The Kerfuffle Code

There has been a great deal of discussion in the blogging community and major news media lately about the idea of a blogging code of conduct. Tim O’Reilly, a heavyweight in the community, weighed in with his own version of a blogging code of conduct, which he thinks that we should all adhere to, signaling our compliance with a little badge. Rather than bore you with my opinion on this issue, I will send you to Allan Jenkins, who says what I would say, only more succinctly, so we can skip ahead to my dissection of the blogging code. Shorts certainly need to be eaten, because I stand with Jenkins on this issue: this website is my “badge,” or personal code.

I cruised over to the blogging code of conduct today to take a closer look and formulate some criticism of my own. I am far from the first to do this, and I’m sure I’m leaving important things out of my criticism, but that’s why we have the Internet.

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

This is probably the most dangerous provision, in my opinion, because it goes on with a detailed list of “unacceptable material” including copyright violations, and violations of confidentiality. It also states that the boundaries of unacceptable material can be changed without notice. So, in other words, whistleblowing is not acceptable behaviour. The Pentagon Papers should never have been released. And people should be allowed to decide, on a personal and arbitrary basis, the boundaries of “unacceptable.” In a way, this seems like a maintenance of the status quo.

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

So, gays and lesbians struggling with coming out should not discuss their fears in online forums. People fighting the stigma of diseases like hepatitis and AIDS should not seek advice and comfort from people on the Internet. Whistleblowers should not speak out about violations at their companies. Dissidents in oppressive regimes should just remain silent, eh?

3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.

Because, of course, any immediate public response to a major issue would be considered rude. Forgive me Tim, for I have sinned; I am not connecting with you privately about the very serious issues that I have with your “blogging code of conduct.” In fact, hundreds of us are violating this code at this very moment, writing posts which think critically about the issue. I should have connected with you privately, rather than participating in an open exchange of ideas and information about a public issue.

I don’t like backroom deals either. Blogging, by its nature, is a public expression. I have a problem with you, I’m going to say it publicly and to your face, as in point (2) above. I don’t need to be rude about it, by any means, but I can make my opinion known.

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

I touched on this issue briefly elsewhere. I do believe that people should speak out about behaviour which they find unacceptable. However, I’m not so certain that this extends to cooperating with law enforcement, and turning over user records. If commenters on my website knew that I would turn their IP addresses over to the government if they upset me or someone else, they might be more hesitant to comment. I believe that this severely restricts the ability of people to speak freely about issues. The fact is that the line between “unfair” and “reasonable” can be very slippery when you are feeling attacked. If someone asks for assistance…maybe. But…danger, Will Robinson.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

I’m going to be hypocritical for a moment here, because I do not allow anonymous comments. Anyone who wants to comment has to include their email address with the comment, although this is not published. I do sometimes respond to comments through email, as well as posting them, so I could argue that this is for your own benefit. However, I do not police the validity of these emails very seriously, or require commenters to register. You do run the risk of getting your comment deleted if I think it is out of line and the email is invalid, because I think that’s cowardly. But if someone felt the need to comment with a fake email address to protect themselves, I’m cool with that, and will honor it.

The thing is, anonymity is an important part of discourse on the Internet. That’s why I don’t require commenters to register, because I want to encourage them to comment and share their views. Some people are in situations where providing their real identities could be dangerous, but they have a right to speak as well. This is one of the points in the “code of conduct” which has been opposed most rigorously by most critics.

6. We ignore the trolls.

This seems like a contradiction of some of the points above. What if the trolls violate policies? Threaten other commenters? We should just ignore them? Sometimes ignoring trolls is beneficial, sure…but I’m not sure it’s always the best course of action. As one critic points out, the issue here is largely with commenters, not bloggers. Perhaps we need a “commenters code of conduct,” or, better yet, websites could explicitly state their commenting policies. Oh, wait, people already do that. Ok…we need…commenters to be nice! Yeah, that’s it.

I think it’s time for me to be mean for a moment. Tim O’Reilly clearly needs a six pointed suppository, and I think his badge will fit the bill nicely.

The blogging code strikes me as a very American ideal, the thought that one person should impose their morals on everyone else, and we should all go along with it. This troubles me, and also seems rather antithetical to the very idea of the Internet. My personal code is just that, my personal code. If I was approached to write a blogging code of conduct, here’s how it would read:

Act in the way which you believe to be most ethical, undertaking whatever measures you personally feel are necessary to maintain your integrity.

For some people, this means allowing every comment onto a post, unfiltered. I delete spam, racist/sexist/just plain stupid in my opinion comments, and edit comments for grammar and spelling, personally. For others, this means rigorously controlling access to bulletin boards and comments with registration systems. I suspect that most of us fall somewhere in between, and that’s dandy. If you don’t like it, leave…you have that option. We’re all big boys and girls, and not everyone is going to play nicely. Deal.

As Robert Scoble points out in his post I linked to above, there is a great deal of pressure to “get on board” with the blogging code. Part of this, I think, is due to the stratified nature of the blogosphere (sorry, won’t happen again), which is dominated by a top tier of individuals who get the majority of the attention. The bottom feeders, including myself, are stoked when we get any sort of limited attention, and although there used to be more of an effort to make the blogging community inclusive, this lofty goal seems to have fallen by the wayside. Either you’re Heather Armstrong, or you’re not. As a result, when issues like this arise, many people feel like they need to go along with them, or risk being ostracized from party time with the big kids.

Fortunately, many high profile bloggers are coming out against the need for an Interwebs hall monitor, and encouraging others to follow suit. Hopefully the blogging code of conduct is merely a flash in the pan, and will be trashcanned shortly, as it ought to be. In the meantime, the amount of talk it is generating may force a few people to consider their personal boundaries a little more carefully, and will hopefully encourage people to stand up for themselves and speak out against such a ludicrous idea.

[blogging code of conduct]