Monday, April 09, 2007

The Blogger Code-of-Conduct Debate

About a week before the Kathy Sierra incident blasted into the blogosphere, I composed a short piece about the roles played by codes of conduct and education in combating racism and bigotry. They are just tools we use to curb the worst excesses of a world of inequity.

The readily apparent social and national inequities of our modern world call out for some kind of explanation. As Jared Diamond has argued, luck and accident have played their roles over the past 13,000 years in determining who wins and who loses. It's not IQ, skin color, gender, or even religious belief, despite what our parents, grandparents, teachers and peers may have told us that explain the discrepancies.

Accident and luck may explain a lot about inequality for much of known history, but what about the future? Bill Gates argues that in the age of information technology, accident and luck will be superceded by intelligence, skill and leadership. Those with more of each will win; those with less will lose.

But, there is still a problem. While it may be somewhat comforting to believe that intelligence, skill and leadership will eventually supercede bigotry, sexism and racism, information technology is available to everyone right now. This means that almost everyone can have their say, even if what they say is misogynistic, hate-filled and patently bigoted. Limiting freedom of speech is clearly not the solution, as almost everyone has agreed from Kathy Sierra herself to most of those who have reflected on her predicament.

So, if we don't limit free speech, what other solutions are available?

One person who has demonstrated leadership, skill and intelligence in proposing an alternative solution is Tim O'Reilly (see his proposed code of conduct). Dave Winer, Jeff Jarvis, and Mike Arrington all disagree with my assessment. But while I read their concerns, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was like being in the men's washroom listening to "the good 'ole boys" bemoaning political correctness or complaining about how rules and regulations about sexual harassment infringed on their personal freedoms. It was like standing outside an office skyscraper with the smokers denouncing regulations limiting their rights to smoke their stogies at their desk.

If I understand O'Reilly, all he is proposing is that bloggers clearly articulate what kind of place it is that they are hosting. One wouldn't walk into a Baptist church, for instance, and start swearing, "Jesus Christ, would somebody turn up the heat in here!" But in a bar, that conduct might be entirely acceptable. All he's saying is that we need to be clear about what level of civility is permissible in our blogging home.

It's about setting expectation levels and then choosing either to enter the conversation and abide by our host's rules or to go someplace else. That just the decent thing to do.

When we readily sacrifice decency to make a point, it inevitably leads to hurt feelings (see Robert Scoble's description of the way Dave Winer responded to Maryam Scoble's concerns about death threats and misogynistic comments). Hurt feelings are one thing. Death threats another. But a blogger's code of conduct might have helped in both situations.

Sure, a single blogger's code of conduct may not suffice. Nor will a single "Anything goes" badge suffice for for permissive arenas. But if traditional media, corporations and associations benefit from codes of conduct, why not bloggers?

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