04:44 AM

About that Code of Conduct

Tim O'Reilly has posted some "lessons learned" from the debate over his proposed Code of Conduct in light of the Kathy Sierra fiasco. From the comments on this page, as well as some of the edits on the Wikipedia page, it seems to me that the whole debate is tripping over the notion of enforcement.

Tim says he believes in a culture of civility for the web and that what he is proposing is not a code at all but a proposal for mechanisms that would sort of increase the base level of civility in the system.

It concerns me that Kathy Sierra, whose bad experience triggered this discussion, thinks that a code of conduct such as I proposed would do no good. (She points out that the threatening comments about her are not on sites that she controls.) But I believe that civility is catching, and so is uncivility. If it's tolerated, it gets worse. There is no one blogging community, just like there is no one community in a big city. But as Sara Winge, our VP of Corporate Communications pointed out, it's not an accident that "Civil" is also the first two syllables of "civilization."

The problem here is that a culture of self-restraint and censorship is also catching. You can look at 1950s America or the post-Code movie industry to see snapshots of cultures that are hamstrung by groupthink. Although no one's mentioned it, I think the spectre of the self-imposed Movie Code - a way to avoid governmental regulation that resulted in far more Draconian censorship than would have come from Washington and which led indirectly to the Hollywood blacklists (again, voluntary) - is somewhere in the subconcious here.

I think the fear is overblown. Site owners will make their own decisions about what to delete and what not. As Tim writes:

I challenge anyone who reads the comments on the two entries about the Code of Conduct that are linked to at the start of this entry to tell me that I'm suppressing discussion just because I deleted a couple of comments by potty-mouthed kids who didn't have anything to say but epithets.

I would do the same. Others will not. After it all dies down, the trolls and the hate-mongers will be back and it will be up to site owners to decide what to do about them. Perhaps the gravity will have shifted against hate-mongering. But it's such a big place, with so many dark nooks and crannies, that I frankly doubt that the culture of civility will be enough to make an impact.

It will come down to enforcement. How will the Code be enforced? Not by badges and pledges, after all. But by creating new mechanisms that allow bloggers to act in ways that allow conversation without allowing abuse. One idea is to let users flag posts, which then become "click to see," thus taking the comment out of the general stream of conversation.

You could take it further an adopt the Craigslist mechanism: enough flags cause the post to be deleted.

I really like this, as it addresses one of the biggest hesitations I personally have about deleting comments, namely that deleting part of a conversation can make it impossible to reconstruct what really went on. And there have also been problems in the past with blog owners selectively editing conversations to present themselves in the best possible light. A mechanism that preserves comments while hiding them "in the back room" so to speak would seem to me to be a really useful tool.

But the above quote about the "problem" of bloggers selectively deleting I find problematic. To take a legal approach, my blog is my property. I can disable comments, delete ones I don't like, block users I don't like, etc. If the community doesn't like it, they can criticize me for being a self-serving jerk. If I don't like the criticism, maybe I'll change my ways.

That's an enforcement mechanism. A community-based enforcement mechanism. It's not a particularly civil one but it works.

The rule about don't feed the trolls seems to be the most helpful thing of all. I had a chat with Tara Hunt, in which she said she "absolutely" wishes she hadn't kept engaging the conversation as it became and more antagonistic. People that care about civility will follow these basic precepts - act civilly, discourage others from being uncivil, don't feed the trolls. Ultimately, no badges are necessary.

Finally, Tim points out that whatever voluntary code is adopted is likely to bump up against certain legal protections that websites now have - but that could be taken away whenever Congress got the urge to do so.

Jeff Jarvis asserted that sites (blogs) that selectively edit comments would run the risk of losing Section 230 protection, the law that prevents websites from being held tortiously liable for user postings. Tim points out this isn't true, quoting from EFF's FAQ about the law.

"Courts have held that Section 230 prevents you from being held liable even if you exercise the usual prerogative of publishers to edit the material you publish. You may also delete entire posts."

Still, to say you take "responsibility" for something (#1 - We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog) is just empty words unless there's a way to enforce that responsibility. When Alberto Gonzales says it, it should mean he's willing to resign. When an individual or company says it, it should mean they're willing to defend themselves in a court of law.

Thus he concedes lawyers - real lawyers - should review the code before people start using it, to make sure bloggers aren't increasing their liability.