Cause and effect in a two-dimensional world

I got an email from someone writing about the suicide of an adman and those who say that nasty blog comments about him had a role in it. The question to me was the ethical responsibility of bloggers regarding their comments. My response:

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First, I think you’re making a leap that is, unfortunately, frequently made when it comes to media and tragedy: the implied causality of song lyrics or a game or a movie and, say, a young person’s act of homicide or suicide. The implication is that there was nothing else wrong in this person’s life that may have caused this tragedy and that it could somehow be brought on by one song or scene and that that media is wrong or even evil. Clearly, that’s absurd — and offensive. It’s convenient to try to find such an easy cause and an easy answer. But it is shallow and dangerous to not look deeper.

I don’t know anything about this case beyond what I’ve read in stone-skipping-water news stories. But I would caution against making this same presumption here. In doing so, you’d also be indicting and convicting the commenters in a serious act. This is a tragedy and I imagine there are more causes than we can see, just as there will be more effects than we can see.

So please don’t be quick to condemn interaction online on the basis of this one tragedy. One effect of that would be to dismiss and devalue so much of the good that comes from the ability of everyone to speak today.

As for a blogger’s — or publisher’s — responsibility regarding comments: That is up to them. Under Section 230, a publisher is not legally responsible for content not created by them. That was necessary to insure an open forum for dialog and as a nation we are privileged to have it; it is our online First Amendment. I know you’re asking another question: the ethics of it. I don’t think there is a blanket rule. I say on my blog that I will kill comments that are patently offensive in their use of hate speech or in personal attacks. I’ve been attacked often in my own comments, of course, and I’ve killed only a few of those; I’m more likely to kill comments attacking others, but even then, there’ve not been many. Part of the problem is that there is a falling bar on the definition of offensiveness; we live in an age of offense and political correctness when someone can be offended by anything said and someone can insist that that speech should be silenced. There’s danger there. In a free democracy and an open market, we must value open discussion and the exchange of views and ideas. So who’s to say what goes too far? There is clearly no one standard.

Now, of course, I’m not defending gratuitous and anonymous attacks on people. I value civility in my blog comments and in the forums I used to run for publishers. I ran operations to kill the worst of those comments. And the communities were grateful for that effort. But I also would have fought any effort to take some number of comments or some event attributed to them to shut down all that discussion. That, too, would be a tragedy.

I urge you not to fall into the media trap of making this a simple cause-and-effect story. Note well this from the New York Times story on the event:But a colleague and friend of Mr. Tilley’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “There’s no way you or I will know why he did this, but it’s certainly not because of blogs.”

“I know it bothered him,” the colleague said, referring to the public criticism. “However, he was very intelligent, with lots of talents and skills, and this was not his whole life. Pointing to blogging and the media just trivializes a man whose life was not trivial.”