April 9, 2007
A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs
By BRAD STONE
Is it too late to bring civility to the Web?
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.
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.
Since last October, she has also had to deal with an anonymous blogger who maintains a separate site that parodies her writing and has included photos of Ms. Armstrong’s daughter, copied from her site.
Ms. Armstrong tries not to give the site public attention, but concedes that, “At first, it was really difficult to deal with.”
Women are not the only targets of nastiness. For the last four years, Richard Silverstein has advocated for Israeli-Palestinian peace on a blog (richardsilverstein.com) that he maintains from Seattle.
People who disagree with his politics frequently leave harassing comments on his site. But the situation reached a new low last month, when an anonymous opponent started a blog in Mr. Silverstein’s name that included photos of Mr. Silverstein in a pornographic context.
“I’ve been assaulted and harassed online for four years,” he said. “Most of it I can take in stride. But you just never get used to that level of hatred.”
One public bid to improve the quality of dialogue on the Web came more than a year ago when Mena Trott, a co-founder of the blogging software company Six Apart, proposed elevating civility on the Internet in a speech she gave at a French blog conference. At the event, organizers had placed a large screen on the stage showing instant electronic responses to the speeches from audience members and those who were listening in online.
As Ms. Trott spoke about improving online conduct, a heckler filled the screen with personal insults. Ms Trott recalled “losing it” during the speech.
Ms. Trott has scaled back her public writing and now writes a blog for a limited audience of friends and family. “You can’t force people to be civil, but you can force yourself into a situation where anonymous trolls are not in your life as much,” she said.
The preliminary recommendations posted by Mr. Wales and Mr. O’Reilly are based in part on a code developed by BlogHer, a network for women designed to give them blogging tools and to guide readers to their pages.
“Any community that does not make it clear what they are doing, why they are doing it, and who is welcome to join the conversation is at risk of finding it difficult to help guide the conversation later,” said Lisa Stone, who created the guidelines and the BlogHer network in 2006 with Elisa Camahort and Jory Des Jardins.
A subtext of both sets of rules is that bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors. They say that bloggers should also have the right to delete such comments if they find them profane or abusive.
That may sound obvious, but many Internet veterans believe that blogs are part of a larger public sphere, and that deleting a visitor’s comment amounts to an assault on their right to free speech. It is too early to gauge support for the proposal, but some online commentators are resisting.
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.”