Blog this way??

Whoever thought the web or the blogosphere had its own rules, very different from those applicable in the real world, was clearly living in a virtual second life world, at the expense of the real real-life world. Whoever thought the free run might continue was also clearly not keeping up with news.

Late last year, David Pogue lamented the growing incidence of ill manners and etiquette in the web world, while in the real world, Lynne Truss published a lament about the utter bloody rudeness of everyday life.

Then a few days ago – and allegedly egged on by fellow web-chatters – a British man committed suicide. Of course within minutes, the footage was being shared on the web with the police urging not to enable its spread.

Shortly thereafter, online newsrooms and forums were ablaze with chatter about death threats made to blogger Kathy Sierra, who cancelled her speaking engagements and suspended her blog. In her return post, which is open to comments, she wonders about her options in post-threat life.

Today, at a conference of teachers in Belfast, the British education minister is urging websites, such as YouTube, to get tough with bullies who harass their teachers and other pupils. He appeals to their “moral obligation” not to enable harassment.

I have been using the web in its current form for about 12 years, and all this suggests to me that the Wild West days of the web might be coming to an end, with the need for self-regulation, failing which regulation, emerging swiftly. I must however say that to think that the blogosphere has become some kind of real-life Stanford Prison Experiment is an assumption too far.

Tim O’Reilly has proposed a draft code for bloggers, which can be found here and is open to comments. Its proposals are as follows:

1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.

2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.

3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.

4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

6. We ignore the trolls.

Since this is recent, the debate will evolve over the next few days. But here are my views anyway. While reading please do bear in mind that having had my feet in both strategy and policy camps, my main lens for looking at any proposals is ‘enforceability‘.

1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.

Do we allow comments that disagree with us or don’t we? I do, but that means sometimes having to put up with the choice of the dissenter’s words and tone, which is not always easy. Determining what is ‘offensive’ on a case-by-case basis, as suggested, is also very elastic.

2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.

I can live by this, but when we cannot hold people in the real world to this standard, how can we expect to hold them to this in the ethereal world of the web?

Yes, I know of the ‘frown power’ idea and its puissance, but just like on the web, nobody knows you are a dog, nobody knows (or cares) if you frown.

And who determines what I (or someone else) would or would not say in person? Calling someone a ‘dog’ may be a term of affection for US East Coast rappers, but is a definite insult in some other cultures! The limits of acceptability vary from culture to culture, and the web allows us to cross those artificial boundaries to express our views.

Is this a slow but slippery slope to a cultural monopoly on the web?

I also believe that people’s comments are not always a reflection of some malice in their hearts, but of the limitations imposed on them by their lives and experience, the kind that still makes people ask me how it is that I speak such good English when I did not grow up in the UK or the US! Should I be offended at their surprise (and their ignorance of history) or pleased that they noticed?

3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.

Sometimes this is avoidable. A saying in my mother tongue translates as ‘if you throw a stone at a pile of cowdung, it will splash over you, so best to steer clear’.

So I would sooner ignore someone who attacks me in websphere, than give that person access to a valid email ID and enable even worse attacks.

What about choosing not to respond at all (see 6.)? That in my limited experience as a blogger – but far wider experience of a living human being – ends rather than escalates conversations in poor taste fast.

4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

I think a blog with regular readers will find their readers defend the blogger, as I have found on my other blog. Regular reader Noah Scales put a stop to a reader posting anonymous and increasingly harassing comments. I am grateful to Noah and as a reader of several other blogs, I would do the same if my favourite blogger was being unfairly targeted.

However just like in real life, this cannot be enforced.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

Much as I do not make it a point to leave anonymous comments, I am not sure I can agree with this. Where does enforced civilised conversation end, and Stalinism begin? What about all those people in China or Iran or other nations that we in the West see as persecuted? How will they get a voice except through anonymity? These proposals even make Scoble uncomfortable

That said, I do ask those who post on my blog to give themselves a name, any name because conversations between several anonymous people are tiresome to handle.

