Imus is Out; Ageism is In
Twitter Redux

Still Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges

As M Sinclair Stevens was the first in the blogosphere to note when this issue was last addressed here, "We don't need no stinkin' badges." Unfortunately, Tim O'Reilly continues to flog this reckless idea even more determinedly.

It has come to my attention that O'Reilly Media - that's Tim's company - has purchased the domain, bloggingcode.org, effectively ensuring that he and the corporate entity that bears his name control what that code is. In an update last week to his original code of conduct/badge proposal, O'Reilly published a long and elaborate clarification without backing down from the idea of badges, now relabeled the more business-like "logos":

"The advantage of a widely agreed-on set of "rules of engagement" with associated logos is that people don't have to read someone's 'terms of service' to understand what the policy is on a given blog. It's conveyed by shorthand via a symbol."

Does anyone read terms of service statements on blogs? A first glance at the main page of any blog tells a sentient being if they want to read further. And if they want to read a terms of service, why then would it be the burden O'Reilly implies?

Adoption of badges linked to a common set of rules (even of the modular, pick-and-choose-your-favorites variety) cannot but become coercive, particularly when endorsed by someone as widely known as Mr. O'Reilly. In the wake of the firing of Don Imus last week, as I write this on Saturday, news anchors are already asking on camera and only half in jest, "Can I say that on TV now?" and "Am I allowed to say that these days?" Badges and codes in the blogosphere will have an equally chilling effect on online speech.

In the long comments section of O'Reilly's update post, most readers agree with him that some form of code and/or badge is needed to save bloggers of delicate sensibility from other people's rudeness. The lone voice of Seth Finkelstein, who has done yeoman's work there trying to get O'Reilly and his sycophants to see the error of their ways, stands out in sane rebuttal.

Seth sees O'Reilly's badge proposal as self-serving - an attempt, as an A-lister, to nanny the unanointed mass of longtail bloggers:

"Tim, does your Code Of Conduct help justice here in any way? I don't see it. Can you see why, frankly, it looks like empty pontificating at best, and attention-grabbing at worst?"

"I don't like the way you seem to be framing this as you're for motherhood and apple pie, and anyone who points out that frankly, your proposals seem knee-jerk, uninformed, naive, somewhat arrogant, and irritatingly, ONLY HEARD BECAUSE OF YOUR STATUS, is then going to be cast as some sort of bad guy for not joining the Shiny Happy People train about backscratching each other regarding the terrible, terrible problem of nasty blog commenters and how the A-list should fix it."

"A code-of-conduct that assumes that if an A-lister is upset, that's going to be _ipso facto_ equivalent to wrong, and occasion to call out the mob, is no great advance."

"But the whole problem of making these sorts of systems is that they have to work across widely divergent views of humor and propriety. Or, in sum, what are you going to do when a comment you find extremely hateful gets community-modded up as (+5, Funny)?"

How about some applause here for Seth Finkelstein. However, there is a more fundamental issue to this than one A-list celebrity's ego gone wild. It is the inherent censorship involved with badges and common codes.

Censorship, The First Amendment and Vigilance
It is as though Tim O'Reilly got his head stuck in an early computer during sixth grade civics class and didn't hear the teacher when the Constitution and First Amendment were taught. Although the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press...", it has commonly been established ever since that we the people, collectively and individually, live by those words in our endeavors and daily lives, and that Voltaire's dictum prevails.

Whenever an authority figure seeks to impose his tastes and standards on the mass and sycophants seek to enforce them - in this case, through codes of conduct and badges - what Jeneane Sessum calls "managed speech" is bound to follow. As with the currently nervous news anchors who are terrified they will be next to join Don Imus on the unemployment line, people begin to censor themselves. First it is words they say and write and before long, even their thoughts are subject to their own prior censorship lest they be caught in a slip of the tongue and be publicly flogged.

And since no code, as Seth notes, can cover every contingency that might offend the keepers of the PC flame, the tentacles of prior censorship burrow deeper and wider into people's psyches. Fear then becomes of the driving force of the blogosphere and it dies.

At the first BlogHer conference in 2005, NYU professor Jay Rosen of Pressthink made an observation so bell-ringingly clear in its truth that I keep it on the left sidebar here as a constant reminder. It has never been more crucial than in this code/badge debate: "Blogs are little First Amendment machines."

