The ‘Social Contract’ for Reviewers and Authors

The Social Contract has often been used as an example of how various processes can better work. Let me explain.

Without going into detail, and falling prey to those who have studied the period in history, I quote from Wikipedia: "The notion of the social contract implies that the people give up sovereignty to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order through the rule of law. It can also be thought of as an agreement by the governed on a set of rules by which they are governed."

Over recent decades, this concept of vertical, two-way responsibility has been used as models for other processes – a notable one is the relationship between IT entities in a given organization and the business it supports. It adds depth and purpose to all facets of the business as a whole, and adds a modicum of protection.

It occurred to me that the relationship between the author and a reviewer (or critic, or similar) should follow a similar paradigm.

What got me started was reading an insightful blog post on a topic closely related, by Jay Lake. Jay received a communication from a reader that was, in my view, extremely rude and devoid of logical argument. Jay took it on the chin, published an excerpt of the communication, and used it to re-energize himself via the blog. I tip my hat to him.

However, via a strong empathic force, I thought about this reader (commentator) as well as recent events where one of the authors who I closely work with, as well as my small publishing house, was subject to similar vitriol. It has synthesized into a number of concepts which I would like to share with you.

Getting to the Social Contract paradigm, it seems to me that both authors and commentators really should equally be infused with a sense of  responsibility for what they say, and should also be accountable – both these concepts are intrinsic to the Social Contract. Of course, this is not enforceable, but hey, it can still be aired. As an author, I write for the reader (as Jay so beautifully puts it), and I have to accept that people can and should comment on my work. It just simply goes with the territory. I am accountable for what I write. Established critics are in the same boat. If they write reviews that are a crock, they will lose their jobs – in other words, they are accountable for what they write. No difference. A rather pleasant balance, if you ask me.

But what about those who write directly to an author, or who write something in a blog. There is no accountability. Aside from the small percentage of wackos and degenerates, there are those who choose to exercise their poor (or excellent) skills in writing and review, and there are those who choose to follow a path of balanced responsibility (or fall prey to their base emotional/personal agendas). Two dimensions, with extreme examples of each. Good and bad, if you will. Responsibility and accountability versus anarchy.

The World Wide Web is a wonderful place, but it does give a huge amount of swinging room for the wackos, degenerates, the unskilled, and the ‘ulterior motivated’. From a 20,000 foot height, I can live with this, as the benefits afforded society, and to me, far outweigh the negative elements. However, I think that we (when we are reviewers who choose to air our thoughts), must be thoughtful about what we write.

We should, as reviewers and critics, review our own work and ask the question, ‘is this responsible? am I taking accountability?’

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