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We’ve all got a real problem. On some sites comments are so nasty that they are driving people off the Web. Even if the comments on your own site are always respectful and sweet-natured, the verbal violence on other sites is your problem. Our problem. It’s not as bad as some in the media portray it, but when Kathy Sierra gets over a thousand messages, mainly from women, saying they’ve been stalked or bullied, it’s an issue we can’t ignore.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. A Blogger Code of Conduct goes down the wrong path. Codes only can play a role if they’re plural. Very plural.

Lisa Stone puts it all well when she explains why a “one-stop-shopping” code can’t work for all:

Images that are appropriate for a blog devoted to the war in Iraq would never work on a parenting site, for example. They shouldn’t have to play by the same rules. And we all know how I feel about the First Amendment. :)

So, here’s a longer way around to the same point. (More of Lisa here.)

The first and least debatable Blogger Code of Conduct is the body of law that sets limits on what we can say in public. Death threats, libel, and giving away state secrets are all out. But when we try to get more specific than “No death threats! No nuclear secrets!” what do we really all agree about? A Code of Swimming Pool Conduct that says “Swim safely!” is of little use. The only code worth posting poolside says things like “No diving. No swimming without a buddy. ” But what’s the equivalent for blogging, that is, for talking together in public? A single code of conduct would need to drive down into specifics about which bloggers disagree.

Further, no single code could cover all the different ways we want to talk. Conversation shapes itself to its topic, venue, goal and personal relationships. For example, if I’m arguing with a like-minded friend about politics, my social group’s norm allows me to be more interruptive and use more curse words than if I’m talking with an acquaintance from the other side of the fence. Our norms tell us exactly how much bad language we can use with our family, at work, at the sports stadium, and when meeting our future in-laws for the first time. We know how loud we can talk whether it’s sermon time at the synagogue or South of the Border Night at the bar. There is no possibility of coming up with a single code of conduct because there are too many circumstances in which we conduct ourselves. We are left, ultimately, with our judgment.

Behind the drive for a single code of conduct is often the idea that there is one particular type of conversation at the pinnacle of all conversations: The rational discourse in which two people who disagree work toward the truth. Civility is important there. I’m thrilled to be at an institution — the Berkman Center — where those sorts of conversations happen every day. But those are not the only sorts of conversations we should, could, would, will or do have. Some conversations should be raucous. Some should get people red in the face. Some should have us leaving muttering under our breath. Polite, respectful civil conversations are not the only ones worth having because conversation is about much more than the mutual discovery of truth. Conversation is how we’re social, and thus is as rich, ambiguous, implicit, and multipurpose as we ourselves are. Yes, as Tim O’Reilly says, “Free speech is enhanced by civility.” Definitely. We need more civility. But free speech is also enhanced by healthy doses of incivility. In our drive to limit harmful speech, we need to be careful to preserve risky speech.

Of course, that’s assuming a particular model of civility. If, instead, by “civil” one means only that the conversation should be respectful, then I agree that many more conversations need to be civil. But: (a) Respect is not always the highest value of a conversation. (b) What constitutes disrespectful or injurious speech depends upon the target, the speaker and the context (again, ruling out posts that cross the boundaries of the law and our shared sense of decency). (c) A code of conduct that says that, for example, we should be “respectful” will founder on the details of implementation since there are so many norms about what constitutes respectful discourse — sitting in a quiet room with our hands on the table and our heads cocked attentively being only one scenario. Without the implementation details, the code is as useful as the “Swim safely” poster at the pool.

But then we come back to the problem: People violated – threatened, bullied and stalked – by thugs wielding keyboards. When those comments cross the legal boundaries, there may be legal recourse, although usually that’s not practical. It is a problem with no easy or short-term solution. When the comments are posted on the victim’s own site, there are tools for dealing with them, although none works perfectly. A blogger can moderate the comments, perhaps add a reputation system, or even forbid anonymity. A code of conduct is one more tool in the box. Such a code makes explicit the rules already implicitly governing a comment space. As we come across blogs more and more randomly, it often doesn’t hurt to be told that a site won’t tolerate bad language or wants commenters to stay on topic, if those are the local norms. Bloggers can of course state that already — there’s an infinite supply of sentences — and many do, but coming up with standard ways of expressing the rules would encourage their expression.(That’s what I was suggesting 1.5 wks ago, and it’s what I like in Tim’s idea.) Transparency generally is good.Posting rules of the pool that make explicit the existing implicit norms can be a worthwhile tool…although pasting a long list of precise rules can indeed inhibit free swim.

As for encouraging civility: Absolutely. I like civility. Truly. I encourage it on this blog’s comment pages, and I even try to model it on occasion. But I also like a good fart and a high five now and then.

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7 Responses to “Code? Nah. Codes? Maybe.”

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. on 13 Apr 2007 at 12:34 amlinks for 2007-04-13 at Wired Gecko

    […] Everything is Miscellaneous » Blog Archive » Code? Nah. Codes? Maybe. Do we need a code of conduct? (tags: codeofconduct bloggers code conduct) […]

  3. on 13 Apr 2007 at 1:01 pmjeanrem

    I think this is a very important debate for the democratic potential of blogosphere. We are working in France on this subject since feb 2006.

    Just over one month ago, the Associated Humans (les humains associes) held a conference here in Paris which brought together the internet representatives of the three main political parties among others in order to discuss the importance of agreeing on a charter of good conduct (which remains an open project) :

    The Nethics campaign has increased the awarness of the major French political parties regarding the potential for mudslinging during the presidential campaign and for the misbehaviour of e-activists.

    We are very interested to exchange infos with you about this debate, and how we can improve the sensitization…

  4. on 14 Apr 2007 at 11:23 pmBen Tremblay

    Pretending for a moment that historically significant discussion has taken place in noisesome places (taverns, coffee shops, whatever) I don’t think that has ever been possible without some rules of order. Codes of civility? Perhaps, but second to rules of order.

    We confound chat and discussion, conversation and debate … so folk actually trying to go at things hammer and tongues (usually a pretty energetic and so pretty heated process) have to do that in situations that are chaotic and disordered. Or, rather, ordered in only the worst way: serialized.

    After nearly 30 years of rubbing my face against such walls of stone and brick I’ve come up with a way of seperating the uhhh shall we say “social” component from the underlying matrix of fact and truth. I liken it to the “glass bead game” Hesse depicted in this “Magister Ludi”. Story and pictures at 11.

  5. on 16 Apr 2007 at 8:31 amDavid Weinberger

    Jeanrem, I’d love to talk with you about this. I’m at [email protected]

    Ben, yes, absolutely, there are always rules of order. Good point. And on the Web, one level of them is baked into the software. For example, in the real world, we have to have an implicit rule about when you’re allowed to interrupt someone. But online the software dictates how interruptive you can be. Of course, there are still plenty of implicit rules of order online, including how digressive you can be.

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. on 14 Dec 2014 at 2:43 pmlinks for 2007-04-13 - Paul Jacobson

    […] Everything is Miscellaneous » Blog Archive » Code? Nah. Codes? Maybe. Do we need a code of conduct? (tags: codeofconduct bloggers code conduct) […]