Social Norms and the FP Communities

Reading through some FP classifieds late last year, I came across one where things got a little heated. Only a little, but enough to catch my eye. It got me thinking about the two parts of our community, the old and the new, and how each has developed its own norms and behaviours, and what happens when these are forced to share the same space. In today’s post, we dig into social norms, the role that they play, and how they can sometimes create conflict in the community. 

The sales post (which you can find here) is nothing out of the ordinary. The first post lists a new, uninked pen for $600 and a commenter asks why anyone would pay that price when a brand new one can be sourced from a retailer for only $25 more. Another commenter responds to them, saying that their behaviour is incredibly rude. A third says they would have purchased but $600 is above the list price in their country. The seller responds to this saying that this should’ve been communicated by private message. The price is nonetheless lowered to $375 and bumped several times. Nobody else comments (perhaps because the tone of the discussion is pretty negative by this point) and it appears the product went unsold.

As I said, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the kind of conflict thatwe see time and again in the secondary market: some people behave in a way that is meant to help, by sharing information about price, quality, or availability, while others behave in a way that is more about respecting the transaction and the old adage ‘caveat emptor’. When these two ways of behaving interact, it can lead to conflict. The things which are valued by one are problematic for the other. One emphasises respect, the other fairness. 

It’s interesting to me how this conflict varies between the different trading platforms. Reddit and Fountain Pens Australia (FPA) are two sites where helpful comments are not only accepted but encouraged: sellers can choose to price high but they run the risk of commenters posting links to other, more competitively priced sales posts. At the other extreme are sites like FPN (which allows no comments and engenders no transparency) and FP Geeks, where some users clearly expect that nobody should get in the way of a seller and potential buyers. The split between these sites largely corresponds with the split between the old and new forms of the community, and I suspect the underlying problem here is that of different social norms.

Social Norms

There are formal and informal rules of behaviour. Formal rules are those agreed to by governments and other authorities, written down, and enforced through fines, community service, imprisonment, and the like. At least in theory, these rules are enforced uniformly, with formal procedures and predictable penalties. 

Informal rules of behaviour – social norms – are completely different. They are not agreed by any body, they are not written down, and they can be inconsistently enforced. That enforcement is through social sanctions: when we transgress a social norm, our punishment is the withdrawal of sociability. People say or do things which are anti-social and we can be made to feel excluded from the community. 

Norms are an emergent phenomenon. Nobody can ‘cause’ a community to adopt a norm – though many have tried – because it requires each person to make a decision that a particular behaviour is undesirable and to choose to enforce sanctions to minimise it. The norms which are successfully adopted by a community tend to have some benefit: they facilitate interaction, coordinate expectations, and minimise conflict. They are far more flexible than formal or legal rules: a social norm can vary with place or the time of day, it can change as soon as people want it to change, and it can be applied selectively as a situation demands. Norms are ultimately the glue which holds most communities together. 

Driving is an interesting example of how formal and informal rules function together. The formal rules dictate the things we officially can and cannot do, we know the rules in advance, and they are enforced by the police through fines and the potential loss of our right to drive. The informal rules are the locally accepted ways of behaving on a road and interacting with other road users. When we transgress local norms – for example, by driving slowly on an inside lane – it creates unpredictability, uncertainty and danger for other drivers. This increases the effort and risk of driving for them, which leads to the application of social sanctions. Drivers might flash their lights, blow their horn, or yell at us: these signal that we have broken the informal rules and need to change our behaviour. 

Norms can also exist to overcome the free rider problem. Free riders are those who derive benefits from the work of others but contribute nothing themselves. Too many free riders and projects simply won’t happen: some will feel like they’re bearing too much of the burden and others will realise they can contribute nothing but benefit nonetheless. Eventually there aren’t enough people contributing and things fall apart. 

Country towns and small communities are a good example of how social norms overcome this problem. A lot of these towns depend on neighbours helping each other out (especially when they’re somewhat isolated) but it also places them at a risk of free riders. Why help your neighbour today if you’re not sure he’ll ever help you in return?

