Apr 15, 2007

Call for Ambivalence [LINK]

I only recently learned of my former employer Tim O'Reilly's involvement in the idea of a Blogger's Code of Conduct, one that he helped formulate after Java expert Kathy Sierra (no relation) was targeted with on-line death threats. I went over to his original post and encountered the following extended editorial preface detailing the state of the controversy:

[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.]

Understanding that I'm on the outside looking in, my immediate reactions to this paragraph were:
  1. Tim is an excellent writer and all-around communicator, but I can't bear to read one more word of this stuff.
  2. The prose provides a glimpse into what makes this medium so different.
  3. It gives me some reason to be pessimistic about the fate of any conduct code.

Before I even get to the part about the Code, there's a faceful of minutiae involving three or possibly four individuals, three different websites, the supposed intent behind setting up one of those sites, a chronology of who said or did what when, a distinction between comments and posts, between email and web, plus some mention of lesser abuse directed at Tara, whoever she is. (If I were still editing copy at O'Reilly, efforts to clarify all this could easily push out a book's deadline!)

That the paragraph is extraneous to the substance of the post is not important. That Tim felt it necessary to include it is telling, since it represents an effort to defragment the reading experience. For all their benefits, blogs are inherently fragmentary, an effect that's magnified for emerging controversies. To understand the background to Ms. Sierra's allegations, you'd have to visit several different pages and build up a mental image of the chronology, the characters involved, and a distinction between what appears to be primary material and what's extraneous commentary. In the old days it was usually a matter of reading a particular piece in a newspaper or magazine, which offered a common shared experience.

Now, when people talk about this issue, some are relying on what they read in A, B, and C, while others have sampled B, D, and Q. I noticed this tendency during 2004's Rathergate scandal, certainly one of the blogosphere's finest hours. The traditional "mainstream media" was of course terribly slow to digest the details of the dispute. But even among those who relied on bloggers, it was apparently easy to read a great deal of opinion on the subject without ever running across a substantial discussion of typographical terms such as "superscript" and "pair kerning" on which the scandal largely hinged. I think the problem goes beyond partisan-inspired sample bias, and goes to the very nature of the medium.

Clearly, blogs are not like standalone essays, and nothing I'm saying here is brand new. Blogs have enviable qualities -- the ability to rapidly produce, cross-check and refine information -- but these are also their drawbacks. Note how tentative this is: "I have never seen the sites, and they have now been taken down, so I can neither confirm nor deny..." You see much the same effect on the follow-up Tim posted in response to controversy about his proposed Code. There Tim backpedals on the idea of a "badge" for bloggers to display that they adhere to the Code, and regrets the initial "negative" design they came up with in the face of impending coverage from the New York Times. While it's often a laudable quality to be able to reverse a prior stance or admit error, the cumulative effect on the reader is a sense of flux. Blogs invite response, and such response is far more likely to have an effect than anywhere else. Go after Tim with both guns blazing, and he is likely to reverse himself. Partly that's due to his special role as a consensus-builder, but still, try that with some newspaper's columnist and see where it'll get you!

Some of the commentary I ran across referred to the "drive-by" nature of anonymous blog comments, but I can't help think that blogs are "drive-by" by their very nature. It's easy to flit from one post to the next, only dwelling on something that appears especially contentious. I occasionally read Ann Althouse, whose blog tends to focus on legal matters (she's a law professor), what's in the New York Times, and reality television. Recently she caused some fuss by drawing attention to a picture of Bill Clinton posing with a bunch of bloggers, one of whom appeared in such a way as to draw attention to her breasts. This catty observation has generated an immense deal of commentary! That it would crowd out other discourse reflects how blogs tend to thrive more on controversy than reliability. Popular blogs tend to be edgier, and edgy comments are more likely to generate a response. I noticed that the title I chose for my previous post was a pun based on one of the words that Don Imus just got fired for using, a sexist term of abuse I ordinarily wouldn't utter. So why did I use it? Because it was snappy and attention-grabbing, that's why! That I can do so without a second thought seems to be one of the medium's disinhibitors. (Similarly, the very title of this blog is something of a provocative pun.)

Getting back to Kathy Sierra, I find it fascinating that after sampling so much commentary about the death threats directed against her, I still have no idea what it was they were originally discussing that spiraled so out wildly of control. It seems that in blogs the subject matter is less likely to be related to this free-floating contentiousness and constant sniping.

The whole libertarian vs. communitarian argument about whether bloggers should adopt a formal Code of Conduct actually doesn't interest me all that much. Sure, if you think it's a good idea, go ahead and knock yourself out. For some bloggers it may well be a good idea as a matter of simple P.R. Will it make any difference in the overall quality of blogs and their comments, or of how they are perceived by the public at large? I doubt it.

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