Книга: Code 2.0

Counsel Connect

Counsel Connect

David Johnson began Counsel Connect (CC) in 1992 as an online lawyers’ cooperative. The idea was simple: Give subscribers access to each other; let them engage in conversations with each other; and through this access and these conversations, value would be created. Lawyers would give and take work; they would contribute ideas as they found ideas in the space. A different kind of law practice would emerge — less insular, less exclusive, more broadly based.

I thought the idea amazing, though many thought it nuts. For a time the system was carried by Lexis; in 1996 it was sold to American Lawyer Media, L.P.; in 1997 it migrated to the Internet, and it closed in 1999.[26] At its peak, it boasted thousands of subscribers, though it is hard to know how many of them contributed to the discussion online. Most simply watched the discussions of others, perhaps linking three or four discussion groups of their particular interest, plus a few of more general interest. But many saw the emerging culture as something amazing and new (for lawyers at least). As its founder, David Johnson, described it, “Think of The Well for lawyers, with its own highly unique evolution, emergence, maintenance, and adaptation.”[27] Members got to know each other well. “Inevitably, this led to numerous real world meetings. . . . Of those I attended, it always resembled a get together of long-time acquaintances even though many of us had not previously met face to face.”[28]

The discussion was organized into legal topics. Each topic was divided into discussion groups, with each group led by a discussion leader. The leader was not a moderator; he or she had no power to cancel a post. The leader was there to inspire conversation — to induce others to speak by being encouraging or provocative.

At its height, there were some 90 groups in this space. The poster of a particular message may have had it removed, but if the poster did not remove it, it stayed — at first in the list of topics being discussed, and later in an archive that could be searched by any member.

Members paid a fee to join and get an account with their real name on it. Postings use members’ real names, and anyone wondering who someone is could simply link to a directory. Members of CC must be members of the bar, unless they are journalists. Others have no right to access; the community here is exclusive.

Postings in the space look very much like postings in a USENET newsgroup. A thread could be started by anyone, and replies to a thread were appended to the end. Because messages did not move off the system, one could easily read from the start of a thread to its end. The whole conversation, not just a snippet, was preserved.

These features of CC space were obviously designed; the architects chose to enable certain features and to disable others. We can list here some of the effects of these choices.

First, there was the effect from being required to use your own name. You were more likely to think before speaking and to be careful about being right before saying something definitive. You were constrained by the community, which would judge what you said, and in this community you could not escape from being linked to what you said. Responsibility was a consequence of this architecture, but so was a certain inhibition. Does a senior partner at a leading law firm really want to ask a question that will announce his ignorance about a certain area of law? Names cannot be changed to protect the ignorant, so they will often simply not speak.

Second, there was an effect from forcing all discussion into threads. Postings were kept together; a question was asked, and the discussion began from the question. If you wanted to contribute to this discussion, you had to first read through the other postings before responding. Of course, this was not a technical requirement — you certainly had a choice not to read. But if you did not read through the entire thread, you could well end up repeating what another had said and so reveal that you were speaking without listening. Again, the use of real names ties members’ behavior to the norms of the community.

Third, there was the effect of reputation: The reputation you built in this space was based on the kind of advice you gave. Your reputation survived any particular post and was, of course, affected by any subsequent posts. These posts were archived and searchable. If you said one thing about topic X and then the opposite later on, you were at least open to a question about consistency.

Fourth, there was the effect of tying reputation to a real name in a real community of professionals. Misbehaving here mattered elsewhere. CC thus got the benefit of that community — it got the benefit, that is, of the norms of a particular community. These norms might have supported relatively productive community behavior — more productive, that is, than the behavior of a group whose members are fundamentally mixed. They might also have supported punishing those who deviated from appropriate behavior. Thus, CC got the benefit of community sanction to control improper behavior, whereas AOL had to rely on its own content police to ensure that people stayed properly on topic.

We can describe the world of CC that these features constitute in two different ways, just as we can describe the world AOL constitutes in two different ways. One is the life that CC’s features made possible — highly dialogic and engaged, but monitored and with consequences. The other is the regulability by the manager of the life that goes on in the CC space. And here we can see a significant difference between this space and AOL.

CC could have used the norms of a community to regulate more effectively than AOL can. CC benefited from the norms of the legal community; it knew that any misbehavior would be sanctioned by that community. There was, of course, less “behavior” in this space than in AOL (you did fewer things here), but such as it was, CC behavior was quite significantly regulated by the reputations of members and the consequences of using their real names.

These differences together had an effect on CC’s ability to regulate its members. They enabled a regulation through modalities other than code. They made behavior in CC more regulable by norms than behavior in AOL is. CC in turn may have had less control than AOL does (since the controlling norms are those of the legal community), but it also bore less of the burden of regulating its members’ behavior. Limiting the population, making members’ behavior public, tying them to their real names — these are the tools of self-regulation in this virtual space.

But CC was like AOL in one important way: It was not a democracy and neither is AOL. Management in both cases controls what will happen in the space — again, not without constraint, because the market is an important constraint. But in neither place do “the people” have the power to control what goes on. Perhaps they did, indirectly, in CC more than AOL, since it is the norms of “the people” that regulate behavior in CC. But these norms cannot be used against CC directly. The decisions of CC and AOL managers may have been affected by market forces — individuals can exit, competitors can steal customers away. But voting doesn’t direct where AOL goes, and it didn’t with CC either.

That’s not the case with the next cyber-place. At least, not anymore.

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