6. We ignore the trolls.

I do, but I also practise a version of ‘trust in God, but lock your car’. Also see 3. above. Am I the only one confused by both 3. and 6.?

Comments on the proposals done, I am a bit confused about the focus on this code too. I imagine the need for such a code gained strength from Kathy Sierra’s experience. But why are we writing rules for bloggers rather than for readers of blogs?

What is the context of laying out this code? Of some 70M blogs, admittedly many of them boring or dormant, with few readers or none at all, with hardly any opinions worth linking to or very extreme ones, most seem to work fine. While Kathy Sierra’s experience was very unfortunate, should we not see that the fact, that it is newsworthy, should tell us about how rare this sort of egregiously bad behaviour is?

Above all I would ask the question – what is the blogosphere for? In the early days, I was convinced that it was no more than emotional exhibitionism with many bloggers simply discussing the delights of their dog. But it has evolved into a tool for much more than that, and I do not just mean promoting one’s professional career or image. It is a tool of expression, a tool that shows that truth comes in many flavours depending on your perspective (remember the blind men and the elephant?), a tool that sets that multi-splendoured truth free even when it is harsh and may not match up to all standards of civility.

Tim O’Reilly says in the comments that civility does not mean censorship. I am not sure he is taking into account the slippery slope to censorship and control, and woe betide us, bland, message-laden, advertising-funded corporate blogging… The blogger’s code cannot exist in isolation from all other sorts of developments in the web-world.

Supporters cite several arguments in favour: anonymity means poor taste emerges sooner than in other media; some groups such as women and specific political segments are unfairly targeted;

I cannot but recall Benjamin Franklin’s words – paraphrased by many – reminding us that “They, who give up essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security”.

In short, I am not convinced about the need for this code. I think this is a hasty step, which, by laying down clearly the possibility of involving law enforcement agencies and by being very contractual in its language and yet largely unenforceable, we may regret later.

22 thoughts on “Blog this way??

  1. Can’t go wrong quoting Benjamin, can you? If this call for regulation is, at it seems, much ado about Kathy, then it is misguided. Any media figure knows the trade offs between a life of private obscurity and public celebrity. Perhaps I am giving her too much credit by referring to her as a media figure, but if you choose to make yourself and your views known to the world via exposing them over a global 2-way forum with largely unrestricted access, as a blogger does, you subject yourself to idiocy. And she has chosen to re-enter the public fold and accept all of the commensurate baggage, implying that in her estimation, the risks are worth the reward. And so they may be. I do not condone vile, savage behavior such as that directed towards her. Laws exist that deal with threatening gestures. Let us move on and be grateful that this occurrence is the exceedingly rare exception rather than the rule.

    Like

  2. Can’t go wrong quoting Benjamin, can you? If this call for regulation is, at it seems, much ado about Kathy, then it is misguided. Any media figure knows the trade offs between a life of private obscurity and public celebrity. Perhaps I am giving her too much credit by referring to her as a media figure, but if you choose to make yourself and your views known to the world via exposing them over a global 2-way forum with largely unrestricted access, as a blogger does, you subject yourself to idiocy. And she has chosen to re-enter the public fold and accept all of the commensurate baggage, implying that in her estimation, the risks are worth the reward. And so they may be. I do not condone vile, savage behavior such as that directed towards her. Laws exist that deal with threatening gestures. Let us move on and be grateful that this occurrence is the exceedingly rare exception rather than the rule.

    Like

  3. Can’t go wrong quoting Benjamin, can you? If this call for regulation is, at it seems, much ado about Kathy, then it is misguided. Any media figure knows the trade offs between a life of private obscurity and public celebrity. Perhaps I am giving her too much credit by referring to her as a media figure, but if you choose to make yourself and your views known to the world via exposing them over a global 2-way forum with largely unrestricted access, as a blogger does, you subject yourself to idiocy. And she has chosen to re-enter the public fold and accept all of the commensurate baggage, implying that in her estimation, the risks are worth the reward. And so they may be. I do not condone vile, savage behavior such as that directed towards her. Laws exist that deal with threatening gestures. Let us move on and be grateful that this occurrence is the exceedingly rare exception rather than the rule.

