Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct

Before I start, I should disclose that in addition to being an author and a conference presenter for O’Reilly, Kathy Sierra is a friend, and I’ve been talking with her about the situation referred to in this post since I first became aware of it last weekend. (I was not, however, aware in advance of her decision to go public with her story.) I know some of the other protagonists only slightly. In my comments below, I try to be fair-minded, and unlike many others, I took the time to speak to Chris Locke before saying anything publicly, but you should be aware of my potential bias.

I was quoted in a BBC article a few days ago and a San Francisco Chronicle article on Thursday calling for a “Blogger’s Code of Conduct” in response to the firestorm that has arisen as a result of Kathy Sierra’s revelation that she’s been targeted by a series of increasingly violent and disturbing anonymous comments on her blog and on a series of weblogs that appeared to have been created for the purpose of celebrating cyber-bullying.

[Note: Chris Locke argues in email that the meankids site was set up in fun, and while the first posts on the site were apparently about continuing the conversation that had been shut down on Tara’s blog, he insists that those comments were not mean-spirited. (Tara confirms that the second post on that blog was a photoshopped image showing her as Dr. Phil, which is hardly inflammatory.) Chris claims that “There was no cesspool of misogynistic attack rhetoric going on there until the stuff Kathy surfaced began to appear.” At which point the site was shut down. As a result, he feels that the characterization of the meankids and unclebobisms sites as “set up for the purpose of celebrating cyberbullying” is “false and irresponsible.” I have never seen the sites, and they have now been taken down, so I can neither confirm nor deny Chris’ statement about the initial tone of the blogs. However, if what he says is true, then the term “cyber-bullying” may be a bit strong, at least when describing the aims of the sites. I understand Chris’ concern to make clear that he and the other founders had no intention of creating sites that would encourage the kind of comments posts that ended up there. That being said, as Bert Bates notes in the comments below, the offending items were posts by members of these group blogs, not comments from unknown participants.]

In a discussion the other night at O’Reilly’s ETech conference, we came up with a few ideas about what such a code of conduct might entail. These thoughts are just a work in progress, and hopefully a spur for further discussion.

  1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

    In his response to Kathy’s post, Chris Locke, owner of the unclebobism site where one of the most disturbing images was posted, wrote:

    I was a conference host on the Well 15 years ago where the core ethos was acronymized to YOYOW — You Own Your Own Words. This has remained a guiding principle for me ever since. I will not take responsibility for what someone else said, nor will I censor what another individual wrote. However, it was clear that Sierra was upset, so it seemed the best course to make the whole site go away.

    Chris’ comment echoes the libertarian ethos that many bloggers and internet pioneers share. However, we now have one more clear object-lesson on what you get when you start a site that not only tolerates but encourages mean comments: there’s a quick race to the bottom. It seems to me that there’s a big difference between censorship and encouraging and tolerating abuse.

    Contrast Chris’ statement with The BlogHer Community Guidelines:

    We embrace your diversity of opinions and values… but we insist that your content may not include anything unacceptable.

    We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked that is:

    • Being used to abuse, harass, stalk or threaten a person or persons
    • Libelous, defamatory, knowingly false or misrepresents another person
    • Infringes upon any copyright, trademark, trade secret or patent of any third party. (If you quote or excerpt someone’s content, it is your responsibility to provide proper attribution to the original author. For a clear definition of proper attribution and fair use, please see The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Legal Guide for Bloggers)
    • Violates any obligation of confidentiality
    • Violates the privacy, publicity, moral or any other right of any third party
    • Contains editorial content that has been commissioned and paid for by a third party, (either cash or goods in barter), and/or contains paid advertising links and/or SPAM…

    Yes, you own your own words. But you also own the tone that you allow on any blog or forum you control. Part of “owning your own words” is owning the effects of your behavior and the editorial voice you foster. And when things go awry, acknowledge it. It would have been far better for Chris to have deleted the post, and said explicitly on the blog that it was unacceptable, than to have silently shut down the blog and removed all entries and comments without explanation.

    There’s an attitude among many bloggers that deleting inflammatory comments is censorship. I think that needs to change. I’m not suggesting that every blog will want to delete such comments, but I am suggesting that blogs that do want to keep the level of dialog at a higher level not be censured for doing so.

    There are many real-world analogies. Shock radio hosts encourage abusive callers; a mainstream talk radio show like NPR’s Talk of the Nation wouldn’t hesitate to cut someone off who started spewing hatred and abuse. Frat parties might encourage drunken lewdness, but a party at a tech conference would not. Setting standards for acceptable behavior in a forum you control is conducive to free speech, not damaging to it.

    We don’t usually get inflammatory comments on Radar, but in the past, when they’ve occurred, we’ve tended not to delete them, lest we be accused of censorship. But in future, we’re going to adopt a policy of deleting comments that are ad-hominem, insulting, or threatening to any individual. I’d like to see other bloggers do the same. Obviously, there’s a responsibility on the other side for bloggers not to delete comments solely because they express opinions the poster doesn’t agree with.

    It’s important to be transparent. If a comment is deleted, it’s likely good practice to say so, and to explain why. (It would be nice to have mechanisms in blogging platforms to show markers for deleted comments, with the reason shown.)

  2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments..

    At our brainstorming session at Etech, Kaylea Hascall suggested something like the Creative Commons badges that sites employ to label the re-use rights provided for their content. This would let people know which sites to avoid, if they aren’t willing to put up with foul language and insulting comments, and as in the blogher guidelines, let people know in advance what level of discourse is expected.

    Explicit labeling of “danger zones” is probably not going to take off (I can’t imagine sites labeling themselves “flaming encouraged”), but the idea of sites posting their code of conduct might gain some traction given some easily deployed badges pointing to a common set of guidelines, as Kaylea suggested. But even absent such a mechanism, self-identifying your level of tolerance, as blogher does, seems to me like a really good idea. We’re going to kick around some design ideas here at O’Reilly, and may have something to present in the next week or two.

