Is it too late to bring civility to the Web? Wrong Question.

Yesterday's NYTs article on the so-called "conversational free-for-all" that was making The Blogosphere such a "prickly and unpleasant place" poses this question to its readers. "Is it too late to bring civility to the Web?"

Well. First, define civility. And then define The Web. (I'm not being facetious. Just bear with me a sec).

There are dozens of conversations going on about the whole Kathy Sierra online harassment case, and Tim O'Reilly's subsequent Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct. The Call has prompted, unsurprisingly, a lot of knee-jerk reactions concerning censorship. For instance, O'Reilly suggests, among other things, that bloggers "own" not only their own words, but also the "tone that you allow on any blog or forum you control" and this includes inflammatory comments, which he suggests be removed. He also suggests that bloggers disallow anonymous comments and to employ the "Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person" mantra. Instead, "imagine you're talking to your mother." (A very telling analogy, if you ask me, but I'll hold my tongue on that one for now. OK, except to say that wouldn't many of us perhaps less "innocent" mothers be utterly fucked if we had to live to this rule?)

I'm not about to take on the whole Freedom of Speech can of worms that is opened up here. (Holy Shit!). I do have very mixed feelings on this, and this is partly about the concept of "ownership" and the Broadcast model O'Reilly uses to characterize the way that the blogging medium works. On a personal level, much of what O'Reilly states makes sense to me, even if its a little overwrought and heavily reliant on notions of snazzy badges to mark one's tolerance level for abusive comments. (If you ask me, there is nothing that would bring on the trolls more than if I posted a big Good Behavior Badge on my site that says something along the lines of Stop In the Name of the Blog Law! I Will Not Accept Your Abuse! Go'Way... As far as I'm concerned it would just function as a big fat label that tells my readers that I am automatically suspicious of them. And a touch paranoid. En Guarde!)

What does interest me in all of this is how the mainstream media, and even O'Reilly to an extent, use this social concept of The Blogosphere or The Web in such relatively uncomplicated ways. As if The Blogosphere is one homogeneous (if rather unruly and uncivil) "society" that needs, at best, a good telling off, and at worst, a system of rules and procedures for accountability. In this vision there are the Good Blog Citizens who abide the rules and then there are the Nameless Trolls who threaten to spoil it all. Not that there aren't trolls or pretty foul people out there who seem to have some serious psychological issues to deal with, but the examples we've seen discussed in the media have been pretty extreme. When I think about adopting a Blogger's Code of Conduct, I'm really not sure who I am protecting (if anyone).

So. Define "Civil." I've already mentioned that the "Don't say anything you wouldn't say to your mother" rules out a lot writing that occurs in our often deeply personal and confessional spaces. Does this make us uncivil? Of course not (and I don't think O'Reilly would make that claim either). What this does show is that any attempts to establish codes of conduct or policing whatever we want to call it cannot adequately take into account the myriad of contexts and communities that make up this messy thing we're calling the blogosphere. What might be perfectly acceptable within one community would be utterly inappropriate in another--including what counts as "civility." (A point that BlogHer's Lisa Stone made to the NYT reporter, but which did not manage to find its way into the final print of the "Nasty Blogs" article)

This is all to say that I don't believe that there is such a thing as The Web as a discrete place in which to be civil. As I stated in a comment over at BlogHer, "The Blogosphere" is made up of innumerable, smaller communities of practice, each defining itself and its norms in very different ways. The various communities that make up the "mommasphere" are certainly prime examples. And its these communities, those which do not fit in the Broadcast or Author/Reader model so comfortably, that are less in need of some sort of protective Code (presuming anyone actually is). These communities--according to their own often implicit and intuited rules--are policing themselves very effectively.

An all-encompassing concept of The Blogosphere is not really very useful any more, especially in these types of debates, where it removes from the equation the diverse range of contexts in which we are all blogging, interacting, and being. We're only beginning to scrape at the surface of what these contexts are, and how these communities of practice actually work, but this, for me, is an essential starting point of we're going to start asking questions about online conduct.


ozma said...

