Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 6: June 2007


Net Media Perspective

Civility and Codes:
A Blogging Morality Play

The morality play in précis form:

Ø      Prelude: Writer finds prominence and speaking engagements with a high-profile blog playing a role. “Her” may (or may not) be a significant word in this play.

Ø      Act I, Scene 1: Mean-spirited bloggers (some of them high-profile) start blogs specifically devoted to snarkiness (or abuse or incivility, depending on your view). Someone—or ones—known or unknown uses blogs to poke fun at, or abuse, or seem to threaten the high-profile female writer. (I believe the only two choices are “abuse or seem to threaten” in this case.) Someone else emails what’s regarded as a threat. The high-profile writer takes the threats seriously, cancels very high profile speaking engagement, stops blogging, calls the cops.

Ø      Act I, Scene 2: The blogosphere explodes in a combination of sympathy for the high-profile woman, accusations against those who set up the mean-spirited blogs and against the woman, calls for reason and much evidence of unreason.

Ø      Act I, Scene 3: Mainstream media picks up the story. Those already so inclined use it as another excuse to bash bloggers.

Ø      Act II, Scene 1: Very high profile blogger (and publisher) thinks it’s Time for a Code—a blogging code of conduct that would prevent such unfortunate occurrences. Voluntary, of course, just as the Comics Code and Hayes Office were both voluntary.

Ø      Act II, Scene 2: Some bloggers support the idea without paying attention to the consequences. Other bloggers dissect the code in considerable detail or just make fun of it. The addition of badges to the proposed code makes it easier for sensible people to deride the code concept.

Ø      Act II, Scene 3: It becomes clear to some that the proposed code would have the usual effect of making the most powerful bloggers even more powerful. It becomes clear to many that the proposed code would have virtually no effect on incidents like the one in question unless it was backed by law—and that any attempt to back it with law would undermine not only blogging but also new media in general.

Ø      Postlude: Life and blogging go on. Life for the female writer may have changed for the worse, at least for a while. (Some of those named in her final post may have been unfairly damaged as well.) One particularly interesting blog is no more. It becomes increasingly clear that we’ll never know the whole truth of the whole abuse/threat/joke situation and that, while this particular “code of conduct” won’t go anywhere, similar calls for codified civility will recur.

That’s the short form. If you read Walt at random you know I was a minor participant in Act I, Scene 2 and Act II, Scene 3. I wrote a sympathetic post when I heard of the situation and, like some others, left that post as my only (thus most prominent) post for an entire week. I made fun of the Code of Conduct when it showed up with badges.

My guess is that most readers missed most or all of this. That may be a good thing but there’s stuff to think about here—almost all of it in Act II. That’s one reason I’m spending a whole Perspective on this instead of the 400-word summary above. I’d also like to relate this morality play to the generally politer world of liblogs and offer some conclusions, mostly along the way. Finally, Cites & Insights sometimes serves as a “periodical of record”—and I believe it will be useful to revisit this in two or four or ten years to see what (if anything) was learned.

This Perspective is mostly about Act II and the Postlude. You can find hundreds, likely thousands of archived posts that make up Act I, although the mean-spirited blogs that started the whole thing are harder to find since both were shut down and “disappeared” rather rapidly in most unbloglike fashion. I don’t know any of the principals at all, so can’t offer any comments on what actually happened other than what I’ve read. I’m only citing after-the-fact commentaries in Act I.

Prelude: Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra has written a few technical books, mostly from O’Reilly or McGraw-Hill/Osborne, mostly with her partner Bert Bates. Most prominent (according to Worldcat.org): Head first Java (2005). Others include SCJP Sun certified programmer for Java 5: study guide (2006), SCJP Sun certified programmer & developer for Java 2 study guide (2003), Head first EJB (2003) and Head first moviemaking (2005, with Jim Kavanagh). According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), she’s a programming instructor and game developer.

She started Creating passionate users (headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/) in December 2004. It’s a high-profile blog with long, thoughtful entries and informal graphs devoted to the topic in its title. I’ve been reading it for a while. I didn’t agree with everything in the blog (no surprise there) and I’m not convinced that libraries (or businesses) should want all their users to be “passionate.” But Sierra writes well and makes you think even if you don’t always agree. I suspect she also speaks well and has had some high-profile tech conference appearances. I have no reason to doubt that Sierra knows her stuff in technical training and elsewhere.

She is also an attractive woman. I’m afraid both of those words are relevant, which may be the real tragedy of this whole saga. I believe very little of this would have happened if the writer and speaker was named Bert Sierra. I believe more of this—but still less—would have happened if Kathy Sierra was mousy, unobtrusive, unattractive or simply invisible.

