Guardian column: Blog bigotry

I’ve had enough of all this blog bigotry

“It’s not that I’m against civility. But I am against schoolmarms presuming to tell me how I should behave”

Jeff Jarvis
Monday April 16, 2007
The Guardian

After a recent rash of nastiness in one small corner of the blog world, a few prominent online pioneers – tech publisher Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales among them – responded with a fit of dogoodyness, proposing a code of conduct for bloggers, complete with a sheriff’s badge that site owners could display to certify that they “enforce civility”. Their code called for banning anonymous, abusive and ad hominem comments and told us to have our disagreements in private. On a wiki, where others could edit it, the pledge attracted platitudes like a VW bumper: “One can disagree without being disagreeable.”

I despised the idea and blogged in opposition. It’s not that I’m against civility. But I am against schoolmarms presuming to tell me how I should behave. I distrust saccharine gestures (my town in New Jersey put up a sign decreeing ours to be a “frown-free zone” and every time I pass it, I frown). And I say that O’Reilly’s well-intentioned but misguided effort is ultimately dangerous.

Mind you, I run a civilised blog. I kill comments there that are abusive or even just irritatingly off-topic – but rarely, for my blog friends are mostly civil. I am also no fan of anonymity. I tell commenters that I grant less credence and respect to what they say if they do not have the guts to stand behind their words. I stand by my words and mistakes with my name and face. But that’s my choice. Others may choose differently. They may remain anonymous for a reason – they blog in China or Iran – or not. They may be nasty indeed. But I’m free to read, link to or ignore them, just as I talk with or ignore people in my neighbourhood, free of regulation that would force or stifle conversation.

In the US, we are privileged to have not only a first amendment but also a section 230. I recommend both to you in the UK. Section 230 says that as a site owner, I am not responsible for content placed on my site by others but I am free to edit it. Before this was enacted, site owners who tried to clean up interactivity increased their liability if they missed something bad, which motivated them to keep hands off and let anarchy reign or to shut down interactivity altogether. Congress wanted site owners to feel free to improve discourse, so it protected them from liability if someone misbehaves. This enables both freer and more civil conversation. Yet now O’Reilly et al suggest that bloggers should take responsibility for everything that happens on their sites. I fear this surrenders the safe harbour of section 230. It puts free conversation at risk.

More fundamentally, O’Reilly’s campaign misinterprets the internet itself. It treats the blogosphere as if it were a school library where someone – O’Reilly would do us the favour – can maintain order and control. It treats the internet as media, like a newspaper or TV show that is edited and sanitised for our protection. But it’s not. The internet is a place. We don’t consume content there; we communicate and connect.

When I moved into my frown-free place, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good, grinning neighbour (implying that without that badge, I’m a bad one). I didn’t pledge to act civilised. I just do. And if I don’t, you may judge me accordingly. As another blogger said in the reaction to O’Reilly’s commandments, “You are your code of conduct”. Are there rules and laws? Yes, the same ones that exist in worlds physical or virtual: if I harm you on the street corner or in a paper or on a screen, the recourse is the same. Why should this new world work any differently? Why should it operate with more controls and controllers?

In the end, I’m afraid that O’Reilly’s crusade only gives reporters their latest excuse to slam blogs. It inspired a page-one New York Times headline labelling the crusade “A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs”. I got many calls from reporters wanting to do more stories about our nastiness. So I proved their point and got nasty in return, lecturing them all, arguing that they were viewing the blogosphere as a monolith and a mass when, in fact, it is the place where we finally can speak as individuals. But more important, they were judging us by our worst, which is like saying that the Guardian cannot be trusted because it’s a newspaper, just like those ratty red-tops, or that you are a hooligan just because some football fans are. It is blog bigotry. I growled at them.

No one’s going to tell me not to be disagreeable.