Blogging freedom, responsibility, and community

As part of my regular survey of the news each day, I recently ran across an article on the BBC about a proposed code of conduct for bloggers. The article raised some interesting questions for me. This, in turn lead me to the post by Tim O’Reilly in which he first laid out the draft for comment and review. Having now read it in its entirety, I’m left with even more questions, and few answers.

All of this got kicked off with a series of comments and posts either on or directing to the blog of Kathy Sierra, a prominent technology author and speaker. Many of the things that were said to and about her were particularly vile and hateful, even by the standards of the internet. I won’t dignify such filth by linking to it, but suffice it to say that people were advocating that everything from attacks on her person and property to acts of sadistic and premeditated sexual violence be perpetrated against Ms. Sierra.

Ms. Sierra, quite reasonably, in my view, found the death threats, amidst the arguably even more unsavory misogynistic elements, to be unacceptable. The police in her jurisdiction have begun an investigation. In the meantime, however, she has cancelled several public appearances and discontinued her blog. Two of the primary blogs hosting the comments directed against her have also been shut down by their operators, and Ms. Sierra and Chris Locke, one of the administrators of those two blogs, have released coordinated statements on the issue, and appeared in a joint interview on CNN to discuss the matter.

In response to all of this, a variety of high-profile bloggers have been discussing how these types of incidents affect bloggers in general. O’Reilly posted on his blog the suggestion that the solution might be a code of conduct making it clear what would and would not be tolerated on a blog. A few days later, he published the draft of the code, and explained the process he and his co-authors intend to use in order to allow interested parties to participate in revising the draft version before it is finalized. I’ve read it over, and I’m still struggling to decide how I really feel about it.

The proposed code of conduct talks about a variety of issues. It is built around the idea of “Civility Enforced”. It starts with a statement that any blogger implementing the code of conduct it outlines will begin by taking responsibility for their own words. It explicitly states that bloggers should not post anything they wouldn’t be willing to say to their audience in person. Bloggers would agree not to post unacceptable content (and provides a list of the types of content which would qualify), and would not tolerate the posting of such content by others in their comments.

The code provides guidelines for attempting to privately resolve disputes before making public responses. It suggests ways in which it is and is not appropriate to respond to viewpoints with which you do not agree. In particular, it lists as unacceptable the use of ad-hominem arguments (that is to say, arguments that do not address opposing viewpoints on their merits, but rather attempt to discredit them by engaging in attacks on the author of the argument, with the implication that if there is something objectionable about the author, the argument they make can be dismissed out of hand).

The code prohibits bloggers from posting content that qualifies as libel or which violates an obligation to confidentiality. Likewise, such comments by others would not be tolerated on any blog that subscribes to the code. Both of these requirements are already codified by law in most countries, but are nevertheless included in the code, I presume for reasons of clarity and completeness.

The code also disallows anonymous comments. Commentators (and authors, for that matter) are permitted to post under an alias. However, in order to leave a comment on a blog subscribing to the “Civility Enforced” standard, a user would be required to provide a valid email address.

Lastly, the code provides a guideline for ignoring trolls. It is the belief of the authors, as it is articulated in the code itself, that the best response to abusive commentators is to ignore them. They feel that engaging with such individuals only encourages them.

Connecting to all of this is the requirement that those who adopt the code agree to take action when they observe others engaging in abusive behavior. Under the terms of the code, they would first attempt to privately contact an offender and attempt to resolve the issue. In the event that libelous or threatening comments are not retracted following this contact, adopters of the code agree to work with law enforcement in order to protect the target of the threat.

Finally, the code provides two “badges” for blogs to use to indicate their choices about the code. The first is a “Civility Enforced” badge which indicates that the blog that displays it adheres to the code. The second is an “Anything goes” badge to indicate that a blog has not adopted the code, and that readers have no assurances as to the content to which they might be exposed. It even suggests a warning that might be displayed next to the badge.

Anything Goes blog warning labelThis is an open, uncensored forum. We are not responsible for the comments of any poster, and when discussions get heated, crude language, insults and other “off color” comments may be encountered. Participate in this site at your own risk.

