Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Code of Conduct

Plenty of interesting fodder in the carnival (see post below), particularly in the light of the recent attention paid to the egregious posts - including those inciting sexually violent acts - on Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users blog.

For my £0.02 (that's like what - $0.04 US at current exchange rates?) in the light of what's happened to Sierra and others, I appreciate where Tim O'Reilly's Code of Blogging Conduct (CoBC) is coming from. Briefly - there are 7 Principles O'Reilly suggests:

1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.

3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

4. Ignore the trolls.

5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.

6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.

7. Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person.

The notion of a Code of Conduct always raises the hackles of a woolly liberal like me. There's an instinctual belief that those trying to dictate acceptable behaviour will dictate the terms in such a way that it benefits them alone. But I think O'Reilly's done a sterling job here, though I'm not sure whether I'd call this a code of conduct. As you'd expect from O'Reilly they are a clear, interesting and useful set of how to's that will help make blogging more fruitful for those who choose to adopt them.

Principles 1, 2 and 3 are suggestions for good editorial practice, and the way they're implemented will vary from blog to blog. O'Reilly hat tips Kaylea Hascall for the notion of a set of Creative Commons type badges that will let readers know what "flavour" of comment you'll allow. Me - ad hominem attack are a nono; I'm relaxed about profanity; but absolutely no tales of some 16 year old babysitter killed by an axe wielding maniac or similar that conclude "if you don't post this comment to 15 other blogs you will die a horrible death". If someone can make me a succinct badge that conveys that I'll be eternally grateful!

Principles one and two kind of run together for me. If you have an editorial policy on your blog regarding the comments you'll allow then this should be made explicit. There's no point hoping that someone who's recently turned on to your blog will "get" the culture you're fostering. An explicit declaration of what will and won't be posted saves the blogger from a lot of whining from deleted posters whose amour propre has been damaged, and saves would be posters a lot of time and energy, if they know a priori what doesn't fly on your site.

Principle 3 has caused a bit of a ruckus in the blogging community. There are many (such as the fab NHS Blog Doctor) who can't divulge their identities for professional reasons, and others who can't or won't for personal reasons. However, I think that there are gradations of anonymity - there are those who know me in the "big room with the blue ceiling" that I wouldn't dream of giving my phone number to for example. A consistent online identity - even if it's nothing more than a username - is at least "fair dealing" when it comes to tying together a picture of who says what. I like Slashdot's default guest handle of "anonymous coward" - it's hard to upbraid someone about their behaviour if you can't see a pattern of behaviour emerging. For the purposes of a useful CoC, anonymity must allow you to retain as much privacy about your real life identity as you would retain in talking in any location where you might be overheard. Those posters who don't use a consistent identity - whether posting as "anonymous coward" or using endless sock puppets - should be taken about as seriously as a phonecall from a Mr "Haywood Djablomé".

I find 4 very hard - I think most serious bloggers, particularly the scientists and engineers, all do at some level. At the bottom is a difficulty in recognising some of the less obvious trolls. This is a result of my perplexity in not understanding how someone can be engaging in a discussion in anything less than a spirit of openness and goodwill. Thankfully I've never been high profile enough to have truly bothersome trolling. Maybe the Scientiae carnival will change all that...

5 and 7 will be ignored by trolls, but are at least good reminders for those of us who maybe just get a little het up sometimes. I know I prefer delivering the bad news about someone's diminished intellectual stature and personal effectiveness ("you're a jackass") in private than in public.

Number 6, read in conjunction with number 5, suggests that bad behaviour be tackled offline. One of the problems I've encountered in other forums is that trolls use this propensity for the "good citizens" to address the troll privately to divide and rule. The complainant is left with the impression that they're the only one that finds the behaviour to be out of line. It's only when the members of the forum can name the behaviour as being unacceptable in public that they realise they're not the only one having a problem with the troll in question. There needs to be some sort of corollary to 5 - when private communication fails, we have a right or perhaps a duty to calmly and dispassionately name the poor behaviour in public.

So I've been won over. The Code of Conduct looks reasonable and useful. It will only be noticed by the "good citizens" - but if nothing else it will empower us to name bad behaviour. The Internet is a public place - but so is the bus stop. You're having a edifying, enlightning or entertaining conversation, waiting for the bus. Some idiots keep barging in to make threats, or derailing the conversation with loud yelling. Not only that, they do so in disguise. You'd be happy to call the behaviour unacceptable. Don't settle for less online.


DavidC said...

The 'Code of Conduct' raises my hackles too. Of course any blog can have a public declaration of what's acceptable there, and it makes sense if that is clear and systematically enforced. But I don't think it will have any effect on the extreme/unbalanced people who harass Sierra or Rachel from North London. That's where the police need to be involved, and politeness, important though that is, is not enough.

Auntie Em said...

That's a good point. I think the code of conduct will help with those marginal cases where the failure to properly engage with a community that springs up round a blog, mailing list, bulletin board or whathaveyou, leads to that forum losing its usefulness and appeal.

In the case you cite (Rachel from North London) there are already laws in the UK to deal with stalking in general which, whilst imperfect (they have been used to silence protests against corporations for example) permit action to be taken. Where threats and "psychological violence" are concerned, it's naive to expect a code of conduct to have any effect.

davidc said...

Certainly I agree that having an explicit code allows anyone involved in a forum to highlight unacceptable behaviour in a non-confrontational way, which may well help in certain types of forums.

Post a Comment