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