My problem, as a whole, is that I feel like I agree with everything the code suggests. However, I’m not certain that I can support the idea of actually codifying these concepts into a formal set of rules governing the way I and other authors can post on my blog, and that I and anyone else can or cannot comment on those posts. How do I as an individual, we as a collective group of authors, and everyone, as an internet community, balance the critical importance of freedom of expression and frank discussion against the need to act responsibly for ourselves, and to take responsibility for the things that go on under our purview?

This is something that we at the Geek Buffet have actually wrestled with as we were setting up the blog. While we don’t have any formal set of rules on the subject, as one of the administrators, I have participated in a number of conversations about the tone we wanted the blog to take. In the end, we seem to have adopted a policy by which we attempt to set a good example, and hope that other participants will follow it.

You may or may not have noticed that none of the posts on the Buffet have contained vulgar language. We’ve had comments that do (including comments by authors on the Buffet), but the posts themselves have stayed entirely clean. This was a conscious choice on our part. I’ve even gone so far as to try to provide warning in those instances in which I’ve linked to outside content which might contain “colorful” language. Those of you who have spoken to me in person might find this to be at least a little bit surprising. The gods know that sometimes I have a mouth like a gutter. In the context of the Buffet, however, the administrators have set the tone, and all of our authors have followed in the same spirit.

If someone were to post a comment here that contained the sort of vile, hateful message to which Ms. Sierra was subjected, I would have no compunction about removing it. Were any author on the Buffet to post something in that vein, I would remove it, and likely revoke their authorization to post. That kind of filth has no place in reasoned conversation, and I’m not going to condone it by allowing it to be posted on a blog for which I am responsible.

Now, having said all that, I’m still not certain I’m comfortable posting a “Civility Enforced” badge at the top of the buffet and stating that this blog will conform to the code Mr. O’Reilly has posted. I am equally unwilling to throw it all into the air, put up an “Anything goes” badge, and let the winds of fate blow it all away, come what may.

In reading over many of the responses to Mr. O’Reilly’s draft, I find that the response by Dave Taylor dovetails most neatly with my own views. The point, which Mr. Taylor does an excellent job of articulating, is not that I disagree with the sentiment, the intent, nor even the specific content of the code of conduct. The point is that I am unwilling to adopt a code that requires me to relinquish the editorial control I have over my own content, and which limits my options in interacting with, fostering, and protecting from harm the community which builds up around my blog. In his words:

That’s the key reason that I think any Code of Conduct is fundamentally flawed, however much effort people put into it. Every blog is different, every blog has its own unique community of readers and participants, and every blogger has a different tolerance for rude, obnoxious, crude, spammy, obscene, pornographic commenters.

Here on the Buffet, our standards are fairly high. We expect that those who comment on our posts engage in thoughtful, rational discussion of the issue at hand. We are, as the name suggests, a community of geeks, and we have certain expectations for what this means about the kinds of conversations that will take place in this venue. On my own blog, I feel free to swear like a drunken sailor, and I take no issue if commentators do likewise. In that venue, I’m prepared to tolerate outright flame wars in the comments thread, though I remain entirely intolerant of bigotry. You don’t have to be nice, but I won’t stand for misogyny, racism, or any other form of ignorant xenophobia.

The difficulty I have is that neither of these two very different standards is well encapsulated by the “Civility Enforced” standard. They both fit, in their own way, within those guidelines, but accurately expressing the actual stance I take in those two divergent contexts is a task requiring subtlety above and beyond what the code can provide. The code tends to suggest a level of conformity that is unfair both to administrators who want to have more freedom to make their own choices about what is appropriate for the type of community they would like to foster and also to readers and comment posters who would be given a very misleading understanding of what was expected of them in any given context on the assumption that any two blogs which both adopted the code would operate on similar principals.

Running counter to my reluctance to accept a black-and-white codification of the standards to which blogs should conform is my constant awareness of the reality that some people need to have things spelled out for them. I can expect that I will address inappropriate content, in the form of either posts or comments, on a case-by-case basis. However, while it has never happened here on the Buffet, I have certainly experienced any number of events in my life in which people have written or said things that were plainly unacceptable.

More often than not, when this was pointed out to them, the offenders have responded with something along the lines of “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t it be ok for me to say that? It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Having something that we could point to, and which was available for them to review in advance of anything they posted, explaining the guidelines by which they were expected to abide when participating in this particular context would be a valuable tool. Even better, if this was a widely accepted standard, it would reduce the chances of misinterpretation or outright ignorance of the guidelines, and help to prevent many problems before they ever started.

