I’ve been growing quite interested in the debate that’s currently taking place about the possibility of a new ‘code of blogging conduct’. The calls for internal regulation of the blogosphere have come about after Kathy Sierra, who I think is a technology blogger, has been the subject of ‘cyber-bullying’. The poor woman has received death threats and has had to face a barrage of violent and disturbing comments that regard her appearing on other sites. This is clearly an instance where what the BBC calls ‘the usually harmless feuding’ of the blogworld has grown completely out of hand. If you are interested, there are posts by Tim O’Reilly and the Guardian which suggest various ways of approaching such a code; I found them very thought provoking.
But what I was most interested in was the incidences of ‘harmless feuding’ that I’ve noticed myself on other people’s sites. After all, this is where it all starts, this sense that it is possible, even part and parcel of what bloggers do, to berate, bicker, and generally bludgeon each other over the head with their virulent opinions. Only last week, the beautifully mannered Bloglily found herself on the receiving end of rude and unpleasant comments that seemed entirely excessive. Last year, Kimbofo, a considerate, measured voice in the book blog world if ever there was one, was quite upset by the level of aggression shown towards her in her post on the ethics of blog reviews. And I was myself surprised when I posted a more opinionated piece than is my usual habit to find myself on the receiving end of more censure than is generally the case in my comments. There’s a sliding scale of aggression here, but it occurs to me to wonder why it should be the case that this form of public discussion is open to aggression in a way that other forums for debate so rarely are.
It seems to me that the blogworld is an environment in which it is very easy to offend and to be offended. The anonymity that bloggers enjoy makes it easier to be more forthright with opinions and emotions than people are when they are face to face in the same room. There’s also (and this comes up quite a bit in the posts on the code of conduct) a general sense that you should allow other people to dissent quite violently in comments sections because censoring those words would give the impression that you only permit friends, toadies and flatterers to share your space. What a lot of the code of conduct posts are suggesting is that bloggers should take responsibility not only for what they write, but also for what other people write, and that we should all advertise our own particular policies on politeness for visitors to see. I’d be quite happy to advocate zero tolerance, myself, and insist on the most respectful behaviour at all times. I feel that when I read another person’s blog post, it’s like I’m a guest in their house. So if the host expresses a view that is not my own, I wouldn’t dream of shouting them down about it. I might well admit to a difference of opinion, and I might well try to put my own case as persuasively as possible, but I wouldn’t think it was my place to write coldly, aggressively or critically, and I would certainly never be downright rude.
The difficult thing about blog posts is that they are a form of publication that is simultaneously both private and public, and in comparison to most other writings in the public arena they rely heavily on opinion that may be informed but may also be purely reactionary. A while back I wrote about how tricky it is to put passion into an argument and run the risk of looking like a child having a tantrum, but blog posts are often based on an individual’s opinion, which is the point of any argument where emotion becomes the most influential factor. An opinion is the moment when someone makes a leap of faith across the available evidence to express what they believe. The vast majority of debates I get involved in are academic ones, and those are tightly regulated, not least by the recognition fundamental to all research, that the issue concerned is bigger than everyone engaged in trying to solve it. No one person will have ‘the answer’ and so community effort can only be helpful in the way that it will converge a broad diversity of views, all of which need to be taken into account. Doesn’t mean that people don’t argue or disagree, it’s just that there are all kinds of unspoken but acknowledged rules about how that disagreement may be expressed. Now I really like this kind of discipline because it means just about any topic can be discussed productively, with no risk of descending into personal insult. However, when I’m writing my blog, the joy of it is that I don’t need to suppress my own personal opinion, and occasionally (one post in 70 or so) I give in to my desire to express it in a more forthright fashion than is perhaps usual or sensible. Then I notice that, having been measured and diplomatic for the other previous 69, it’s rather fun to let off a little steam, and I find it hard to be told later that this is wrong, unacceptable, unjustified, and so on. I absolutely understand the lure of having a rant on one’s own blog, and how subsequently it might be difficult to back down on the opinions expressed.
So, I think there are two main points to bear in mind when reading blogs and commenting on them (and I write this to remind myself as much as anyone else). The first surrounds the issue of hostility. It is fine to be hostile to an idea that strikes you negatively, but the whole community needs to be careful to distinguish the idea from the person who holds it. Disliking an idea is a perfectly reasonable and sensible position to hold, making it personal is not. The second point, which is wholly related to this first one, is that whilst we all need to take responsibility for our own points of view, we cannot tell other people who they are or what they are thinking. I’ve written often enough about the way that language often takes us places we didn’t know we were going, and the range of interpretations that a selection of people will read into the same couple of paragraphs should show how impossible it is to ever be sure of an author’s intentions. It’s perfectly ok to ask someone if they meant something to come across a certain way, but judgments that surpass that limit risk being as ill-considered as the points they try to counteract.
What I most welcome, generally, is the debate about standards of politeness on the web. It’s a good thing for us all to consider how we might behave with dignity and respect. If we keep an eye on interactions at the most basic level, then maybe we can prevent arguments from escalating out of control, and giving the often warm and welcoming world of blogging a bad name.