Strong social norms mean that those who don’t reciprocate lose the benefits of cooperative from other members of the community. People tend to keep tabs on whether others are meeting their obligations, and even minor transgressions are communicated frequently. Everybody knows each other’s business because it allows them to figure out who is and isn’t worth trusting. That offers protection, but it also changes the incentives of potential free-riders. The knowledge that your behaviour is being observed and scrutinised – and decisions about cooperation are being made on the basis of that scrutiny – can push people to behave virtuously in situations where they otherwise might not. If you find $50 in a bar in a big city, you might be inclined to keep it. But if you find it in a small town pub where everybody knows each other, there are bigger potential penalties to keeping the money: within hours, rumours could spread about you being selfish or a thief, and make your neighbours cautious about trusting you. That might be enough for you to hand it in. 

Outsiders are viewed with suspicion in small towns for the same reason. They have no reputation, so locals don’t know whether an individual will reciprocate acts of kindness or selflessness when others are in need. Before they can experience the benefits of community, they have to contribute to the community and earn the trust of members. This can take time: in the small town where my grandmother was raised, there’s a joke that you’re not accepted as a local until you have four grandparents buried in the local cemetery. 

Not everyone is comfortable with the strong norms which prevail in these towns. They can feel arbitrary and stultifying, and they often make people feel excluded. This leads people to abandon towns for cities (where communities are larger and norms are harder to establish and enforce), but the norms which endure for decades tend to be the ones which actively contribute towards worthwhile goals. This is worth keeping in mind as we think about the different systems of norms in the FP communities today. 

The Old and the New

When you look at the older, pre-digital pen communities, it’s obvious that they have built up some pretty strong norms. Often, these norms don’t make a lot of sense to us in the newer community, who bring different attitudes, values, and norms with us. It’s easy to criticise those norms and to feel that they contribute towards nothing worthwhile; it’s much harder to recognise that those norms have played a role in building and sustaining a community which has endured for decades. 

One common complaint that I’ve heard about online forums and the pen shows is that the older community can be less than welcoming, even of experienced enthusiasts. More than once I’ve heard of relatively new users being ignored on forums or told to look elsewhere by pen show vendors. That strikes many of us as an inexcusably rude and misguided attitude (and something I’ve criticised as basically being bad for business and for the market), but it’s worth thinking about whether there’s some logic behind it. 

We might think about the older pen communities a bit like small towns. It seems like many of them are close-knit, comprised of hobbyists who share their passion with others who understand and embrace it. Members of these communities seem to have invested significant time and built up experience, expertise, and knowledge which goes well beyond most members of the new community. You’ve probably heard the same stories as me about the deep friendships which have been formed by members of these groups, and the extraordinary generosity they had with one another. More than once, I’ve heard stories about people in these communities buying a pen for hundreds of dollars, with the sole intention of giving it to someone else in the community who would treasure it.

I’ve also heard stories about people feeling excluded, about people wanting to be a part of that but struggling to find a way in. I suspect this is because there are some informal barriers to entry imposed by groups: not just anyone can be accepted as part of it. Rather, they have to demonstrate their shared passion – not just a passing interest, but a genuine passion – by investing time and effort in independently learning about products and demonstrating their commitment. Nobody with a fleeting (or criminal) interest would bother to learn how to restore a Sheaffer Valiant or the differences between early Parker Duofold models, and this allows the community to protect itself from time-wasters, free-riders, and others. It’s easy to criticise a group for excluding others, but its probably more constructive to understand why exclusionary practices exist and what alternatives might achieve the same outcomes with less harm. 

The transition to the digital age has posed something of a problem for the old community. On the one hand, the internet allows an enthusiast to find many other enthusiasts, to trade pieces, knowledge, and stories in a way which can deeply enhance one’s appreciation for the hobby. On the other, it makes it much harder to differentiate between real enthusiasts and poseurs. Knowledge is not the barrier it once was, as plenty of it is shared freely online, and this increases the danger of free-riders or exploitative behaviour. Even ownership of certain hard-to-find products is not a guarantee, as eBay and other sites overcome the need to spend hours at pen shows sifting through many common pieces to find the one valuable, uncommon piece. As the lines become blurred, the community becomes a bit undone and loses a bit of what once made the hobby so special. 

