O’Reilly Turns Criticism Into Civil Discourse

    April 11, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

After the uproar caused by his proposed code of conduct for bloggers, Tim O’Reilly could have let the subject drop into the deep waters of blogospheric controversy, only to be remembered as a cautionary tale, a footnote to the history of the Web.

He didn’t slip quietly away, however, and instead addressed his critics head-on, making concessions here and there, but, for the most part, sticking to his guns. No, not his guns, because in his lengthy (and I mean lengthy) blog reply, O’Reilly pulled back from the Old West rhetoric.

This is about being civilized – a concept all but crushed beneath tonnage of words heavy with stone-faced anonymity. And sometimes, rather than gun-sticking, civility demands a more proper analogy, one that better embodies my imagining of O’Reilly in this aftermath, an old adage:

"Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes."

No doubt the roar, even a digital one, of collective dismissal is enough to spur the tremors. Bravo, Mr. O’Reilly.

The blog post centers on "Lessons Learned," and begins with an admission that the sheriff’s badge icon, an image intended to connote a voluntary ascription to a set of blogging morals, would actually convey heavy-handed blawg (word inspired by the self-titled "Blawgers") enforcement and "suppression of bad behavior rather than good behavior."

Besides that, sheriff’s badges are a bit regional as strictly American inamoratas.

These concessions, these reexaminations, are tempered soon after with a (civil) calling-out of Web-pioneer Jeff Jarvis for what O’Reilly felt was hypocritical commentary. Jarvis was critical of O’Reilly’s "Twinkie badges," asserting the non-necessity of signs pledging to be a good neighbor.

O’Reilly begs to differ:

A quick look at buzzmachine shows that Jeff does in fact have just such a "badge" on his site. In fact, he has two. It’s just that they are text badges rather than graphics. There’s one prominent link entitled Rules of Engagement that states "Any email sent to me can be quoted on the blog. No personal attacks, hate speech, bigotry, or seven dirty words in the comments or comments will be killed along with commenters." And there’s another one entitled About me /Disclosures that lists all of Jeff’s financial entanglements.

That’s at the heart of what he wants – a Chivalrous code among bloggers, a Hippocratic oath of sorts to uphold certain principles, a kind of Cyber-Masonic club, an Ichthus above the door.

And that, in a word, is noble.

In addition to the symbolic adherence of, forgive me, the Upright Bloggers Brigade, O’Reilly is calling for more careful moderation of comments from them – a dangerous line walked, to be sure.

Knee-jerk responders bemoan the implications for freedom of expression, imagining blog overlords (a bit grandiose, don’t you think?) picking and choosing what’s okay to talk about. Of course, it is their house, you may argue, and they can tolerate what they wish.

The other concern is liability. Bloggers are reluctant to edit comments because, according to some legal circles, any instance of editing is tantamount to responsibility for publishing of libelous statements that may appear from third parties.

But for O’Reilly, deleting comments isn’t about limits on speech, it’s about limits on "unpleasantness," turning the corner from the chivalrous to the downright dandy (in the Continental sense of the word – think of powdered wigs or, if you have the frame of reference, Christopher Walken’s Saturday Night Live creepozoid).

Then again, being from the South where manners are not just important, but nearly enforced, I sympathize with his notion of blogger etiquette, even if he gets sidewalk preachy about it:

If there’s one thing I’d love to come out of this discussion, it’s a greater commitment on the part of bloggers (and people who run other types of forums) not to tolerate behavior on the internet that they wouldn’t tolerate in the physical world. It’s ridiculous to accept on a blog or in a forum speech that would be seen as hooliganism or delinquency if practiced in a public space…

But I believe that civility is catching, and so is uncivility. If it’s tolerated, it gets worse.

The last time I heard a speech like that, it was in a Baptist church. O’Reilly’s words aren’t unrecognized, or unappreciated. I just have still have my doubts. But I also have more respect for, and understanding of, his position.