Act I in Review

Robert Scoble has noted that when he mentions a woman in tech, and particularly when he includes a photo, comments seem to veer towards remarks about their bodies more than their minds. Funny how that doesn’t happen with most male techies. And where there are comments, there will be mean-spirited comments: Snark and beyond.

Jim Turner posted one of the most coherent summaries of “the Sierra saga” at One by one media in segments on March 28, March 29, April 6 and April 9, 2007 (www.onebyonemedia.com) Here’s some of what Turner has to say (interpolations in [square brackets]):

The most relevant beginning was when Tara Hunt posted an article in early February about Higher Purpose. The comment section there became an emotionally debated article and during that debate, the phrase “Mean Kids” was used… [Chris Locke, Frank Paynter and others set up MeanKids.org “to formalize (and goof on) the ‘mean kids’ slur”]… No lines had been crossed to date. The creation of this site was to amuse those involved in the group. [There’s no full list of possible MeanKids authors.]

[Kathy states] that there was a “death threat” stated in her comments [on her own blog], which she deleted. There has been a number of people say that this in no way is related to any of the websites or anything else, and I must say it is obvious to me as well. This is a troll that commented on her own personal site… [I]t is not clear and not evident that this coincidental comment and the creation of the meankids.org site are at all related. I have to assume they are not. I could not find any evidence that one was related to the other. [Kathy wants to connect them.]

[There were clearly tasteless and misogynistic posts at meankids.org, to the point where Paynter took the site down entirely. Chris Locke, coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto, may or may not have wanted the site to continue. Turner points out that this was the time to move forward—and that cyberbullying is a bad idea even if you’re making fun of celebrities.] Some hurtful and hateful things were written on meankids.org, and some of it I have seen and now wished I had not since it was about a friend that has never done anything to deserve the post.

Everyone at this time is given the opportunity to walk away, or to take a different fork in the road. It may be that here is where a threshold was reached and a poor decision was made. Chris Locke goes forward with a new venture. [Quoting Locke:] “With Mean Kids gone, I thought I’d have another go at it. After all, we were mostly having fun posting totally surreal stuff about nothing particularly relevant to anything or anyone.”

I don’t know the chronology or number of postings. I do know that on March 15, a post I consider over the line was published. I have perhaps a lower threshold than the people visiting the site or their readers and authors. [I believe this post was about Maryam Scoble, Robert Scoble’s pregnant wife; Turner cautions against reading it—if it can be found—until you’re ready for it.]

Then a final and, at best, insulting picture appeared. Two days later Kathy Sierra canceled her speech, posted her reasons why—and the storm erupted. That storm involved “oh look at the mean bloggers” coverage by mainstream media, an incredible range of shouts and alarums from various points in the blog arena, and considerably more heat than light.

Part 3 of Turner’s post discusses some of the people involved. If you want to go to the post and follow some of the links, be my guest. You’ll certainly meet a couple of, um, interesting personalities along with some nice folks. Herewith portions of Turner’s conclusions, which lead into Act II:

I call it a debacle because it is a classic example of the power of blogs, the power of voices and the power of people and their own thoughts all coming together with disastrous results. On one hand we have the victim who has a deep feeling of fear and anxiety resultant from the actions of others. Others had a simple and one sided account of their mission and purpose. This mission and purpose was a different idea and had nothing to do with the other, until at some point–it did. Then the two met and it became something it was not intended….

…This was locker room talk that got out of hand. It was some men trying desperately to be the cool guy and it turned out bad. Unfortunately it also coincided with an email to Kathy Sierra, and also coincided with the comments made and then removed from her blog. I don’t believe that one had anything to do with the other and that they are totally separate events….

What have we learned? O’Reilly has drafted his Code of Conduct. I have read many of the associated posts, and it does not appear to be popular with the mainstream opinion. Will O’Reilly be given death threats and will they post misogynistic things about him? Probably not. He is not the “Cute Kitty.”

Were there real death threats? There was language that could be construed that way from a poster who has since explained, and explained, and explained that his comment “was never intended to be harmful and was, in fact, taken out of context.” Did Sierra overinterpret? Quite possibly, and she does appear to have connected things that had no real connection. Her post was also incendiary in its own way—but given the circumstances (if I was an attractive high-profile woman in tech and believed, rightly or wrongly, that I had been personally threatened), I might have written an equally incendiary post. Is it plausible that an attractive woman who’s faced the misogyny I’ve seen in tech blogs would legitimately feel threatened? Absolutely.

