Pointless Reactivism

April 10, 2007

Topics: Blogging.

If you’re not currently aware of the horrible circumstances which have resulted in Kathy Sierra’s withdrawal from the blogging world, you should make a point of researching them. It’s not fun to read about and it’s not nice to know about — but it’s important. I’m not going to talk about it, myself. The subject has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere in the blogosphere. I’m not even going to link to any of the discussions — you can find them.

I do, however, want to discuss one of the more significant reactions to this situation. Tim O’Reilly has published a draft code of conduct for bloggers. In some blogging circles, this has been reviled as a bureaucratic reaction to the issue. Fair enough: that’s what it is.

The way bureaucracy tends to react to situations is by establishing rules. In this case, rules to suggest how blogs should be run in order to maintain a civil environment. However, any unenforceable guideline is essentially worthless. In fact, I’d argue that the guidelines are more likely to cause problems than to solve them.

Ultimately, the only meaningful system which can effectively control the blogosphere is for bloggers to take responsibility for the content of their blogs, regardless of author. It brings to mind a recent case where Jeremy Schoemaker (ShoeMoney) was subpoenaed over comments left on his blog. And that’s where the question gets tricky.

Responsibility should be taken, in my opinion, but the most immediate named party to the statement in question. What I mean by this is that a comment is the responsibility of the commenter when that person can be affirmatively identified. Evidence could include name left at the time of commenting (easily faked), IP (Internet Protocol) address recorded at the time of the commenting (easily faked), and the email address left at the time of commenting (easily faked.) As you can see, blogs don’t provide an easy means to identify anybody. When no concrete evidence can be used to identify the person who wrote the comment, the responsibility for the content should resolve to the owner of the blog. If you own a blog, you should take ultimate responsibility for the content of your blog, regardless of authorship.

If you’re not willing to be associated with a statement, you should delete it.

Now, back to O’Reilly’s code of conduct. The code of conduct suggests that no anonymous comments should be allowed. This is ridiculous — it’s tantamount to stating that no comments should be allowed, period. Until the identification of a participant on your blog can be positively and concretely verified, it should be assumed that any comment could be falsified. Sure, it’s highly improbable that most of them are. But it’s just so easy to do.

The only thing I can really see this code of conduct accomplishing is an increase in what I’ll describe as “edge cases.” More people attempting to push the boundaries of the code on sites which explicitly state their participation (by, for example, showing O’Reilly’s cute little badge o’ membership.) The people who would normally treat sites with respect will continue to do so. Those who normally abuse their privileges will continue to do so. Now, however, they may attempt to make every post skirt the edges of appropriate conduct with the hopes that eventually the targeted site will delete enough that they could fairly make the accusation of censorship.

When does comment moderation slip into censorship?

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20 Comments on “Pointless Reactivism”

  1. That seems like a pretty reasonable basis for deciding on. For me, the big challenge is sometimes deciding whether a comment is spam or not; my general feeling is that non-contributing comments are always spam. If it just says “Yeah, I agree,” then it’s spam. Period.

    Granted, I’ll be a bit more lenient with people who have been leaving comments for a long time – but anybody who wanders by and leaves an empty one liner gets canned, for the most part.

  2. I’m really lenient on comments on my blogs. I will delete spam of course but I take a good beating on some of my political blogs!!! People get a little worked up when discussing politics so I guess that’s par for the course. I never delete a comment just because someone disagrees but I will delete a comment if it personally attacks someone whether it be me or another reader.

  3. The only code-of-conduct I’ll ever subscribe to and abide by is one of my own making. It’s my blog, I pour the energy into it, manage it, pay for its hosting, and I do take responsibility for its content.

    I agree with you totally, Mike. What a great voice of reason and responsbility. He who pays the piper does get to call the tune, afterall.

  4. Yep. It’s all about manners and appropriateness, to me. I want relevance and contribution – I don’t care whether somebody agress or disagrees, but I DO care how they say it. I’ll tell you that there are definitely comments on this site which push the boundaries.

  5. If someone posts a comment in my blog and chooses to use a nickname instead of their real name that’s the web and it’s fine by me. I leave that entirely to them.

    If they choose to disagree with my article’s ideas, that, too, is fine by me. Each to their own, though I will interject further meaning or a counterpoint if it seems fitting or necessary. I enjoy partaking in the commenting process (just like you do, Joe) — it a cool thing to do and commenters know their comments are being read.

    If they are completely rude, very insulting, purposely off-topic, spammish, or made in poor taste, though, it’s bye-bye to them (no inner arguments for me). The only code-of-conduct I’ll ever subscribe to and abide by is one of my own making. It’s my blog, I pour the energy into it, manage it, pay for its hosting, and I do take responsibility for its content. For me, I really don’t feel I need any outside authority dictating what I allow or disallow. Hell, if the government involves itself next thing you know I’ll be sued on a free speech charge by some shady medication seller. Moreover, I do trust myself to be fair and to allow commenters their two-cents and more if that’s what they’re compelled to offer.

    Same applies to any user-generated content situation. If content providers cannot do so with prudence and good behavior, they’re history.