Rudeness, profanity and incivility are not crimes. It is dangerous to allow self-appointed police to regulate them, and it is naive to think, as has been argued by some slow-witted supporters, that the code and badges O'Reilly proposes are voluntary and therefore neutral. Whenever a powerful person who believes he holds the moral high ground anoints one class of people over others, dissenters are ipso facto oppressed.

Perhaps we should take up a collection to send Tim O'Reilly for a refresher course on these basic tenets of American freedom. For when, as now, a government no longer respects them it becomes incumbent on the rest of us to be further vigilant than we have previously been.

The Civility of Elderbloggers
To lighten the mood for a moment, the most hilarious comment on O'Reilly's post is this from one Bob Watson:

"The web is a changin' and if people want grandma and grandpa to participate (and they probably should) then there should be a way to make it easy and feel comfortable to them..."

It always makes me guffaw to hear young people who believe elders' pacemakers will crash at the mention of the word f**k. We're here, Bob. Been here a long time. Read on.

Although there is no lack of strong opinion on the elderblogs I check in with, neither is there much rude commentary. This may be due to one or more of the following:

  • Elders are more interested in ideas than being right
  • Elders long ago outgrew name-calling
  • Elders know that cogent disagreement and strong arguments can be made without personal insults
  • Elderblogs live exclusively in the longtail and don't draw the attention of many trolls and hate mongers

It is too bad the A-listers trying to impose their standards on the entire blogosphere don't pay attention to the longtail at large and to elderbloggers in particular. On this issue it can be said with a straight face and without irony that (grand)mother and (grand)father do know best.

The Origins of the Badge Proposal
It is worth recalling what sent Tim O'Reilly on his misbegotten badge and code crusade: The Matter of Kathy Sierra.

Based on this still foggy and confused event, Tim O'Reilly wants you to swear to his code of conduct and put a boy scout badge on your blog to prove your faith. Badges and codes cannot protect anyone from those who would trash talk in your comments (which you can remove) nor from those who would issue attacks from their own blogs. But if Tim O'Reilly prevails, and if you resist the gathering drumbeat for managed speech by refusing to wear a badge on your blog, you will become a target - not from the occasional and easily dispatched troll, but from a single, self-righteous watchdog with all the power of celebrity and his corporation behind him.

If you must have a badge, try one of these from stavrosthewonderchicken [via Jeneane Sessum and Shelley Powers - some of the good guys in this debate].

[EDITORIAL NOTE: There are some housekeeping notes at The Elder Storytelling Place today.]

Comments

I am in total agreement with you that having a rating type system for blogs is not only not needed but not desirable. When I read a blog that offends me, I don't go there again.

A follower of Bush might find my blog at times to be dangerous and not patriotic. I happen to think it's the patriotic thing to speak up when the government is doing wrong, but not all see it that way. When they start with language or what they have decided are prejudicial comments, where do they stop? I do not want somebody else's badge of anything on my blog. Besides even if they could nail the host of the blog, the commenters can only be dealt with by a host who takes the time to delete what is offensive to that particular host.

As for profanity, as you said, it's not like the younger generation invented most of these words. If it offends someone to read them, there are plenty of places to go where they won't find them. User beware. Lies in blogs are as much risk; so it takes discernment but not babysitting by some outside entity.

Some of the greatest classic novels of today have been and are still constantly threatened by the PC police.

What the Imus affair started are witch hunts, bloggers were bound to be in the cross-hairs. This is the kind of thing a lot of people just love as it adds power and excitement to their lives.

I agree with you and Rain. The blogesphere is too varied and vast to have any sort of badge that would cover the broad spectrum. If there were a series of badges, they might eventually confer a sort of class distinction/status level, which is (in my book) highly undesirable.

Thanks for the compliments! And here I was thinking that I was shouting to the wind ...

Ronni, thank you. In stranger news, did you know that Symantec's child protection feature blocks the NY Times and Boston Globe but not your blog or mine? I was complaining about this to somebody whose hotel had this Symantec "feature", showing him your post about elder bodies as an example of just how absurd Symantec was being. "Ah," he said gravely, "if you want to block this site as well...." Aaaaargh! No thank you, I don't want to live under even more strenuous censorship, thank you so much!

Hi Ronnie

I love your blog and feel exactly like you.You speak for me.Thanks love Vera

I'm wondering who is going to police this code of conduct if it ever comes into being and how it will be enforced? Maybe Tim O'Reilly has forgotten that the Internet is global. Surely, as you have said, it is up to the individual to discern which blogs appeal and which do not? The blogs which I enjoy would not appeal in the least to my kids, and vice versa.

