Monday, April 09, 2007

the "c" word

Here we go again:

The conversational free-for-all on the Internet known as the blogosphere can be a prickly and unpleasant place. Now, a few high-profile figures in high-tech are proposing a blogger code of conduct to clean up the quality of online discourse.

Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, 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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

I hesitate to delve into this, since I’m starting to get the impression that newspapers and magazines are learning they can get traction online and stir up a fuss simply by putting out a story about blogs in which one or more sources says something someone in the blogosphere will strongly disagree with, which is to say they open their mouths and emit sounds commonly known as words. It’s the journalistic equivalent of poking an anthill with a stick because it’s easier and produces more interesting results than doing your chores.

I don’t read tech blogs, and I wonder how much of this article is relevant to political blogging. In the political blogosphere, I’ve certainly seen vitriolic ad hominem attacks from the left, the right, and all places in between. However, lefty bloggers (and libertarians not named Glenn) generally place less value than right-wing bloggers in “civility” as it’s generally understood offline, meaning the use of curse words. I feel as though the word “civility” has been reduced in this debate to one meaning—presence or absence of profanity—much as in some religious contexts “morality” has become code for “sex” for people who feel uncomfortable using the ‘s’ word. Insofar as “civility” in this context is used to mean snark or general rudeness or exasperation with one’s political opponents, these are lesser components of the concept and seem to cause less alarm among the non-blogging public.

As a general principle, I value civility as an extension of the golden rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated, that is, respectfully. But civility in some contexts is overrated. For instance, in a quality gangster flick, you don’t want Al Pacino yelling “fetch” or “flip” a couple hundred times in the course of arranging drug deals and gunning people down, or Jack Nicholson politely refraining from breaking a flunky’s hand for no apparent reason, thereby failing to demonstrate to the viewer his expansive ruthlessness.

As far as civility in the context of online political blogging, at the risk of making the obvious and possibly infuriating argument, I’m going to go right where my hippie brain takes me and say that this, this, or this [warning: graphic photos of the effects of war] strike me as rather more obscene than George Carlin’s seven naughty words. One might, if one were so inclined, wonder where the civility is in Guantanamo Bay, in half the world’s population living on less than $2 a day, or in the federal prosecution of a dying woman whose self-medication with a mildly psychoactive plant allows her not to starve to death?

In the hierarchy of incivility, killing someone because you don’t understand how the world works or how you fit into it, killing someone “accidentally” as you see it because that person is essentially invisible to you, must surely rank somewhere above an “aitch-ee-double hockey stick” or an “ask me no more questions, I’ll tell you no more lies”, if somewhere below the dread F-bomb.

Turning to comment threads--death threats or extremely abusive or harassing comments would probably be deleted from a thread and the commenter banned at most of the blogs I frequent. Death threats are sometimes delivered by phone or the blessed post, but we don’t talk about “codes of conduct” for how telephone conversations or personal correspondence should be carried out. Blogging is a medium of communication between human beings—while it’s seen by some as an innovative medium at the moment, it’s not the first and won’t be the last.

In my view, if someone leaves an anonymous comment, it might mean they are new to the site or the blogosphere or just don’t have the stones to stand behind what they say (see, e.g., V-Dare trolls currently plaguing pro-immigrant blogs). However, anonymity should be distinguished from pseudonymity. If a blogger has a pseudonymous online persona (as certain well-regarded bloggers currently suffering from Traffic Deficiency Syndrome have been known to do), it may mean that their job requires discretion or they want some level of separation between their online and offline lives, for whatever reason. A blog, whether pseudonymous or not, is an intensely personal investment of time and energy. A blogger has the right to manage his comments however he wishes. Deleting or banning crackpot trolls to maintain the integrity of a thread or one’s personal sanity is fully acceptable behavior. Anonymous commenters shouldn’t feel too bad about having their comments deleted since they didn’t value them enough to attach their names in the first place. I think most bloggers have figured out how to manage comments to their personal satisfaction without signing on to any code or set of principled guidelines.

So that’s enough words spilled about this silliness.

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