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.

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