In the brouhaha following the matter of Kathy Sierra, there has been a call for a blogging code of conduct. Respected technology guru, Tim O’Reilly, has posted some suggested provisions gathered at the Etech conference in San Diego last week.
Most are common-sense items about removing abusive comments, not baiting the trolls, not publishing anything you wouldn’t say in person, etc. leaving the level of tolerance to individual bloggers. But one suggestion is disturbing: creating some “easily deployed badges pointing to a common set of guidelines.”
“This would let people know which sites to avoid, if they aren't willing to put up with foul language and insulting comments,” continues O’Reilly…”I'd love to see the major blogging platforms offer comment rating systems that would allow automatic moderating down of nasty comments.”
Whoa! Let’s slow down here just a minute:
- Whose common guidelines would those be?
- Who defines “foul language”?
- Who defines “insulting”?
- Who determines what “nasty” is?
- Who in their right mind would let a blog host deploy automatic comment moderating?
When you consider the implications, this is treading precariously close to an affront on the First Amendment.
For most of the life of this blog, I have carried on my lengthy “Blog To-Do List” an item which states “write disclaimer.” By that I mean to lay out clearly how this blog operates, what is allowed, what is not and when transgressed what I do about it.
It remains undone because it has been so infrequently needed. Elders and others who visit here have always been capable of disagreement and strong opinion without abuse.
I like to flatter myself that I have set a tone others follow, a tone I deliberately and carefully thought out when I started writing TGB. But I suspect the real reason for the high level of self-restraint among those who comment has more to do with the wisdom of age, that elders know from experience, perhaps more than younger people, that invective does not further intelligent discussion.
The only comments removed have been either spam or, most annoying, people promoting their commercial products. (I explain they are welcome to purchase an ad, after which they slink away.) And twice, I have removed a link from the Elderbloggers List on the left due to racial slurs on their blogs, not here. I vet that list carefully because I consider them recommendations and although some may not appeal to all readers, most readers will find something of value and interest within in the list.
Some bloggers moderate comments. That is, they approve each one before posting it. That is one way to ensure civility. Others post disclaimers and codes of conduct, their personal rules for maintaining the kind of blog they want. It is fair warning to the trolls and to those who would be intemperate with their words - or to readers, if blog owners have a broad defintion of civil discourse.
The key, however, is that those codes and rules are personal to each blogger’s sensibilities, not imposed by an outside “authority” handing out “approved” badges linking to a set of rules based on one or a few people’s judgment of what is acceptable speech.
And if that badge idea takes hold, then are those who, like me, stand as First Amendment absolutists against imposed standards of speech to have their blogs labeled – as Tim O’Reilly suggests - “dangerous territory”? One person’s insult is another’s satire. What constitutes foul language is highly individual, as is what is nasty.
Censorship is a trecherous undertaking. Once imposed, it doesn’t take much to go from banning individual words to opinion, books and soon, ideas. And then it has arrived at groupthink.
The American Library Association maintains a list of Most Frequently Challenged Books. “Challenged” because few succeed, thanks to our First Amendment, in being banned. The ALA defines "challenged" as including complaints, public attacks, access restriction as well as outright banning. Among the most challenged books in recent years are certain ones written by Judy Blume, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, R.L. Stine and John Steinbeck. When the censorship devil is let loose, there are people who would ban everything.
As a contributing editor at Blogher.org, I am required to adhere to their set of guidelines. Although I object on principle to such an imposition, these are useful, not restrictive and an organization has a right to establish them within the bounds of their internet space. All publishers, including bloggers, may set their own standards.
Given the hysteria surrounding the matter of Kathy Sierra, it probably is not a bad idea to suggest some general guidelines for civil discourse within the blogosphere that bloggers can use as they wish.
But when badges are introduced to announce a blogger's loyalty to a subjective, universal code of conduct, it leads to coercion. Next thing you know, there would be lists of "dangerous territory" blogs. I would be proud to have Time Goes By among them.