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In Blogosphere, Honor Should Rule


The New York Times, in “A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs,” asks:

Is it too late to bring civility to the Web?

The conversational free-for-all on the Internet known as the blogosphere can be a prickly and unpleasant place. Now, a few high-profile figures in high-tech are proposing a blogger code of conduct to clean up the quality of online discourse.

Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate.

Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.

Disclosures first: Tim O’Reilly published my book and is a valued friend. Jimmy Wales, also a valued friend, is an advisor to this center and I’m an investor in his company.

Big issue: They’re creating a bit of a monster, as they discuss asking people to put logos on their work defining various categories of behavior. Who’d be the judge of it? The government? Libel lawyers? Uh, oh.

(They are pushing on a string. I know, having tried a while back to do the same thing with a notion several of us called “Honor Tags” — a short-lived attempt to persuade online creators to label what they were doing to serve as disclosure and, yes, honorable behavior. Of course, they have the ability to get the attention of the New York Times, and I didn’t at the time, so maybe this effort will get more traction.)

I don’t believe there’s a need for a “code of conduct” for bloggers and commenters beyond the simple notion at the top of the NYT story: Be civil. That includes other concepts, such as Disclose your biases. And stand behind your own words. It’s about honor, nothing more.

Note that there is a big difference between the average blogger who attracts lots of comments and the commenters. The blogger almost always identifies himself or herself. That alone tends to lead to better behavior on the blogger’s part. Not always, but usually.

Some of this goes to the recent “Principles of Citizen Journalism” that we posted; if people followed those notions we’d have fewer of these problems, but that doesn’t go to the issue of rancid comments on other people’s sites.

It’s essential for bloggers to be clear what their own rules are about their own sites when it comes to comment policies; that’s why the BlogHer community guidelines are so useful in this context. And then they should be even clearer that the rules will be enforced. If I invite someone into my living room, that’s not permission to spit (or worse) on my carpet. I will invite anyone who does that to leave.

The law is clear on all of this: We are not responsible for what others post on our sites if we’re simply providing a forum. But that does not mean that we have to put up with incivility. We can — and should — remove it.

Readers also have to take some responsibility, too. Namely, be extremely skeptical of anonymous speech.

I wrote in a recent posting that people who don’t stand behind their words deserve, in almost every case, no respect for what they say. The exceptions come when someone risks life or freedom or livelihood by being a whistle-blower or truth-teller. When the purpose is to take down other people, anonymity is most often a hiding place for the dishonorable.

We readers (in the broadest sense) are far too prone to accepting what we see and hear. We need to readjust our internal BS meters in a media-saturated age.

We should start with this principle:

An anonymous or pseudonymous attack on someone else should be presumed false, unless proved true.


Back when I was working on the Bayosphere project, dealing with forum and comment postings was one of the more time-consuming parts of the operation. We posted these guidelines, which we compiled from our own notions of how things should work, plus liberal cribbing from several other well-run sites:

  • In short, we aim here for civility and mutual respect. Beyond that, we encourage robust discussions and debate.
  • Members may be blocked from the site for vandalism, making personal attacks on other members, publishing others’ copyrighted material or for violating the guidelines and comments policy.
  • Violators may be blocked from entry for 24 hours, for longer periods for repeat transgressors, or permanently, depending on the severity of the infraction.
  • Using anonymous proxies to vandalize the site or otherwise causing disturbance will not be permitted. Moderators will block the IP of anonymous proxies indefinitely.
  • Offensive, inflammatory or otherwise inappropriate screen names are not permitted, and the use of these will be prevented through blocking of accounts. Members blocked for having an inappropriate name will be permitted to rejoin Bayosphere under a new name.
  • Remember, we need your help
  • This is a community. If you see material that violates our site rules and guidelines, please contact us.
  • Please also make suggestions, on our forums or via e-mail, on how we might improve these terms and guidelines.

7 Comments on “In Blogosphere, Honor Should Rule”

  1. #1 Michael Wood-Lewis
    on Apr 9th, 2007 at 7:39 am

    What is it about the internet that has so many people concealing their identity? On most online forums, mail lists, blogs, etc. you have no idea who’s talking. Compared to conventional soapboxes (letters to the editor, watercooler, public meetings, etc.), this is a big change.

    I guess folks are concerned about identity theft to a degree. But it’s likely more a case of scale. It’s hard to be anonymous in a village of 1,000 inhabitants, but it’s easy to disappear into the crowd in New York City. And most of the internet is more like NYC than Mayberry.

    Nasty anonymous online behavior appears to be increasing and is getting more attention in the mainstream media.