This is in complete contrast with the new community, largely built around blogs and other social media which enables sharing of information and experience. This community rejects barriers to the point where an act of exclusion or judgement is itself subject to criticism and sanctions. Whereas the old guard built a ‘walled garden’, the new one focuses almost obsessively on inclusiveness. 

The norms in the new community may have developed around the fact that many of us have come into the hobby almost by accident, and rarely through the traditional route. Few of us started with vintage pens and built a collection. Instead, most of us got curious through personal experience with FPs, friends, or stumbling across something online, and ended up buying an FP (and then another, and another, and so on). We didn’t need to learn any history of pens to get started, we didn’t need to deal with any gatekeepers of knowledge, we just spent bought from Goulet Pens or Jet Pens, and our curiosity drove us to find out more online. 

Given this history and the fact that the hobby is a digital one (for the most part), it feels like FP people are relatively few in number. Rather than trying to exclude others to protect ourselves, the goal is to encourage others to try our pens, to get interested, and to share what they discover with the community. Barriers and judgement run contrary to these goals; anything that prevents people from getting fully involved prevents the community from thriving. 

The trade-off for this is that the new community is not as tight-knit as the old one. While some have forged close friendships, I don’t believe this is true for the majority or perhaps even the average member. Many of these people in our community go unrecognised in a way that might not happen in a physical, local meet of the old community. It might even be said that we talk a big talk about inclusiveness, and we have norms that prevent outright exclusion, but we don’t exactly walk the walk when it comes to ensuring that everyone in the community feels included. It’s telling that a common refrain from new members of FPA is that they previously felt like they were just looking in on a community, rather than actually being a part of it. I suspect this feeling is far more widespread than we recognise, and I very much doubt that it’s limited to Australians or even to folks outside the US. 

An important difference between the two is that the modern community is largely built around purchases. The older community might have placed equal emphasis on acquisition, the building a coherent collection (and therefore learning the changes that were made over time, perhaps leading to some deeper understanding about the products and industry), restoration, and education. But we only really have the one activity, acquisition, and we're often homogenous in what we buy. There's a lot of crossover in the products owned by folks in the modern community, perhaps because many of us signal our connection with the community by buying the same things (eg Pilot VPs, Lamy 2000s, Emerald of Chivor, Lamy Dark Lilac, etc). It's hard to escape the conclusion that the older community was more experienced, knowledgeable, and diverse in their interests than we are. 

The Future

So now, the conflict on some of the shared forums should make more sense. It is not necessarily a conflict between individuals but a conflict between differing systems of norms in two overlapping but quite distinct communities. One has an ethos where you need to invest time and effort to earn the privilege of membership while the other embraces a more inclusive ethos. Neither is necessarily better than the other; rather, each set of norms is an emergent response to different challenges faced by each community.

Now we have a framework to understand the reason for conflict, we can start to think about whether there’s an effective solution by which we can work together. The obvious solution is the one least likely to work: asking members of either community to adopt the norms of the other. Members of the new community won’t suddenly decide that inclusiveness is a rubbish idea and members of the old community won’t suddenly decide to embrace one and all. I also can’t see the new community embracing a separation of the two communities where we each stick to our own. We might hope that members of the old community recognise that the basis of their norms have changed, but it’s also understandable that many of them would want to stick with what they know rather than embracing an entirely new (and alien) culture. 

It’s not obvious to me what other solutions might work, but it seems that we’re all stuck with each other and we ought to make an effort to better understand each other and how we can accommodate each other. I still believe that market forces will push the traders in the old community to adapt, but that still leaves a lot of people who share a passion for FPs but struggle to integrate with each other. If we can bridge the two and come together, we’ll not only reduce the conflict but we’ll also have a larger, stronger community to call our own. 

Conclusion

Social norms play quite a powerful role in our community, influencing our behaviour and the way we interact with others. They can be enormously beneficial, enabling us to cooperate in ways that simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise, but they can also create conflict when different systems of norms come into contact with one another. Understanding those norms can help us to understand why conflict occurs and the difficulties of trying to manage or avoid conflict.