I was doing my best to ignore Tim O’Reilly’s misguided effort to play hall monitor to the blogosphere, wishing it would just go away. But unfortunately the New York Times did not ignore it. How could it pass up a juicy opportunity to make us all look like the louts they all too often think we are? An above-the-fold, page-one headline in today’s paper labeled his crusade “A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs.”
So O’Reilly only set us up to be called nasty, unmannered, and thus uncivilized hooligans. Except for Tim, of course. He’s the nice one. Me, I feel like the goth kid with premature tattoos skulking down the hall.
But the problems are far more fundamental and dangerous than that. And just gratingly twinkie, too.
This effort misses the point of the internet, blogs, and even of civilized behavior. They treat the blogosphere as if it were a school library where someone — they’ll do us the favor — can maintain order and control. They treat it as a medium for media. But as Doc Searls has taught me, it’s not. It’s a place. And when I moved into the place that is my town, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good neighbor (and thus anyone without that badge is, de facto, a bad neighbor). I didn’t have to pledge to act civilized. I just do. And if I don’t, you can judge me accordingly. Are there rules and laws? Yes, the same ones that exist in worlds physical or virtual: If I libel or defame you on the streetcorner or in a paper or on a screen, the recourse is the same. But I don’t put up another badge on my fence saying I won’t libel you. I just don’t. That’s how the world works. Why should this new world work any differently? Why should it operate with more controls and more controllers?
Go to Jimmy Wales’ wiki where he and O’Reilly set up their code of conduct. The earliest version was short and, thankfully, not terribly sweet. But they didn’t know what they were starting. They only opened the door for more people to come in and embroider the code with saccharine insipidness and their fondest wishes for laws that would take effect if only they ruled the world (cue theme music). The current version as of this writing (which reflects O’Reilly’s own post, where he adds his sheriff’s badge) begins:
We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. We present this Blogger Code of Conduct in hopes that it helps create a culture that encourages both personal expression and constructive conversation. One can disagree without being disagreeable.
I don’t need anyone lecturing me and telling me not to be disagreeable. I won’t take it from Continental clerks when flights are canceled. I won’t take it from you. I’ll be disagreeable if I want to be. And I am right now.
But it gets worse. They argue for taking the public, transparent nature of this world and putting up opaque walls, saying that we should deal with people privately:
We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person. If tensions escalate, we will connect privately before we respond publicly. When we encounter conflicts and misrepresentation in the blogosphere, we make every effort to talk privately and directly to the person(s) involved–or find an intermediary who can do so . . .
Oh, goodie, that’s just what I want: trolls at the doorstep. This is a public space. That is its greatest strength. That is the key to its credibility. Tear down your walls. I argue that newspapers should be dealing in public, transparently. So should bloggers.
They also want to eliminate anonymous comments. The latest code — an escalation of the earlier version, I should add — decrees: “We do not allow anonymous comments.”
My own stand on anonymity, stated frequently in this space, is that I will not give full respect and credence to things said by people who do not have the balls to stand behind their words. When people complain that I’m trying to get rid of the anonymous nature of the web, I say no, I wouldn’t do that. I’m simply telling you the way I judge your words when you’re too chicken to put your name on them.
What’s worse is the ignorance displayed by the latest code authors who define verification of identity this way: “We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.” Well, that gets us nowhere. I can go to Yahoo and get an email account with a bogus name in 60 seconds. That verifies nothing except that I have no life and have the time to do that.
I had a good discussion about this with Clay Shirky’s NYU class last week. I said that at first blush, I would like the option of using a system of verified identity. I could read blog and forum comment only from people who had aforementioned balls and stood beside their words. But with the students, we raised a number of problems. If sufficient sites require verified identity then anonymity and the benefits that come from it — see bloggers in China, Iran, and Iraq — fade away. And what is deemed to be verification of identity? My credit card, Social Security number, passport number? Who verifies that? What third party now has the power to certify or decertify me? What of my privacy and the ability to tie back to, say, my financial records? Identity is tricky.
I am real. You know that. I put my name and face on this blog. People have met me. They will verify my identity. I stand behind my words and my mistakes and changes of heart are visible for all to see. I leave most comments here untouched but I reserve the right and exercise the right to kill comments that are abusive, off-topic, or irritating. I do that rarely but all know that I will do that. You either trust me and respect me based on what I say here or you do not, and there are plenty in the latter camp. Transparency and publicness are what drive that. Not some silly code and badge.
But here’s the real danger in this: This code threatens to give back the incredible gift of freedom given us in Section 230. Go read about that. Section 230 says that we are not responsible for content created by someone else on our sites. It was created because before that, if a site said it would police content and missed something, it was held more liable than if it had not tried at all. That came out of what was known as the Prodigy case. The result was the site owners didn’t touch anything and so nastiness could only fester and grow. So Section 230 holds that we cannot be held responsible for what others create and we have the right to kill what they do create on our sites. That is vital — vital — to free speech because without that protection site owners would clamp down on all speech and try to control anything and everything that could possibly get them in trouble. No open forums. No real-time discussion. No YouTube. No MySpace. No internet.
The Times describes the codes this way (my emphasis):
A subtext of both sets of rules is that bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors. They say that bloggers should also have the right to delete such comments if they find them profane or abusive.
