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Lately, the crass nature of talk radio and the blogosphere has been Topic A in the media. Shock jock Don Imus has been fired by CBS Radio and MSNBC TV for his racially charged comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. And publisher/blogger Tim O’Reilly has called for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct after blogger Kathy Sierra was the subject of death threats and vile misogynist speech on her blog and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

In both cases, the worst offenses took place by people out of ignorance. Imus didn’t really know the women on the Rutgers team before calling them “ho’s,” and the anonymous people who made comments about Sierra remain a mystery to her and everyone else. While I don’t agree with the need for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct, I will whole-heartedly agree with one of O’Reilly’s rules of thumb: “We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.”

Would Imus have said his insulting comments to the faces of the Rutgers players? No. Would blog commenters have made the same personal insults if they were sitting in front of Sierra? No. The seemingly anonymous, freewheeling nature of the online world has always been a breeding ground for personal attacks, flame wars and trolls. And shock jocks make a living by making fun of nearly everyone with colorful, provocative language.

But when do they cross the line? When do they go too far? Who is fair game for these attacks and who isn’t? I don’t believe as a society that we have created the perfect rules for free speech or obscenities, and there will always be gray areas and wiggle room in the legal restrictions of community standards. But maybe those community standards do make sense when it comes to drawing the line somewhere.

Let’s take the case of Imus. The community, his listeners, have put up with a lot of his racist comments in the past, as has his employers. When he stepped over the line, some of his listeners came to his defense, while others were upset. Advertisers — another key component of his community — decided to drop out of his show, and his employers fired him. You might argue that more people in his community were accepting of his slur against the Rutgers women, and they still have the option to listen to his show, wherever it might turn up next. His own community — not outside observers — will decide whether he broke the rules or not, and leave his side or stay. Anyone who thinks they can set the rules and then break them will end up with a very small community.

Sierra’s blog, Creating Passionate Users, has open comments. Sierra has the power and right to moderate those comments, keep them open, or completely eliminate them. She has worried in the past about deleting comments because it would come off as censorship in an otherwise open community online. This is where the balancing act comes in. If a community allows the crass and the obscene to get an equal voice and footing as people of sense and respectability, then it harms the overall community, causing people to leave and the blogger to stop writing.

This is a pattern that has doomed usenet groups, chat rooms and blogs of every stripe because open forums are magnets for people who abuse their freedom of speech. But having an overriding Code of Conduct makes no sense either. Each community, led by the moderator or blogger, must set its own standards for conduct and decide how to police rule-breakers. You can clearly see the rules of engagement I have set up with comments on PBS MediaShift, as the rules are on every blog post and every potential comment. I have had very few complaints about my rules and have deleted very few comments (if you except the mountain of spam comments).

I try not to judge each community by its rules. If blogger Glenn Reynolds doesn’t accept comments, or Kathy Sierra has open comments, then that is their choice. Maybe Reynolds can deal with comments better via his email in-box, and Sierra likes (or liked) the free exchange of ideas. I don’t need a special badge — as O’Reilly suggested — to figure out that one is being closed and the other open. I’d rather see obvious rules of conduct at each site so I know what I’m getting when I spend time in that community.

I am saddened every time I see or hear the kind of ignorant hate speech spewed by people online or offline. It is a fact of our society, and it’s better that we can see it as the reality of our surroundings than try to legislate it away so it goes underground. But rather than try to tell everyone how they should run their community, I hope that each community will take the time to work out their own standards, their own rules of engagement, so that rule-breakers can be dealt with in a consistent and fair way. Otherwise, we end up in an unrealistically stifled society, where every bad word is legislated, or an unrealistically open society, where every bad word is celebrated or shrugged off.

Here are some of the best articles and commentaries I’ve found on this subject so far:

Incivility Creep by Don Tennant of ComputerWorld

Coordinated Statements on the Recent Events by Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke

No twinkie badges here by Jeff Jarvis

Code of Conduct — Lessons Learned So Far by Tim O’Reilly

Men Who Hate Women on the Web by Joan Walsh of Salon

Putting the brakes on coarseness by Ellen Goodman

Blogger code criticized by Cassandra Szklarski of the Canadian Press

Kathy Sierra Case: Few Clues, Little Evidence, Much Controversy by Dylan Tweney of Wired News

What do you think? Do you think there’s a place for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct? How do you think communities should police trouble-makers and personal attacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below — and don’t forget to follow the rules.

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