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?