Dylan Tweney summarized Act I on Wired News on April 16, 2007: “Kathy Sierra case: Few clues, little evidence, much controversy.” A few items from Tweney that aren’t in Turner’s coverage (which I found from Tweney’s article):

Sierra contacted the Boulder Sheriff’s Department, which advised her to take the threats seriously… She attributes [the vitriolic comments] to comments she made a year ago in support of bloggers’ rights to delete comments on their own blogs… The most direct threats were posted to Sierra’s own blog. Sierra published the e-mail address and IP address of a commenter, “siftee,” in her March 26 post, along with one of the commenter’s threats, which is patently violent and sexual. The IP address indicates a user probably located in Spain, but attempts to contact this person by Wired News have so far been unsuccessful…

That’s about as much as bears repeating about Act I. Mean things were clearly said. Threats or seeming threats were made—possibly without any connection to the mean things. Strong reactions followed, probably including accusations against the wrong people.

I probably wouldn’t write about this two months later—were it not for Act II.

Act II: The Code of Conduct

Tim O’Reilly runs O’Reilly Media—O’Reilly Books (the “animal books” beloved by techies) and O’Reilly conferences. He’s high profile by any standard and has a blog, O’Reilly radar (radar.oreilly.com). He’s a friend of Kathy Sierra, and the conference appearance she cancelled was an O’Reilly conference.

On March 31, 2007, he posted a “Call for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct”—six print pages when copied to Word (it’s another print-unfriendly blog), with another 11 pages of comments (66 comments) by April 3. There were 170 comments when I checked on April 25, but I’m ignoring all but the first 66 for now. O’Reilly called for such a code as a response to Act I and set forth a first draft in the post. Since he followed with a more fully developed “draft code of conduct” a little later, I’ll just cite the main points, each followed by one or more paragraphs of discussion in the post:

Ø    1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

Ø    2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.

Ø    3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

Ø    4. Ignore the trolls.

Ø    5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.

Ø    6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.

Ø    7. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person.

There’s the starting point. If you think about those seven statements carefully, as a library person or as a blogger, you may see trouble. If you read the expansions, you might see more trouble. Then add the point that those proposing a code of conduct are “A-listers”—people with powerful voices, far more powerful than most other bloggers. And just to get you thinking harder, consider some sentences in the penultimate paragraph:

We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation in ways that were long missing from mainstream media and marketing-dominated corporate websites. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. There’s no reason why we should tolerate conversations online that we wouldn’t tolerate in our living room.

Who’s “we”? Nobody’s telling O’Reilly what conversations he should engage in. If “tolerate” means something other than “allow on my own blog,” then “we” are in trouble. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

A few items from the comments—noting that, from a reader’s perspective, there’s no difference between a pseudonymous or single-name comment and an anonymous comment. The blogger frequently has more information, including the IP address from which a comment was sent, but that’s of no help to the reader—and if there’s a hotlink, it could be to almost any page. It’s easy for a commenter to claim to be someone else, link to that person’s blog or website and even use their email address. In most real-world situations, only the blogger has any chance of uncovering that deception—using the IP address—and that’s not a sure thing. The actual identity of commenters is something readers usually take on trust.

Danny Sullivan didn’t think a blog-specific code was needed, liked the idea of scrapping anonymity, and noted legal issues with taking responsibility for comments: It can increase your legal liability for what’s said in comments. Several others expanded on that point. (O’Reilly responded with “I think we have to get over it,” which I find appalling.) I was surprised by the extent to which commenters agreed—and offered “solutions” to comment problems (e.g., what happens if you go on vacation?) like “put all comments into the moderation queue” (which, as I’ve found, doesn’t work with some blogging software). A few people noted that the code would work against newcomers and those with less time and help.

Cconsider these comments by “adamsj” (a pseudonym with a hotlink that leads to a nonexistent site—thus, in real-world terms, an anonymous poster) as part of a set of responses to other commenters who found fault with the code:

I don’t speak for Tim, but I’m pretty sure he’s not suggesting a legally binding code of conduct. I wouldn’t support such a thing myself, and might not support exactly what he might support in a voluntary code of conduct. In particular, if Tim wants to make lewdness in and of itself an issue, then he and I disagree. (In general, that is—if he wants Radar unlewd, more power to him.)

A voluntary code of conduct, though, is just that—voluntary. If someone feels strongly enough that his or her speech is unreasonably limited by such a code, then they’re free to violate it.

[Responding to a comment:] The point is to establish norms. You’re right to say people will still violate them. Given that eliminating nastiness isn’t possible, reducing it without damaging free speech is still worthwhile.

When I combine “establish norms” with “code” and “voluntary,” red flags go up.

Ø    The Comics Code of 1954 was voluntary. No publisher was required to join the Comics Code Authority. All CCA membership and obedience to the “norms” of the code (which tightly constrained subject matter) meant was that you could use a badge, the CCA seal (see below about badges). The net effect of the “voluntary” code? Distributors wouldn’t carry unbadged comics, putting some first-rate publishers out of business—and the state of comics stalled until underground comics undermined CCA (which still exists but mostly defines Archie Comics as upholding fine moral values).

