A lame article in the New York Times reports that Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales have proposed a lame Blogger Code of Conduct:
Correction AppendedUh-huh. And I’m busy constructing a bamboo-and-wicker water gate that will hereafter govern the flow of the Mississippi River.
Is it too late to bring civility to the Web?
The conversational free-for-all on the Internet known as the blogosphere can be a prickly and unpleasant place. Now, a few high-profile figures in high-tech are proposing a blogger code of conduct to clean up the quality of online discourse.
Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate.
Chief among the recommendations is 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.See me in open-mouthed incomprehension. Bloggers can ban anonymous comments or not, as they please. The problem isn’t commenter anonymity; it’s abusive behavior by anonymous or semi-anonymous commenters. Furthermore, the kind of jerks who post comments that need to be deleted will infallibly cry “censorship!” when it happens, no matter what O’Reilly and Wales say.
Anyone who’s read ML for more than a couple of months has watched this happen. Commenters who are smacked down for behaving like jerks are incapable of understanding (or refuse to admit) that it happened because they were rude, not because the rest of us can’t cope with their dazzlingly original opinions. It’s a standard piece of online behavior. How can O’Reilly and Wales not know that?
John Scalzi had an even-more-incisive-than-usual post on the subject:
Indeed, the reason that we’re now at a point where some self-appointed guardians of the discourse have decided it’s necessary to tell the rest of us slobs how to talk to each other is that people apparently forgot they have the right on their own sites to tell obnoxious dickheads to shut the hell up. Honestly, I don’t know what to say to that, other than I’m sorry that other people’s muddled-headed conception of what “free speech” is has allowed obnoxious dickheads to run free in blogs, and allowed busybodies to wring their hands in the New York Times about how mean the blogosphere is. It’s idiotic.You can’t have a good online discussion without moderation. Every weblog out there that has good comment threads has a policy of moderating the discussion and kicking out the fuggheads. I swear, Cory Doctorow was right when he said I ought to write a book about moderation. I keep thinking it isn’t rocket science, and that anyone who’s hung out on the net for a while should know the basics. (If you want a short version of what I consider the basics, I posted it here.) Then something like this comes along, and I realize it’s not as self-evident as I thought.
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 and Wales were apparently moved to promulgate this code of conduct by a recent and extremely unpleasant event in the blogosphere:
Mr. Wales and Mr. O’Reilly were inspired to act after a firestorm erupted late last month in the insular community of dedicated technology bloggers. In an online shouting match that was widely reported, Kathy Sierra, a high-tech book author from Boulder County, Colo., and a friend of Mr. O’Reilly, reported getting death threats that stemmed in part from a dispute over whether it was acceptable to delete the impolitic comments left by visitors to someone’s personal Web site.That really was a nasty episode, and I don’t blame Kathy Sierra for reacting the way she did. However, what caused it wasn’t some sort of generalized inchoate blogger rudeness, and Wales and O’Reilly’s proposed code of conduct wouldn’t address the problem. Here’s what happened, as described on Kathy Sierra’s website:
Distraught over the threats and manipulated photos of her that were posted on other critical sites — including one that depicted her head next to a noose — Ms. Sierra canceled a speaking appearance at a trade show and asked the local police for help in finding the source of the threats. She also said that she was considering giving up blogging altogether.
In an interview, she dismissed the argument that cyberbullying is so common that she should overlook it. “I can’t believe how many people are saying to me, ‘Get a life, this is the Internet,’ ” she said. “If that’s the case, how will we ever recognize a real threat?”
At about the same time, a group of bloggers including Listics’ Frank Paynter, prominent marketing blogger Jeneane Sessum, and Raving Lunacy Allen Herrel (aka Head Lemur) began participating on a (recently pulled) blog called meankids.org. At first, it was the usual stuff—lots of slamming of people like Tara Hunt, Hugh MacLeod, Maryam Scoble, and myself. Nothing new. No big deal. Nothing they hadn’t done on their own blogs many times before.If you think she’s overreacting, go to her site and look at the bit of screenshot she posted from meankids.org. It’s every bit as ugly and disturbing as she says.
