Posts about Weblogs

No twinkie badges here.

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.

Dave Winer:

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.

Michael Arrington:

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.”

Robert Scoble:

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.

Kent Newsome:

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.

Seth Finkelstein:

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.

39 Second Single on Today

After being preempted twice by Anna Nicole Smith, my friends at 39 Second Single are finally going to be on Weekend Today this morning; just saw the promo.

: LATER: Well, it’s sorta silly that they took a fun, entertaining show and turned it into a faux-serious trend story: women who date and blog. That’s morning TV for ya. But Liza Persky, the star, and Mary C. Matthews, the producer, come off great and my friends get publicity. So long as they spell the URL right!

(It was through 39 Second Single on Blip that I discovered this talented team and recruited them for IdolCritic.)

Plugged out

So I went to a large breakfast this morning thrown by the Newhouse School at Syracuse and The New Yorker (much more on that in a minute). Most of us were assigned tables and so I put down my briefcase and went off to schmooze, which is what one does at these things. I came back and my case was moved and chair occupied. I looked miffed — and various folks later hovered around to throw themselves on swords for this — but I was embarrassed to say why the chair mattered to me. It wasn’t because this was Table 8 and that enabled me to look down my nose at the poor sods at Table 10. It wasn’t because I was going to sit next to some media mogul and make a deal that would change my life and finances. It was because the chair was near an electric plug. We bloggers arrange our lives around wi-fi and plugs. To make my thought process even more pathetic, I then had to rearrange my route to the airport today so I could find someplace to recharge — because, you see, I didn’t want to be out one watt for the plane ride — or I contemplated going to the airport quite early to scope and stage out a precious plug there. Sad, isn’t it?

DuPont’s internet-video ads on blogs

DuPont just launched a new series of internet-video ads — stories about science starring Amanda Congdon — that they are placing on blogs. Steve Baker of Business Week writes about it here and Josh Bernoff of Forrester here. Here are the videos with Amanda in a white lab coat, which has to be someone’s fantasy.

Full disclosure: I consulted on the effort. I was brought in because I know the folks at Rishad Tabaccowala’s think-do tank Denou at Publicis. When they started, they wanted to involve bloggers and I insisted that the only was to do that was through advertising on the blogs; it’s a clear relationship and it also gives respect to the medium and its people (I’m happy to see that Bernoff liked this). I introduced them to Amanda (which thrilled them; it was as if I’d snagged Oprah). And I gave some advice on the videos (obvious stuff: put your best stuff first, make them short and fun). And I suggested Bright Cove for the serving and Federated Media as an ad network. And they bought lunch.

I’m glad that we’re seeing internet video and blogs and ad money come together. This is the kind of new thinking you can bring to life in these new media. I will leave it to you to say what you think of the program and the videos:

: LATER: Radar goes after Amanda for shilling while also reporting with ABC. Legit discussion. But it’s not a first; she is making a Dove commercial at Blip and she made commercials for first first sponsors on Rocketboom. There are a bunch of different issues besides the one Radar raises, including how small shops will handle the sponsorship they get (a la Rocketboom).

: LATER STILL: See Amanda’s blog:

ABC and HBO both approved the DuPont spots. And under the “blogger” title, which is what I am, hello? I am not subject to the “rules” traditional journalists have to follow.

Isn’t that what new media is all about? Breaking the rules? Setting our own? I see nothing wrong with doing commercials, which is what they, quite transparently, are. If DuPont had tried to pass them off as authentic, homegrown videos, yeah, then that would’ve been wrong (and, of course, I would never have agreed to the project if that was the plan). . . .

It’s also about acting.

: THURSDAY UPDATE: Here‘s an LA Times story about bloggers in ads out of this.

Arab media

Adrian Monck links us to a fascinating site called Arab Media and Society, started by former CBS correspondent Larry Pintak, now director of journalism at the American University in Cairo. Here’s what they’re writing about blogs in the Middle East.

Having a price

I find it fascinating that Jared Kushner, owner of the New York Observer, has bought a blog, PoliticsNJ, and buffed it up with new posters, including the state’s former governor and senator. And this comes on the heels of PaidContent reporting that Bravo bought TelevisionWithoutPity, which comes after TV Guide bought and relaunched Jump the Shark. And then here’s the Washington Post buying student-run ShopDC and relaunching it as DCScout a local Daily Candyish newsletter. All these web sites now have a market value. I’m not sure purchase is the only relationship big media need have with them if big media starts thinking like a member in a larger network. Still, it’s nice to see that this is a business.

Blog show, redux

MSNBC and CNN both danced around using blogs for programming. CNN has them featured on Blitzer’s show; MSNBC tried including them on its ill-fated Connections show (where I did the segment frequently) while Fox did nothing. But now Fox is trying out a blog show. With Michelle Malkin as host, it will surely piss off half the ‘sphere, but that may be amusing to watch.

Covered like a blanket

Jane Hamscher of Firedoglake tells the story of Plame House and their LiveLibbyBlogging on video.