Implementing a Personal TOS

ImageA TOS (“Terms of Service”) document on a web site is the provider’s explaination of the boundaries and limits of the relationship between provider and client, and the basis on which the provider will accept a relationship at all. In other words, either by interacting with the provider, or by explicit agreement, or both, the client is accepting the boundaries and limitations. I find this a useful meme for personal life. In any given situation, we are supplying a certain amount of our time and attention to interacting with other people, businesses, or objects placed along our personal landscape. We need ways to limit the interactions we have to healthy, constructive, and useful ones, and it helps to define for ourselves and others what the boundaries are. Then people can either accept, or disengage. What is not permitted is non-acceptance and remaining engaged. Freedom of association means that in a free society, free people can end the conversation or, if it persists, end the relationship.

“I can talk to you any way I want, and say anything I want.” (NOT!)

When the net was formed, it grew up a community of people who developed healthy and constructive protocols for interaction, called “netiquette”. The F.A.Q. comes from that era. The TOS became necessary after 1994, when online services began dumping their members onto the open net, because free environments, not rigidly structured and controlled ones were where the fun and interesting stuff was happening. As the book net.wars observes, once AOL let the spammers and trolls out of the bag, though, the internet became a customer service nightmare (“I want total satisfaction from everyone else on demand, and I don’t want to read no stinking FAQ”) and, in the forums, it became one big fight, or a cesspool of personal promotion and SPAM.

The existing vision of freedom had been based on healthy protocols for interaction. The forum provider defined a set of rules, with input from the community, that were designed to be as loose and unrestrictive as possible, but take standards of civility and antisocial behavior seriously without making it a witchhunt or facist state. The people that came after had a different understanding of freedom – they wanted to be able to do anything they wanted, with no boundaries or limits at all, regardless of how it affected the community or people within it, and so the TOS document, borrowed from those paid online services themselves, started popping up everywhere. You see this different understanding of freedom in the Occupy Wall Street movement. A view prevails that freedom means there can be no limits on what a person can do or say. Community standards agreements about drugs and violence are routinely treated as window dressing, and verbal abuse and threats are a normal feature in Occupied communities.

In a phone call (which is synchronous communicaton), you can disengage easily and cordially, just by saying “I’ve got to go” and, if toxic behavior persists, “I’m hanging up now.” In person (again synchronous communication), you can walk away – if you’re held, it’s assault – if you’re followed, it’s harrassment. In e-mail, or a forum, or an online message system, it’s asynchronous. You may be able to abandon the forum but, whether or not you use your e-mail desktop as a task manager, all e-mails are really “to do” items. You can’t stop unpleasant messages from popping onto your virtual “desk” and requiring attention (even if only to hit “delete”) without resorting to a filter and, even then, you still had to stop and think about it and take an action – this is one reason for the CAN SPAM Act. Live chat is a hybrid, of course. It’s synchronous, but you can’t “hang up” or “walk away”, because the messages keep on popping up. As with e-mail, you have to resort to a block or filter. Many of us stay invisible in chat software for this reason, and it’s really nice to be able to set that, in some chat programs, on a per person basis. With text messages, you have the same challenge, because cell phone carriers are typically too foolish to include a blocking feature – they make money off of unwanted texts – even though people are increasingly installing an app to block numbers and unknown texts and calls as soon as they buy a phone.

“I only listen to people who say what I want.” (NOT!)

When Google started customizing search results to your locale, and then to your previous search patterns, people rightly raised the concern that it further polarizes people’s attitudes, because they only see information reinforcing their existing view of the world. For instance, if you search for “immigration” or “climate change” in Utah, and you’ve shown a pattern of visiting various right wing web sites, you get an entirely different set of search results in Google than if you live in New York City, and have shown an opposite search pattern. When you search for Afghan War or Egypt Revolution, the material presented to you in search results may not even mention certain key things about those current events, all because we really prefer to see things that reinforce a view of the world we already hold. I originally used Google precisely to challenge my ideas, but it’s taking more work to do that now and, even when you turn off various adaptive and localized technologies – both in Google and in your browser, it still doesn’t give you completely unfiltered results – it keeps some of that data and alters the results accordingly. That sucks, doesn’t it? Unless you’re one of those people who “only wants to hear godly news”, whatever that is.

In the same way, we’ve probably met the hyper-blocker, the person who doesn’t want discussions with anyone who doesn’t “agree these are the end times”, or “that my child is a genius”, or “like cats”. The first two, at least, I get. Bon voyage. But cats? Sometimes, it’s not the issues, it’s a question of respect. I’ve run into a number of guys that go nuts if you use a swear word. “I was raised to expect people not to use that kind of language in my presence.” They key phrase there is “my presence”. It’s almost royal, but it underscores the fact that he views e-mail as virtually the same thing as being literally in his presence. In other words, e-mail is a virtual face to face conversation. In fact, he’s mostly right – it’s just asynchronous rather than synchronous. We might think these folks are goofy but, in fact, they just have a different TOS – a different basis on which they’ll accept interaction or a relationhip.

