A Code of Blogging Conduct?

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.

19 thoughts on “A Code of Blogging Conduct?

  1. Excellent post, Litlove. Did you see the news about a woman blogger in the UK being found guilty in court of harassment of another blogger? See this blog to read more: rachelnorthlondon.blogspot.com. Scroll down a few posts.
    This is a survivor of the July 7 bombings who was “stalked” by a blogger to the point where it got ugly. Harassment in the blogworld is not outside the law!

  2. Thank you for this intelligent post, litlove. I do think of my blog as a kind of open house, a place where the usual rules of polite behavior obtain. Readers are like visitors to the party, and so I try to make sure things are entertaining and interesting and pleasant. One thing that makes that possible is the comments moderation function — which I use only occasionally and only when I sense that a visitor is going to be unable to behave well.

    There are certainly other models out there, most notably the blog as a kind of rabid talk radio show where people yell over each other and say mean things. But just because those blogs exist, doesn’t mean that my own has to be that way.

  3. I tend to be sceptical when this “code” comes up because blogging is such a wild and wooly world and no one would be able to enforce it. I only really care about situations that can or should fall under the law and trust that there are enough decent people out there who are able to maintain a welcoming, civil atmosphere.

  4. It’s disappointing when healthy discussion turns agressive and nasty. It just seems so unnecessary and unproductive. I usually try to avoid blogs where the discussion is on that level. Tales from the Reading Room is such a welcoming place to visit in comparison!

    I quite like the idea of a code, then the blogger can state from the outset their expectations about their own behaviour and those of visitors.

  5. Shameless – I didn’t, and I will certainly follow up that link. it’s good to know that these cases are coming up so that the law will start to produce precedents. Not good for the people involved, however. Hear, hear, dear Bloglily! A delightful party is really how it ought to be; no zoo radio for me, thank you very much. And you’re right; comments moderation gives us all a chance to be in control. Imani – enforcement really is the problem, and most of the sites seemed to be suggeting that individual responsibility is the only way forward. There will always be a disruptive minority, no matter what anyone does, but I like the thought of just keeping my own house in order. Missv – yes, I liked the idea of posting a code on the site. I’m very tempted to put up something like: ‘The Reading Room warmly welcomes all bloggers who are prepared to be respectful and considerate towards other people’s points of view.’ That’s the easy bit – getting it onto the sidebar is the difficulty for me!

  6. (I hope you’ll see my comment in the heap of apparent spam that is piling up as I write…)

    The singular part about blogging/commenting is that it is halfway between oral spontaneity and written restraint. If I talk lightly and the message comes across twisted and visibly offends someone, I can correct or attenuate what I meant, the initial words may be forgotten; with blogging, there is noone to peer-review what I am about to publish, and yet it will sit for everyone to see, written in black and white.

    My golden rule is never to publish anything when I am angry. I can write it down if it feels better, then I take time to ponder it, I review it the next day, and the next, until the passion is gone and the important message remains and I will not regret what I wrote afterwards.

    Maybe we could setup some sort of comment moderation queue where agressive comments are simply quarantined until the comment authors take the time to rephrase and polish out the agressivity, to leave only the hard point they want to make.

  7. You make an excellent point (though it seems to have set off a “pingback” (whatever that is) frenzy). I found that the angry, explosive comments that fuel the blogging nastiness almost always oversimplify a blogger’s point of view. A blogger will write one post that expresses one narrow slice of one opinion, and one tiny aspect of that one narrow aspect of one opinion will set off a tsunami of vitriol. Sometimes I want to tell the commenters, “Hey, it’s just one idea among many; don’t get your knickers in a twist about it.” Ultimately, though, the sheer nastiness of the fueds and flames can be tiring, and that finally pushed me to eliminate my own blog.

  8. Litlove, you’re being badly spammed by pingbacks. I got the same problem too. Is there anything to do apart deleting all these comments? I hope wordpress can do something about it. Oh, btw, your post is excellent as always, but even posting a code won’t force people to behave. To continue with the house comparison, I may invite a lot of people for a great party, but in the end it’s still my place and I can choose not to keep someone rude (after warning though). That this person will go on shouting abuse at the door isn’t my problem.

  9. Well, folks, whatever happened there? I can see my next post will have to be on bizarre spam deluges! Mandarine – I love your idea of a comments quarantine. I’m sure people would return and reconsider their words if they had the opportunity. Dear Hobgoblin, that’s exactly how it works. The arguments pile up as ‘insteads’ rather than the more useful ‘and alsos’. But if this kind of thing makes us lose bloggers like you from the community then we definitely need to get it sorted. And fast. Pauline – you’re quite right. The blogger has to take control as best they can. The beauty is that abusive people need never find representation if we prevent it.

  10. So well-put! Somehow, I’ve been very lucky and have managed to avoid this nasty side of blogging, except when people like Bloglily come under attack, let us know about it, and I feel the need to defend her (if there were a way to give out virtual punches, I’d have to control myself much the way I do in real life). I know it’s a problem, though. Then again, these rude, angry people seem to be everywhere. And they’re all out driving their cars, ready with obscene gestures and dangerous attacks for those of us who might have done something wrong that was never intentional and about which we already feel very bad.

