Blogger Code of Conduct Proposed

Apr 18, 2007

May 2007 Issue

In the wake of the Kathy Sierra incident—in which a female technology blogger received misogynistic hate comments on her Creating Passionate Users blog, and elsewhere on the internet, that eventually escalated to death threats—publisher Tim O'Reilly has proposed a blogger code of conduct to address issues of incivility, misogyny, and racism in blogs.

O'Reilly first published the idea of a blogger code of conduct in his O'Reilly Radar blog on March 31, followed by a "first draft" on April 8. In the draft, O'Reilly made a call for civility and decency, and for site owners to take control of content.

The proposed code represents O'Reilly's effort to counter the idea that anything goes on the internet. He says, "A lot people say things on the internet that they wouldn't say in person." O'Reilly points out that certain individuals hide behind a veil of anonymity to make outrageous statements with no consequences. "People should be less tolerant of that," he says. What's more, O'Reilly believes that people who manage sites should vigorously moderate content and make sure that the type of vitriol aimed at Sierra doesn't happen again.

O'Reilly began thinking about these ideas after Sierra was verbally assaulted (Sierra publishes programming books for O'Reilly's company) and has received a lot of criticism since suggesting the code. "It was definitely prompted by the Kathy Sierra situation, but the reaction to my suggestions has been out of proportion. People hear ‘code of conduct' and they start thinking censorship and that somehow this is going to be mandated."

Chris Locke, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and the author of Gonzo Marketing, was a blogger on the Mean Kids blog (since taken down), where some of the most vicious Sierra comments were posted. O'Reilly believes Locke could have been more proactive in ending these comments. "If Locke had exercised better judgment in moderating the site, I think that would have made a difference. All I'm urging is that sites be more aggressive in their moderation." O'Reilly says.

But Locke takes exception to this characterization and thinks a code of conduct is a bad idea. "I feel I have been rabidly maligned. I'm not responsible for this furor. I didn't create it or cause it to be created. This notion that if you set up a group blog and somebody goes off the deep end that everyone should be painted with one brush is absurd," Locke says.

Locke also finds the code a bit simplistic. "It's like saying ‘we're for mom's apple pie. We're good people. We love our moms and the American flag and we are going to be nice.' There are no teeth in it," Locke says.

O'Reilly says he does not want to play the role of censor. He only wants to set up some community standards to let the community as a group decide when to draw the line. But Locke points out that there are political blogs, for example, where the idea is to enrage and provoke and people don't always have to play nice in open discussions.

The Sierra incident may have brought issues to the surface that should have been discussed long before this. "Kathy probably took it more seriously than other people would have," O'Reilly says, "but I think that's a good thing, because a lot of people have said, ‘We just have to put up with it.' What I'm saying is that you don't have to. You have to tell people when they are out of line. I think, as a group, people in the blogosphere have been more tolerant of that kind of behavior than they should be," he says.

Locke acknowledges that O'Reilly, playing the role of a statesman, did a service when he got Sierra and Locke to discuss the issue after the fact. "I had reasonable talks with Kathy. We had a surprisingly friendly exchange. I think what happened was awful; I don't condone it and the two sites were taken down," he says. However, he worries that the code of conduct idea is an overreaction and even senses a mob mentality. "Is anybody thinking beyond the immediate knee-jerk reaction of what kind of implications this sort of call for ‘good conduct' could have? This could really go in some directions that are really antithetical to the whole notion of what the internet is about."

Most people agree that what happened to Sierra was despicable, but there are no easy answers when it comes to preventing a repeat of these incidences in the future. If nothing else, O'Reilly's proposal is stimulating discussion about personal responsibility when posting on the internet.