The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Kos Still Doesn’t Get It

I suppose I should cut Kos some slack. Normally, I’d say that it almost looks like he’s working really hard at not getting it. But having had the experience of being a new dad, I know having a newborn in the house means everything else takes a lower priority, and sometimes that includes things like sleeping, showering, eating, etc. So I’m tempted to excuse this slapdash follow-up to his original slapdash post in response to the death/rape threats against Kathy Sierra.

I don’t disagree with anything Lindsey wrote. I disagreed with using a bloggers threats as an excuse to foist upon us all a “Blogger Code of Conduct”.

That’s what I was saying. 1) There are assholes that will 2) email stupid shit to any public figure (which includes bloggers, but 3) that won’t be stopped by any blogger code of conduct.

You see, stupid asshole psycho threatening emailers don’t care about codes of conduct. That’s all.

Glad to know that he doesn’t disagree with what Lindsey said. But there’s a few points being missed here, and I would miss them too if I were blogging in between diaper changes, late night feedings, and suffering sleep deprivation.

Basically, the recommendations put forth aren’t for the “stupid assholes” leaving rape threats and death threats in comments — not emails, but public comments on blogs. They’re for the stupid assholes who allow those comments to remain on their blogs.

First, the “code of conduct” he refers to isn’t being “foisted” on anyone. It’s entirely voluntary. At last count, there are 76.4 million blogs out there. There’s little chance of anything being successfully “foisted” on anyone, let alone being enforced. (By what authority?) Kos, and any other blogger can simply ignore it. (And Kos might have done well to do so in the first place.)

Second, nobody’s said that “stupid assholes” are going to stop making threats because of a code of conduct.

Assholes tend not to follow any code of conduct, and deeply resent any suggestion or expectation that they should. They tend to reject any notion responsibility to or for anyone but themselves.

The recommended code of conduct here doesn’t apply to the assholes making the threats. It applies to those of us who (a) operate blogs and (b) chose to follow the suggested guidelines. Like the first one:

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



Yes, you own your own words. But you also own the tone that you allow on any blog or forum you control. Part of “owning your own words” is owning the effects of your behavior and the editorial voice you foster. And when things go awry, acknowledge it. It would have been far better for Chris to have deleted the post, and said explicitly on the blog that it was unacceptable, than to have silently shut down the blog and removed all entries and comments without explanation.

There’s an attitude among many bloggers that deleting inflammatory comments is censorship. I think that needs to change. I’m not suggesting that every blog will want to delete such comments, but I am suggesting that blogs that do want to keep the level of dialog at a higher level not be censured for doing so.

This whole thing started with comments posted about Kathy on someone else’s blog.

The threats against Kathy, the picture of her with a noose around her neck, appeared on someone else’s site, someone who defended his decision not to remove those comments, instead putting the responsibility on the commenters, and eventually removing the sites altogether rather than remove the comments.

(Actually, Kathy has said that the comments came from participants in the sites where they were posted; people who actually had author privileges on the blog, not random commenters, but this applies all the same.)

In all fairness, I can understand why this might be cause for concern for a blogger of Kos’ status. After all, how many comments does his site get on any given day, counting front page posts and member diaries? Far too many for Kos to keep up with, and probably too many even for his “trusted users” or others with administrative capabilities to keep up with. The idea of taking responsibility for comments on a blog that size, given the possibility that some like the ones Kathy received might escape notice and actually result in someone getting hurt or killed would be enough to keep anyone up at night.

This may be a weakness of bigger, highly trafficked blogs. I keep going back to Clay Shirky’s scenario of the top-tier blogger who has more comments than she can monitor or respond to. Further down the Long Tail, where bloggers have less traffic and more time to read their comments and interact with readers, this is a somewhat less daunting task. For example, I don’t have much trouble keeping up with my comments on a daily basis, and I’m somewhere around the base of middle of the Long Tail.

But, like it or not, those of us who blog probably do have some degree of responsibility for the comments we alllow to be posted and to remain on our sites. At least one blogger has been sued for comments made on his blog. That was over alleged defamatory comments and inaccurate information. The lawsuit was later thrown out, but it’s not hard to imagine a victims family or estate bringing a lawsuit against a blogger who allowed comments containing death threats to remain on his or her blog.

Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.

Explicit labeling of “danger zones” is probably not going to take off (I can’t imagine sites labeling themselves “flaming encouraged”), but the idea of sites posting their code of conduct might gain some traction given some easily deployed badges pointing to a common set of guidelines, as Kaylea suggested. But even absent such a mechanism, self-identifying your level of tolerance, as blogher does, seems to me like a really good idea. We’re going to kick around some design ideas here at O’Reilly, and may have something to present in the next week or two.

In the meantime, The BlogHer Community Guidelines are a good place to start.

