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Blog talk

Paul Brannan | 13:04 UK time, Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Blogs are supposed to be a conversation, but sometimes the robust exchange of opinions they trigger develop into something far more unpleasant, even frightening.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteThat was the case for computer programmer Kathy Sierra who was targeted with death threats in anonymous posts to a number of websites.

And that, in turn, led web guru Tim O'Reilly to try to draft a code of conduct for bloggers in which civility of debate would be an enforced standard.

It could never work, of course. You might just as well try to regulate discourse around the globe, though if you were intent on making headway you could usefully start with school playgrounds or the top decks of buses.

The world is full of snarling, angry, aggressive people and the web is no different. Happily they're outnumbered by reasonable, decent, fair-minded folk who hold to standards of tolerant behaviour that aren't codified by rulebooks, however well-meaning the boundary-setters might be.

Where the web does differ is the cloak of anonymity it affords people who mount attacks on others, who use a tone and language they would never adopt in a face-to-face discussion (well, all but the most aggressive).

Another web guru, Jeff Jarvis, deals with anonymous posts to his Buzz Machine blog this way: "I will not give full respect and credence to things said by people who do not have the balls to stand behind their words.

"When people complain that I’m trying to get rid of the anonymous nature of the web, I say no, I wouldn’t do that. I’m simply telling you the way I judge your words when you’re too chicken to put your name on them."

And he goes on to say that he reserves the right to kill comments that are abusive, off-topic or irritating.

In this way he is setting the tone around the conversations he strikes up. And in this way the best blogs are self-regulating; the people involved in the conversation set the boundaries.

Shane Richmond, the Telegraph's online news editor sums this up neatly: "Communities filled with abusive, insensitive boors who won't listen to reason tend to become very small communities in short order as everybody heads elsewhere."

In a world of political correctness there are few places where people can vent their true feelings and codes of conduct to try to limit them are mistaken.

We need a place where people can sound off - and an opportunity for their opinions to be examined, debated and explored by others.

Let's cherish the reasoned, passionate debaters and leave the boors to their echo chamber.

Comments

  • 1.
  • At 05:48 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Vallabh Desai wrote:

Liked the blog. Let sanity prevail.

You are right. No one can control what people will scribble on the web. What we can do is police those bits of it that we control. Be we forum moderators, bloggers or webmasters, we can impose our own personal rules on our own piece of web real estate. Which of course turns us into Big Brother. From one extreme to the other...

That's people for you.

  • 3.
  • At 06:14 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Dominic Stockford wrote:

I quite agree that there are some foul-mouthed people who put stuff onto blogs which is quite disgusting. Sometimes the 'blog-meisters' need to be a bit harder in response and uphold more of the complaints.

Just because it is 'only the internet' doesn't mean peopole should be allowed to treat others with disrespect and behave like boors.

we also should not forget , blogs or open discussion forums helps to raise the voice of greatly subdued people from highly media censored countries like China, Iraq, Zimbabwe and etc.
In my opinion these socialisation sites are fantastic phenomena of 21st century and one of the biggest achievement towards the most consensual vision (of this civilisation and western leadership ) of global democracy and like Paul said above this world is always full of exceptions who like to abuse life rather than celebrate it - so just ignore them!

  • 5.
  • At 06:17 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Weiry wrote:

Much depends, I think, on whether we want a genuinely free exchange of ideas and opinions or nothing more than blanket agreement with our own positions.

Too often, "abusive, insensitive boors who won't listen to reason" turn out only to be those who dare to disagree with a blogger suffering from a need to control the words of everybody around them.

I believe that most readers are capable of distinguishing between people who resort to abuse and people who simply argue their case. I'd sooner avoid the control freaks than those who say their piece; the latter write what can be ignored, the former seem to prefer burning what might be read...

  • 6.
  • At 06:31 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Susan Evans wrote:

You say to IGNORE the rude, but isn't that like trying to unring a bell that has already rung? I am truly offended by filthy, hateful and/or abusive language on the Web . . . and I don't want to SEE it in the first place. Is it too much to ask for politeness and decency on the Internet? I am for censorship if it gets rid of "known" dirty language, including the words with a few asterisks and ampersands put in them to supposedly make them cleaner. "F*&k" is still obscenity and should be banned, along with all the other words having to do with body parts, fluids and solids; racial slurs, attacks against God and Christians, etc.

That's the most sensible thing any BBC employee has said since May 1997. Not counting Robert Aitken of course.