One interesting question is why seemingly normal people go batshit crazy on the internet. Just the anonymity? Or something more?

I'm sure the NY Times went over that.

The hostility is fascinating in and of itself. It's so revealing. It usually takes the form of (1) Status envy (2) Racism (3) Sexism (4) Nationalist fervor (5) Out group hatred (political hate)

The status envy thing is kinda ripping off a hidden part of life...but I guess it's not all that revealing, huh? Anyway, watch out Canada! Americans are much more grouchy than they pretend. Underneath all that friendliness, they are SEETHING WITH RESENTMENT. Or ressentiment.

Blog Antagonist said...

I am a strong proponent of free speech. I always have been. But what most people don't understand (and I said this elsewhere today) is that with freedom comes responsibility.

Until people are willing and able to accept the responsibility, freedom of speech, as it applies to the internet will always carry be, to some people just another vehicle for nastiness and negativity.

Combine that with the comfort of anonymity, and you have a situation that is practically begging people to come out with guns blazing.

The internet is a hotbed of really base elements. We just have to choose to rise above it.

Amanda said...

I agree with both of these comments. I once left a comment on Blogher regarding Gardisil. I was horrified by how my comment was taken. I think a very real issue in the periphery of accountability is how words on a computer screen are absent the distinct intonations and facial expressions that the author might have in mind. That said, I whole heartedly agree that for the most part we are already doing a fine job of self-policing within the mommasphere.

Elizabeth said...

I like what you said about the Blogosphere being made up of smaller communities, each with their own norms. I'll admit I don't step outside the community of Mommyblogs very often, but I imagine that people who read and comment on , say, Political blogs, have a different set of acceptable commenting "rules" than the Mommybloggers do. We Moms tend to err on the side of being polite and supportive to each other for the most part, which is why I think so many of us were both shocked and angry at what happened to Kathy Sierra.

neva said...

conduct code? holy shit. (sorry my friend, i can't help myself. just be glad i didn't go with my first thought, which was something, uh, colorful like: "fuck me in the heart".)

i can play nice, and i will if i have and/or need to. xox

Mimi said...

I'm sure anonymity gives rise to Cyberbullies... I don't think there is an easy answer to get rid of it.

My dad always said two things that apply here:

1. Don't write anything down that you would not want written on the front page of the WSJ or NYT.

2. The only thing you have that you can truly call your own is your reputation.

I try to live by both those guidelines when leaving comments. I want to get my point across, yet be respectful of others feelings and beliefs. I can't do anything but ignore the cyberbullies. I'm not responsible for them, but I am responsible for how I react to them.

Nice post, btw...

karrie said...

Such great points about context and norms within various communities. I'm a fairly blunt person who enjoys debate. So far I have only deleted one comment--a racist threat towards a minor--which was made anonymously.

Otherwise, I feel that adult conversations should be open and honest, and allow for some level of friction and disagreement. Beyond using common sense, a broadly applied code of conduct for the internet just seems laughable.

Mrs. Chicky said...

With all media, all speech, comes bullies and unsavory characters. It really gets me down (funny, I wrote about this yesterday) but I don't believe in censorship and I don't believe in a blanket Code of Conduct. And I certainly don't want our government messing with my blog and dictating what I can and cannot write, which might be the next step. If that happens I'll just close up shop and look for somewhere else to toot my horn.

Oh, The Joys said...

Interesting debate and ideas...

(My mother reads my puerile crap so I feel safe... though...)

I am for free speech -- and for the freedom of each blogger to choose how they handle a troll or other comment.

Redneck Mommy said...

I am a huge advocate in free speech. I do not want anyone dictating to me what I can or can't write or what is or isn't acceptable.

I believe in being responsible for my words and holding myself accountable. It is a shame that there are those out in the cyber world who feel no such restrictions and thereby give blogging a bad name, but in any aspect of communication there are the nutjobs or quacks or morons who slip and say something they shouldn't under the guise of free speech. Don Imus anyone?

But the moment someone starts censoring what is said, or written, free speech is lost and isn't this a cherished part of democracy?

