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Tim O’Reilly’s Blogging Code of Conduct Makes Me Nervous

As everyone from the New York Times onward has noted, in the wake of the threats against Kathy Sierra Tim O’Reilly proposed a Blogging Code of Conduct and has now written the first (draft) version of this code. While I’m heartened that so much well-intentioned conversation has surged through the blogosphere, I fear that a trying to write rules of all blogs and bloggers is a fairly silly and self-defeating thing to do. One of the models being mentioned all over the place is the BlogHer Community Guidelines; I think that these are great guidelines for a particular online community and suggest that, really, it’s not just the model but the width of applicability that matters; communities should always be able to assert their own guidelines, but the blogosphere, despite the collective noun, is at best an awful lot of communities and individuals, often with vastly different aims and intentions.

In educational contexts, for example, the process of discussing guidelines in classes from K-12 through to university is a useful one both for the issues raised, and the shared guidelines which emerge. Similarly, most communities or vague collectives have rules of some sort, but these rules differ. Some bloggers have a notice about conduct on their blog (by commenters); I think this level of transparency is great. (It’s also something I’ve always meant to do for this blog, but I fear I might not get around to until I actually have to deal with deleting someone’s comments and I’ve not had to do that to anyone other than Mr Spam as yet.)

I think Jeff Jarvis sums up a lot of the angst I’m feeling at reading about O’Reilly’s Code:

So O’Reilly only set us up to be called nasty, unmannered, and thus uncivilized hooligans. Except for Tim, of course. He’s the nice one. Me, I feel like the goth kid with premature tattoos skulking down the hall.

But the problems are far more fundamental and dangerous than that. And just gratingly twinkie, too.

This effort misses the point of the internet, blogs, and even of civilized behavior. They treat the blogosphere as if it were a school library where someone — they’ll do us the favor — can maintain order and control. They treat it as a medium for media. But as Doc Searls has taught me, it’s not. It’s a place. And when I moved into the place that is my town, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good neighbor (and thus anyone without that badge is, de facto, a bad neighbor). I didn’t have to pledge to act civilized. I just do. And if I don’t, you can judge me accordingly. Are there rules and laws? Yes, the same ones that exist in worlds physical or virtual: If I libel or defame you on the streetcorner or in a paper or on a screen, the recourse is the same. But I don’t put up another badge on my fence saying I won’t libel you. I just don’t. That’s how the world works. Why should this new world work any differently? Why should it operate with more controls and more controllers?

Also, Tristan Louis has a thoughtful “Blogger’s Code of Conduct: a Dissection” which makes a very strong case against O’Reilly’s Code, pointing out many of the semantic, interpretive and legal difficulties such a code throws up for bloggers (and commenters) everywhere (Via SmartMobs).

It’s no shock that Dave Winer has blasted O’Reilly’s Code, but it is telling to have Robert Scoble stating he wouldn’t be able to follow the proposed Code despite the fact that his wife was also one of the people targeted by the same pillocks who threatened Sierra.

I’m all for thinking about how communities work (online and, indeed, offline) and for individuals and individual communities to be able to – within reason – set rules for their own digital turf. I just think the turf of the blogosphere en masse is so different and so wide that no single set of rules will let the grass grow properly or productively everywhere.

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  1. Agreed. I don’t think these draft guidelines are going down well in the blogging community.

    Not only are blogs “places”, as you say, but they are varying places with varying norms, and with varying ways of producing those norms. No one code of conduct has any hope of suiting all blog communities, any more than one set of social norms will work for every social situation. “Who creates the norms?” is an interesting question indeed (and not quite as simple as “my blog, my rules”) – but the answer sure isn’t “Tim O’Reilly”, no matter where you are.

    Getting down to the nitty-gritty, I have a particular problem with this:

    “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.”

    I’m having trouble making any sense of this. It seems to have the goal of erasing every bit of public conflict and dissent within the blogosphere, which is obviously nonsensical. Public debate is the whole raison d’etre of many, many blog comment communities, and of many inter-blog conversations.

    The painted-on dichotomy between “No dissent vs Anything-goes” doesn’t get O’Reilly out of this one: there are many, many places where dissent is welcome, but threats and hate speech are not. Blogs in that spectrum are a large part of the colour and fun of the blog world, and are places where a lot of productive conversation and argument-honing can take place.

  2. The other interesting fact with regard to the Kathy Sierra saga is that at the end of the day the issues between the parties were resolved through open conversation.

    On the whole people are sensible and able to converse on a mature level without a set of rules in place.

    What we got out of it was a hearty and often heated debate and the chance to discuss some serious issues – such as cyber-bullying and sexism online. But we all learnt from it.

    In some circumstances a set of guidelines for a community are appropriate, but in becoming a member we usually agree to those terms on sign-up. This is more about a Publisher’s own right to decide what content they wish to host. The reasons can be legal as well as personal and in some cases practical(such as the ongoing need to filter spam).

    A good example would be for a social site aimed at children where an obvious code of conduct might relate to deleting any sexual references.

    Personally, my take is that a community will set it’s own rules through time. But as Doc Searles points out the “blogoshpere” is not a “community” as such – it is a “place”.

    I’d rather have the nasty elements brought to the surface and dealt with than create a shallow pool of civility.

  3. The whole idea of an all encompassing code of conduct makes me really nervous but at the moment all the talk just seems to be postulation. There’s no way that such a thing could be regulated.

  4. I agree about the code of conduct, but I also believe that anonymous commenting is far more often used in the service of cowardice than it is of courage.

    Limiting the capacity of cowards to hide behind anonymity while protecting the rights of courageous people who need it is what I think people could more profitably focus on….

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