I think you've pretty well stated the case for not having an O'Reilly Code of Conduct with a "blog badge." There's nothing that concerns me more than some self-appointed czar and those who quickly jump on the band wagon with them to "suggest" and "recommend" how everyone else should "voluntarily" conduct themselves, then fly a blog badge. The blog badge police cannot be far behind.

I wonder how many times people are going to confuse the call for manners as a call for law-enforcement? The two are not identical.

When we ask people not to curse in public in front of children, we don't threaten them with calling the police is they do so; and anyone who does so is much more problematic, in my opinion, than the curser.

But not everything devolves into people with guns. You still shouldn't curse in public, and if you do, you'll be shunned by those who think it is wrong to do so.

So long as the posters and commenters on these posts don't seem to understand the difference between manners and law, the arguments will keep devolving into the idea that a proposed code of conduct equals a call for suppression of speech. It doesn't. It equals a call for censoring on your own blog, and refusing to accord respect for those whom you consider uncivil. It does NOT involve trying to shut down those who you consider uncivil.

I will be the first to lead the group demanding that law keep the hell out of the province of manners. Firing Don Imus was disgusting, far more disgusting than what he said.

As far as the "evil" word censorship goes, we all self-censor, and that is how it should be. You're free to do what you want.

And as far as a code of conduct goes, it already exists. People are trying to formulate it, not introduce it.

Yehuda

Firing Don Imus was disgusting, far more disgusting than what he said.

Except firing Don Imus wasn't a matter of law, it was a matter of commerce. And mob rule.

As far as the "evil" word censorship goes, we all self-censor, and that is how it should be. You're free to do what you want.

Except, evidently, to reject the notion of some "code of conduct." Perhaps that's equivalent to "cursing," which results in being "shunned."

And as far as a code of conduct goes, it already exists. People are trying to formulate it, not introduce it.

No, it doesn't exist. There are customs and traditions we observe in "real space" that we're trying to figure out how to apply in the virtual world of the 'net. There is no "code of conduct" in the real world. There are laws, and there are rules and regulations imposed by employers and service providers ("terms of service"), and there are customs, also called "manners" or "etiquette." There is no "code of conduct" in the general social sphere.

To that extent, what O'Reilly, et al seek to impose is something that has no real counterpart in our "normal" lives. And it is presumptuous, arrogant, and high-handed for certain people, by virtue of nothing more than their "status" (which has nothing to do with their "virtue"), to seriously attempt to impose one.

dave,

Then I suppose that I simply read Tim's proposal as one of trying to formulate the "customs, manners, and etiquette" we observe into something written, so that people don't breach them out of ignorance. I don't read any more into the code than that.

Tim writes: "My goal here was to propose a system that would make it easier for sites to state their policies without having to write their own. There's no intent to create a single code that every blog is somehow supposed to sign up for, any more than the idea of Creative Commons is to say that every site must abide by their own policies."

That's how I interpreted it.

Yehuda

P.S. And yes, rejecting a code of conduct - which (as is my understanding) I interpret to mean rejecting the need for social civility and convention - should be a legal choice and one that I condemn.

In Business Process Management land, there's a thing called "Six Sigma". I never bothered going through the certification process, but I have a rudimentary understanding of what it aims to accomplish. One day my ex-boss announced that "we're Six Sigma" (?!) because one 4-person department in the company got certified. Whatever.

I see this would-be Code of Conduct as being eerily similar: It's not that people will necessarily "enforce" civility; indeed, this will be akin to the adherents of Creative Commons slapping up CC icons on their site but not fully grasping what it is that they're buying into. This is a very passive undertaking, and one I see as being more about post-incident posturing than some sort of progress.

And yes, rejecting a code of conduct - which (as is my understanding) I interpret to mean rejecting the need for social civility and convention - should be a legal choice and one that I condemn.

That read awkwardly. Do you condemn someone for choosing to "reject" this proposed code of conduct, or do you condemn that events and people have conspired to make this choice remotely necessary?

As for me, I have no intention of throwing in with this code. We have a comments policy (prominently placed under our active comment boxes so you can't miss it) and if pressed, we'll enforce it. Fortunately we apparently attract a civil crowd as it is.

My goal here was to propose a system that would make it easier for sites to state their policies without having to write their own.

Yes, heaven forfend that site owners actually think about what they deem to be acceptable vs "trolling". I've never been a fan of the "we [do whatever] so you don't have to" approach.