    Like

  4. Worth, thanks for reading and for your thoughts. You are right, nobody can go wrong with Benjamin 🙂

    I am afraid I do have the feeling this is a bit misguided, so I shan’t disagree with you. Nor would I disagree that this is a rare exception, which made it newsworthy.

    I almost made that point about putting oneself out there being a voluntary activity and hence prone to attracting some negativity; but I am glad you said it rather than me. It can very easily be construed to mean that one condones the kind of activity that Kathy had to face, and after that it becomes a case of who can shout the loudest. In a way I am glad that Scoble voiced his discomfort with the proposed code, since his feelings over the Kathy Sierra issue are well known. He was distraught but he still likened the code to living in Iran…

    Thanks again for reading.

    Like

  5. Worth, thanks for reading and for your thoughts. You are right, nobody can go wrong with Benjamin 🙂

    I am afraid I do have the feeling this is a bit misguided, so I shan’t disagree with you. Nor would I disagree that this is a rare exception, which made it newsworthy.

    I almost made that point about putting oneself out there being a voluntary activity and hence prone to attracting some negativity; but I am glad you said it rather than me. It can very easily be construed to mean that one condones the kind of activity that Kathy had to face, and after that it becomes a case of who can shout the loudest. In a way I am glad that Scoble voiced his discomfort with the proposed code, since his feelings over the Kathy Sierra issue are well known. He was distraught but he still likened the code to living in Iran…

    Thanks again for reading.

    Like

  6. Worth, thanks for reading and for your thoughts. You are right, nobody can go wrong with Benjamin 🙂

    I am afraid I do have the feeling this is a bit misguided, so I shan’t disagree with you. Nor would I disagree that this is a rare exception, which made it newsworthy.

    I almost made that point about putting oneself out there being a voluntary activity and hence prone to attracting some negativity; but I am glad you said it rather than me. It can very easily be construed to mean that one condones the kind of activity that Kathy had to face, and after that it becomes a case of who can shout the loudest. In a way I am glad that Scoble voiced his discomfort with the proposed code, since his feelings over the Kathy Sierra issue are well known. He was distraught but he still likened the code to living in Iran…

    Thanks again for reading.

    Like

  7. Hi, Shefaly.

    Anytime you need defending on-line, if I’m reading, I’ll definitely defend you, hoping it helps.

    As you might know, my food blog became a potential space for personal communications from another, so I provided my e-mail on it, but shut down comments to keep the tone of that blog even, expecting problems from other anonymous people, actually, not the original person.

    In that case, I worried that the person perceived as harassing me would be unfairly targeted by others who make decisions to protect me on my behalf. In a way, my biggest frustration was being unable to defend someone who feels helpless to confront me directly, and being unable to give them the space to safely confront me. It is very difficult to salvage good communications with the relevant party from the sea of feelings(and misguided people), that anonymous on-line rumors create.

    Anyway, your comments are excellent and well-written and I agree with you.

    You’re correct about Kathy Sierra, she’s a counterexample, not representative of usual blogger experience. This focus on the blogosphere’s authors, rather than readers, is innappropriate, like you suggest. The challenge when commenting is representing other perspectives fairly, and opening up arguments to inspection and counterexamples. Everyone makes mistakes there. I do.

    “Tim O’Reilly says in the comments that civility does not mean censorship. I am not sure he is taking into account the slippery slope to censorship and control, and woe betide us, bland, message-laden, advertising-funded corporate blogging… The blogger’s code cannot exist in isolation from all other sorts of developments in the web-world.”

    He probably isn’t taking that slope into account, but his code might be effective guidelines to manage the stress of blogging.