Deploying moderation mechanisms like slashdot’s might also help. I know that there are lots of nasty comments posted on slashdot, but I never see them, because they are below my threshold of visibility. I’d love to see the major blogging platforms offer comment rating systems that would allow automatic moderating down of nasty comments. (Of course, many blogs don’t have enough comment volume for this to work, but there are enough sites with large commenter communities where this could be a big help.)

In my work, I regularly advise people to have a comment policy posted prominently on their blogs at the very least, usually right above the comments form, stating what kinds of comments will not be tolerated, as well as the intention of the site owner to remove any comments that do not abide by the comment policy. (I don’t have one for this blog, but perhaps I should devise one.)

And, like I’ve already said, deleting comments from your own blog not censorship or a violation of free speech.

I don’t know what standard of integrity includes allowing people to post death threats against other people in a forum you own, any more than I can imagine leaving comments on my blog containing the kinds of threats (throat slitting, etc.) and images that were directed at Kathy Sierra. Free speech? Deleting comments is no violation of free speech. First, no one has a “right” to threaten anyone. Second, no one has “right” to do so on my blog or anyone else’s. If I delete their comments, they can start their own blogs in about five minutes. They can take it to another forum where that’s tolerated. Obviously, those forums exist.

And let’s remember that Kathy’s address and other contact information was also posted. Couple that with the threatening comments, and it’s an invitation to more intense harassment, if not to carry out earlier threats. And anyone who read those public comments could choose to carry out those threats because (a) someone posted Kathy’s address in a comment and (b) someone knew of those comments and allowed them to remain posted for all to see. Again, if we can tolerate this then we lose any moral ground to complain when someone like Michelle Malkin or Stop the ACLU posts someone’s address for the thinly veiled purpose of encouraging harassment and violence. We also lose any right to dismiss as disingenuous their claims of not “condoning” the inevitable death threats that result from their actions.

I’ve removed comments from my blog in which people have posted their own contact information: email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers, etc. Granted, there’s less of a case to be made for protecting people from themselves, if they don’t know the dangers of posting their personal information online already, but I’d rather not end up feeling responsible for the consequences. Is it really too much to expect bloggers to remove comments in which people reveal someone else’s private information?

Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

When people are anonymous, they will often let themselves say or do things that they would never do when they are identified. There are important contexts in which anonymity is important, for example, for political speech in repressive regimes. But in most contexts, accountability via identity changes how people behave. Requiring a valid email address for comments won’t prevent people who want to hide their identity from doing so, but it’s one more indication that accountability is valued.

Again, in my work, I’ve advised people to consider eliminating anonymous comments as a means of establishing some accountability; that is, making people more responsible for what they say. At a minimum, that means requiring a name and email address. Of course, people can simply use bogus names and email addresses, but it sends a message about accountability. That’s something I do on this blog.

The next level would be requiring users to register before they can leave comments, and even confirming their registration (and the validity of their email addresses, etc.) before they’re allowed to leave comments. This can obviously create something of a barrier to participation, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Earlier I referenced the rather romantic notion of the blogosphere as a kind of Hobbesian “state of nature.”

The “natural condition of mankind” is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.”

Sure, some people think that’s the way it should be. But the other side of the coin is that when we start blogs or comment on blogs we are to some degree joining a community. In doing so, it’s arguable that we enter into a kind of social contract.

The agreement with which a person enters into civil society. The contract essentially binds people into a community that exists for mutual preservation. In entering into civil society, people sacrifice the physical freedom of being able to do whatever they please, but they gain the civil freedom of being able to think and act rationally and morally. Rousseau believes that only by entering into the social contract can we become fully human.

In other words, in a community people assume a certain degree of responsibility to and for one another. Doing so, as with the suggested blogger “code of conduct,” is entirely voluntary, and is a matter of whether you value the benefits of doing so above the consequences of not doing so.

Or not. Nastiness and brutishness may what some people prefer. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to accept it.

4 Comments

  1. Hm-mm, I thought Kos really just told her to suck it up and take it like a man, ignore those rape/death threats the cops appear to take seriously, and leave operators of big community sites like his alone.

  2. Wow terrance, excellent post.

    In the blogosphere this issue has gotten
    side-tracked into a lot of not so relevant
    side issues. But you did a very good job
    zeroing in on the salient points.

    Especially interesting was the point about
    the lawsuit against a blog being thrown
    out. A big part of the problem is that
    there are not enough legal remedies for
    these types of online abuse.

    It’s only been recently that real-life
    stalking has become illegal. It look like
    a similar legal evolution has to happen
    in regards to the internet.

  3. Excellent post, Terrence. One that should be posted on DKos.
    I agree. Community. a concept that gets lost like the Commons, which belongs to everybody.

  4. No time to blog about it myself, but I wanted to point out this excellent post in case you hadn’t seen it.

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