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Why we need a blogging code of conduct

Wednesday, 17 December 2008 — by

Few would contest that blogging is now mainstream. As such, aside from professional journalists, most bloggers write their own rules. But as blogging begins to compete with the mainstream media, is it time that we had a blogging code of conduct?

Only recently, mainstream blogging was given a very public kicking when CNN ran with an unverified story of Steve Jobs having a massive heart attack, which I included in my urban myths article recently, also.

Little seems to be known about who the blogger in question was, or why the story was allowed to slip through. However, in the absence of firm evidence, rumours abound. One such example is a solicitation of the idea that CNN were in collaboration with the blogger to help damage Apple stocks, which both parties would have had a vested interest in.

Now, the thing to note here is a two-fold problem: 1. the CNN blog released a totally unverified story of unknown origin, and 2. comments on the Alley Insider article begin to draw lines between mostly non-existent dots.

What we have here, ladies & gentlemen, are the perils of blogging in miniature, writ large.

A code of conduct versus free speech?

Freedom of speech is not the right to just say whatever you like, as loud as you like, wherever the hell you like. I’m reminded of a member signature on a forum I once saw somewhere:

“Opinions are like armpits — everyone has one and they nearly always stink!”

Funny, while not being entirely correct, there’s a sliver of a truism lurking in there, I suspect.

And I’d hoped that’s as close to the thorny subject of censorship as I would have to go, having written about such things previously. However, we’ll see that for any code of conduct to work, there has to be a method of enforcement.

The house rules — what our parents taught us

But in reality, the subject of censorship is probably not nearly as complex or as nuanced as one might think. And examples of proactive censorship abound.

An example would be the list of subjects that are out of bounds when at your parents house. These are subjects you certainly wouldn’t approach, which are simple house rules you abide by. Why? Because they are the rules your parents insist upon. And you, as the dutiful and loving child you are, abide my them unquestioningly.

The analogy to blogging is, hopefully, very clear; each blogger has their own idea of what topics they feel are permitted. In mind, it’s that simple. Once you overstep the demarkation line of what they see as being all things decent, you run the risk of offending the blogging and their audience at large.

However, aside from various efforts to establish some kind of Netiquette, a bridgehead between the simpler social rules of the real world and the web isn’t a strong one. As has been the case in the past, the moment censorship is discussed, the loud, high-pitched bleating begins.

So let’s put this into some kind of context: there are massively more examples of people tapping out expletive-ridden missives on the web in one place / form or another than there are active examples of people censoring them.

By extending the parental analogy just a moment longer, my parents are not your parents. Hidden within the difference is a common ground. Herein lies a code of ethics.

A draft code of conduct for bloggers

Tim O’Reilly offers a good discussion of what a code of conduct for bloggers might look like. And it’s here that we make the transition from code of conduct to moderation and ultimately censure.

The following is a draft of code of conduct for bloggers, taken from O’Reilly Radar:

1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.

We are committed to the “Civility Enforced” standard: we will not post unacceptable content, and we’ll delete comments that contain it.

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

We define and determine what is “unacceptable content” on a case-by-case basis, and our definitions are not limited to this list. If we delete a comment or link, we will say so and explain why. [We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice].

2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.

3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.

When we encounter conflicts and misrepresentation in the blogosphere, we make every effort to talk privately and directly to the person(s) involved — or find an intermediary who can do so — before we publish any posts or comments about the issue.

4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we’ll tell them so (privately, if possible — see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.

If those published comments could be construed as a threat, and the perpetrator doesn’t withdraw them and apologize, we will cooperate with law enforcement to protect the target of the threat.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

6. We ignore the trolls.

We prefer not to respond to nasty comments about us or our blog, as long as they don’t veer into abuse or libel. We believe that feeding the trolls only encourages them — “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.” Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.

Digg democracy?

During the course of the discussion, Tim (by way of John at Librarything) discuss the idea of using a commenting system similar to that used by Digg; people can vote a comment up or down which either highlights or hides the comment.

Interestingly, this is exactly the solution I offered in my internet censorship and Digg democracy article:

“Maybe there’s something that sits somewhere between what we consider censorship, but still allow people to just say whatever pops into their head?

What if I told you that such a thing already exists?

It’s possible that Digg may well have started something, by way of introducing a certain democracy to the web which has an interesting way of solving the problem of web censorship that could potentially placate both parties.”