    -Noah

    Like

  8. Hi, Shefaly.

    Anytime you need defending on-line, if I’m reading, I’ll definitely defend you, hoping it helps.

    As you might know, my food blog became a potential space for personal communications from another, so I provided my e-mail on it, but shut down comments to keep the tone of that blog even, expecting problems from other anonymous people, actually, not the original person.

    In that case, I worried that the person perceived as harassing me would be unfairly targeted by others who make decisions to protect me on my behalf. In a way, my biggest frustration was being unable to defend someone who feels helpless to confront me directly, and being unable to give them the space to safely confront me. It is very difficult to salvage good communications with the relevant party from the sea of feelings(and misguided people), that anonymous on-line rumors create.

    Anyway, your comments are excellent and well-written and I agree with you.

    You’re correct about Kathy Sierra, she’s a counterexample, not representative of usual blogger experience. This focus on the blogosphere’s authors, rather than readers, is innappropriate, like you suggest. The challenge when commenting is representing other perspectives fairly, and opening up arguments to inspection and counterexamples. Everyone makes mistakes there. I do.

    “Tim O’Reilly says in the comments that civility does not mean censorship. I am not sure he is taking into account the slippery slope to censorship and control, and woe betide us, bland, message-laden, advertising-funded corporate blogging… The blogger’s code cannot exist in isolation from all other sorts of developments in the web-world.”

    He probably isn’t taking that slope into account, but his code might be effective guidelines to manage the stress of blogging.

    -Noah

    Like

  9. Hi, Shefaly.

    Anytime you need defending on-line, if I’m reading, I’ll definitely defend you, hoping it helps.

    As you might know, my food blog became a potential space for personal communications from another, so I provided my e-mail on it, but shut down comments to keep the tone of that blog even, expecting problems from other anonymous people, actually, not the original person.

    In that case, I worried that the person perceived as harassing me would be unfairly targeted by others who make decisions to protect me on my behalf. In a way, my biggest frustration was being unable to defend someone who feels helpless to confront me directly, and being unable to give them the space to safely confront me. It is very difficult to salvage good communications with the relevant party from the sea of feelings(and misguided people), that anonymous on-line rumors create.

    Anyway, your comments are excellent and well-written and I agree with you.

    You’re correct about Kathy Sierra, she’s a counterexample, not representative of usual blogger experience. This focus on the blogosphere’s authors, rather than readers, is innappropriate, like you suggest. The challenge when commenting is representing other perspectives fairly, and opening up arguments to inspection and counterexamples. Everyone makes mistakes there. I do.

    “Tim O’Reilly says in the comments that civility does not mean censorship. I am not sure he is taking into account the slippery slope to censorship and control, and woe betide us, bland, message-laden, advertising-funded corporate blogging… The blogger’s code cannot exist in isolation from all other sorts of developments in the web-world.”

    He probably isn’t taking that slope into account, but his code might be effective guidelines to manage the stress of blogging.

    -Noah

    Like

  10. Thanks, Noah. You are too kind, not just to me but also in showing compassion towards a harasser on your own blog.

    I see this ‘code’ as an attempt to seek some kind of Nash equilibrium in the blogosphere. As such both the key ‘players’ – bloggers and readers/ contributors – should have rights and duties, and any consensus should take both parties’ views into account.

    However since the reader/ contributor community can change the pay-off of the blogger by slightly varying their own stance (to be or not to be aggressive, rude, insulting etc), I am not sure the assumptions underlying the problem definition are quite correct. I would also go further and say that meek individuals are not really out there blogging; most bloggers are smart and opinionated individuals, who find disagreement and dissent a tad hard to deal with.

    As for managing the stress of blogging: well, as Worth says (and I agree), it is a voluntary activity and putting oneself out there in any way in life – whether professionally taking a leap into the unknown, or emotionally as in while seeking a relationship, or physically in an act as simple as taking a walk through the woods – there is a risk involved. Especially in blatantly publicity-seeking activities, which, let’s face it, blogging really is, the risk of meeting idiots is finite. Managing that risk is something most bloggers are doing well, while getting the pay-offs they are aiming for.