In short, I want everyone to have some understanding of the basic rules by which I expect them to abide, but I don’t want to be trapped into a single universal application of those rules that needs to be forced to fit as a one-size-fits-all solution in every context. Perhaps, as Taylor suggests, the means to accomplish this is to simply let people participate in a community in order to learn the particular “social norms” that apply in that community. This is, in many ways, very much like what we do every day in real life. Why should our lives on the internet be any different?

On the other hand, the internet presents special challenges. Anonymity and the virtually non-existant barrier to entry in any given community both make the system of socialized compliance with community rules that pervades more traditional communities considerably less effective. Perhaps such a commonly accepted, written representation of the basic rules would help to address those challenges.

I’m interested to know what you, the Geek Buffet community, think about the matter. This post is my best attempt to represent my own views on the subject, but I’m very interested to hear what other authors on the Buffet and especially our regular readers feel is the appropriate course for us to take. Would adopting such a code, once it is finalized, make you more comfortable? Is it more important to be able to maintain the flexibility to manage this community according to a more precise, but less codified set of standards? I’m interested in comments on the specific guidelines the draft I linked to on O’Reilly’s blog specify, but I’m more interested in an answer to the more general question. What place, if any, do such formalizations of the rules of basic civility have in the blogosphere?

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8 Responses to Blogging freedom, responsibility, and community

  1. Electra says:

    I am still considering how I feel and what I think about this issue, but in the interim, what if instead of a code of conduct, one created a very prominent link to the definition of both formal fallacies and netiquette. One might encourage, either through top-banner, side bar, or personal example, that if someone is behaving like a troll, the responder will link to particular infractions and point out what is wrong with the troll’s behavior.

    Until the point where the troll simply responds stupidly to everything, of course, in which case one immediately switches to ignoring him/her.

    I think I agree that creating a universal code of conduct is too restrictive w/o enough coverage.

  2. TheGnat says:

    As an individual, I tend to steer away from standards imposed upon communities from a larger community. I might actually stop reading the Buffet if one day I saw either of those little graphics on the front page. I have a strong distate for regulation and labeling in the area of expression. There is an inherent loss of freedom when you apply such an outside code and label to a community. This is not to say I dislike regulation in all things. My general standpoint on a great many things is “legalize it, regulate it!” (such as moonshine and marijuana).

    And I defintely balk at any code or regulation that demands a loss of anonimity as an option. Newspapers do print anonymous letters, but if you have to give your e-mail address, then any anonymity is lost on the internet, even if it isn’t published. I have no problem with it in general, but as a standard? No thank you. That sets up blogger for trouble, either because they didn’t take action or because they didn’t make the ability to take action available to themselves.

    As someone who has run both forums and Grinnell Plans, I can fully understand the desire and even the need for a formal code of conduct. But having run forums and Plans, I also know that every single community is different. Most on the web are *not* formal media outlets, where the proposed code would indeed be appropriate, as there is a code of ethics for journalism but journalistic blogging might need a looser interpretation of it, in light of the high level of interactivity of any blog.

    Except for Plans, every community I have ever run has had a rule set which was enforced but usually loosely interpreted by the staff. It was something we could point to when there was a dispute, and anyone who claimed not to have read the rules (which often were presented upon attempting to register) was treated according to “ignorance of the law is not an excuse”. The larger the blog or forum, the more necessary it is to have a code of conduct, but it must be unique, not cookie-cutter, and generally with the stipulation that administrators retain full editorial control.

    So my general contention is that I agree with Dave Taylor, with some additional objections to this code. The proposed code is contrary to the nature of community, even on the Internet and in the “blogosphere”. By the way, when did that become a normal word? I still remember when it was being used awkwardly as a joke. O.o

  3. Mark says:

    Ms. Gnat,

    I regret that it was flagged for moderation (on account of having multiple links, which is an anti-spam measure), so you did not get to see Electra’s comment before you added yours. Where do semi-formal guidelines, specific to the individual blog, like those she suggests, fit into your view?

    I would like to note that I am trying to make a special effort to avoid my usual style of remaining highly involved in the comment thread on any post I write in this particular case. It’s important to me that I get a feeling for what the community thinks, and I want to try not to have an undue influence on the direction the conversation takes. Please don’t think I’m ignoring your comments if I don’t respond for a few days.

