People become disassociated from one another online. The computer somehow nullifies the social contract.
--Heather Champ, Flickr Community Manager
Would you go to someone's front lawn and punch them in the face, or call them a jackass? Would you stand on their front steps and take a crap on their doorstep? Probably not. You'd get either a) arrested, or b) in some red states you would probably get shot for trespassing.
But it staggers me how people feel just FREE to take a crap on other people's property on the Internet. Why? Because there's no cost to it. In real life you can punch someone back, or shoot them. There are real consequences that are actually at stake in the real world. Identity, reputation, and life itself.
If someone comes and takes a fat crap on my doorstep, that really grosses me out. In the current scheme of things, what can I do?
a) I can call the police. I can try to track down this miscreant and have him arrested... or in the online case, booted from the community.
b) I can track them down and crap on their doorstep, in return... or flame them right back online.
In both cases, we have the fundamental problem of anonymity and identity online. It's an order of magnitude easier to be fully anonymous on the Internet, just as a matter of course. As a result, I can't even provide an effective counter-response. In the case of being booted from a community -- the cost to join is typically zero in the first place. Destroying one identity is meaningless because an unlimited number of new ones may be created. If I flame them back, then the terrorists have won.
Facebook has attacked this problem head-on by being the first successful online community that requires real names and real identities. These identities are backed by real-world organizations such as the school you went to or the corporation you are a part of. I think this remains the great underdeveloped frontier of Facebook Applications -- real apps that actually capitalize on the incredible Facebook "social graph" while still providing value, rather than rent-seeking time-wasting garbage apps like Vampires vs. Werewolves.
Alternatively, other sites like Flickr or Twitter develop strong community through reinforcement of identity through participation. These sites result in hours per day of use -- they are behavior-changing and valuable through the connections you make on the system. From first hand experience, losing those connections is painful enough to strongly dissuade egregious behavior. Newcomer miscreants still exist in these systems, but at least they're easily identified.
Hacker News has a similar aspect that focuses on use instead of connections, with karma score as a way of tallying usage. Parts of the site (like downvoting comments) are not revealed to you until you've become a participating, fully committed member of the group, at which point you're willing to invest in the community fully and defend it from Internet miscreants (of which there are many.) Once again, miscreants can be identified immediately with their karma score of 1. In fact, newcomers are moreso scrutinized and evaluated earlier because they're so easy to identify.
Clay Shirky likens truly useful collaborative groups to corporations in the legal sense. I can't walk into a bank and get a loan just by creating a fictional organization. However, if I incorporate as a C-corp, I can operate as a sovereign entity. A C-corp is: a) hard to create, b) hard to join, c) hard to leave, and d) hard to disband. These are the barriers that make legitimate groups and collaboration possible. I'd argue the forefront of social software is pointing in this direction more than ever.
Or in other words, good fences make good neighbors, in both online communities and in life. Barriers are what make meaningful interactions possible.
In the meantime, try not to crap in people's front yards. Please! Were you born in a barn? As Pastor Paul says at Abundant Life Church in Mountain View, I'm not talking about you, I'm talking about someone in your row