Dana said...

I believe there is a big difference in voicing one's opinion and harassing people with the use of psuedonyms and remaining anonymous.

If someone leaves a comment on a blog using a false name or posts as anonymous -- I don't think removing the comment is censorship. The person needs to own their words in order to be accepted as a contributor to the discussion.

Down right badgering, attacking and threatening should not be accepted anywhere.

Mimi said...

Freedom to and freedom from. Do I have property rights in my own blog? If so, then I have the right to shut the door in your face if you're being rude. Talk all you want, I don't have to publish it.

The BlogHer ladies make a good point about unmoderated speech not always being the freest: especially in crowded internet spaces, it's the loudest and the brashest who win out. Didn't we discuss this all w/r/t Usenet, like, 12 years ago? It's about different approaches to conversation. Maybe my obscenities and vigorous flaming censor your ability to speak. Just because there are no rules doesn't mean that behaviours aren't managed.

Cheers, the other Mimi, the one on the Breach.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Excellent points. With 'free speeech' people think it's ok to assault the computer with a torent of four letter words.

Perhaps blog users ought to decide what 'grade' their blog is to be, rather like a film at a cinema?

Andrea said...

I'd like to point out that no one's free speech is being trampled in any way. A blogger's code of conduct does not have the power to censor anyone. "Censorship" is when the government expropriates all copies of your book and burns it, then throws you in jail. It's not when someone makes you feel badly for using a racial slur. It certainly isn't when people appropriately call for an end to physical threats of violence, which have never been protected under any free speech positions, and rightfully so.

(Look at that, joy; you opened the can of worms anyway! Funny how that works.)


Mommybloggers are not, IMO, self-policing, unless you mean the KGB kind of self-policing. Mommybloggers have rules of engagement for public spaces, and then another rule for private spaces. I've been around on virtual communities and hte momosphere for long enough to see this in action--we all know that you're not supposed to piss on the floor in someone's virtual livingroom, so what happens instead? Susie reads Anna's blog and hates it, so she cuts and pastes the offending passage into an email to all her closest online friends and mocks it there. I've seen those emails, so yes, I know for a fact that it happens. I also have heard of and read disagreements that started as "civil" blog disagreements and then, via email, devolved into total deranged insult fests. And don't get me started on the self-policing where Betty tells Callie tells Donna tells Emma that Gina told Harriet how Inge hates Jane, and so do Kerry and Linda, only they didn't want to tell her so; and it gets back to Mary, who's Jane's best friend .... Blech.

This does not strike me as "civil" so much as "overly concerned with one's public standing as a Nice Girl." All the same shitty behaviours happen, but out of the public eye, where no one can be held to account. It does get back to the hatee eventually, and it is just as destructive, but the perpetrators get to carry on under Nice Girl guise indefinitely.

In short, it sinks. I'd much rather we blow up in each other's faces periodically.

Her Bad Mother said...

Yes. And, yes, yes, yes, yes, and, also, yes.

(and, what ozma said about ressentiment - YES.)

Defining and IMPOSING a code of civility runs against the grain of free speech, obviously. But then again, so does the insistence that the Internet eschew even informal codes of civility. I control, to some extent, the discourse that takes place on my blog - and I like it that way. I'm the editor - I delete posts, delete comments, block ISPs as I see fit. That control is a sort of freedom that I wouldn't want to give up - not becuase I want to silence people, but because it allows me *my* safe place for speaking freely. You're totally welcome to come play there if you follow my rules - if you sign up on *my* social contract.

Totally democratic, in a benevolently dictatorial kind of way. Which is how I like it.

gingajoy said...

Blog Antagonist, I could not agree more that with Freedom of Speech comes responsibility, and also with Andrea that "Censorship" is a word too loosely bandied about.

My problem is not with the notion that "civility" must be exercised within the blogosphere, but with who gets to define the terms of civility, which to me is very contextually based. Even in the scenario you describe, Andrea, I am not sure if any code of conduct would work, quite the opposite, it would simply push everything underground and out of the public realm. But maybe this *is* a version of civility? Not something I would personally like to be part of, certainly, but perhaps less abusive than open bashing on a public blog or an open space. Civility, in many ways, seems to be connected to Public demeanour, about the performance of politeness in public spaces? (I need to check the OED). I don't know. Tough one. Interesting though.

Karrie, you've voiced my own feelings on this: "I feel that adult conversations should be open and honest, and allow for some level of friction and disagreement. Beyond using common sense, a broadly applied code of conduct for the internet just seems laughable."

Of course, this is all easy for me to say. I've yet to have a "troll" or see anything that has personally offended me in my comments section or on others. But deeply offensive or threatening comments that are personal attacks on me or others--I think I would delete them, but I am not swearing to it!

Ozma--you wouldn't believe some of the people I work with who are perfectly polite to my face and who have the most foul online/email personae. Pussies.

Mad Hatter said...

Great post Joy and great discussion. I self-censor all the time in the 'sphere. I've written a couple of posts in my day that have ruffled feathers and have left me in tears b/c I did not want to take back my words nor did I want to hurt others. As a result, I currently feel as if I am a less effective blog citizen b/c when I read a post that I would really, really like to engage with I too often back down reasoning that it's not worth the heartache. I don't doubt that what Andrea says is true about what goes on offline but it is certainly not my truth. I feel very isolated when I blog. There is no one to tell me to check my tone or line of argument before I go live. I hit publish and then, hit or miss, I deal with the consequences alone. This spring I did try to float a couple of insecurities past another blogger before I went live with a post and even though this other blogger was FABULOUS in her response I kinda felt like a creepy shit for doing it. I felt like I should just know what this shifting code of self-policing conduct is. But I don't. And the other blogger also felt at sea with what it might be as well.

Lord, what the hell am I talking about here? I guess in the end, I like what you say about the Web not being an isolated fortress but rather a community of communities. I would take it one step further though to say that there is no such thing as a fixed communitity in the blogosphere whatsoever b/c everything is in flux. I have new readers this week that I didn't have last week. I have added new blogs to my bloglines lately. I lurk some places. Some people lurk with me. It is all so isolating in the end. I might define us as a community of communities of lone mavericks.

But even that's not right b/c there are concrete communities of bloggers who come together. Who know each other off-line. Who have tea and play dates. These people perhaps (and I can only say perhaps here) write from a greater sense of security in their communities. (They also have to take greater risks b/c they now know the people they may offend). Boy am I ever rambling. Anyhoo, I am going to meet a small group of my 'sphere pals in a couple of weeks. Maybe my thoughts will change on all this after I do.

So far though, I have been mulling over issues of our real, concrete geographies and the influence they have on our voices in this non-space specific place.

Holy rambling pointless comment, Batman. Apologies. Much. Much. Rambling. Thanks for lighting the spark that I clearly needed to work a few things out.

Gunfighter said...

Serious stuff, Joy.

Communities turn into whatever they will... there is no controlling it.

As for what civil is... it is what you think it is, which might not be what I think it is.

I alwauys assume that stistically, most people are little better than talking monkeys, so I am seldom disappointed at what I think of as bad behavior.

When I encounter speech or attitudes that I don't care for, I avoid the fora in which they appear... I'm never surpirsed by the levels of idiocy, so I never get overly worked up.


All is well, now be so kind as to pour me a large stout... I have a rugby match to watch later.


mothergoosemouse said...

The Libertarian-bordering-on-Anarchist in me chafes at the mere suggestion that someone might tell me what to do on my own blog. But on others' sites? That's their ball game, not mine.

But even in moderated forums, such as BlogHer, the discussion can degenerate - as in the situation Amanda described. Even if foul language and personal insults don't come into play, there will always be room for interpretation that allows for perceived insult (particular when so many of us - I'm including myself - have chips on our shoulders about one issue or another).

So we behave like adults and ask questions, or shut up and get over it. Or at least we should. But that's not behavior that can be effectively legislated or enforced, especially in cyberspace.