  4. laikal says:

    Mark,

    I personally feel that GeekBuffet needs an official Blog Advisory System indicator (from the Airbag Department of Security, of course).

    http://www.blogadvisorysystem.com

  5. Ben says:

    After reading the rough draft of O’Reilly’s code of conduct, as well as the comments above, I think that a middle ground is both possible and desirable. The issue of anonymity is important, and I’m personally a big fan of it, warts and all. Similarly, although I’ve not moderated or run a blog or the like, the idea of having to sign editorial control to someone else is sounds unappealing to me. On the other hand, as has been mentioned the more widespread a given code is, the more likely it will be known and obeyed. I think the solution would be to build, by negotiation, a clear, concise, standard that is expressed in the form of principles, like the rough draft Mr. O’Reilly posted. However, alongside these principles I think there should be a clear understanding that it is up to the sites themselves to enforce these principles as they see fit. Thus one site could decide that in the interests of preventing “abuse, harrass, stalk or threaten others” they would forbid the use of Vulgar language on their boards. Conversely, another site might allow vulgar language in most cases, arguing that its a normal part of many people’s mode of expression. By creating a set of broad principles, a universal code would also give the blogs a standard format to express their rules, e.g. “On Ben’s Web, we support principle 1 of the universal web code of conduct by banning the use of vulgar language … explanation of why.” Everyone would know that the site subscribes to the spirit of the universal code, but each site would be able to establish its specific rules. Similarly a site which does not wish to have a formal written code, could state some place (possibly through some form of Icon, or simply a text comment) that they subscribe to the spirit of the universal code. This would then give any later disputes about how a given situation should be handled a frame of reference, as well as giving people the ability to coherently debate something (e.g. “I think in this situation principle 3 is most important … Explanation” “I disagree I think principle 2 is most important … Explanation”) without having to start from the ground up with “What principles should govern behavior on blogs”. The flexibility of interpreting the principles would allow sites to maintain their individual feels, as well as the editorial control they quite reasonably want to retain, while at the same time creating a common language that could be used to resolve conflicts and difficulties. Now, what exactly the universal principles should be I don’t have a strong idea, not using forums often, as well as not having had time to thing about it sufficiently. I personally am in favor of not explicitly commenting on anonymity in a universal code since I think that more than most that is a site by site decision.

  6. Will says:

    Geek Buffet needs a troll cap!

    As for loss of anonymity, Geek Buffet already requires an email address to comment (as do all other WordPress-backed blogs), which I find highly annoying.

  7. Dana says:

    I think part of the problem with the code as proposed is that it is naive in its expectation of how well people ignore trolls. As far as I’ve been able to see, in forums, on Plans, and in other blogs’ comment threads, people are just really bad at being able to convince themselves to ignore trolls. Particularly in large communities, even if the main blogger and commenters are ignoring the troll, someone will always come along and, in an effort to defend their friends or to be helpful, will respond. And the more people will respond to show solidarity. And then an argument starts, and the thread is completely derailed, despite the frequent other comments of “Please stop responding to the troll!”, and the whole thing becomes extremely unpleasant to wade through in an effort to find the substantive comments.

    I’d say that, despite the idealistic desire to allow total freedom of expression, sometimes moderation (in the form of removing comments or banning trolls altogether) is necessary. If everyone actually ignored the trolls, that would discourage them. But since people seem incapable of doing that, deleting them is what really discourages them.

    Fortunately, we haven’t had that issue here yet, and it will make me very sad if we do. At heart, I really do hope that the “provide a good example and let people use common sense” model will work.

    (So similar to that Grinnell ideal of “self-governance”, isn’t it?)

  8. goshawk says:

    I found the following policy statement on the TED Talks web site and thought it sounded pretty much like the consensus we are developing here:

    “The TED community is based on an open and respectful exchange of ideas. Members are expected, therefore, to uphold certain standards of conduct, and to respect other members’ opinions, privacy and time. We will use our discretion in removing objectionable comments or content from the site, and reserve the right to revoke membership from anyone who displays offensive behavior or uses the site for inappropriate self-promotion.”

    What I like about this is that it states the policy in a clear but general way and leaves the moderators lots of room to decide individual cases.

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