So imagine the challenge to Section 230 . . . . A lawyer says to a blogger in the witness box: ‘You put that badge on your site saying that you are responsible for everything on that site and you do kill comments that violate your code, which assures that no one will be libeled or defamed, and yet you left up this comment (wave printout menacingly) that defamed my good client.’ If I were that attorney, I would say that you waived the protection of Section 230. That would be dumb. And dangerous.
I just spoke with a public radio reporter about another case of something bad happening on YouTube. As all reporters do, this started with an effort to look for standards and rules and lines crossed. I said that the lines are the same as in real life. But reporters make the mistake of judging the internet in their own image: as a medium that can be, should be, and is controlled, sanitized for our protection. The internet is not that; it’s not a magazine or newspaper or radio show or library. It’s a place. It’s our place. And we will behave in it as we do on our other place. Most of us are good and adhere to the rules of civilization. Some don’t. The difference is that our place called the internet and the blogosphere is judged according to the worst of us: It is, to quote the Times, “a World of Nasty Blogs.”
Note that it was only at the end of the Times story that we heard any dissent or caution about this code.
Robert Scoble, a popular technology blogger who stopped blogging for a week in solidarity with Kathy Sierra after her ordeal became public, says the proposed rules “make me feel uncomfortable.” He adds, “As a writer, it makes me feel like I live in Iran.”
Amen, brother blogger.
: See also these people I know and trust and for whom I need no badges to recognize their authority and civility (especially since they agree with me on this): Rex Hammock
However, when it comes to my personal blog, a “code of conduct” is something I practice on a personal level, not something someone drafts for me. That said, I do think having model guidelines for those who create community-space projects or forums is a good thing. I don’t like “seals of approval,” however I do like good suggestions, recommendations and idea-exchanges on issues like this.
Of course the NY Times couldn’t resist putting it on page one since it confirms their assertion that the blogosphere is a bad place. Maybe next time well-intentioned people will avoid the rush to perform for the big publications.
I’m not turning off anonymous comments, I’m not going to always try to talk privately with someone before i write, and I’m also not going to allow a mob to decide what types of words constitute “unacceptable content.” And I’m certainly not putting a badge on my site that says whether I comply or not. The code of conduct and the mass of bloggers lining up behind it scares me a lot more than the hate comments and death threats I’ve received in the past. I won’t support it.
Juan Antonio Giner in the comments:
Let me add that as someone that holds a Journalism degree but also a PhD in Law, that “the best law is no law.” Period.
Matthew Ingram’s headline says it all: “You are your code of conduct.”
I do find disquieting the social pressure to get on board with this program. Tim O’Reilly is a guy who really can affect one’s career online (and off, too). I do have to admit that I feel some pressure just to get on board here and that makes me feel very uneasy.
Here’s an Idea: Just Be Nice
Rather than try to recreate the world, how about just apply the real world rules of common sense and courtesy to the blogosphere. Everyone interacts with other people all day every day in the real world, and we don’t need Tim O’Reilly to rewrite the Golden Rule for us.
You can proclaim peace-and-love all you want, the people who gain by advocating war-and-hate, or are personally nasty as a character trait, won’t care, except to the extent that they can posture over it.
And then there’s Anil Dash, whom I also know, like and trust, disagreeing with me in the comments:
I agree that a blog is a place. Are you saying you want to live in a place where anonymous threats of violence are acceptable, commonplace, and unpunished? Isn’t that contradictory with the whole war-on-terror thing?
And how does a few people signing a pledge change that? Do the miscreants sign it? It’s a feel-good thing that is not only meaningless but, again dangerous — for all the reasons I list above and one more: It makes you think that you’ve solved a problem just because you signed a pledge and posted a badge.
I worked for many years in magazines and newspapers, where they sign all kinds of pledges from all sorts of industry organizations. But they were empty. I saw people who’d signed them do plenty of things that I found unethical and I quit one job — the most visible job of my career, at Entertainment Weekly — over this. I saw workers in those industries get to ridiculous detail about some fine point of the pledge and miss the big picture. Those magazine editors would never put a Ford ad next to a story that mentioned Ford because the pledge said they shouldn’t. But I saw those same people (all of them gone now) sell their company’s soul when they tried to make us nicer to entertainment at the same time the company was merging with an entertainment empire. Years before, another editor I respect greatly, Pat Ryan, protected me from such pressure when I wrote reviews critical of the company new division, HBO. No pledge covered these cases. Judgment and ethics did. By the way, when I left that job, as I believe I’ve mentioned here before, I did not receive the standard three years’ salary, bonus, and benefits magazine editors got because I refused to sign the company’s shutup clause (which I found doubly abhorrent coming from a journalistic organization). Then, as now, I believe in transparency. I retained the right to tell you the story I just told you. I wouldn’t sign this pledge, either.
These pledges are all the more dangerous because big-media people think they are ethical and we’re not because they have pledges and we don’t. Let’s not fall in that trap. You have to make ethical judgments every day with every thing you do and no pledge is going to help you do that. Your mother either did that job — or didn’t.
: One more thing (that’s a lie; I’ll probably have more things later): Making a pledge for somebody else often doesn’t work. My town passed a silly law and wasted money making silly signs declaring it a “frown-free zone.” Everytime I see that sign, I frown. And growl. That’s what happens if you try to tell me what you think I should do.
: LATER: I got a call from a reporter doing a story on all this. His angle: Bloggers don’t want a code because we want to, in his words, spout off. I spouted off at him.