That read awkwardly. Do you condemn someone for choosing to "reject" this proposed code of conduct, or do you condemn that events and people have conspired to make this choice remotely necessary?

Yes, it did! Sorry.

I condemn/shun those who espouse no standards for social civility. But I would defend their right to do so.

For instance, we have a "code" in America of how close you stand to someone while talking to them, what you do with your eyes, what questions are considered too personal, and so on.

I defend your right to abide by this code or not.

I even defend your right to decry that such a code should exist, and to simply claim that everyone should just "be sensible".

Unfortunately, history has taught us over and over that this attitude, while sweet, just doesn't work. People who violate the code on purpose cause offense, as do the people who violate it on accident.

At least for the sake of the latter, the basic parts of the code should be made explicitly known (discretely and calmly) to newcomers so that they don't cause inadvertent offense.

The same goes for blogging. There are subjects, typography's, quoting standards, and so on that can cause offense by new users inadvertently. Some of us know what these are, but to avoid embarrassment, it would be nice to have a set of standards to point to.

Many years ago people did this for Usenet, you may recall, and it worked pretty well. The Usenet rules are made known, without being physically enforced. Those who type in all-caps, troll, and flame are free to do so, and shunned by those who disdain such incivility.

The same holds true with blogging. It is insufficient to say "don't be an idiot" because what being an idiot is is both less clearly understood but more concretely held than this. Quoting without attribution, for instance, may not obviously be a faux pas to new users. But it is, and everyone who takes civility seriously knows this. So why not say it?

Without even seeing your comments policy, I'm reasonably certain that it conforms to an already existing "code" of behavior, more or less. Coalescing many policies into something widely known saves everyone from having to update their policies after someone breaks a policy clause they forgot to include; it's the same way that all bloggers eventually employ comment screening tools after their open comment policy fails, as it always does. Why wait to find what you may have overlooked?

People set technical and legal standards so that absolutes are followed, when no exceptions are permitted. People set etiquette and moral standards after repeated bad experiences, while allowing that exceptions, changing sensibilities, and continual flexibility are still required.

Yehuda

For instance, we have a "code" in America of how close you stand to someone while talking to them, what you do with your eyes, what questions are considered too personal, and so on.

Excuse me, but where is this "code" written down?

Who is obliged to observe it?

How is it enforced?

What authority is consulted regarding matters of interpretation of the "code?"

If you can't answer these questions, and I'm pretty damn certain you can't, then there is no code. There are simply conventions and traditions that are cultural in origin and unevenly observed.

The surgeon who removed my kidney never once made eye contact with me as he described the procedure to me. It bothered me, but he wasn't an American, and apparently in his culture, eye contact under those circumstances was supposedly inappropriate. At least, that's what the other surgeon told me when I kind of complained about it. I certainly can't complain about the job he did. Nor can I report him to the "code" police.

There is no code, and we all have to make allowances for different cultural backgrounds, different senses of humor, different tolerances for intimacy and the like. Any effort to create or enforce some silly "code" is doomed to failure and will likely create more incivility than it instills.

Just my humble opinion. Except the part about there being no "code." That, as they say, is a fact.


This sounds like the efforts to implement a badge for health information Web sites: the Health on the Net Foundation started the HONcode, which is free and nonpoliced. Sites which display it agree to abide by certain rules and it's supposed to imply that the information they provide is reliable and they'll conform to a certain code of conduct.

The problem is, as many health care site Webmasters have pointed out, there's no enforcement, and entities that do offer real certification programs often charge an arm and a leg so that small information providers are stuck with a badge of questionable credibility.

I'm not sure how something like this would apply to most blogs, which are personal statements, but it's interesting to me that it is arising at the same time that corporate-sponsored blogs are being started.

A possible scenario is that corporate-sponsored blogs will display such badges to take on the kind of credibility they can't offer as a person-to-person thing, and something like that could be used to throw a shadow over smaller blogs. Credibility has been a real hot button with many political blogs for some time because traditional media outlets don't want their message to be questioned.

Personally, I like Tim Berners-Lee's take on it in Blogging is Great:

The way quality works on the web is through links.

It works because reputable writers make links to things they consider reputable sources. So readers, when they find something distasteful or unreliable, don't just hit the back button once, they hit it twice. They remember not to follow links again through the page which took them there. One's chosen starting page, and a nurtured set of bookmarks, are the entrance points, then, to a selected subweb of information which one is generally inclined to trust and find valuable.

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