Digg offers us a glimpse of democracy on the web, if not a sighting of the end product. After all, Digg democracy is arguably as flawed as the democracy of the real world:

“As loathsome and treacherous a form of democracy Digg can be at times, Digg offers us a glimpse at a formula for democracy, if not a solution unto itself.”

The problem is, your average blogger might have only the thinnest grasp of how to measure the scope and remit of their commentary on any given subject, and knowing what sources to use and how. A libel lawsuit may be but a word away, and the word: “allegedly” becomes priceless!

I’m no journalist, but I like to think I compensate by way of a reasonable application of logic and an ethical, judicious use of the meagre influence I have.

Over the years, several of my articles have been incorporated into college and university curricular activities from all over the world. When that kind of thing happens, you know people are paying serious attention to what you’re saying. For an entity like CNN, they have a huge global audience, and we’d all hope that their judgement would be commensurate with the scale of their following. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, and their failure was quite spectacular.

So between professional publications and your average blogger, despite the many efforts of journalists world wide, we’ve spotted an ethical void.

Feedback from the community

Pam Fox Rollin @pamfr of IdeaShape shared her thoughts on a blogging code of ethics via email:

“Basically, here’s what I’m thinking:

The savvier readers are starting to become more wary of blog content, and I expect that skepticism will spread.

Of course, new suckers go online every minute, so bloggers will still have readers and buyers. Just maybe fewer and less inclined to trust and buy.

In other industries where trust is an issue (green sourcing, online privacy, etc.), voluntary codes of conduct have been created. What about blogging?

A code could be created by an influential set of bloggers. Bloggers could opt-in. A central registry could link to blogs that have accepted certification. Comments could be enabled on that site where bloggers and customers could report on compliance.

Potential items in the code:

No one forces anyone to do anything. All voluntary. Readers / consumers vote with their clicks as to whether they care about ethics in blogging.

Verification? Tough. Yet, blogging is a highly visible sport, and anyone can call someone on violation of their agreement to the code.”

Feedback from Twitter

Andrew Rickmann @arickmann: “Although I think it is necessary I don’t think it is necessary for me. It is the others that are the problem. I can police myself.”

Baxter Tocher @btocher: “The problem with a code of conduct is what sanctions there are, if any, for those who break it.”

Neil Bradley @NeilBradley: “I’m not sure how you could implement a code of conduct when there is such a variation of people who blog.”

Alex Hardy @alexhardy: “I decided a while back to try and be positive in my posts. I leave the disparaging commentary to others. I don’t blog about my private life and I don’t say things about someone that I wouldn’t say to them. I never comment anonymously.”

Liviu Lica @LiviuLica: “Good idea but I think is impossible to be accepted worldwide — blogging is about free ideas, many will be against it.”

Mehmet Yildiz @MYIL1: “A bloggers code of conduct will be useful. I assumed there is one by those blog hosting organisations.”

Bradley @OutsideMyBrain: “Bloggers could put a badge on their blog showing adherence to the code of ethics, as long as they adhere to the code, it seems good.”

The framework of trust

Even having a code of conduct is not enough, as exemplified by the valuable responses above. Beyond any code of blogging ethics, we have to define and build a tolerant and sound infrastructure for any such rules to work within:

Something worth considering is the possible benefits to those who choose to join and become a member of a code of conduct:

So why do we need a blogging code of ethics? Because we need accountability, to increase quality, build trust and encourage respect — not just amongst the blogging community, but to demonstrate to the world at large that the future of publishing is also the future of blogging

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Comment and be known


Dan Thornton → Wednesday, 17 December 2008 @ 15:09 BDT

Personally, I feel that a blogging code of conduct is a non-starter for a few reasons.
The main one is that the people most likely to adhere to it are already obeying those rules – and those that won’t pay any attention are exactly the people who are causing problems anyway. So it ends up as yet another little icon on a blog sidebar, which will mean nothing to the majority of readers – especially those new to blogs etc with the most to lose.

The avid early adopter types have already got a way of determining which blogs adhere to their moral viewpoint – they read them regularly, connect with the authors on Facebook/Twitter/Friendfeed, and build up ways to determine whether the person is trustworthy and likable. And this will increase with the introduction of Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect, as identities become more united across the internet.

Part of this call for conduct seems to be an almost mainstream media envy which, even as a former full-time journalist, I feel is utterly misplaced. Journalism is mainly governed by the same legal framework which also applies to self-published websites – the challenge is that websites and readers are not geographically linked, so the laws need to catch up a lot, and are always slow to do so.

