Thursday, April 12, 2007

Back in my day, the kitchen was hot because it caught fire - and we liked it that way!

It's kind of ironic that the fight over a proposed code of conduct for bloggers has gotten so nasty. I'm a little bewildered by it; the suggestion that civil discourse be promoted seemed pretty unexciting to me, and the arguments for and against it all pretty obvious. Screaming matches and bullying aren't a part of productive discussion, and there's no possible, ethical or legal way to restrict the Constitutionally-protected speech of bloggers and commenters (even the assholes). Okay - both of these things are true, but I don't think either of these things are roadblocks to having a vibrant, expressive and safe blogosphere.

First, there's the issue of the restriction of speech. Trolling or name-calling are not illegal by any means, but they do a lot to hamper discussion and create a hostile community for the very people the blogosphere seeks to amplify the voices of. Maintaining a safe and civil online community requires lots of judgement calls on the part of a moderator, and if you don't like the judgement calls of the moderators at Alas, A Blog or Washington Monthly, then go somewhere else or start your own damn blog.

There's no shortage of internet space for people who want to make their unpopular or unwise opinions known. Blogging's ability to give every man woman and child a soapbox is not what makes it a useful tool for political and cultural change, though. The real gift that the blogosphere has to give is the creation of a community where we can all put our heads together and come up with better and deeper ideas in service of making the world a better place. Blogging has helped me think better and write better and know more because of the interactions I've had with commenters and bloggers - not just because I've been able to say my piece.

We can't enforce an Internet-wide code of conduct with an iron fist - there's no reason to even try. We can, however, work to create a culture that disincentivises abusive and hateful speech, and values accountability.

I've seen it play out in a few different ways.

There's a community-wide discussion email list in Moscow called Vision2020 that regularly is the host of knock-down, drag-out flamewars, with swagger and occasional namecalling and strongly differing opinions. It also maintains an emphasis on accountability, where the strong opinions are most likely to be respected when they come from identifiable community members whose worplaces and family members you are not unlikely to know. I wouldn't call Vision2020 polite, couth, or even necessarily civil. But I do think it's a good forum for debate that's maintained its value with its ethos of accountability. It's actually not even my cup of tea - I don't usually like flamewars and find the conversations to edge into silliness a little too often.

But then again, I don't have to post there.

I do spend a lot of time posting at Huckleberries Online. It's a blog connected with a newspaper from Spokane, WA, and is host to its own tussles as well. There are plenty of anonymous and semi-anonymous commenters, and people show up looking for trouble from time to time. Anonymous input into local politics can be really valuable, and my understanding is that the blog's caretaker, Dave Olveria, values its presence at HBO quite a bit. He keeps a pretty close eye on the discussions there, and isn't shy about deleting comments he feels go over the line, or banning people outright. I haven't always agreed with his judgement calls, and am endlessly annoyed at the "language" filter, but the interactive content that HBO delivers at the end of the day is still interesting and educational.

Ultimately, dialog will always require some kind of compromise for all parties involved; people are different. Kos seems to think that the internet removes the consequences from speech, but I know that I don't spend much time hanging around there. Maybe he doesn't want us hysterical feminist types stinking up his forums with our ideas, but that's a consequence of the the way he's crafted the community at DailyKos, too. Any community has a culture, and doing nothing shapes it as much as moderation does. That's the reality, and facing it is the first step toward turning this meta-flamewar into something we can sit around and toast marshmallows over.
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