Ø    The MPAA Production Code (or Hays Code) was voluntary—but you’d be hard-pressed to get a movie into theaters or handled by a distributor without following the code, particularly since the studios owned most theaters at the time. If there’s any code that seriously reduced freedom of expression, possibly even more than the Comics Code, it’s the Production Code. Volunary, of course: If a moviemaker didn’t like the Production Code, it could just violate it.

Ø    The current MPAA Film Rating System is nothing more than a voluntary set of norms that leads to a badge. No studio is legally required to submit a film for rating or to use the rating in its release. No law supports the system, any more than any law supported CCA or the Production Code. (One blogger saw the analogy, but didn’t believe “something like the movie ratings…” could be harmful or chilling.)

Ø    Wouldn’t an established, codified set of norms be convenient when (not if) Congress starts looking at blogs as cases where free speech seems to be getting out of hand? Or, for that matter, when censorware makers want to make life easier for those sheltered souls who might be troubled by strong statements on blogs and in comments, adding an “unbadged blogs” setting for filters?

At least one early commenter (also effectively anonymous, with a pseudonym linking back to the post itself) was less than thrilled:

Forgive me for being blunt, bit I think you’re talking utter nonsense… As for your underhanded stratagem to censor the internet, ponder this: some people like the idea of untrammeled discourse… Some think anonymity is good. We all have thoughts we don’t express due to social convention… The reason blogs have comment forms is because some people actually want to know what others really think… If you want a dialogue, be prepared to hear things you don’t like… Code of conduct indeed. Next we’ll be calling for UN regulation of the Internet.

I was surprised to see many comments linking all of this back to the Sierra problem, since much of that problem arose on two blogs that were explicitly set up in a way that would be outside any code. If the intent is not to limit free speech or establish a firm, visible, socially enforceable hierarchy of “good guys” and “bad guys,” then there could be no effect: The offending blogs would have been there in any case.

Some comments were frightening, for various reasons—including this sentence in a calm, signed comment: “Speech must be governed to be free.” So much for the First Amendment. Then came the badges.

Draft code of conduct—with badges!

On April 8, O’Reilly posted a draft code, identified a new website to host that code—and, about seven days late for appropriate impact, created a badge for “Civility Enforced” blogs. Here’s the draft code in full as it appears in that post:

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.

1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.

We are committed to the “Civility Enforced” standard: we will not post unacceptable content, and we’ll delete comments that contain it.

We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked to that:

- is being used to abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten others

- is libelous, knowingly false, ad-hominem, or misrepresents another person,

- infringes upon a copyright or trademark

- violates an obligation of confidentiality

- violates the privacy of others

We define and determine what is “unacceptable content” on a case-by-case basis, and our definitions are not limited to this list. If we delete a comment or link, we will say so and explain why. [We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice.]

2. We won't say anything online that we wouldn't say in person.

3. We 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—before we publish any posts or comments about the issue.

4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we’ll tell them so (privately, if possible—see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.

If those published comments could be construed as a threat, and the perpetrator doesn’t withdraw them and apologize, we will cooperate with law enforcement to protect the target of the threat.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

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.

6. We ignore the trolls.

We prefer not to respond to nasty comments about us or our blog, as long as they don’t veer into abuse or libel. We believe that feeding the trolls only encourages them—“Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.” Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.

Did I say “badge” (a shiny six-pointed job straight out of the Old West)? I meant “badges.” There’s another one, a circle with a lit firecracker labeled “Anything Goes.” The draft definition—yep, there’s even a definition for those who fight the sheriff:

This 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.

This didn’t just come from Tim O’Reilly—it came from “we” (consistently used in the post). And “we” aren’t just putting it forth, “we” plan to “finalize that code” after a review period. Sounds serious, doesn’t it?

Checking the post on April 26, I see 336 comments—after all, bigshot bloggers get a lot more comments and this was a Very Serious Post. If you could just get past those badges. Badges!

The very first comment, from someone who’d been peripherally involved in Act I:

You created badges.

You actually created badges.

I just can’t believe you created badges.

The next commenter, while finding the badges “a little hokey” (a little hokey?) thought “the guidelines are okay.” Others thought the points “could apply to web sites in general…especially forums.” I’m not willing to skim 336 comments, but I was astonished by the number of people who thought the Code idea (badges or not) was peachy-keen. Fortunately, quite a few saw both specific problems and the general problem with this or any other “voluntary code” promoted by high-profile bloggers. Some used strong language to say so; others started to take the code apart. If you have the time and interest, the comments are mostly all there (O’Reilly deleted a few, which is his privilege since it’s his blog).

