Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Internet and the Chatham House Rule

By Iola Goulton


What Happens in Vegas


There is a well-known American saying, popularised in a 2008 movie, that ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’. I’m sure we all know the meaning – that no one shares outside the group what happened inside the group. (Most of us probably also know the exception. A Vegas marriage doesn’t stay in Vegas, despite what Penny from The Big Bang Theory thinks).



According to the modern source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the line is Las Vegas’s marketing catch-phrase, perhaps further indication Vegas deserves its reputation as Sin City.

What Goes on Tour . . .

The Vegas catchphrase is related to another well-known phrase, ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’. This apparently originated in 1970 during an overseas rugby trip . . . which means there’s a good chance it was invented by a Kiwi or an Aussie. And while the phrase originally referred to men misbehaving while on sports tours, the meaning has expanded to incorporate both genders and all sport and non-sport tours.

Both phrases are based on an older rule which had more noble intentions than ensuring touring rugby players didn’t get caught in their sexual shenanigans—the Chatham House Rule.

The Chatham House Rule

Chatham House is the home of Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy think-tank based in London. The Chatham House Rule is intended to allow open debate and confidential discussion without fear of negative consequences.

The rule was introduced in 1927 and has been updated twice since. It officially reads:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
The principle is to allow private groups to discuss relevant topics in an open and honest way, without fear of information being passed to people outside the group. It’s a way of ensuring the group is a safe place to ask questions, give opinions, and offer advice—even unpopular advice—without fear of retribution or reprisal, and without the need to conform to a ‘party line’.

Does the Chatham House Rule apply on the internet?


No. And yes.


In terms of freely accessible websites, blogs, forums, discussions and groups, the opposite of the Chatham House Rule applies: if you say anything stupid online and later delete your comment or post, you can guarantee three people will already have a screenshot of your idiocy and won’t hesitate use it against you. If you leave it up a little longer, one of the internet archive sites may have recorded your diatribe, in which case your moment of stupidity is freely available to anyone who can type “wayback machine” into a search engine.

But the internet has a lot of private groups and discussion forums which are only open to members, including Closed and Secret groups on sites such as Facebook and Goodreads. On Goodreads, secret groups won’t show up in your profile and won’t show up in group searches. The only way to learn about the group is if a member tells you about it or invites you to join. Facebook has similar functionality.

Most of these groups have some rules, stated or unstated. In terms of writer groups, some groups allow authors to self-promote, others allow limited self-promotion, and some will ban you if you self-promote even once. Some groups are reader-focused, others are focused on writers, and the posts (and grumbles) reflect their focus. Most groups have an accepted standard of behaviour. And most Closed and Secret groups—certainly all those I’m a member of—explicitly or implicitly expect members to keep the Chatham House Rule and not share information outside the group.

So what can you share from private groups? As a rough guide, if the post has a ‘Share’ button below it, then it’s okay to share outside the group. Otherwise, don’t. If you look in a Closed Facebook group, you’ll find that comments posted in the group can’t be shared, while links to external websites usually can.

Equally, it should be self-evident that it’s not appropriate to share personal correspondence (e.g. email, or Facebook direct messages) without the permission of all parties to the correspondence—if the original writer had wanted the message sent to a wider group, he or she would have posted it in that wider group. One group I’m a member of expressly forbids “posting of emails, IMs, PMs, or any other communications where at least one party had the impression of it being private.” I can’t cite my source: like Area 51, we don’t exist.

The other internet ‘rule’ I find useful is this: visit and observe groups before posting to ensure that whatever you’re posting is in line with their unstated guidelines. 


It’s often the ‘drive-by’ commenters who cause the problems, the people who are group members but not regular participants. They don’t understand the unstated rules, they are unware they’ve broken the rules, and they leave the regular group members to deal with the aftermath of their unwitting bad behaviour.

I love my online groups and friends, especially when everyone is posting and commenting by the same rules!

What online groups are you a member of, and what are their rules? Do they have formal rules or guidelines, or are members left to work it out for themselves?

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Tsu (if you're not on Tsu, use @iolagoulton to join).

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2500.

1 comment:

  1. Iola, Excellent post! Group confidentiality is so important, especially in writing groups where frank discussion can take place. Back in the old days of writing email groups, one of the common group rules stated that members must obtain permission from the author before information can be shared outside the group. It's reasonable to assume that Facebook writing groups operate in the same way if the group is not public.

    When joining a new group, it's very important to read the group guidelines and rules first, before you interact in the group.

    ReplyDelete