Offline or Online, Civility Depends on Each Community’s Tolerance

    by Mark Glaser
    April 16, 2007

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    Lately, the crass nature of talk radio and the blogosphere has been Topic A in the media. Shock jock Don Imus has been fired by CBS Radio and MSNBC TV for his racially charged comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. And publisher/blogger Tim O’Reilly has called for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct after blogger Kathy Sierra was the subject of death threats and vile misogynist speech on her blog and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

    In both cases, the worst offenses took place by people out of ignorance. Imus didn’t really know the women on the Rutgers team before calling them “ho’s,” and the anonymous people who made comments about Sierra remain a mystery to her and everyone else. While I don’t agree with the need for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct, I will whole-heartedly agree with one of O’Reilly’s rules of thumb: “We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.”

    Would Imus have said his insulting comments to the faces of the Rutgers players? No. Would blog commenters have made the same personal insults if they were sitting in front of Sierra? No. The seemingly anonymous, freewheeling nature of the online world has always been a breeding ground for personal attacks, flame wars and trolls. And shock jocks make a living by making fun of nearly everyone with colorful, provocative language.


    But when do they cross the line? When do they go too far? Who is fair game for these attacks and who isn’t? I don’t believe as a society that we have created the perfect rules for free speech or obscenities, and there will always be gray areas and wiggle room in the legal restrictions of community standards. But maybe those community standards do make sense when it comes to drawing the line somewhere.

    Let’s take the case of Imus. The community, his listeners, have put up with a lot of his racist comments in the past, as has his employers. When he stepped over the line, some of his listeners came to his defense, while others were upset. Advertisers — another key component of his community — decided to drop out of his show, and his employers fired him. You might argue that more people in his community were accepting of his slur against the Rutgers women, and they still have the option to listen to his show, wherever it might turn up next. His own community — not outside observers — will decide whether he broke the rules or not, and leave his side or stay. Anyone who thinks they can set the rules and then break them will end up with a very small community.

    Sierra’s blog, Creating Passionate Users, has open comments. Sierra has the power and right to moderate those comments, keep them open, or completely eliminate them. She has worried in the past about deleting comments because it would come off as censorship in an otherwise open community online. This is where the balancing act comes in. If a community allows the crass and the obscene to get an equal voice and footing as people of sense and respectability, then it harms the overall community, causing people to leave and the blogger to stop writing.


    This is a pattern that has doomed usenet groups, chat rooms and blogs of every stripe because open forums are magnets for people who abuse their freedom of speech. But having an overriding Code of Conduct makes no sense either. Each community, led by the moderator or blogger, must set its own standards for conduct and decide how to police rule-breakers. You can clearly see the rules of engagement I have set up with comments on PBS MediaShift, as the rules are on every blog post and every potential comment. I have had very few complaints about my rules and have deleted very few comments (if you except the mountain of spam comments).

    I try not to judge each community by its rules. If blogger Glenn Reynolds doesn’t accept comments, or Kathy Sierra has open comments, then that is their choice. Maybe Reynolds can deal with comments better via his email in-box, and Sierra likes (or liked) the free exchange of ideas. I don’t need a special badge — as O’Reilly suggested — to figure out that one is being closed and the other open. I’d rather see obvious rules of conduct at each site so I know what I’m getting when I spend time in that community.

    I am saddened every time I see or hear the kind of ignorant hate speech spewed by people online or offline. It is a fact of our society, and it’s better that we can see it as the reality of our surroundings than try to legislate it away so it goes underground. But rather than try to tell everyone how they should run their community, I hope that each community will take the time to work out their own standards, their own rules of engagement, so that rule-breakers can be dealt with in a consistent and fair way. Otherwise, we end up in an unrealistically stifled society, where every bad word is legislated, or an unrealistically open society, where every bad word is celebrated or shrugged off.

    Here are some of the best articles and commentaries I’ve found on this subject so far:

    Incivility Creep by Don Tennant of ComputerWorld

    Coordinated Statements on the Recent Events by Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke

    No twinkie badges here by Jeff Jarvis

    Code of Conduct — Lessons Learned So Far by Tim O’Reilly

    Men Who Hate Women on the Web by Joan Walsh of Salon

    Putting the brakes on coarseness by Ellen Goodman

    Blogger code criticized by Cassandra Szklarski of the Canadian Press

    Kathy Sierra Case: Few Clues, Little Evidence, Much Controversy by Dylan Tweney of Wired News

    What do you think? Do you think there’s a place for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct? How do you think communities should police trouble-makers and personal attacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below — and don’t forget to follow the rules.

    Tagged: blogosphere online etiquette radio
    • What about diversity?

      Wouldn’t that be a quick check of how fairly the online community is working against ignorance and intolerance? Or at least a good indicator of who they would have to respond to if they did post stereotypical or offensive dialogue?

      Then again, I guess if diversity is not present in your online communities then you never really have to entertain the idea of, ‘would you say it to them, face to face?’

      It seems premature, like not everyone is at the table yet, and one group is deciding what the future of this medium should be.

      It took so long for mainstream media to diversify, and yet the owners remain a homogeneous group. Not so different from the online domain.

      So, now it seems we are left again to confront how women, and people of diverse backgrounds are regarded in the online medium.

      Here is a hint, lets not wait to address the issue of diversity. Lets be proactive and take an interest in how we are engaging people different than ourselves online.

      Otherwise, somethings will never change.

    • Well, Wired reported that Kathy Sierra now knows two out of four of her apparaent tormenters. And Frank Paynter revealed on April 11th that Sierra had contacted him on March 15th regarding Joey’s comments, but didn’t request he do anything about it.

      Another thing you may have missed, a comment by Tim O’Reilly buried within the followup thread.
      “Jon, your post at Comment Management Responsibility: A Proposal is very detailed and thought provoking, as well as way more comprehensive than anything I’d thought so far.”

      If you got that level of endorsement from one of the most influential people on the computer industry, you’d be jonesing for a followup as well. Perhaps you can.

    • Guy Pollock

      4/17/07A reader or listener of comments evaluating the message for content by rejecting gibberish builds a connection for the individual. Rejection of rejection evaluates nothing and should be avoided. Let me know.Guy

    • Eric

      The notion that bloggers should have a code of conduct is admirable but unrealistic. The anonymity, the facelessness of the internet gives people the courage to write things and advance ideas they never otherwise would have, but it also gives voice to a percentage of people that delight in antagonism. Sticking a badge on your site is a good way to make yourself a target for people who delight in the obscene. O’Reilly’s heart is in the right place, but unless he can find a way to sufficiently deter abusers, then he’s likely creating work for himself.

    • Something O’Reilly forgot in all this: not all the blogosphere knows he exists nor knows about his badge idea. The guy’s living in some little bubble where he thinks his ideas are reaching everyone. For him to even suggest badges was patently absurd given the breadth of the blogosphere.

    • Brad

      Imus got fired because advertisers fled his show. He would have been fired immediately if his comments had been enough. Once the dollars were gone Imus turned into negateive revenue for the networks that carried his show.

    • Brad

      Imus got fired because advertisers fled his show. He would have been fired immediately if his comments had been enough. Once the dollars were gone Imus turned into negative revenue for the networks that carried his show.

    • Chris Newman

      There shouldn’t be a code of conduct or a long set of rules censoring what the public has to say. The reason why there shouldn’t be a code is because everyone should know what is and isn’t appropriate to say or write. What Imus did was stupid and he should know what he can’t say and still be a shock jock. If failure to follow these common “rules” you learned in elementary school, then punishment will follow. So Imus found out the hard way.

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