Rather than further comment on the comments, let’s turn to some related posts on other blogs and items in the mainstream press.

Deciphering the code

Because I don’t cite Seth Finkelstein much in this discussion, I should note that I picked up some of the most useful links from his posts at Infothought (sethf.com/infothought/blog/), and recommend that you pay attention to what he has to say.

Robert Scoble (scobleizer.com), an A-list blogger in his own right—whose wife was another victim in Act I—posted “Code of conduct or not?” on April 8, 2007. He notes that he’s “not able to currently sign this”—he allows anonymous comments, engages with his trolls and doesn’t much believe in back channels:

I’ve broken the “talk privately” plank several times before and I’m not sure I would be able to stay true to that one, either. I blog. I don’t back channel. I don’t beg for links behind your back the way many other sites do (and sometimes even require). If I have a problem with something you wrote on your blog I think we should play it out in public. If I’m wrong, that’ll be part of the public record. I don’t like back room “deals” between bloggers. Makes me wonder what else they are doing in the back room.

He saw the key problem with this “voluntary code”:

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.

A few items from the string of comments: “Chris” said, in part:

I read your blog regularly, but I rarely comment (this post being one of those rare exceptions). If I had to register or go through some sort of e-mail verification procedure each time, quite frankly I wouldn’t bother. Now, given the relative sparseness of my comments, individually I probably wouldn’t be all that great a loss. However, I think that the overall level of conversation benefits from people who see a post they’re interested in being able to easily dash off a quick comment. The more obstacles that are put in the way of casual or one-time posters, the more insular a community will become.

An anonymous commenter said, “This whole thing seems to me a solution in search of a problem” but added something a little more ominous: “I’m posting this anonymously because I have worked with O’Reilly and probably will again, and I too feel pressure.”

Paul Jacobsen noted that a British company has been “going on about a code of conduct for bloggers for a little while now” and that there’d need to be a “more formal structure that accredits bloggers” for this to be of any use. Mike Gunderloy noted: “It may not have been Tim’s original intent, but people are already starting to use this to draw a black-and-white line between ‘follows the “Civility Enforced” rules and “Anything Goes.”’ Gunderloy noted the huge gap in between and that lots of “bloggers of good faith” could get “lumped in with the freefire zones as this debate degenerates to namecalling.”

Kathy Sierra herself noted that she had nothing to do with this Code, it would have made no difference in her situation, and she doesn’t see how it would change anything. “Webomatica” offered three observations, the most cogent (in my opinion) being this one:

This sounds like yet another barrier towards encouraging open debate on blogs. Blogging is challenging enough already and now it’s like, oh you want to start a blog? By the way, here’s a code of conduct you need to follow.

Some people offered variants of “Well? Where’s your code?” and “something must be done.” Most people were on Scoble’s side—just as most commenters on O’Reilly’s post were on his side. That’s the way blogs work.

On April 9, mainstream media weighed in—a New York Times story by Brad Stone, “A call for manners in the world of nasty blogs.” Turns out (see “O’Reilly returns” below) O’Reilly knew about this in advance, a privilege only enjoyed by a select group of bloggers. The article focuses on the code of conduct from “a few high-profile figures in high-tech.” It identifies as “chief among the recommendations” that “bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.” That’s false: the code doesn’t say “consider banning anonymous comments,” it says “We do not allow anonymous comments,” period. It never mentions censorship and includes “threaten” and “libelous” as two of a dozen types of “unacceptable content.” Stone says O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales (who seemed later to back off away fromresponsibility other than hosting a Wikia discussion) talked about “creating several sets of guidelines…and seals of approval represented by logos,” but that’s not what the draft code showed. A quote from Jimmy Wales helps clarify the nature of “voluntary” in this case:

“If it’s a carefully constructed set of principles, it could carry a lot of weight even if not everyone agrees,” Mr. Wales said.

“A lot of weight”? For a wholly voluntary set of principles? Hmm. The reporter says “Ms. Sierra said she supported the new efforts to improve civility on the Web”—slightly at odds with her own explicit comment. The article closes with a classic O’Reilly statement that confuses me more, the more I reread it:

Mr. O’Reilly said the guidelines were not about censorship. “That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make—believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech,” he said. “Free speech is enhanced by civility.”

We now have an explicit defense of censorship and a call for “managed civil dialogue.” Given that context, the final sentence has a remarkably Orwellian cast.

