when users rediscover the fact that in each individual virtual community, unlike real-world ones, there is always a god who can pull the plug without notice.

Fortunately for the causes of libel law reform and requiring better evidence, Singh's support base is not a single community; instead, it's a group of communities who share the same goals. And, thankfully, those goals are bigger than all of us.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. I would love to hear (net.wars@skeptic.demon.co.uk) from someone who could help me figure out why this blog vapes all non-spam comments without posting them.

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