Netiquette 2.0 (The Code of Conduct)

Courtesy of Dave Simmer at Blogography comes news that Tim O’Reilly would like bloggers to establish a ‘code of conduct’. To which I say: good luck with that, Tim! Forgive me if I don’t sign up.

Now, to be fair to Tim, reading his article I suspect that he knows that his proposal is basically unenforceable. What he has done is create a website, with a bunch of badges given out to bloggers who wish to participate in the program and who have signed a set of guidelines they pledge to adhere to. He also proposes reviewing all applicants before approving them and, really, that is the best he can probably do.

If anybody wants to sign up and blog by the codes of conduct, more power to them, but I share Dave’s scepticism about the whole venture. I mean, why stop with blogs? Why not establish a code of conduct for all interpersonal relations? I, James Bow, pledge to treat every person I meet with respect, including jerks who spit at my feet. I promise not to swear, to tell no lies, to take responsibility for my mistakes and not to bash minor irritants with sticks, so help me God.

But such a code of content already exists in real life. We haven’t signed it, but we are forced to deal with it by virtue of living (either by abiding by it, or ignoring it and dealing with the consequences). Most people get through life with only a modicum of sniping, but there are plenty of jerks out there as well. And although it’s disturbingly arbitrary, many people are forced to take responsibility for their actions. Liars get caught out, criminals get sent to prison, and those who build themselves up by tearing down others eventually get torn down themselves. Those who breach that unwritten code of conduct more seriously find themselves up against our legal system.

The big problem with Tim’s premise is that blogs so much more problematic than life that they need this sort of initiative in order to promote civility and restore the credibility of the medium. Not only is this picture painted with too broad a brush, but the solution Tim offers amounts to another piece of paper on top of other pieces of paper, some of which have more legal impact. Tim cites issues of libel, harassment, copyright infringement and privacy violations, which as far as I know is already covered by our legal system — certainly, it’s covered in the contracts we sign with our webhosting networks. We don’t need a code of conduct in order to take these people out to face the consequences of their words. Making this citation suggests that this problem is widespread and, frankly, I find that a little insulting.

As a set of guidelines, Tim O’Reilly issues a set of statements that should be (and is) common sense for most bloggers, and I guess there is some value in writing everything up so that it’s all in one place — a reminder that we can use occasionally when we get a little bit too deep in our online activities, but not some bizarre, unenforceable quasi-legal code. Many of these reminders (ignore the trolls, try to fix problems privately before airing grievances publicly) have been issued through Usenet again and again, and look at the state of Usenet today. Blogs are, in many ways, the new Usenet, and hoping to establish any sort of control over the medium is worse than herding cats.

But blogs are not Usenet. They are individual websites run by individuals. Everybody is responsible for their own site, unlike the indecipherable chatter of the newsgroups. Sites which are civil and interesting as a matter of course can be found and, once found, can be subscribed to. It takes a little effort on the part of the web surfers, but the beauty of the web is that there is still signal among all that noise, and the noise can be tuned out.

Further Reading

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