(And I’d hate to be a part of any Digg-based democracy, considering the fact it’s governed by power users, sellers of votes, and the utterly bizarre)

The idea of the code of conduct came out of the online harassment of Kathy Sierra, which included death threats – and these should fall under the remit of legal recourse, rather than a voluntary code which will be abused and mocked…

I’ll keep doing what I do anyway, trying to publish the best content I can, and trying to read and link to other people doing the same thing (including here!)

Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 17 December 2008 @ 15:23 BDT

Hi Dan! Some excellent points in there.

So you feel that there’s already a code of conduct in place, albeit one in deed, rather than anything written, or agreed?

I’d agree with that. In a sense, bloggers aggregate under different flags and it’s the trust that forms the social glue.

As for Digg democracy, I’m not advocating using Digg itself, but using Digg as a formula, which we can learn from, mistakes included…

Dan Thornton → Wednesday, 17 December 2008 @ 15:31 BDT

I’ve written a few times about Digg, and also why the idea of online democracy via any of the social aggregation sites is a myth – Wikipedia, Digg etc are all influenced/controlled by a very small proportion of very active people….

And yes, I think there’s perhaps a code of conduct in deed already in existence – for example, check out the outcry about Chris Brogan doing a sponsored post – as I’ve said elsewhere, no one would have complained if Darren Rowse, Jeremy Schoemaker or John Chow had posted it (all bloggers who make money explicitly from blogging in various ways), whereas because it was people like Chris, there was an assumption that it was against the ethics of blogging.

Personally the only ethics that matter to me are my own, and I use them to judge whether I want to read a blog, respond to a comment, or connect to someone – and on my own blogs, I’m able to delete spam or commentary that I find offensive or inappropriate – I wouldn’t expect to have the same input on someone else’s blog or platform, unless it was something that crossed into inciting homophobia, racism etc…

Guillaume → Wednesday, 17 December 2008 @ 16:39 BDT

Lots of common sense but very useful to be reminded about. I think the worst example are on the well known bloggers (or “professional” bloggers) thta can attract the worst trolls and generate the silliest behaviour (look at Loic Le Meur and Michael Arrington).

Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 17 December 2008 @ 17:01 BDT

I’m reminded of that self-proclaimed social media expert recently who ran with a press release that included a link to a Wikipedia article.

Personally, I’ve got no problem with that. But the guy got a very public kicking from all quarters.

Probably not the most level-headed and constructive example of resolving an issue, but I suppose, in a way, what happened to him was a case study for the power, scope and self-regulatory nature of the social web.

As I’ve said before, Digg democracy is real-world democracy in miniature. I don’t see any real difference between what happens on Digg and in real life.

People rarely make an informed decision in isolation. What with politicians, campaigners and the media, the influences are innumerable…

TigerTom → Wednesday, 24 December 2008 @ 19:29 BDT

Is there a code of conduct for newspaper journalists? Because if there isn’t, then there shouldn’t be one for bloggers, either.

I think bloggers over-estimate their importance. Believe it or not, there are still a lot of people who don’t know what a blog is.

Say what you like; chances are, it’ll be ignored anyway!

Criminal Justice school → Thursday, 16 July 2009 @ 8:02 BDT

journalists? Because if there isn’t, then there shouldn’t be one for bloggers, either.

I think bloggers over-estimate their importance. Believe it or not, there are still a lot of people who don’t know what a blog is.

Say what you like; chances are, it’ll be ignored anyway!

Wayne Smallman → Friday, 17 July 2009 @ 10:43 BDT

Of course, there are those bloggers who will believe they are the dawning and the setting of the sun, the egomaniacs.

But equally, there are those, for one reason or another, who are elevated to wider popularity, and rightly or wrongly, are important.

Christne → Saturday, 31 October 2009 @ 6:05 BDT

I do agree on the point that there should be certain code of conduct for running on activities and writing exposures on blog so anyone should be prevented from maligning image of other people on the pretext of writing on blog.

Joseph Morris → Saturday, 5 June 2010 @ 0:19 BDT

I think bloggers over-estimate their importance. Believe it or not, there are still a lot of people who don’t know what a blog is.

Hvac Programs → Wednesday, 20 April 2011 @ 11:02 BDT

Freedom of speech is not the right to just say whatever you like, as loud as you like, wherever the hell you like.

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