It’s important to make that distinction, too – interaction vs. relationship. Facebook is a good example. You can de-friend someone, but you can also go a step farther and block them. If it’s just some comment discussion you can’t live with, you de-friend. If they won’t stop sending you unwanted messages, you block. These are reasonable features. We’ve all had a stalker at one point, or a harrassing caller, or a salesperson or bill collector that wouldn’t give up. We’ve probably all had at least one abusive relationship – usually where there’s some felt obligation to stay in the relationship anyway. Abusive family, clergy, bosses, teachers, school admininstrators, or government inspectors (quite common, actually). Even law enforcement workers can be abusive, despite the folks that talk as if they can do no wrong. Some people talk that way about family, clergy, bosses, and teachers too. You have to retain the ability to end any interaction, and the freedom to end any relationship if the other can’t accept your boundaries and limitations – your terms of service.

You can limit input and still remain open. It’s not productive to turn off all constructive criticism, or silence all dissident voices, just because we can. We can set limits on who we want certain kinds of input or advice from, or what kinds of conversations we’re willing to have with people, but we still need to remain open as a general attitude about life. The world is always bigger than what we call the world. Harassers or abusers will try to use this, of course – declaring you close minded if you don’t get your advice from them, or advice on where to get advice, or on what kind of advice to seek, or let them be the source of your information, or links to information, or information on what kinds of information exists. The world is always bigger than they think it is, too. It is up to each of use to reserve our own judgment about who our peers and colleagues are – the people we see collaboration with about life changes and personal attitude. Even then, we have boundaries with those people as well. We don’t necessarily want the person we’re building a company with to offer unasked input on our romantic relationships and, if they do, we can certainly say we don’t want it, and they have to respect that limitation in order to remain in the relationship. That’s how healthy terms of service work. I have a friend and colleague who says, aptly, “Advice isn’t collaboration. Advice is toxic.” By seeking collaborative relationships, where the degree and type of collaboration is fluid enough to evolve, but respectful enough of boundaries to not be about control, we get to stay open without being dominated.

Being limited by someone’s TOS isn’t a form of control. It’s boundaries, not a restriction on your own freedom. The person who says “you can’t tell me what not to do – I’ll do anything I want” when it involves doing it to another person is talking like a madman. We all accept limits and boundaries from other people, about the kinds of interactions or relationships they’ll accept, or else society eventually locks us away or kills us. If you take all the freedom and leave none for other people, then your own basis for freedom is likewise removed. It’s circular reason – if I can do anything I want to you, then likewise I can certainly end a conversation or block you. The person who says that your boundaries are a limit on their freedom, or are a form of disrespect, only expects freedom and respect to be one-directional. They’re insisting on freedom for themselves, but control over you.

Our boundaries aren’t boundless. This comes up when someone wants to do a nativity scene or put up a sexy billboard, and there’s a hue and cry from people that insist they shouldn’t have to be exposed to competing ideas, attitudes, or images when they leave their homes. People want to implement the same kind of control on the internet. Your terms of service have as their starting place limits to *your* behavior – not the other person’s. You will only provide phone calls or e-mails if the other person is respectful of your boundaries. If they are not, you will not provide the phone calls or e-mails. You will only provide a relationship, if the other person respects your option to limit calls or e-mails based on your criteria. Etc. The criteria you provide are only guidelines to tell the other person under what conditions you will stay engaged. They’re not attempts to dictate that person’s behavior in total. The other person can scream at the wall, or in their own front yard, or whatever. But they can’t scream at you, if they want you to stay engaged in the call. It’s precisely the people that never understood the reasons for netiquette, for etiquette itself, or the freedoms in a free society, that want to stop you from putting up whatever art you want, or make restrictive rules about what they might see in passing in the larger society. They’ve reversed the TOS. In effect, they are reverse spammers.

The TOS is in effect even when you don’t see it. I don’t plan to actually post a TOS document anywhere. In healthy relationships, certain things are assumed, just like they were in internet communities prior to 1994. If you don’t get it, the burden is on you to ask if I want advice, for instance. It’s like copyright – the author doesn’t actually have to post it – the boundaries are assumed – if I want to do a reprint, I have to ask. Implementing a personal TOS is more of a thought experiment – an internal, mental decision to keep insisting on only non-toxic communication exchanges and only healthy relationships. It wouldn’t be necessary to think about it, if everyone got it. But I’ve encountered enough abuse from family, clergy, bosses, teachers, officials, and from bullies (for whatever reason they seem to be mostly under 30) who think threats or intimidation are acceptable interactions, that I think people need a basic education in this stuff. Some need to learn what behaviors are permissable and expected from them, and some need to learn they can set limits and insist the boundaries are honored. If you’re new to the idea of a personal TOS, it might be useful to write one out for yourself (don’t post it or e-mail it to people, please – that’s not the point) so you can ensure your limits are really about *you* – they’re what conditions you will accept for interaction and relationships, not attempts to fix other people or control them outside of those interactions. And also, it might help get the principles down in your head, if you don’t know already. I already know, so I’m good to go. The ‘implementation’ is just a decision to keep maintaining the TOS.

We all have limits on our time and attention, simply because we’re finite. We have to make choices, continually, about what’s helping us achieve a particular direction we’re going, and what’s not. I haven’t read every classic, because I’m reading the books that get me where I’m going. Having a personal TOS is a zen-like way of recognizing our limitations, and continually solidifying a direction for ourselves. In that way, it’s like the personal kanban mentioned in the previous post. It’s a tool that ensures we achieve our goals and not get sidetracked by drama that we can avoid. For some people, you can’t swear in their house – and to those houses, I usually don’t go. The TOS can limit your interactions happily or unhappily, so build it well. But when you know some things are just intolerable to you, stick to them, and they’ll serve you even when they’re costly.

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