  11. Thanks for your kind words. I’ve since realised, having gone on some extensive medial legal training recently as part of my day job, that I could have actually sued at least one person for the comments he made about me on someone else’s blog. I now simply don’t have the energy (or the money) to pursue it…

    Your post is a very topical one and I applaud you for putting into words things I’ve been wrestling with for some time. I’m in the weird position of having a foot in both camps: the blog world and the traditional print media world. A lot of what happens in the blog world is simply not tolerated in the print media world — and with good reason. For instance, consider a newspaper’s letters page: the editor takes responsibility for every single letter printed in his/her publication, so you won’t see letters that personally attack other people — only letters that make their points in a reasoned way and that are not defamatory are printed. I think the blogworld could learn a few lessons from this. Note, too, that most publications will not print letters anonymously. (The publication that I work on insists that letter writers supply their full name, address and a telephone number. Before publication we check that the person is legit, usually by placing a quick telephone call.)

    Much of the bad feeling that occurs in the blog world occurs because people can be anonymous. My personal rule is that if I wouldn’t say it to someone’s face I won’t write it on a blog (post or comment). Sadly, not everyone follows that rule.

    As Emily points out, the world is an angry place filled with angry people. It’s just a pity that some of them find that saying rude things online is a legitimate outlet for that anger.

  12. Mandarine, I like this, too:
    “My golden rule is never to publish anything when I am angry.”

    The humorist Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion renown, got into a hissing match with a St. Paul, Minnesota newspaper years ago and mailed them a snide letter to the editor.

    They printed it, and he came to regret it. On his radio program he later advised that, when you write a letter like that to take an extra walk around the block before you put it in the post.

    It’s sound advice.

  13. Coincidentally, I’m reading excerpts from Raymond Chandler’s letters lately, and found this:

    ” … There is a fundamental decency about the English people and a sort of effortless sense of good manners which I find very attractive. English people themselves seem to think their manners have deteriorated, but they are still far better than they are anywhere else in the world. I am speaking of averages, of course. Americans can be very polite, too, but you do not in casual contact, and especially in big cities, find that effortless courtesy which seems to be normal behaviour in England.”

    Jan 6, 1953
    To H.F. Hose, who had been Chandler’s form-mater at Dulwich College.

    I’m now restraining my impulse to savagely berate Chicago-born Raymond for not Americanizing his spelling of behavior.
    (Kidding, kidding!)

    First, what I find interesting is the notion, in 1953, that the English felt manners were getting worse.

    But most, I added this excerpt to simply say, wouldn’t it be nice if bloggers and their commenters comported themselves like these perhaps idealized English folk, with their “effortless sense of good manners”?

  14. Thanks for this thoughtful post — I really like what you say about how we shouldn’t tell others who they are or what they think. Let’s have some respect for the ambiguity inherent in language!

  15. Your post reminded me of an incident in my house of several years back. We were hosting a book launch of 5 or 6 books. One of the guests had been rejected by this publisher. Angry, he picked up one of the poetry books being launched, set it on fire, and put the fire out by peeing on the book all over our bathroom floor. I don’t remember who did this, but the woman who saw the act, got rags and cleaned up the mess, earned our undying respect and love. Recently when she was visiting, Bill called her, “My hero.”

  16. I am hesistant to endorse any kind of blogging code, it verges on a sort of censorship it seems. However, that doesn’t mean that a blog proprietor does not have to right to censor comments and block badly behaving commentors from their site. To go with the house and party theme, if someone at your party had a bit too much to drink and was becoming belligerent, you’d call them a cab and send them home and would be fully within your rights to do so.

    I like a good debate but as soon as it turns personal, it is no longer a debate. I stay out of things like that. If I come upon posts and opinions I disagree with or that make me mad, I try to operate under the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” rule. Not to say I have to agree or anyone else does either, but if I can’t find a way to disagree respectfully, it’s best not to say anything at all; no one will win the argument and everyone will just end up angry, and what’s the point of that?

  17. Many good points here. Yes, your blog is your house, and if someone is rude, you throw them out. There is also a cultural element, I think, along the lines of “zoo radio” and Jerry Springer, where blatant and aggressive confrontation is fun entertainment. Anonymity also makes it much more comfortable for people to hit and run. I have a friend who writes a highly opinionated blog, and where I find he is always sensible and principled, many others don’t like it, and do all the threat/flaming/spaming stuff. For those people, you track down their IP address and report them, as well as block them from ever entering your home again. It seems courtesy somehow implies weakness to many. They are merely digital bullies who have little other outlet for their vitriol. It gives them a sense of power and control in their otherwise uncontrolled and powerless lives. Kill them with kindness.

  18. Excellent post. If your blog is a house, it’s a lovely and thought-provoking house, and everyone I’ve ever come across is polite and nice. I’ve written my own post partially inspired by yours. Since I sometimes dally in political blogging, I see the edges of some very unpleasant conduct indeed – I have no time for that kind of stuff.

    BTW, Nancy Ruth, that sounds like a nightmare of a book launch…

  19. Either I don’t post anything that is controversial, or everyone who visits me is very polite. I have not had the experience of receiving rude comments — at least not yet. Perhaps there is something good about not being too well known.

    There has been a huge trend towards less manners and less politeness in American society lately. People think they have the right to answer their cell phone in the middle of a movie; they object strenuously to having red-light cameras placed at intersections to keep them from running red lights; they don’t think it is necessary to use their turn signals; they have forgotten how to say “please” and “Thank you”. The rudeness in the blogosphere is just one more symptom of the death of politeness. A code of conduct will not address the underlying disease.

    Any blogger has the right, perhaps even the duty, to edit out inappropriate and rude comments. Why subject your readers to the verbal violence?

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