Blogger’s Code of Conduct – Do We Need Stinking Badges?

A call by Tim O’Reilly for a formal “Blogger’s Code of Conduct” has captured the attention of the mainstream press, including a front page piece in yesterday’s NYT, as well as quite a few bloggers.

O’Reilly proposes seven guidelines:

    1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

    2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.

    3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

    4. Ignore the trolls.

    5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.

    6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.

    7. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person.

He discusses each of those exhaustively at the link. Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales has proposed, not surprisingly, a wiki to cobble together a universal code of ethics which those which promise to abide by can signify through a nifty little badge on their site.

Not surprisingly, most bloggers think the very idea of speech codes offensive, with many expressing the sentiment of the Mexican bandit from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”*

Andrew Sullivan proclaims that “the blogosphere is about freedom – not codes of conduct on sites for free exchange of views.” Similarly, Jeff Jarvis judges that, “This effort misses the point of the internet, blogs, and even of civilized behavior.” Citing Doc Searls‘ admonition that the blogosphere is a place, not a thing, he observes,

And when I moved into the place that is my town, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good neighbor (and thus anyone without that badge is, de facto, a bad neighbor). I didn’t have to pledge to act civilized. I just do. And if I don’t, you can judge me accordingly. Are there rules and laws? Yes, the same ones that exist in worlds physical or virtual: If I libel or defame you on the streetcorner or in a paper or on a screen, the recourse is the same. But I don’t put up another badge on my fence saying I won’t libel you. I just don’t. That’s how the world works. Why should this new world work any differently? Why should it operate with more controls and more controllers?

Sean-Paul Kelley dubs the effort “inane.” He proclaims, “I’m an absolutist when it comes to free speech. It should be free, without any encumbrances. And this idea of ‘managed civil dialogue?”‘Well, it’s just an updated, neato, Orwellian concoction in the tradition of ‘weakness is strength,’ ‘war is peace’ and ‘freedom is slavery.'”

Ed Morrissey thinks this “one of those well-intentioned but doomed reform efforts that sound reasonable but will have no chance of changing anything” and argues it’s ultimately unnecessary. Dan Drezner agrees. Morrissey adds, “If a blogger gets threatened by an on-line commenter or another blogger, then the FBI should get called to investigate. If a blog has an out-of-control comment section where abuse and vitriol rule the day, simply stop reading that blog — or even better yet, start another blog and criticize it.”

Big Tent Democrat says he “can only chuckle at stories like this” but goes on to rant and rave as well. John Hawkins gives the idea a hearty, “No thanks!”

Several prominent bloggers are at least sympathetic to the idea, though, if not O’Reilly’s proposed solution.

Tom Maguire observes that “Speech is already a lot less than free, at least among the political blogs” but laments that he has a “troll problem” and will likely take stricter countermeasures. Barbara O’Brien notes that she already days many of the things on O’Reilly’s list with positive effect. I do, too. Still, a proprietor’s self-regulation of his own space is qualitatively different than a set of outside-imposed standards. As Hawkins notes, taking a page from Jarvis and Searls, “Your blog is like your home; it’s your house, your rules.”

I agree with Bruce McQuain that the quality of discourse at the blog author level can strongly influence that in the comments section. As I’ve often observed though (this isn’t exactly a novel topic to those who’ve been around the blogosphere block a few times) commenter quality tends to fall geometrically as blog traffic increases. With rare exceptions, it political blogs with audiences with more than a couple thousand daily visitors–let alone more than 10,000 or 100,000–draw a lot of trolls looking for a large megaphone.

Cross-blog discussion of such issues strikes me as perfectly healthy. Blogs don’t need a set of government mandated guidelines. People should be free to chose which blogs they hang out at, picking those with a level of civility that suits their tastes. At the same time, it’s valuable for bloggers, especially those with a sizable audience, to think about this sort of thing from time to time and perhaps get some ideas for how to set the tone that they’d prefer for their own sites.

Scott Ott, taking a page from Al Gore’s book, offers the perfect solution: Civility offsets.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McCain says:

    I’m with the anarchists. Visitors have free will to choose an environment in which they wish to invest their time.

  2. The commenters are responsible for their own speech. If the blogger wrote something that set off the commenter, it is worth while to review if you were wrong or misunderstood (as in non-blogging life, recognizing that both possibilities are at least as likely as the commenter being truly evil willed is a healthy thing).

    I think a blogger should have the right to delete any comment for any reason. If he is just deleting those who disagree, let the word pour forth. If he deletes them for the same reason you would ask a guy to pipe down in public, great. If the blogger wants their comments to be a free fire zone, that’s okay also. It’s easy enough on most blogs to scoop the cream (hopefully the blog posts) from the other stuff that can float (usually the comments). Making the blogger responsible for the comments greatly adds to the work for the blogger and doesn’t add much to the blog.

    The only guideline I could clearly endorse is #7, but then that should be part of everyone’s life, not just in regards to being on line.

  3. Civility in the Blogosphere is like civility in the living sphere, it is a matter of personal honor and personal choice. It can neither be enforced by a code of conduct nor imposed upon those who choose to ignore it.

    My mother said, “If you can’t be civil, be silent.”

  4. Bithead says:

    What this amounts to, is who we are are going to let control the conversation. When I see somebody who’s trying to invoke the code of conduct, particularly one that they aren’t likely not to abide themselves, I figure it amounts to somebody trying to control the conversation. At least they’re trying to control one side of it.

    Look; I don’t think it’s an accident that this subject should come up on the bleeding edge of a presidential election cycle, which has all the earmarks of looking very nasty indeed, particularly among Dems who are downright desperate to regain power to the levels they had twenty years ago.

    It appears from here as if the majority of the people who are whining, calling for such a code are the self-same liberal democrats, who have a tendency to put all of their trust in government to solve all their problems…. including ones that don’t exist. When I see this, I recognize this code sooner or later is going to become law… if we let this proceed any further.

    Damned if I will allow someone else…. government or otherwise… to control the conversation on my site. It’s simply not going to happen.

    And at the moment I still have the constitution on my side of this argument.

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    I had thought it a creatively and humorously way to get your point across be it the subject at hand or to a point that someone was trying to make about it and or the way they make it and to call each other upon such things as we see would make a difference in swaying said persons opinion be it you to I or I to you in what ever way that we would deem necessary, say for example: satirical comedy, or practiced stupidity, or absurd redundancies, or just the strait truth witch is some times the best of all,and yes some times it can get a little over top but some times you need to reach a little over the top to gain some ones attention, yes and some times the heat of battle or the urgency of purpose leads us to say things that are regretful, we in the end are all human and made up of mistakes and of feelings, mostly, and of humbleness and forgiveness, hardly. So as always forgive me if in any why I have harmed any of you for it was not my intention, be it the truth I have told you or my fools way of telling it.

  6. Proud to be Anonymous says:

    The O’Reilly Saga continues in his comments section. O’Reilly says he knows the person who attacked Kathy Sierra. He gets the victim and the perpetrator together on CNN — then somebody pumps up the NY Times publicity machinery for both the victim and the perpetrator. It doesn’t take a genius to see who may be benefiting from this little fracas.

    Then O’Reilly starts blaming a random responder as being one of the attackers.
    And when bloggers respond, most of the track backs lead to O’Reilly’s Radar Website — and (duh — as an Internet expert!) he is unaware that there are persistent error messages generated in his responders’ posts, so that it becomes a hit and miss game whether the post actually gets published or not.

    Perhaps Tim’s involvement relates to this little gem.

    Sierra’s current gig, along with her partner Bert Bates, is developing and producing the bizarre new Head First series of books for O’Reilly.