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Internet Forums: Online Social Contracts

April 17, 2011

A typical support forum

Since the internet is a place where information can be shared and received by virtually anyone, it can easily turn into a state of nature. In this state, information is difficult to find and may be disorganized. Online forums are communities designed to allow users to post on specific topics and ask questions, answer questions, or showcase their accomplishments. Without forums, consumers would be completely reliant on support that a company provides. There would be no record of the less-than-frequently asked questions. I have gone to forums to find answers more questions than FAQs, Yahoo Answers, and phone support combined. So, how are these online communities related to a social contract? Forums generally have the following attributes:


The admins act as the sovereign of a forum. They have the most power and have the ability to delete posts, remove accounts, and even ban users. They are often the people who started the forum and ultimate power is vested in them. When a user joins a forum, he or she is subscribing to a contract which puts their membership in the hands of the admins in exchange for the benefit of the forum.


These members are the authorities just under the admins. Unlike the admins, moderators can be nominated by users. They are appointed by admins, but admins may hold polls so that members can vote on who they want to be a moderator. Moderators are the most likely members to regulate the day-to-day postings on the forum. Moderators can be seen as the power of the sovereign (such as a police force or a military that keep the respective society in order)


Regular members are the largest presence on a forum. A member who registers for a username often will check a box signifying that he or she has read and will abide by the terms of the forum. The rules of the forums vary, but often consist of a few basic principles: no racist or prejudice comments, no images that would be deemed inappropriate, and no posts that directly attack (flame) or belittle another member in an unreasonable way. Much like citizens in a social contract, members agree to a certain form of conduct in order to enjoy the benefits of the information that the forum presents. One often does not have to be a member of a forum to read it, but members can post their own questions which will often get a response quickly, depending on the size and involvement of the community.


Just like any authority under a social contract, forum authorities have ways to punish and eliminate members of the forum. A suspension is the lesser of the two punishments. It would likely be delegated if any of the rules of the forum are broken. The suspension is normally a period of time where the member cannot post on the forum. The period of time varies, just as a sovereign might delegate varying punishments.

A ban, on the other hand, is much more permanent. The member’s account is deleted. More serious, however, is an IP ban. If this happens, one cannot connect to the forum with his or her IP address. This means that the user cannot just create another member account and reenter the forum. The sovereign has “killed” one of the members.


I would say that a forum works more like a monarchy than any other form of government. Interestingly enough, Rousseau believed that a monarchy is able to wield the most power over its people. So, perhaps it is appropriate for forums to act like monarchies when governing the many users of the internet, who may have a tendency to be rambunctious as a result of their protection behind the curtain of their computer screens.

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