Tristan Louis posted a fairly thorough “fisking” of the Code of Conduct on April 9, 2007 in “Blogger’s code of conduct: a dissection” (www.tnl.net/blog/). Louis is one who believes “codes of conducts will generally result in lowering the value of internet speech.” He raises the question: “who considers what proper civil discourse?” and notes that civility has generally been seen as the enemy of openness, dating back to the Federalist papers and beyond. Louis continues: Who gets to define terms like “abuse, harass…” or what constitutes “infringing” on a trademark? Very few blogs use “Google®” in text; does that failure constitute trademark infringement? He notes the important journalism made possible by selectively ignoring other tenets in the code and wonders what type of action is implied in #4 (above). There’s a lot more in the post, but I’ll close with Louis’ final paragraph, which includes a quotation from the Supreme Court decision striking down CDA:

[B]ecause I believe that “the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship,” I have to say that this code is not only a bad idea but one that should strenuously be rejected by members of the blogosphere.

Naturally, one commenter fell back on “you’ve entirely missed the point” and “there can be no recriminations for its misuse”—in which case, it’s entirely pointless. Another asserted that O’Reilly’s code was nothing more than “a statement by one blogger (and those others who choose to agree with him) as to how he intends to run his blog,” which begs the question: Then why wasn’t the post labeled “A draft code of conduct for O’Reilly’s Radar”? Another pseudonymous comment says Louis is “parsing with a microscope,” trivializes the code and gets to the reality: “I’m afraid that all this ‘freedom’ pollutes many, many corners of the internet.” Sigh. Free speech always has been a nuisance, hasn’t it?

Blogging.wikia.com hosts a page and discussion (or, rather, many discussions). When I checked it on April 9, it was largely fine-tuning suggestions of the grand code schema; now it seems to have morphed into something different. I won’t attempt to summarize; there’s just too much there.

I won’t quote much from “Fetch the smelling salts!” posted April 10, 2007 at The invisible library—the language is a little strong for my own sites and their informal codes—but Keith Kisser starts out noting that “we uncouth bloggers are giving some folks the vapors” (citing a BBC story) and notes that readers have presumably already decided “if you’re going to be offended by my loose language…or read through to the end to see if I make a valid point or not. And that’s all the blogging ethics we’ll ever need. Read my words or don’t. Agree, or don’t.” Later, he notes:

The problem is that the Internet is a free medium and that scares the shit out of some people. It means unpopular opinions that might have some validity have an opportunity to get heard and to spread and become popular opinions, all without gatekeepers or some authority figure giving the thumbs up. It allows for culture to be spread and evolve organically, in the hands of anyone with a desire to contribute, not just the monied elite who, for most of human history, were the arbiters of taste and expression. Now that it is no longer so, there is fear that we, the unwashed, foul mouthed masses will have a say. And that, my friends, means the end of the way things used to be.

Ah yes, the way things used to be. I was a student at UC Berkeley starting in 1962, and studied or worked there until 1979. Some of us old fogies had something to say about free speech. Some of us got teargassed about it. Some of them (not me) went to jail about it. Disliking restrictions on free speech goes back at least to the Federalist papers in the U.S., and a lot further back elsewhere.

John Scalzi weighed in on April 10, 2007 at Whatever with “Pardon me while I roll my eyes” (www.scalzi.com/whatever/). He notes that it’s his site “and I couldn’t care less about how anyone else thinks it should be run.” He feels the same way about other sites: “It’s their site, let them do what they want.” And the third point: “Who elected Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales the hall monitors of the Internet?” He outlines his own rules and why he’s not interested in a “community” code of conduct. He wonders why people “apparently forgot they have the right on their own sites to tell obnoxious dickheads to shut the hell up.” (If you’re wondering where my own line for civil discourse runs, “dickheads” is on the appropriate side of it and I might or might not have censored a different four-letter word before “up.”) Scalzi concludes, sensibly in my book:

What the blog world needs is not a universal “Code of Conduct”; what it needs is for people to remind themselves that deleting comments from obnoxious dickheads is a good thing. It’s simple: if someone’s an obnoxious dickhead, then pop! goes their comment. You don’t even have to explain why, although it is always fun to do so. The commenter will either learn to abide by your rules, or they will go away. Either way, your problem is solved. You don’t need community policing or a code of conduct to make it happen. You just do it.

O’Reilly returns

On April 11, 2007, Tim O’Reilly posted a fairly long response, “Code of Conduct: Lessons learned so far.” He admits the badges were poorly chosen, but reiterates that badges might be useful. He understands the need for “a more modular code of conduct”—but that’s still a code. He considers “moderation mechanisms” and the difference between “constructive anonymity” and “drive-by anonymity.” He acknowledges that a code of conduct would require legal review to avoid increased liability for bloggers—and he says, “Civility matters, despite all the nay-sayers.”

