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Monday, April 09, 2007

On the other hand.....
Posted by Jill | 6:46 AM
How about a code of conduct for mainstream journalists, one that prevents them from conducting interviews using the constructs "Some people say", "Some might say", "People are saying", "It has been reported", and the kazillion other variants of Fox News-speak that have infected other journalistic organizations?

There is much hand-wringing about blogger ethics, but precious little attention paid to the kind of shabby work done by mainstream journalists as part of the Foxification of mainstream news. This runs the gamut from Katie Couric's hatchet job on John and Elizabeth Edwards to Patrick Healy's May 23, 2006 gossipy story the Clintons' marriage that the suits deemed important enough to appear above the fold on page 1 of the New York Times, to just about anything written by Adam Nagourney.

And yet despite the mainstream media's refusal to reconsider its relentless march away from hard-hitting news and towards infotainment and gossip, there is a move among some (well, at least two) in Blogtopia (® Skippy) to "create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate":

Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.

A recent outbreak of antagonism among several prominent bloggers “gives us an opportunity to change the level of expectations that people have about what’s acceptable online,” said Mr. O’Reilly, who posted the preliminary recommendations last week on his company blog (radar.oreilly.com). Mr. Wales then put the proposed guidelines on his company’s site (blogging.wikia.com), and is now soliciting comments in the hope of creating consensus around what constitutes civil behavior online.

Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Wales talk about creating several sets of guidelines for conduct and seals of approval represented by logos. For example, anonymous writing might be acceptable in one set; in another, it would be discouraged. Under a third set of guidelines, bloggers would pledge to get a second source for any gossip or breaking news they write about.

Bloggers could then pick a set of principles and post the corresponding badge on their page, to indicate to readers what kind of behavior and dialogue they will engage in and tolerate. The whole system would be voluntary, relying on the community to police itself.

“If it’s a carefully constructed set of principles, it could carry a lot of weight even if not everyone agrees,” Mr. Wales said.

The code of conduct already has some early supporters, including David Weinberger, a well-known blogger (hyperorg.com/blogger) and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “The aim of the code is not to homogenize the Web, but to make clearer the informal rules that are already in place anyway,” he said.

But as with every other electrically charged topic on the Web, finding common ground will be a serious challenge. Some online writers wonder how anyone could persuade even a fraction of the millions of bloggers to embrace one set of standards. Others say that the code smacks of restrictions on free speech.

Mr. Wales and Mr. O’Reilly were inspired to act after a firestorm erupted late last month in the insular community of dedicated technology bloggers. In an online shouting match that was widely reported, Kathy Sierra, a high-tech book author from Boulder County, Colo., and a friend of Mr. O’Reilly, reported getting death threats that stemmed in part from a dispute over whether it was acceptable to delete the impolitic comments left by visitors to someone’s personal Web site.

Distraught over the threats and manipulated photos of her that were posted on other critical sites — including one that depicted her head next to a noose — Ms. Sierra canceled a speaking appearance at a trade show and asked the local police for help in finding the source of the threats. She also said that she was considering giving up blogging altogether.

In an interview, she dismissed the argument that cyberbullying is so common that she should overlook it. “I can’t believe how many people are saying to me, ‘Get a life, this is the Internet,’ ” she said. “If that’s the case, how will we ever recognize a real threat?”

Ms. Sierra said she supported the new efforts to improve civility on the Web. The police investigation into her case is pending.

Menacing behavior is certainly not unique to the Internet. But since the Web offers the option of anonymity with no accountability, online conversations are often more prone to decay into ugliness than those in other media.

Nowadays, those conversations often take place on blogs. At last count, there were 70 million of them, with more than 1.4 million entries being added daily, according to Technorati, a blog-indexing company. For the last decade, these Web journals have offered writers a way to amplify their voices and engage with friends and readers.

But the same factors that make those unfiltered conversations so compelling, and impossible to replicate in the offline world, also allow them to spin out of control.

As many female bloggers can attest, women are often targets. Heather Armstrong, a blogger in Salt Lake City who writes publicly about her family (dooce.com), stopped accepting unmoderated comments on her blog two years ago after she found that conversations among visitors consistently devolved into vitriol.


Robert Scoble, a popular technology blogger who stopped blogging for a week in solidarity with Kathy Sierra after her ordeal became public, says the proposed rules “make me feel uncomfortable.” He adds, “As a writer, it makes me feel like I live in Iran.”

Mr. O’Reilly said the guidelines were not about censorship. “That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make — believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech,” he said. “Free speech is enhanced by civility.”


I'm of two minds on all this. I tend to lean towards free speech in terms of commenting here, but even that is subject to limits. In almost three years of blogging, I have banned only two commenters. The first one was banned because he contributed nothing to intelligent discourse but simply posted the standard boilerplate of Rush Limbaugh talking points -- relentlessly -- to the point of constituting comment spam. And the second was because of a comment that strayed just a wee bit too close to being a personal threat against me. I don't mind people bringing uninvited guests to my party as long as they behave, but I do not have to tolerate turds in the punchbowl.

I've blogged on the Kathy Sierra situation, and we all know about the kind of shit that Melissa and Amanda received from some unhinged lunatics acting at the behest of unhinged lunatic William Donahue. One of the compensations of not being well-known and not receiving a lot of traffic is that you're usually deemed not important enough for those threatened by outspoken women to bother with.

I suppose it's helpful to post rules, but as someone who's participated in messageboards dealing with everything from menopause to movies to home improvement and who used to moderate a movie-related board, I can tell you that everyone clicks through that boilerplate spiel about conduct that most messageboard software provides -- and then does whatever the heck they want anyway, leaving it to the moderator to decide what's acceptable. The Web is, after all, all about speech, and at least up to this point, it's been perhaps the most, shall we say, libertarian medium we've ever seen. But still, while the "fire in a crowded theatre" rule ought to apply, I think forced gentility is perhaps taking things a bit too far.

That said, I think we can all agree that wishing for sexual violence, or any kind of violence, to be visited on someone for what he (or more likely, she) said crosses the free speech line, as does posting things like someone's address, phone number, or other personal information.

I would like to see this treated more as an issue for law enforcement to develop strategies to deal with. Because you know as well as I do that all of the civility guidelines in the world aren't goint to stop the crazies from making threats against people with whom they disagree.


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