    In the meantime, The BlogHer Community Guidelines are a good place to start.

    Deploying moderation mechanisms like slashdot’s might also help. I know that there are lots of nasty comments posted on slashdot, but I never see them, because they are below my threshold of visibility. I’d love to see the major blogging platforms offer comment rating systems that would allow automatic moderating down of nasty comments. (Of course, many blogs don’t have enough comment volume for this to work, but there are enough sites with large commenter communities where this could be a big help.)

  3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

    When people are anonymous, they will often let themselves say or do things that they would never do when they are identified. There are important contexts in which anonymity is important, for example, for political speech in repressive regimes. But in most contexts, accountability via identity changes how people behave. Requiring a valid email address for comments won’t prevent people who want to hide their identity from doing so, but it’s one more indication that accountability is valued.

  4. Ignore the trolls.

    Sometimes you need to stand up to bullies, but at other times, the best thing to do is to ignore them. As one person advised me long ago when I got in a public tussle with a blog bully, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.” Actors and other public figures have learned long ago not to read the tabloids (although they also have learned to take action when they get out of hand.) It’s human nature to flock to controversy. Responding in public to a public attack feeds people who thrive on controversy, substitute abuse for real dialog, and stroke their egos by putting down others.

    Obviously, it’s hard to miss nasty comments that are sent to you directly in email, and you can’t police your own blog without reading the comments, but you can, for instance, ban the IP address of someone who violates your guidelines. And you can let people know that their comments are inappropriate without shaming them publicly.

    Looking back at the comment thread on Tara Hunt’s blog that apparently led to the launch of the mean kids site, I also see something else: it’s important to know when to walk away. That comment thread (absent the comments that Tara deleted, and which as a result I’ve never seen) is not mean so much as it is an example of comment threads gone awry, with comment piled on comment till no one is very clear at all what the dispute is about. Know when to walk away from a thread. A sure way for an argument to escalate is to try always to have the last word.

  5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.

    While Kathy’s disclosure of the stalking behavior she encountered has led to much greater awareness of a very serious problem — we’ve seen an outpouring of stories from others, especially women, who’ve experienced similar abuse — it’s also true that in her post, Kathy tarred with a broad brush some people who were guilty only by association. (Doc Searls, for example, is someone I would go to the mat for as someone who is incapable of meanness.)

    When I first talked to Chris Locke, he was outraged because he felt that Kathy had named him as the site owner even though “she knows it’s not me” who posted the images. I think I was able to convince him that she didn’t know that, since she’d been asking for my help tracking down the perpetrator. All she knew was that the same small group of people, Chris prominent among them, had created first one site, and then another, that posted increasingly gruesome comments and images, and then disappeared.

    It’s an irony of the situation that the very thing that Chris thought exculpated him from blame (“We took the sites down as soon as they got out of hand”) is what made these sites particularly terrifying to Kathy.

    It’s a further irony that both Chris and Kathy, both exponents of networked conversation, communicated about the inappropriateness of the images via comments on the blog rather than by any direct means. (Kathy did communicate directly with several of the meankids protagonists, including Jeneane Sessums and Frank Paynter, but hadn’t done so with Chris Locke, who ran the unclebobism site, both because she didn’t know him, and because by then the harrassment had escalated to a level that terrified her, and she felt the need to go public.)

    I do know that when I was able to act as an intermediary between Kathy and Chris, explaining each to the other, I was able to create a bit more room for a real conversation to begin. (Obviously, this only worked because I knew both parties enough to suspect that there was at least some amount of misunderstanding at work.) Written comments in a public forum are a really terrible way to have an emotionally charged discussion!

    I don’t know what the result will be now that Kathy and Chris are in direct communication, but I do hope that it will lead to more understanding than a public exchange of accusations. In particular, I’m hopeful that Chris will be able to persuade the person who did create the gruesome image on the unclebobism site to come forward (something that’s far more likely to happen in a private conversation than a public confession) so that he can reassure Kathy that no physical threat was actually intended. (Chris clearly knows this person, since when we spoke he at first assumed that Kathy did too.)

    It now seems fairly certain that that the images posted on meankids and unclebobism were not intended as actual threats — but as long as the perpetrator remains anonymous, there is no way to be sure. In particular, as the person who is now seen as the most likely perpetrator insists, after the fact, that his computer must have been hacked, Kathy is left with the fear that there is indeed an unknown stalker at large.

  6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.

    Bringing this back to the level of principle: if you know someone who has anonymously published comments that could be construed as a threat, you owe it to them, to their victim, and to yourself, not to remain silent. If there is no actual threat, you need to convince the perpetrator to apologize; if there is, you need to cooperate with the police to avert that threat.

    If you know someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are merely offensive, but not threatening, don’t be afraid to tell them so. And if they continue, don’t continue to associated with them. As one person I talked to noted, “these are not your friends.” A friend is someone who makes you better by your association with them, not worse. And if one of your friends is out of line, you owe it to them and to yourself to let them know it.

  7. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person.

    The next time you’re tempted to vent your anger or frustration online, imagine you’re talking to your mother. Or if you have no respect for your mother, imagine you’re talking to a big, mean dude that you met on the street. Or simply imagine the person you’re speaking to as a real person, standing in front of you. Would you say what you’re saying to them if you were in the same room?

Net net: as Doc Searls famously said in The Cluetrain Manifesto, the book he co-authored with Chris Locke and David Weinberger, “markets are conversations.” 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.

A culture is a set of shared agreements that allows us to live together. Let’s make sure that the culture we create with our blogs is one that we are proud of.