    It’s no wonder… anonymity can breed antisocial behavior. Like wearing a mask in a crowd… fun to blow off some steam at Mardi Gras or a Halloween bash… but a little bizarre to keep your face covered year-round at work, on campus, around town. I guess it works for Batman… but he has his own issues.

    The neighborhood forums hosted by Front Porch Forum are limited to residents only. And each message includes the writer’s full name, street, and email address. No masquerade… just straight shooting from the person next door and around the corner. Boorish behavior is largely kept in check by the same system that’s been in place since the dawn of humankind… act like a jerk toward the people around you and pay the social price.

    Can this approach be applied more broadly? More at

  2. #2 Concealed
    on Apr 9th, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Why shouldn’t people conceal their identity on the Internet? In real life, their ideas would never be taken seriously if you could see that they are female, or black, or work as a custodian, or that they come from that family from the wrong side of the tracks, or don’t have the same friends as you do.

    I say more power to them as they spread their “antisocial” ideas (ie, ideas that go against the loud “real-world” voices of the rich and privileged and powerful).

    “Boorish behavior is largely kept in check by the same system that’s been in place since the dawn of humankind… act like a jerk toward the people around you and pay the social price.”

    A social price that’s usually too high for the less powerful in society to pay for their honesty.

  3. #3 Dan Gillmor
    on Apr 9th, 2007 at 10:16 am

    No one is saying people should not conceal their identities. But in general, I take more seriously people who stand behind their own words.

  4. #4 Michael Wood-Lewis
    on Apr 9th, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Well… I’m saying people should, in most situations on most online venues, NOT conceal their identity. I think most web 2.0 activity is slanted too far toward scribbling on the toilet stall wall. Too many comments are obnoxious, some are profane… and occasionally some are profound. But when they’re signed by “whizboy98” or “Concealed” I feel like I’m just exchanging graffiti.

    And to the unfairly oppressed, please use your best judgment (as some great figures of our past have used pen names when warranted), but for most the people most the time to stay concealed? I see more down- than upside in the long haul. That’s not how humans do their best work. Anonymity is a pre-condition to anti-social behavior.

    And by “anti-social behavior” I mean things that most people would be ashamed to do in broad daylight in front of people who know them. I’m not talking about “speaking truth to power” or other social organizing to effect positive change.

    In our work with , we’re getting amazing participation rates within neighborhoods. I think one reason so many people subscribe (20% of Burlington, Vermont in our first seven months) is that they feel safe and known, and they know who else is allowed on their neighborhood forum… only the nearby neighbors.

    Reminds me of how I used to bike in traffic when I lived in the big city… like a bike messenger… blowing through red lights, nipping pedestrian toes on the curb, a string of middle fingers in my wake… whatever it took. Now, in my small city setting, I actually stop at four-way stop signs and wave other people through. I wish everyone could live in this calmer, friendlier, less anonymous kind of community. I think the internet is hugely slanted toward the anonymous to everyone’s detriment.

    I’ll shush now.

  5. #5 Setting boundaries for behavior in Social Media at SMOblog
    on Apr 9th, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    […] Great takes on the whole mess from Nick Wilson, Jeff Jarvis and Andy Beal. Dan Gilmor as well, who had dipped into similar shark pool a while back. If you liked this post, please […]

  6. #6 Daniel DiRito
    on Apr 9th, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    Where is my Easter Bonnet?

    While some may see the blogosphere and the behavior of its participants as a new phenomenon, it isn’t difficult to find an appropriate predecessor model. That model is found on the streets of any metropolitan area and it is called traffic and the prevalence of road rudeness…or in its extreme…road rage.

    Granted, personal attacks and snark on the internet are not likely to lead to fatalities, but if computers had wheels, it certainly would.

    The problem on the highway or the internet isn’t going to be resolved through a badge system. Did anyone attend Easter mass yesterday and witness the value of symbols…no not the crucifix behind the altar or the statue at the entrance; I’m talking about the pretty new Easter outfits…complete with bonnets and bow ties. These are the outfits worn by the same people who also attend Christmas mass every year without fail…and then get into their shiny clean vehicle and race out of the parking lot without ever yielding to the old woman walking to her car that is parked in the back row because she forgot that it was Easter Sunday and foolishly arrived at the same time she does each and every Sunday.

    Read more on the relationship between blog civility and Easter Bonnets…here:

  7. #7 Rollo
    on Apr 10th, 2007 at 2:43 am

    There is a very fair reason for people to conceal their identity. Privacy. The alternative is a world in which everything you have ever said can be data-mined with two clicks of a mouse, by anyone, anywhere. Perhaps, just perhaps, I want you guys to read this, but not anyone, anywhere, into an infinite future.