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April 09, 2007

Anonymous Cowards and Infamous Scribblers

Tim O’Reilly has proposed a code of conduct for bloggers and suggested they badge their websites according to whether they agree to these civility guidelines or are a free fire zone for content and comments.  Last week Tim blogged: “We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation in ways that were long missing from mainstream media and marketing-dominated corporate websites. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. There's no reason why we should tolerate conversations online that we wouldn't tolerate in our living room.”

Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns is about the first newspapers in the United States.  Many of the infamous scribblers were also founding fathers including Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and both John and Sam Adams.  They were extraordinarily uncivil; they almost never used their real names when posting… uh writing articles.. “The more pseudonyms an author used, the more likely it was that readers would think of him as several authors, a company of them, an army…”  Sock puppets ran rampant in the press of the new nation.  Alexander Hamilton’s death in a duel was related to and perhaps caused by what he and Aaron Burr had previously written and caused to be written about each other.

I enjoy civil conversation.  Much of what appears on blogs or in chat groups or in other online forums is uninformed repetitious uninformed drivel… and boring besides.  There is something about being anonymous – either in colonial times or now – that encourages people to say things they’d never dare say to each other in person.  Any CEO of a public company    which I was - knows what it’s like to be pilloried personally by pseudonymous posters. Tim is absolutely right that we bloggers are 100% responsible for everything which appears on our blogs sites including comments. But Fractals of Change isn’t going to subscribe to the proposed code.

Part of my objection is to specifics:

The suggested code bans anonymous comments.  I pay less attention to anonymous sources in blogs and on network news than I do to those whose credibility I can vet myself.  Nevertheless, leakers – even leakers with less than idealistic motivation – are needed to keep the powerful in check.  Sometimes comments from “anonymous coward” have useful information – you just have to consider the source.

The code says “If we delete a comment or link, we will say so and explain why.”  I often delete spam comments from this blog and block spurious links; rarely, I find a comment which is so patently offensive or libelous (in my view) that I feel a need to delete it.  It neither case does the poster deserve any explanation or further publicity.

The code appears to say that, if you disagree with something in someone else’s blog, you should enter into private discussion rather than just replying in your own blog.  I don’t think so.  The original blogger didn’t consult me before posting the original post; I don’t need to consult him or her before replying.  For example, Tim has sparked an interesting discussion with his original post: should each of us have first attempted a private discussion with him before replying?  To be fair, I’m not sure this is what the code means even though it’s what it appears to say.

To his credit, Tim has established a wiki for editing the proposed code. Anyone who does intend to badge her or his blog should go work on the wiki.  I’m not going to because I think of this blog as an idiosyncratic expression of what I think and readers comments on that thought.  I’m responsible both for what I say and what they say although I allow them pretty wide latitude.  Other reasonable people will draw the lines between acceptable and unacceptable expression somewhere else.  Readers who don’t like what they find here will not come back or will cancel their subscriptions.  They are, and should be, the ultimate censors of what they read.

BTW, a code of conduct does make perfect sense for some organized groups of blogs since the group identity stands for something more (or at least different) than the individual identities of the bloggers.  Tim’s proposed code starts with (but goes beyond) the very common-sensible BlogHer Community Guidelines.

Back to Infamous Scribblers: “If somehow the men and women who settled the New World could rise from their graves and return to us today… and pick up our newspapers and magazine, if they were to watch our television newscasts and listen to the verbal butcheries on our opinion programs on all-news cable and talk radio, even the loudest of them, even the coarsest, the most mean-spirited – if under some marvelous set of circumstances, the citizens of the eighteenth century could find a way to make themselves media-savvy in the first decade of the twenty-first century, they would be startled by, and perhaps not altogether approving of, the extent to which we have tamed the wildly inglorious impulses of their journalism.”

On the other hand, they might feel better if they read a few blogs.

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