  6. I think you were fine…my reading skills? Less fine. 😉

    It shouldn’t really be necessary to use <em> or &ltstrong> all the time, after all.

  7. Perhaps I should have said “This doesn’t ONLY apply to blogs”, or learn to use emphasis and strong in the appropriate places. 🙂

  8. The first two times I read that first sentence, I saw “this just doesn’t apply to blogs”…which rather completely changed the meaning of the comment! Fortunately, once I read the sentence correctly it all fell back into place.

    Thanks for your comments, Gill – that’s pretty much where I stand.

  9. This doesn’t just apply to blogs. I see far worse on boards and I’ve had to zap a few questionable posts in guest books as well. The internet is full of trolls who take the opportunity to bully, offend and slander whilst hiding behind supposed anonymity. No code of conduct will stop them. Whilst they are ultimately responsible for their comments, I feel I am responsible for what I allow on my sites. Whether the comment concerned is agreeing with me or not, any questionable content will be removed. As to whether I want to display little badges; whole different issue.

  10. I see what you mean. I don’t one hundred percent agree: I feel that I should take ultimate responsibility for everything on my site, but that doesn’t mean that those who post are completely without responsibility. When possible, the author should be share in the consequences. As I state in the post, though any comment is “easily faked.” I wouldn’t press the point.

  11. What I meant, but did not correctly state, is that it matters not to me if it is “legal” to leave a post on the site and hide behind the “I didn’t write it, so I am not responsible for it” argument. Even if it is legal to take that position, I would not take it — my site, my responsiblity, my control.

  12. Yes, the legal issue is a squirrely one. I’m certainly no lawyer, but I think that you’re legally safe in deleting any comment. There’s no governmental censorship issues going here; you have no obligation to publish anything you don’t choose to. You’re less safe by leaving questionable comments up — if there’s anything slanderous of a third-party, for example, you may well be at risk.

  13. Yes, I agree with you, Joe. What the legal issues are I will leave to the lawyers and such, but morally I cannot host garbage on my site just because someone else wrote it.

  14. I think that the question is more about taking responsibility for other people’s words than it is about censorship. A lot of people want to position themselves as never removing another person’s words; but also refuse to take responsibility for something they themselves didn’t write. I feel that, as site owners, we do actually need to take responsibility for the content of our sites, regardless of authorship.

    And yes, that we should delete anything that we’re not comfortable with having on our sites.

    Thanks, David!

  15. I honestly think the whole issue of “censoring” blog comments is much ado about nothing. I think it should be taken seriously, but having some third party or government agency try to take control over what words are used is patently ridiculous.

    On my blogs, I have always removed comments that were personal in nature, or abusive etc. We all censor our comments by using spam blocking tools. This might be an extreme comparison, but certainly it is just one more form of censoring. Adding a “personal touch” to censoring is just another step. I understand that this might be difficult for someone who administers many blogs or has very popular blogs, but along with notoriety comes some degree of responsibllity, doesn’t it?

    Rude people exist in life. That is a fact. They exist on the street, on the subway, in newspapers and other print medium, and on the Internet. I, too, think that the blog owner is ultimately responsible for what is written. The writer of the comments are responsible for the words per se, but s/he is not responsible for the fact that they appeared, for all the world to see, on my blog.

  16. This is proving a good test of how well this comment policy plugin works…I’m reminded, now, that I’d intended to edit it to remove the javascript reliance! Better go do that…

    Thanks for your comments, Jack — that’s another great point. What’s the value to trying to establish this concept exclusively to blogs? Any publishing, in any format, online or off, could just as equally take an equivalent set of guidelines. The only value of such guidelines is when they’re established internally.

  17. …and now back to what I was originally trying to say.

    Basically, I’ve been thinking much the same thing myself. The whole thing is a nonsense, because it’s voluntary and only the people who would be liable to be doing it anyway would comply, so it wouldn’t have stopped the Kathy Sierra stuff.

    And then, why single out “blogs”? Why not fora? Other web sites? What about animal-lib websites that print names and addresses of people who work in biomedical research testing on animals? There you have actual, physical threats and intimidation being carried out. Of course, as it’s voluntary anyway, everyone will just do what they like as now.

    FWIW, my basic assumptions are:
    1. What I write is my responsibility.
    2. What someone else writes is their responsibility.
    3. If someone draws my attention to an offensive or defamatory comment and I take no action, then I have to accept part of the responsibility for implicitly condoning it.

  18. NB your comment things don’t work without javascript enabled. I just keep getting the message “you must accept our commenting policy” regardless of whether or not the box is ticked.

    Or does your Code of Conduct require javascript?

  19. Exactly — from a legal and moral perspective, I want to be able to take control over what my site espouses. I can’t possibly block somebody from disagreeing with me, even if I were to delete their viewpoint from my own site. The internet just doesn’t really work that way; there are many, many places where viewpoints can be posted or exchanged. I’m not about to take responsibility for what somebody posts elsewhere.

    Thanks, Joost.

  20. If people want, for instance, to oppose what you’re writing and you delete their comments, they’ve got lots and lots of other places to do their say, you’re not taking their possibility to react away. The only difference is your not responsible for their reactions anymore.