The story makes it clear that O’Reilly knew a New York Times story was happening—he is, after all, a Big-Deal Blogger with mainstream media connections. He gives that as an excuse for the hamhanded nature of the badges: “We were a little rushed by the timing of the New York Times story, and wanted to put something up for people to react to.” He finds himself “particularly perplexed by folks like Jeff Jarvis” asserting that they don’t require pledges—because, O’Reilly asserts, Jarvis does have “just such a ‘badge’”—that is, a link citing the “rules of engagement” for Jarvis’ buzzmachine and another providing disclosures on Jarvis’ financial connections. But that’s not a badge; it’s local transparency. Jarvis (I’m not a Jarvis fanboy, not by a longshot) is saying “here’s how I do things,” not attaching a set of Codes. O’Reilly says his goal “was to propose a system that would make it easier for sites to state their policies without having to write their own”—but that’s not what he did and it’s not clear that anything called a Code could ever work that way. People either make their practices explicit or they don’t; most of us who don’t state explicit practices have pretty clear implicit ones.

O’Reilly suggests building mechanisms like Slashdot’s moderation policy into the major blogging platforms. Really? I love comments. I don’t believe I’m willing to have commenters determine the quality of other comments on my blog.

As for civility still mattering—I agree, but that has nothing to do with a formalized Code. It’s up to me to decide how much incivility I’ll practice or tolerate on my blog. Calls for broader intolerance of civility raise a nasty question, “Whose civility?”

Here’s two statements:

Ø    Race should not be a societal issue where marriage is concerned.

Ø    Gender should not be a societal issue where marriage is concerned.

In the 19th century and part of the 20th century, the first statement would be considered seriously uncivil, tending toward riot. Right now, many people—probably the majority in some states, certainly the majority in some religious groups—consider the second statement to be uncivil and outrageous.

I question the relationship of O’Reilly’s Code to civility as I view it. To me, nearly all that need be said about civility can be boiled down to one sentence:

Treat others at least as well as you’d hope to have them treat you.

I’ll sign up for that code, even if I don’t always follow it perfectly. Beyond that, things get fuzzy—and when fuzziness rules, so do the most prominent people within an area.

Comments on this O’Reilly post are all over the place, with most people (of course) being on O’Reilly’s side. As always, Seth Finkelstein offers well thought out criticisms in his own sometimes-querulous tone (I haven’t quoted many of them because they don’t fit this narrative well, but they’re definitely good comments). Joe Clark provided a good summary, although it leaves out the many supporters:

Essentially, people called bullshit on every point of your “code of conduct.” You concede most of their points, but won’t give it up. Captains go down with their ships. But so do barnacles.

Your sermon from the mount—really, the apotheosis of an A-lister talking down to the little people—has been rejected by your subjects, and you're the only one who doesn’t know it yet.

Ian Rennie noted the problem with “voluntary” codes that people are perfectly free to ignore:

The same way that movie producers are “perfectly free” to ignore voluntary MPAA ratings guidelines. That is, if they don’t mind their movie not being shown anywhere ever.

And comic book publishers in the 1960s and 1970s were “perfectly free” not to submit their comics to the CCA for approval. That is, if they didn’t mind not being listed in catalogues by comic book distributors.

A few more comments

Two true statements:

Ø    For 99% of the world, including probably 95% to 99% of all bloggers, this whole controversy was of no importance. It may have been on O’Reilly’s radar, but most people had better things to do.

Ø    That 1% includes plenty of bloggers and journalists, enough to account for what I’d assume are thousands of stories on the code of conduct. A quick Bloglines word search for “blogger’s code of conduct” returns 9,080 hits from blogs with at least two Bloglines subscribers. A Technorati phrase search shows 1,272 posts within the past 30 days (as of April 27, 2007). A phrase search in Ask yields 2,290 (1,020 without the apostrophe, showing 200). Yahoo! yields 230,000 (75,800 without the apostrophe) and hits the 1,000-item limit before it runs out of real sites. Google claims 113,000 without the apostrophe, showing 494.

A sidebar for anyone who still believes that reported search numbers in mainstream media mean much: leave off the quotes and Google yields more than four million, but still won’t show more than 1,000.

There is no way I’m going to review 9,080 or 1,272 or even 200 different sites. Here are a few I picked up after April 11—and some of them wouldn’t show up in those results.

Jon Garfunkel thinks a lot about media structures and the like in Civilities (civilities.net). He wrote a series of posts beginning April 11 promoting his own “comment management responsibility” proposal, which would define a “vocabulary” to embed your own code of conduct in metadata—metadata that could then be used by “community management software.” I’m not going to dissect or congratulate, although I’m deeply doubtful. If you’re interested, you know where to go. As always, Garfunkel will give you something to think about.

