A blogger code of conduct?

There has been a firestorm raging in the blogosphere since Tim O’Reilly published his call for a blogger code of conduct a little while ago. The whole thing seems to have been prompted by the threats against Kathy Sierra recently. The result of O’Reilly’s call was a fair amount of discussion and controversy as high profiles find themselves under pressure to climb onboard this initiative to regulate blogger conduct on the Web. I found this feedback to be really interesting.

To an extent the call for a code of conduct to regulate blogger conduct in the wake of the Kathy Sierra incidents has a similar air about it that the call for support for often overly restrictive measures to combat terrorism in the wake of 9-11. After 9-11 there was a tremendous amount of solidarity for the American people and what soon happened is that George W Bush and his administration capitalised on that support and introduced a series of measures designed to give him more power to deal with suspected terrorists and anyone else who opposed him. Pretty soon there was this question being asked whether people are with Bush or against him and if they were against him then they were somehow un-American and not patriotic. The rhetoric went so far that some people were saying that if you weren’t for Bush and his initiatives then you were for the terrorists. Now that is a chilling assertion to make. Judging from the feedback to O’Reilly’s code of conduct, I wonder if a similar mentality isn’t emerging here. Take a look at Mike Arrington’s thoughts about the proposed code of conduct:

I’ve mostly stayed out of this fight, but as it has gone on I’ve been more and more disappointed by what I’ve seen. I feel bad for Kathy Sierra and said as much. But she and others have milked this event for all its worth, and then some. And whenever someone, no matter how much I respect them, tries to tell me what I can and cannot do by defining “civility” around their own ideals, I tense up. It feels like a big angry mob is arming itself to the teeth and looking for targets, and I need to choose whether I’m with them or against them.

I’m not turning off anonymous comments, I’m not going to always try to talk privately with someone before i write, and I’m also not going to allow a mob to decide what types of words constitute “unacceptable content.” And I’m certainly not putting a badge on my site that says whether I comply or not.

The code of conduct and the mass of bloggers lining up behind it scares me a lot more than the hate comments and death threats I’ve received in the past. I won’t support it.

He is not alone in his thoughts about the proposed code of conduct either. As Dave Winer points out, Jeff Jarvis commented that O’Reilly has really done bloggers a disservice by setting “us up to be called nasty, unmannered, and thus uncivilized hooligans”. Jarvis really has quite a bit more to say about the response of mainstream media to O’Reilly’s efforts and to the proposed code of conduct generally so go take a look at his post.

One of the problems with a code of conduct (once you get past the issue of a group of people trying to regulate what is meant to be a free discourse) is that it is a complicated issue. There are concepts to be defined and agreed on. What O’Reilly has done is throw his weight behind a code that reflects a specific perspective that has no real regard for what other bloggers may think. It capitalises on the fear that other bloggers may have that they may be attacked like Kathy Sierra or that they will be seen to be condoning the attacks if they don’t back this initiative. Very sheep-like of them actually. Bear in mind that the people responsible for the attacks will probably not sign on the dotted line so it isn’t like the code is going to affect them at all.

I just want to point out that the behaviour of people like the person who attacked Kathy Sierra is not acceptable by any measure. Even the most liberal constitutions that provide for freedom of speech have limitations. A similar principle out to apply on the Web. There should be free speech on the Web, a space for the expression of an authentic voice and no space for hate speech and conduct like the attacks directed at Kathy Sierra and others. This is something that can be regulated by the community through its response to this conduct. We saw a tremendous amount of support for Kathy and the other women who were attacked by the mysterious commentator on the Meankids.org blog and that positive response drowned out the negativity. I may be an idealist but is that not an answer?

While I don’t agree that bloggers’ conduct should be regulated by anything other than community responses to those bloggers, there are alternatives which are less biased and more open because they are not being actively guided by any one person with influence. An alternative code of conduct can be found here. It is very simple and states some important principles.

  • Be courteous.
  • Give accurate information in the spirit of being helpful.
  • Respectfully disagree.
  • Use the correct venue for your post.
  • Admit the possibility of fault and respect different points of views.
  • If you screw up, take responsibility for your actions.

These are really principles that have been repeated time and time again on blogs. There is nothing new here, just a matter of decency and respect. If there is going to be some sort of code to set guidelines for standards to aspire to then perhaps the whole initiative should be facilitated by a body with a more accommodating approach. Segala has also been working to develop a code of conduct for some time now and has established the framework for an alternative code on the Content Labels site.

The outcome of this debate will say quite a bit about the culture of the blogosphere and whether the principles of authenticity and open debate will be protected or repressed by the wishes of a few well-meaning but misguided bloggers.

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