Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Much Ado About Something: The Blogging Code of Conduct

To paraphrase something Miss Manners is wont to say: those who are not in the etiquette business should not be making rules about etiquette.

I'm not an etiquette professional - merely an amateur - but I am a devoted follower of Miss Manners and I have written various articles on ethics and manners. I am not here to propose new laws about etiquette, only to clarify ones that already exist.

Tim Oreilly's First-Draft

There has been much brouhaha about the need for adopting a "Blogger Code of Conduct" in the wake of the events leading up to and following the threats to Kathy Sierra and her subsequent complaints. The most discussed reaction was Tim Oreilly's proposal of a Blogger Code of Conduct, which essentially proposed that bloggers:

1. Take responsibility for their own words and what comments they allow to persist on their site.

2. Not say anything online that they would not say to a person.

3. Try to resolve disputes privately before going public.

4. Chastise bloggers and commenters who attack people.

5. Not allow anonymous comments.

6. Ignore trolls.

The Web's Reactions to Same

While dubiously correct or complete, this "first-draft" proposal is just that: a first-draft proposal for a code of conduct. The reaction to this proposal has been expected, occasionally fair, but usually ridiculous. Some examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Let's examine some of the reactions:

- You can't enforce this

Well, of course not, or at least not in the way you are talking about. This is manners we're talking about, not law. Laws are enforced with guns; manners are enforced with social disapproval.

You can't enforce people getting up to let a pregnant woman sit down on a bus, either. That doesn't mean that such etiquette doesn't exist, only that we don't shoot those who don't follow the rules. We simply shun them.

- This is censorship

That's right, it is.

Oh sorry, you were looking for more than that. There is no better definition of civilization than one in which voluntary censorship occurs. We censor our desires to kill, steal, insult, libel, and so on. That's how we get along.

Some of these acts are particularly egregious, and so we use the threat of guns to enforce them. Others, while maybe just as painful, we enforce with social punishments. That's the point.

- These rules are a slippery slope to having a code of conduct in other areas of life

This is patently untrue, as all other areas of life already have rules of conduct. You are probably just unaware of them at the moment.

For what it's worth, rules of conduct already apply to blogging, as well, and you are also unaware of these. The rules that Tim proposes may or may not match these rules. He isn't creating any new rules. He is merely voicing the rules that already exist.

- Only people who wouldn't do these things already will follow these rules anyway

The same goes for all areas of life. Those who disobey the rules of etiquette in life suffer the consequences. It doesn't do any harm to teach the rules to those who don't know them, however, to help prevent innocent infractions of the rules by those who at least mean well.

- If someone from Iraq can't post anonymously, he might get killed

This is akin to saying that the rule about not grasping people violently without permission is a bad rule of etiquette, because how then will you save someone who is about to fall off of a building? By the time you ask permission, they'll be dead!

Rules of etiquette - and this applies to laws, as well - have built-in exceptions that cover the exceptional, the emergency, or the odd situation. In fact, the rules of etiquette are not universal for all places at all times. That's why Americans have different rules than the French, and New Yorkers have different rules than Texans.

Etiquette rules are, perforce, adaptable and flexible to the required culture and circumstances. That's why they are rules of conduct, and not formal laws.

There is no requirement for a code of conduct to be exactly the same on every site on the web. What matters is that the particular rules that apply are known to all participants at each site.

- The only rule we need is "be nice"

Obviously not, or we wouldn't be here.

Yes, in essence, all manners derives from the basic idea that people should make others feel comfortable rather than the inverse. However, the way to make others feel comfortable is to know what makes others feel uncomfortable. You can't simply assume that. A few basic guidelines as to what is generally considered offensive is welcome for this purpose; violate at your own risk.

My Reactions to Same

I posted my own code of conduct a week or two before this all became an issue. With regards to Tim's particulars:

1. Is fine with me. With regards to taking responsibility for commenters, the same rules that apply to copyright takedown should apply to commenters. You should be able to remove comments without being liable for those that you inadvertently miss, unless notified. Once notified, you are responsible for deciding whether to leave them there or not.

2. While others think this is fine, I'm not much of a fan of this attitude. Too many people I know are perfectly willing to be rude in person, so holding them to this standard online is not sufficient, in my opinion.

3. Is fine with me.

4. Is fine with me, except see 6.

5. I am not much bothered by anonymous comments, except for those that attack others. I believe that each site should set their own policy for this.

6. This is kind of a contradiction to number 4. I can hardly chastise those whom I'm ignoring. On the other hand, I approve of shunning trolls. Often it is better to ignore someone rather than to bring attention to them. However, once the news has hit, a reaction is sometimes called for.

In the meantime, I propose that we all think a few times before posting anything more on the subject. And if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.


No comments: