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
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.