    Since incidents such as those affecting Kathy Sierra & Heather Armstrong are rare, I think that there is no need to regulate the blogosphere just yet. Two incidents do not a failure of the marketplace make… 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

    Like

  11. Thanks, Noah. You are too kind, not just to me but also in showing compassion towards a harasser on your own blog.

    I see this ‘code’ as an attempt to seek some kind of Nash equilibrium in the blogosphere. As such both the key ‘players’ – bloggers and readers/ contributors – should have rights and duties, and any consensus should take both parties’ views into account.

    However since the reader/ contributor community can change the pay-off of the blogger by slightly varying their own stance (to be or not to be aggressive, rude, insulting etc), I am not sure the assumptions underlying the problem definition are quite correct. I would also go further and say that meek individuals are not really out there blogging; most bloggers are smart and opinionated individuals, who find disagreement and dissent a tad hard to deal with.

    As for managing the stress of blogging: well, as Worth says (and I agree), it is a voluntary activity and putting oneself out there in any way in life – whether professionally taking a leap into the unknown, or emotionally as in while seeking a relationship, or physically in an act as simple as taking a walk through the woods – there is a risk involved. Especially in blatantly publicity-seeking activities, which, let’s face it, blogging really is, the risk of meeting idiots is finite. Managing that risk is something most bloggers are doing well, while getting the pay-offs they are aiming for.

    Since incidents such as those affecting Kathy Sierra & Heather Armstrong are rare, I think that there is no need to regulate the blogosphere just yet. Two incidents do not a failure of the marketplace make… 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

    Like

  12. Thanks, Noah. You are too kind, not just to me but also in showing compassion towards a harasser on your own blog.

    I see this ‘code’ as an attempt to seek some kind of Nash equilibrium in the blogosphere. As such both the key ‘players’ – bloggers and readers/ contributors – should have rights and duties, and any consensus should take both parties’ views into account.

    However since the reader/ contributor community can change the pay-off of the blogger by slightly varying their own stance (to be or not to be aggressive, rude, insulting etc), I am not sure the assumptions underlying the problem definition are quite correct. I would also go further and say that meek individuals are not really out there blogging; most bloggers are smart and opinionated individuals, who find disagreement and dissent a tad hard to deal with.

    As for managing the stress of blogging: well, as Worth says (and I agree), it is a voluntary activity and putting oneself out there in any way in life – whether professionally taking a leap into the unknown, or emotionally as in while seeking a relationship, or physically in an act as simple as taking a walk through the woods – there is a risk involved. Especially in blatantly publicity-seeking activities, which, let’s face it, blogging really is, the risk of meeting idiots is finite. Managing that risk is something most bloggers are doing well, while getting the pay-offs they are aiming for.

    Since incidents such as those affecting Kathy Sierra & Heather Armstrong are rare, I think that there is no need to regulate the blogosphere just yet. Two incidents do not a failure of the marketplace make… 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

    Like

  13. I thought the Kathy Sierra episode was a case of over-reaction. Proposing a code for bloggers is a pointless exercise: those who want to be civil, will be civil. Trolls will be trolls.

    1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
    I have issues with this – why should I be held responsible for someone elses comments? Just because someone needs to be held responsible, and it would be difficult to trace an anonymous commenter?

    2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.
    I disagree. Context matters, and readers online may be very different from those listening to me offline. For example, if I’m trying to provoke a response, depending on the audience, the statement I make online might be different from that made offline. A case of over-simplification.

    3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.
    Why not just discuss the matter and issue a press release and hold a press conference?

    4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
    I may not want to get involved.

    5. We do not allow anonymous comments.
    Oh, anyone can cook up a name and respond. There are always workarounds. In principle, I disagree with disallowing anonymous comments. It’s up to the individual, I think, and not the blogger.

