Beal on Blogger’s Code of Conduct

    April 9, 2007

If you’re a long time reader of Marketing Pilgrim, you’ll know my unease with anyone trying to define blogging; who should and shouldn’t blog; and, especially, talk of a “bloggers code of conduct.” So, you can imagine that my Monday morning is not off to a good start, when sipping my coffee I see Tim O’Reilly’s attempt to draft a code of conduct for bloggers.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I completely understand his intent. What happened to Kathy Sierra, is not an isolated incident, and perhaps bloggers should look at means to protect themselves (and others) from blog trolls looking for a fight. But, as I’ve said before, any attempts to define or restrict blogging, will ultimately suck the life out of it, and kill much of the momentum we have going on.

Let’s take a look at O’Reilly’s draft, and I’ll show you were I think it goes wrong…

We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.

Heck no! Sure, I take responsibility for my own words, but I’m not going to put in writing that I’ll take responsibility for what you have to say.

We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked to that:

– is being used to abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten others

– is libelous, knowingly false, ad-hominem, or misrepresents another person,

– infringes upon a copyright or trademark

– violates an obligation of confidentiality

– violates the privacy of others

Again, how am I supposed to know if a comment is libelous? That’s for the commentator and the complainer to decide, not me. Also, the courts can barely figure out what qualifies as copyright infringement, and what’s considered “fair use”, so how am I supposed to know? Lastly, where do we draw the line on “privacy of others?” While Eric Schmidt thought CNET went too far, others didn’t see it that way. Moving on…

We define and determine what is “unacceptable content” on a case-by-case basis, and our definitions are not limited to this list. If we delete a comment or link, we will say so and explain why. [We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice.]

Huh? Are we abiding by a code or not? If we “reserve the right to change these standards at any time”, doesn’t that leave room for abuse? Couldn’t a blogger that violates its own code simply decide to change the code for that particular incident? What becomes the point of even having a code, if it can be changed on a whim?

We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.

Ok, I agree on this one. Mr. O’Reilly, I’m a fan, I love much that O’Reilly does, but this code of conduct appears to be a way to milk a topic that is getting you some attention. (Invite me to one of your conferences and I’ll tell you this in person too!)

We connect privately before we respond publicly.

Sounds fair in theory, but the blogosphere just doesn’t seem to work like that. Did Matt Cutts approach BMW before outing their spam tactics publicly? Did Jeremy Zawodny come even close to this mantra?

When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we’ll tell them so (privately, if possible–see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.
If those published comments could be construed as a threat, and the perpetrator doesn’t withdraw them and apologize, we will cooperate with law enforcement to protect the target of the threat.

Wait, you want me to police the content of other bloggers and drop them an email if I don’t feel they’re playing nicely? While you may intend for this to apply to just the blogs you have control over, that’s not how it reads. Besides, who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn’t? Do I have to start pulling any content that just a single person deems offensive? Seems like another avenue for abuse to me.

We do not allow anonymous comments…We require commenter’s to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

You know what, that’s great for any blogger that gets hundreds of comments each day, but what about those that are glad to see any comment on their blog? Sure, anonymous comments are more likely to be abusive, but, if you’re going to allow commenters to use an alias anyway, what’s the point of banning anonymous comments?

We prefer not to respond to nasty comments about us or our blog, as long as they don’t veer into abuse or libel. We believe that feeding the trolls only encourages them–”Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.” Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.

What if that “pig” has a point? What if the comment merits a response from the blogger? True, I tend to not reply to comments that attack me – or defuse them with humor – but I still read them as they sometimes contain clues about larger issues.

O’Reilly’s code includes a nice little badge that you can proudly display on your blog. They also have an “anything goes” badge, which proclaims…

This is an open, uncensored forum. We are not responsible for the comments of any poster, and when discussions get heated, crude language, insults and other “off color” comments may be encountered. Participate in this site at your own risk.

Which to me, just reinforces the notion that this is just about publicity and links back to the O’Reilly web site. If “anything goes” why would you need a badge?

To sum up, I don’t believe any broad code of conduct is going to do any good in preventing abuse, libel, or threats on blogs. If someone is hell-bent on being abusive, a pretty badge on your site is not going to deter them. While I appreciate the gesture – and understand this code is just a draft – I don’t think it’s going to do any good. Bloggers worried about the activities on their blog, and by their readers, are better off just implementing their own comment policy, which can be customized to their own individual needs.

Maybe I should create a “Code of Conduct? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Code of Conduct” badge. ;-)