Want Social Norms? 9-Steps to Building a Strong Culture (Part 3)

Language and Jokes: Easier than Programming AI Moderators

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T-shirt design by Mouhsine Adnani. Highlight this text if you get the joke.

This is third in a series of blog posts about how to create and influence the culture of online platforms, specifically on social VR. Part one is on Heroes, Archetypes and Mascots. Part two covers the importance of Symbols and Artifacts. This article is on the function of Language and Jokes in culture.

The most efficient way to build a safe online platform is to establish a strong social norms. Folks have asked me how to build culture and that’s what motivated this series. Anthropologists use these nine steps analyze any new culture that they visit.

Building a strong culture means valorizing the behaviors that you want more of on your platform (and denigrating the behaviors that you don’t want). The benefits of having a strong culture are that it will attract new users who understand what your platform stands for. Secondly, existing members will enforce the culture among themselves and new users. It will decrease the load for on-boarding of new members. Having a strong culture that communicates clearly what your platform is for and what type of things people can do there will also help as the community scales.

And one of the most direct ways to communicate is via language.

Language: The Shorthand of Belonging

Ever start at a new job or visit a new place and have no idea what people are talking about? Even thought I’ve worked in XR for over three years, that still happens to me. Case in point:

Highlight this text if you understand what Josh is talking about.

Language is easily molded and invented to fit and in some part define subcultures. In the example above, Josh was able to efficiently share valuable information with people who care about encoding textures, despite being constrained to 280 characters.

In addition to there being technical jargon, there’s language borrowed from literature that shapes how how people describe their XR experiences. Vocabulary used by Frank Herbert (spice), Neal Stephenson (metaverse), and Ernest Cline (Oasis) now has a place in XR culture.

Speaking the same language facilitates community and camaraderie. When someone doesn’t understand your slang, it’s a barrier to social connection and community. Conversely, it can also be an opportunity for those who know the language to reach out to and teach those who don’t.

Language Impacts Decision-Making

Words and phrases affect how people make decisions. These can serve as a reference for what to do or how to be. Consider how the choice of language impacts how a behavior is perceived. Suppose that one user is threatening another user in a social VR world. Do you call that “griefing” or do you call that “harassment”? Griefing is not in the dictionary so it’s not easily understood:

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Suggested search results of griefing from dictionary.com

However, calling threatening behavior harassment could change how a bad actor evaluated her own behavior and subsequent decisions about how acceptable it is by the people around him. Word choice matters in setting behavioral norms.

Jokes: What is funny? What is taboo?

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“UE4 IRL” — Joke posted by Donald Dunbar about this photo. Highlight this text if you get the joke.

Jokes and memes are a useful tool to gauge how engaged a person is in a community. They solidify who is in and who is out. If you get the jokes and memes, you’re in.

Another function of jokes is to tell truth in a palatable way. They can have a cunning sense of honesty that can help people see what is true more fully. Jokes about bro culture release tension that has built up, through making the subject amusing or funny.

Another important function of jokes is to convey what is taboo in a culture. What behaviors are stigmatized? And laughed at? Is the laughter positive or punishing? If you pay attention to what items go unnamed and only hinted at, you will get a lot of information.

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Zi Ye illustrates in the above meme that some jokes don’t require any words.

Jokes Post Risks

Valuable as they are, any joke will get old. And if jokes have been re-appropriated to represent something at odds with your culture (da wae, Pepe the frog, etc.), it is important to know when to just let it go.

Consider also what your jokes tell about you. Stanford University researchers observed on-campus recruitment sessions to learn how 66 different companies recruited undergrads in computer science:

[Researchers] were surprised to hear presenters referencing subjects like pornography and prostitution in their remarks, often when joking. Unprepared presenters, particularly men, were more likely to make inappropriate jokes. A lot of the worst content came when the presenter was speaking off-the-cuff comments, trying to be relatable to students and funny.

Highly gendered language, jokes & and references to geek cultures resulted in Stanford women losing interest in applying for technical roles. That’s not a pipeline problem, that’s a social norm problem reflected through the recruiters’ jokes.

Takeaway Questions

  • What words and phrases are encoded into your culture? What do they mean?
  • How does word choice affect how behaviors are evaluated?
  • What are the jokes funny only to our in group?
  • What do you think about when I say bubble? chaperone? dof? collider? teleport? Your associations with each of these XR words may being tracking how inside-outside you are.

List your own examples of language and jokes/memes in the comments below. And contact me if you are interested in an evaluation of your own social VR culture. Sometimes these elements are difficult to see when you are awash in them.

Finally, a big thank you to Mouhsine Adnani, Josh Faust, Donald Dunbar and Zi Ye for giving me permission to use their language/jokes as examples in this article. And you can find many more examples in this Twitter thread below.


Companies struggle to attract women through bad recruiting practices. Stanford University Press Release. May 22, 2018

Series overview

1. Heroes, Archetypes and Mascots

2. Symbols and Artifacts

3. Language and Jokes

4. Stories and Myths

5. Rituals and Ceremony

Written by

Culture, Behavior, and Virtual Reality @theextendedmind

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