When Isaac Asimov pondered the way in which "Robots," the artificial intelligences that accompanied mankind in his fictional universe, would operate he chose a set of governing principles based upon simplicity rather than intricate detail. Asimov postulated three "Laws of Robotics" - general guidelines that would form the underpinnings for the behavior of all Robotic creatures in his fiction.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
Though journalists are not robots, a similar collection of guidelines and recommendations serves well to temper them as well. Social News sites such as Newsvine have thus also incorporated skeletal codes of ethics and responsibility into the bylaws of their communities. Newsvine's serves as among the best example of both brevity and depth, though even it waxes towards the verbose.
Most ambiguous and yet most important are the first two of Newsvine's doctrines.
- Above all else, respect others. If you see disrespectful behavior, report it, rather than further inflaming the situation.
- Before you write, seed, or comment, ask yourself if your contribution increases the strength and virtue of the community.
Indeed, with the exception of Newsvine's "English Only" policy, the remainder of Newsvine's Code of Honor flows directly from these two points. As with the Laws of Robotics, Newsvine and other Social News services have seen their bylaws extrapolated and applied through repeated use and precedent into an intuitive and yet often self contradictory set of complex rules and regulations - all derived from and based upon these most basic of guiding principles.
Asimov faced a similar problem as the tale of Robot and Human interaction extended across centuries and the galaxy. Could a Robot harm a human being if doing so would prevent other humans from coming to harm? In terms outside of Asimov's story arc - would the First Law prevent a Robot from assassinating Hitler?
As Social News communities grow, they face similar paradoxes brought about by the simplicity of their governing rules. Newsvine's first rule "respect others" has been extrapolated to prohibit the "calling out" of other Newsvine participants, a policy which, while logical in theory, begets a host of complications and contradictions in practice.
These contradictions arise because of the self styled soul of social news organizations. Social news celebrates the power of the individual, and more specifically the amateur individual. In this spirit, contributors are assumed to be private citizens, and thus inappropriate targets of ridicule and scorn in a public forum. Yet as the prominence of social news and content rises and an upper echelon of contributors emerges, a very real celebrity elite emerges. Though few and far between, these individuals are at once armatures and very public figures - a sort of "Celebrity Everyman" that exist as neither true professionals nor true amateurs by any reasonable explanation.
Moreover, as is the case with many offline-celebrities, the actions, opinions, and mis-steps of these elites become newsworthy in and of themselves.
This newsworthiness creates a contradiction reminiscent of the problems Asimov encountered with the First Law of Robotics. How can social news adequately and reasonably report, particularly in the negative, on the entirely newsworthy actions of its own elite-amateurs? In both cases, an amendment is necessary.
Asimov rectified this conundrum with a "Zeroth" Law of Robotics (zero being chosen so that, as a lower-numbered law it supersedes those with higher numbers). The Zeroth Law states:
A robot may not injure humanity, or , through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm
In the case of social news, a provision for the protection of communal integrity and trust must supersede those rules which call for the protection of the contributing amateurs that participate in the site. As influence and notoriety grows in a social news community so must the aegis of "amateur" diminish. Though respected and influential members may be a profound asset to the community as a whole, their misconduct represents a potentially crippling blow to the network itself. In such a situation, the immunities and protections of membership must be secondary to the integrity of the community as a whole.
Above all else, respect the community. Do not harm the community, or though inaction allow it to come to harm.
See Wikipedia for more on the Three Laws of Robotics