Hard News by Russell Brown


The Civility Code

I'm occasionally asked, in my paid role as interpreter of such things, whether, given the ghastly things that get written in blogs (or, more likely, in blog comments) a bloggers' code of conduct would be a good idea. I reply that, while it would be nice if there weren't so many creepy emotional retards spewing bile at people who are smarter than them, the response to such a code would likely be: you can't tell us what to do!.

Well, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales have proposed a bloggers' code of conduct - voluntary, but with badges - and you can hardly hear yourself think for people screaming you can't tell us what to do!

The initiative has emerged from the sorry experience of Kathy Sierra, a gifted tech commentator and blogger who very publicly withdrew from the sphere in the face of an escalating sequence of sexually abusive and threatening posts, then pictures, posted in comments on her blog and others. She was terrified, and she had a right to be. How far does it have to go beyond creepy people making sexual hate pictures before it's "rational" for a well-known woman to be scared?

Not everyone agreed. The subsequent debate has been polarising, as evidenced by this thread on the normally very sane OneGoodMove, in which one commenter declared Sierra an "attention whore" and the whiff of misogyny got pretty strong at times.

Much of the indignation directed against Sierra was founded on the idea that she had unfairly accused blog owner Chris Locke (a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto of being behind some of the nastiest stuff, an implication that drew an angry response from Locke himself. It does seem clear enough that Locke himself was not one of the abusers.

But ironically, Locke was even more of a drama queen than he accused Sierra of being. After meankids, the group blog site where the original comments were posted was taken down by its founders (ie: Locke and his friends), even worse material appeared on a replacement site, unclebobisms, that Locke established to take its place. So: "I nuked the entire site rather than censor any individual."

Pardon? What sort of a dipshit can't bring himself to remove clearly offensive and sexually threatening comments (because that would be "censorship") but makes great play of canning the entire site?

Anyway, Locke and Sierra made up, and the digirati's battle lines were withdrawn, but role reversal - abuser plays victim - isn't uncommon in such blogosphere battles. Turning back to Sierra's sign-off post, check out this comment from "Joey", who actually did author one of the nastier comments:

My guess is that she doesn't like Chris Locke and thought "Joey" was him. I assure you, Joey is not Chris Locke but I am not prepared to say who I am here (on this board) with 300 people ready to *KILL ME*. You folks are over the edge here and *I* am the one scared now. Nice work, Kathy, turning criticism of your book into this mess. Very good.

While it might help my case, I will not post any private email because at this point, if she's really called some law enforcement, they are my a portion of my proof of innocence.

I am contacting a lawyer (to find out if there is even a way to verify if charges are filed) in the morning and asking anyone reading this to kindly stop spreading misinformation. At this point, I'm the one who feels the need to protect myself. I beg you. What's going on here is wrong. Please use your own critical minds.

I don't know why Kathy's using me as an excuse for not attending her meeting. I am not the one who emailed her and she took what I said out of context. Period.

Again, I wish you all peace. But please stop making or believing false claims.

"Joey" also claims he was never referring to Sierra in the first place, but to some hitherto unknown personcalled "Kat". But as others make clear, "Joey"'s actual contribution was the comment "The only thing Kathy Sierra has to offer me is a noose in her neck size," in response to a jolly little photo someone else posted of Sierra's head and a noose. Lame-assed denial is pretty common in these circles too.

And so, the upshot is the code of conduct. Others have pointed out that it's more like a comments policy than a bloggers' code.

We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. We present this Blogger Code of Conduct in hopes that it helps create a culture that encourages both personal expression and constructive conversation.

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

We are committed to the "Civility Enforced" standard: we will not post unacceptable content, and we'll delete comments that contain it.
We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked to that:
- is being used to abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten others
- is libelous, knowingly false, ad-hominem, or misrepresents another person,
- infringes upon a copyright or trademark
- violates an obligation of confidentiality
- violates the privacy of others

We define and determine what is "unacceptable content" on a case-by-case basis, and our definitions are not limited to this list. If we delete a comment or link, we will say so and explain why. [We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice.]

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

3. 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.

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

When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we'll tell them so (privately, if possible--see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.

If those published comments could be construed as a threat, and the perpetrator doesn't withdraw them and apologize, we will cooperate with law enforcement to protect the target of the threat.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

6. We ignore the trolls.

We prefer not to respond to nasty comments about us or our blog, as long as they don't veer into abuse or libel. We believe that feeding the trolls only encourages them--"Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it." Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.

My first reaction was to the conflation of harassment and stalking and trademark infringement? WTF? Do these things really belong together?

Blog comments would certainly be different if people had to speak the words they write to someone's face. The internet offers the opportunity to vent without obvious consequence: as successive waves of adopters discovered from the mid-90s, it's wise to pause for reflection before hitting "send" on that inflammatory email.

But hell, I write in ways that I wouldn't necessarily speak to someone I didn't know well. I avoid personal abuse, but I would be somewhat hampered by social convention in attacking the argument of someone in the same room as me.

Much of this is not particularly new. There were flame wars long before I started arguing online in 1994. People still inflate themselves online. A strong prose style still means mana.

Yes, I've had the hate mail, and I have been called many unpleasant things, usually by people who lack the gumption to say so under their own names (I have also discovered that most such people change their tone even after the fairly abstracted personal contact of an email reply). A flame war might be fun now and then, but mostly, it's just tedious. I generally only get angry when someone brings my family into it.

But it is different for women. You don't have to look far in the blogosphere to find latent misogyny getting overt. My impression is that women blogging can be subject to a kind of abuse I'll never have to bother with. The same thing can deter women from even commenting: and what you lose from women not feeling comfortable participating in blog discussions ought to be pretty obvious.

I'm genuinely proud of the environment we have on Public Address System, and the way people can argue strongly about ideas without falling into the gutter. I think it's a combination of the example set and the kind of people who were following our writing long before the forums started up. And should that fail - which it very rarely does - I reserve the right to intervene, to delete or censor posts, or strike off user accounts. Without apology. It's my site and I know what kind of environment I want it to be. I'm just not sure I need to sign up to a highly procedural "code of conduct" to assert that right.

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