Back in the liblog arena, Scott Vine (Information overlord) posted “Do unto others” on April 12. “Hey, let’s all have a blog code of conduct and then we can all be nice to one another…” He assumes O’Reilly is “a wiser man than me”—one of those assumptions I’m usually too crude to make. (I have no idea whether O’Reilly is wiser than me or than Vine, although he’s certainly more successful.) He calls the proposed code “stupid and unworkable” and says:

Most people know how to behave on and offline—those who do not or who just don’t wish to are not going to change their ways because someone tells them there is a blogger’s code—indeed this would, I think, make them even more determined not to adhere to such a code’s principles.

Another British liblogger spoke up two days later: Tom Roper posted “Tim O’Reilly’s proposed code of conduct: I speak out” on April 14, 2007 He summarizes the proposed code and says, “As far as I am concerned most of this is either banal or unnecessary.” He offers his own proposals to bring civility to the Internet:

1. Gentlemen bloggers should doff their hats when commenting on a lady blogger's post.

2. Wait to be  introduced to someone before sending them digital pictures of your genitals.

3. The order of precedence should be strictly adhered to in determing who should comment first. It would be unthinkable if the younger son of a marquess were to have to post after one of the Lords Spritual or a Knight of the Garter.

Ronni Bennett of Time goes by is an “elderblogger” some few years older than I am, a former TV and radio news and documentary producer and editor until she encountered age discrimination. She’s one of those over-sixty folks who one commenter feel could only be comfortable with blogging and the like if there was a strong Code of Conduct in place. Her commentary, “Still don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” appeared April 15, 2007. Since I’m another over-60 blogger I can tell you I’m with her on that part of her response:

It always makes me guffaw to hear young people who believe elders’ pacemakers will crash at the mention of the word f**k. We’re here, Bob. Been here a long time.

As far as the code’s concerned, she notes that O’Reilly purchased the domain bloggingcode.org, “effectively ensuring that he and the corporate entity that bears his name control what that code is.” She precedes that by noting that O’Reilly “continues to flog this reckless idea even more determinedly.” Later, she says—correctly, I believe: “Adoption of badges linked to a common set of rules (even of the modular, pick-and-choose-your-favorites variety) cannot but come coercive, particularly when endorsed by someone as widely known as Mr. O’Reilly.” After quoting Seth Finkelstein approvingly, she says: “There is a more fundamental issue to this than one A-list celebrity’s ego gone wild. It is the inherent censorship involved with badges and common codes.”

There’s more, in a well-written post worth reading on its own (ronnibennett.typepad.com/weblog/). I’ll include one additional paragraph after Jay Rosen’s comment, “Blogs are little First Amendment machines”:

Rudeness, profanity and incivility are not crimes. It is dangerous to allow self-appointed police to regulate them, and it is naive to think, as has been argued by some slow-witted supporters, that the code and badges O’Reilly proposes are voluntary and therefore neutral. Whenever a powerful person who believes he holds the moral high ground anoints one class of people over others, dissenters are ipso facto oppressed.

Postlude: Conclusions

Will a Bloggers Code of Conduct, badges or not, become a significant part of the blog universe or the web as a whole? Probably not. At least not this time.

Most bloggers aren’t journalists, but some are Many bloggers have an exaggerated opinion of their own worth or importance. Many commenters need a session or two on rage management. Too many bloggers need to recognize that it is their own blog and it’s not censorship to say “no, you can’t put that text on my space” when comments are unacceptable by the blogger’s standards. Some commenters and bloggers are pseudonymous for good and valid reasons. Some are those called “anonymous cowards” by some software or the related category of trolls. The first category is important to the survival of dissent and new ideas. The second and third categories are the price we pay for true free speech—but those of us who blog can and should delete those comments we regard as inappropriate. Following our own standards, not those of a Code.

Want to require registration for comments? That’s your decision. Want to moderate all comments? Not a bad decision for many bloggers. Want to prevent anonymous and pseudonymous comments? Good luck: That’s difficult to do without nearly locking down commenting. At least one of my favorite blogs doesn’t allow comments at all.

I believe in civility. I try to steer well clear of libel or abuse. I try to avoid telling secrets or making anyone more public than they’d wish to be. I recognize that ad hominem is a logical fallacy even as I sometimes (rarely, I hope) find it a useful real-world filter.

I reject the notion of a Code of Conduct as injurious to free and healthy debate. As should, I believe, every librarian. Yes, we sometimes need codes for “official” blogs and those that can’t be separated from our places of work, but those codes should be very brief, very specific and very well known. That’s not the proposed Code of Conduct. We do not, in fact, need any stinkin’ badges.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 6, Whole Issue 90, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of OCLC or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Comments specifically intended for publication should go to citesandinsights@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2007 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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