Badges? We don’t need no steenkin’ badges

Noted technology author and publisher Tim O’Reilly has drafted his suggestions for a blogger’s code of conduct. The plan stems from the “firestorm” (obligatory terminology) around death threats issued to blogger Kathy Sierra. While maintaining civil discourse on the Internet is a laudable goal, it’s kind of like trying to bring peace to the Middle East armed with a sign reading “Can’t we all just get along?”.

Death threats are both terrifying and unfortunate, but a blogger’s code isn’t going to stop that, and frankly anybody who thinks it will is probably already an elected official. O’Reilly’s plan calls for not allowing anonymous comments (aliases are permitted along with a “valid” email address); not responding to trolls; and not saying “anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.” Among other things, these proposals would seem to fly directly in the face of the absolutely-and-in-all-other-ways-totally-incontrovertible John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

Appealing to bloggers to apply the code themselves will probably elicit less knee-jerk reaction than trying to legislate it from an outside standpoint, but I doubt that it will be any more effective for that. Bloggers and their readers are just people; sometimes they’re going to be rude and uncivil. The folks blogging independently, whether it be Live Journal or Boing Boing, Blogspot or Daring Fireball, are under no obligation to censor their thoughts—and much of the entertainment of those sources stems from the fact that they don’t give a shit. And why should they? If what they say or allow to be said offends people, they’ll learn the hard way how to reap what they’ve sowed. Independent bloggers have to worry only about satisfying themselves insofar as civility goes; they’re beholden to no one but their readers and themselves.

Meanwhile, those of us who are paid to blog professionally are already bound to the code of conduct that our employers lay down. At MacUser, for example, most comments are held for moderation by the staff, and we usually opt not to publish comments that are hateful, offensive, or off-topic. We’re a blog about technology, and while we don’t want to engage in censorship, it’s our house and our rules, so you’ll behave civilly. But I don’t feel we need a written code of conduct any more than I’d ask you to agree to a list of ground rules before a dinner conversation. This isn’t the debate team, and there are no points of order.

anythinggoes2.jpgbcclogo.gifOn top of the draft code itself, O’Reilly has produced a pair of badges to label sites that either do or do not conform to the code. I find it fascinating that he chose a sheriff’s star for the “Civility Enforced” badge. I’m sure Jason would have more to say about the iconography here (other than their lovely craptastic clip art origins), but it’s pretty clear that O’Reilly sees the Internet as the Wild West: a lawless expanse that needs to be tamed. And while things like death threats ought to be treated with all due seriousness, enforcing civility in the Wild West was a losing proposition—if Deadwood is to be believed, anyway.

After all, even incivility has its place. What about comedy and satire? It doesn’t take much of a stretch to point out that people like Sarah Silverman, George Carlin, and Dave Chappelle could easily be considered uncivil and rude, but that’s part of what makes them funny. As for anonymity, it’s a double-edged sword: sure, some of the things people say when their identity is obscured is rude and offensive, but sometimes it’s also illuminating. You don’t have to look farther than China or Iran to see that one person’s idea of civility is another’s idea of repression.

The Internet is an enclave of totalitarian fiefdoms and the content those fiefdoms is always going to be determined by the whims of the person in charge. So, if a blogger wants to implement this code of conduct, nobody’s going to stop them. But sooner or later, readers are going to leave the sandbox, and, yes, they’re going to be offended by something. I’m sure O’Reilly means well, but I don’t think we’re doing any favors by coddling readers—and let me stress that we’re talking about adults here—into thinking that they have an expectation to not be offended, because that expectation will inevitably be destroyed.

[…] blog is rated W, for “Who the hell cares, anyway?” Just as a follow up to my earlier post, Greg Storey of Airbag Industries has deployed the Airbag Blog Advisory system, a clear and […]