But when it was my turn, somebody crossed a line. They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as “Joey”) commented “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.”
My first reaction—and probably yours—is to think, “Of course he doesn’t actually mean it.” But the “funny” thing about crossing the line from criticism to suggestion of death is that your mind starts to wander:* The guy who wrote this is anonymous (to me… I’m sure the people behind the site know exactly who made that comment and who posted the photo). I have no way of knowing just how disturbed he might be.Noose. Sex. Hatred. Misogyny. Willing to commit a federal crime. Anonymity.
* Normally sane adults don’t cross that line, especially when they know they’re breaking federal law.
* The (apparently) same person made several sexual comments about me as well… for example, analyzing my “Canyon of Pain” graphic and turning it into a metaphor for what I want sexually (you can imagine).
I started to slide down a very bad path (and I’m showing you only a snippet of what was actually posted and sent to me), but held it together until two days ago, March 24.What good does it do to ban anonymous comments, when the abusive behavior is coming from one of the bloggers who run the site?
On that day, the meankids site was down and a new “replacement” appeared, unclebobism.wordpress.com. The “Bob’s Yer Uncle” site was supposedly started by Cluetrain co-author Chris Locke (who, along with Jeaneane Sessum, also authors the Kat Herding Media site) and included most of the same members as meankids.
I think what (rightly) disturbed Kathy Sierra was that none of the participants at meankids.org, or its successor site, unclebobism.wordpress.com, identified the author of that extremely upsetting material. Real people, not nithing online trolls, were implicitly condoning and enabling the behavior that had Sierra too frightened to go to a conference. She was right to hold all of the site owners responsible. They’re all complicit in protecting whoever it was that posted that filth.
That’s enough to make anyone angry. What makes it frightening is their betrayal of the social contract. They’re all implicitly saying that they’re willing to have Kathy Sierra continue to be terrorized and hurt, and that they won’t lift a finger to stop it. If I’d just been the victim of frightening and abusive behavior, and I were getting that message from the people around me, I’d be afraid to go out too.
The nastiness at meankids.org is the kind of online behavior I was addressing in item #10 of my own set of the basic rules:
You can let one jeering, unpleasant jerk hang around for a while, but the minute you get two or more of them egging each other on, they both have to go, and all their recent messages with them. There are others like them prowling the net, looking for just that kind of situation. More of them will turn up, and they’ll encourage each other to behave more and more outrageously. Kill them quickly and have no regrets.Never doubt that it occurs. It’s why BoingBoing no longer has comment threads. None of BoingBoing’s bloggers wanted to have to act as moderator (it is a lot of work), and the hyenas took over the school cafeteria.
A lot of the filth that got posted as comments at BoingBoing was aimed at Xeni Jardin. Notice also that Kathy Sierra takes it for granted that anonymous crap will get thrown at her on a regular basis. So do other women who are prominent in technical (i.e. “male”) fields. There’s a strong component of misogyny in this behavior.
I can delete this kind of crap in my own comment threads. Individually, I can’t do much to suppress it in other venues. What I can do is refuse to respect bloggers and other site administrators who let it flourish on their own sites, or who provide cover for the anonymous vandals who post it. For instance, Frank Paynter. He apparently apologized to Kathy Sierra, and tried to publicly distance himself from the group that was running the two sites; but as far as I know, he’s never outed the author of the material that put Kathy Sierra in fear of her life. I say he’s a wuss until he does.
Anonymous nastiness is easy to write, and will always find an appreciative audience. I don’t care. It’s not a manifestation of the free and open discourse of the internet; it’s a thing that destroys that discourse. To be specific, it’s the same old trashmouthed bullying we all know from junior high and high school. Putting it on the net doesn’t cause it to develop any novel complexities or interesting emergent behaviors. It’s just the same old sh*t.
If you have a weblog or live journal, or you administer a website that has comment threads, stand up for yourself and your readers. The jerks are never going to like you, or praise you, or admit that you’re doing the right thing. And if you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to suppress and thereafter ignore malfeasants, you have it right now. If you want, I’ll make up a certificate. Go forth and civilize.
Addendum: Here’s the certificate.