    6. We ignore the trolls.
    Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, the best debates are with trolls, and something that begins as a personal attack can evolve into an interesting discussion, when countered with reason.

    Every individual blogger does, and will set his/her own guidelines for his/her space. Something like ‘We ignore the trolls’ and ‘We do not allow anonymous comments’ is far too specific.

    Like

  14. I thought the Kathy Sierra episode was a case of over-reaction. Proposing a code for bloggers is a pointless exercise: those who want to be civil, will be civil. Trolls will be trolls.

    1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
    I have issues with this – why should I be held responsible for someone elses comments? Just because someone needs to be held responsible, and it would be difficult to trace an anonymous commenter?

    2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.
    I disagree. Context matters, and readers online may be very different from those listening to me offline. For example, if I’m trying to provoke a response, depending on the audience, the statement I make online might be different from that made offline. A case of over-simplification.

    3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.
    Why not just discuss the matter and issue a press release and hold a press conference?

    4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
    I may not want to get involved.

    5. We do not allow anonymous comments.
    Oh, anyone can cook up a name and respond. There are always workarounds. In principle, I disagree with disallowing anonymous comments. It’s up to the individual, I think, and not the blogger.

    6. We ignore the trolls.
    Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, the best debates are with trolls, and something that begins as a personal attack can evolve into an interesting discussion, when countered with reason.

    Every individual blogger does, and will set his/her own guidelines for his/her space. Something like ‘We ignore the trolls’ and ‘We do not allow anonymous comments’ is far too specific.

    Like

  15. I thought the Kathy Sierra episode was a case of over-reaction. Proposing a code for bloggers is a pointless exercise: those who want to be civil, will be civil. Trolls will be trolls.

    1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
    I have issues with this – why should I be held responsible for someone elses comments? Just because someone needs to be held responsible, and it would be difficult to trace an anonymous commenter?

    2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.
    I disagree. Context matters, and readers online may be very different from those listening to me offline. For example, if I’m trying to provoke a response, depending on the audience, the statement I make online might be different from that made offline. A case of over-simplification.

    3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.
    Why not just discuss the matter and issue a press release and hold a press conference?

    4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
    I may not want to get involved.

    5. We do not allow anonymous comments.
    Oh, anyone can cook up a name and respond. There are always workarounds. In principle, I disagree with disallowing anonymous comments. It’s up to the individual, I think, and not the blogger.

    6. We ignore the trolls.
    Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, the best debates are with trolls, and something that begins as a personal attack can evolve into an interesting discussion, when countered with reason.

    Every individual blogger does, and will set his/her own guidelines for his/her space. Something like ‘We ignore the trolls’ and ‘We do not allow anonymous comments’ is far too specific.

    Like

  16. Nikhil, very good points. In any case I think judging someone to be a ‘troll’ smacks of high-handedness in itself. Some arguments can become good discussions, just as some good friendships may arise from a lot of sparring and arguments too.

    I think however you raise a very important additional point – whose space is it? The provider of the server and the blogging platform? The writer of the blog? Somebody else’s?

    Thanks for reading! Enjoy EconSM and your Webby nomination which I hope you guys win.

    Like

  17. Nikhil, very good points. In any case I think judging someone to be a ‘troll’ smacks of high-handedness in itself. Some arguments can become good discussions, just as some good friendships may arise from a lot of sparring and arguments too.

    I think however you raise a very important additional point – whose space is it? The provider of the server and the blogging platform? The writer of the blog? Somebody else’s?

    Thanks for reading! Enjoy EconSM and your Webby nomination which I hope you guys win.

    Like

  18. Nikhil, very good points. In any case I think judging someone to be a ‘troll’ smacks of high-handedness in itself. Some arguments can become good discussions, just as some good friendships may arise from a lot of sparring and arguments too.

    I think however you raise a very important additional point – whose space is it? The provider of the server and the blogging platform? The writer of the blog? Somebody else’s?

    Thanks for reading! Enjoy EconSM and your Webby nomination which I hope you guys win.

    Like

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