On community and rules

Section: Articles

Communities are strange things. They started for protection (a group of early proto-humans stands a better chance against predators than a lone proto-human) and in many ways they still are (a group of niche fans will benefit from not being loners in a group of people who don’t understand their interests).

Communities then start to create rules. Sometimes they’re shared knowledge, which is spread throughout the community for the benefit of the members (“Don’t eat the green wobbly bit” or “beware of yellow snow” or “that berry might look tasty, but never touch that plant or you'll die”). At other times the rules are for the benefit of the community as a whole (“stand with us against outsiders” or “share your food/material/creations”). After that you get to rules for maintaining the future community (“no sexual relations with blood relatives” or “try to make outsiders be part of us, rather than killing them”).

Once you get to more established communities then you get to the unnecessary rules - the ones that feel civilised and are an artefact of the fact that we’re so comfortable in our environment that we can add complexity where it need not be just because the great amorphous “we” think it should be that way. Copyright is one such rule - it isn't a natural rule and it isn't something that would occur without human consciousness thinking it benefited culture (which is another concept that develops as communities mature and agent just worried about survival).

And then there are the communities within the wider community. Religions add rules for getting to the afterlife (eat only fish or beaver on Friday, don’t eat pigs because they're unclean, or hop in circles on your left foot for an hour each Tuesday evening). Internet and fandom-based communities add rules that are closer to those of proto-human: stand with the crowd, stick together, and don’t feed the trolls.

But that’s just the start. Humans like rules too much. They make us feel like we’re in control. Sometimes community rules get to the point that they don’t make sense to the outsider. Sometimes they don’t make sends to all of the insiders. But they’re the community rules and they were agreed by “them” - some other group who never seem to have an absolute identity.

Eventually a community will create rules about which rules to ignore. The wider community of (Western) humanity in general believe in the rule of copyright - that such a rule is the only way to encourage the creation of artistic works. The narrower internet community is a bit more flexible with that rule. Even ignoring the “piracy” argument around people who write often wouldn’t buy it if it was their only option, the internet is full of examples of people who decided to “borrow” graphics for signatures, avatars and other works - whether it is shots from film, TV, or video games, or the artwork that goes with each of them. The Internet’s “rules” have developed the idea that “this is okay, I’m only a single person and I’m not doing any real harm - it isn’t add if I’m sharing the whole work”. Some copyright owners get upset, but often they either don't look for small-scale copyright infringements, turn a blind eye to these cases or actively understand that they're getting a wider audience than they'd otherwise get.

And then comes the rule I've just found on Tumblr. If you create something based on a copyright work and someone re-uploads it (rather than re-blogging it) then people can complain and ask for it to be taken down. That is fair enough as the work is in a bit of a grey area - it is based on someone else's copyrighted idea, but the creator did put in their own time and novel creative thoughts to make that specific artwork. Many people would be happy with a credit, but some people might want to be more protective and controlling so that they can see how people interact with their work. To each their own.

But then there are GIF sets and screencaps, which are just a collection of stills from someone else's copyrighted creative work. The most you do with screencaps is to find the right shot, take a copy of it and maybe add the subtitles. The huge majority of the creative effort was still in the original work. But Tumblr etiquette is apparently that you still take down a GIF set if someone gets upset at you re-using it. Even if you credited them. Even if they didn't explicitly credit their source (i.e. the TV show or film that they screencapped). It is just the done thing.

Communities need rules - without rules they aren't a community and would rapidly implode or fade away. Rules can make communities appear odd to the outsider. Rules can also cause you to make mistakes when you first become part of the community. That's just part of joining a community: learning how it works. But sometimes the rules go a bit too far and start to lose their grounding in common sense. This isn't just an Internet problem, but being a child of the Internet age then it is the one that I've seen this in the most!