  • 8.
  • At 06:41 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Edward Malnick wrote:

Very well said. I'd go further to say that the attempt to impose some sort of code is absurd - if these people cannot behave themselves (and follow a natural code), then the 'web commandments' are going to do little to stop them. Not letting obstruct serious debate, however, is a very sensible policy.

  • 9.
  • At 08:37 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Ian Watson wrote:

Thats rich isn't it?

So far I have endured 99% censorship on Have Your Say where I have had two or three comments make it to the screen yet none have been abusive, rude, boorish and all fell within comment topic, so lets think on if the BBC are interested really in genuine debate.

And then there was poor Mr Porter trying to claim that the BBC were not government shills over WTC 7 but my 15 comments unaired comments to date and still no answer to why MI5 and Mi6 have their own suites at Television Centre says to me debate is only tolerated and only just, if its meek ebough to be swallowed by the low brow masses.

  • 10.
  • At 08:58 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Robert Knight wrote:

I would like to see the BBC HYS website move towards a rating system, perhaps a little like the Ebay system. You already have recommendations - these could be totalled and kept as a running score. The opposite "disagreements" could also be logged. More important, actual complaints could be logged eg when abusive language is used or personal attacks are made. The facility to look up each contributor's posts is also a useful feature and could perhaps be made more friendly.

All these features would help to make people think before they post, for fear of damaging their online reputation.

  • 11.
  • At 08:59 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Philippa, UK wrote:

I suggest that the BBC is rather too censorious this in respect. I've had even marginally critical posts deleted and so am extremely sceptical of your site's willingness to embrace anything other than BBC yumminess.

Isn't that exactly why your site gets so few comments compared to it's millions of visitors ? I'm stunned that most of the blogs on the whole site receive only handfuls of comments.

Guido Fawkes is overrun with responses and his content is surely of interest to only a vanishingly small group of Westminster villagers and sight-seers like myself.

yours in disappointment.

  • 12.
  • At 09:08 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Baz wrote:

I'm not sure the 'snarling, angry, aggressive' people really are outnumbered but certainly when it comes to internet blogs rational people are vastly outnumbered. See Part of the Conspiracy? on the right hand coloum!

  • 13.
  • At 10:41 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • towcestarian wrote:

The whole point about the web and blogs in particular is that they are (and should remain) uncontrolled and free of censorship by political controllers and political correctness.

So what if some folks are abusive or state their cases very robustly; let's just be thankful that, in a world dominated by state-controlled media and painfully inoffensive MSN outlets like the BBC, a medium still exists where this can happen.

  • 14.
  • At 10:52 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Evan Godolphin wrote:

Like many of the other reports I've read on this subject, Paul Brannan's blog here sets up Tim O'Reilly as a strawman. O'Reilly does not suggest legally enforced censorship. He merely proposes a code of conduct. All he posted was a list of suggestions, which he deliberately designed as a work in progress, that would be available as a sort of meta-FAQ for commenters to read before posting on any blog, and for bloggers to refer to in order to work out how they might handle their commenters. It's not enforceable in any legal sense, and he doesn't suggest enforcing it in any legal sense. He does suggest that bloggers be responsible for the tone of their blogs and comments, which hardly seems like "political correctness" - just common sense.

With regard to the case of Kathy Sierra, it is interesting to consider the limits of free speech. We do, for instance, already regulate discourse: you are not permitted to say anything that encourages, say, violent crimes, race hatred or terrorism. The threats to torture, maim, rape and kill Kathy Sierra would have been totally illegal in a newspaper or book, totally illegal if they had been spoken at a public meeting, and even potentially illegal if they had been said in private in the UK. Should those who post hate speech on the web be prosecuted? I don't know, but it's a thorny question - and one which is going to come up more and more.

  • 15.
  • At 11:01 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • Rikki wrote:

9, 11: The rules are a whole lot different when it applies to comments made on the site of a company or organisation. I can tell you now that there is a huge difference in what I'd allow on my personal blog, to what I'd allow on my company blog/website.

Have Your Say generally shows a cross-section of opinion (in fact, often the most politically incorrect posts are the ones recommended the most - that defeats the points about 'following BBC agenda'). It must get tens of thousands of posts per day, and it simply isn't possible to expect an organisation to spend the resources to check every one. I agree a self-moderation system would be good, but for one reason or another isn't in use right now.

9: You are just one individual, dealing with an organisation whose 'customers' number in the millions. Do not expect a personal reply to your issues - to do so is utterly unrealistic. HYS and the blogs are to share your opinions, not demand information and answers from people.

  • 16.
  • At 11:07 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • jaybee wrote:

At least 75% of internet forums are enforced by moderators who have their own very tiny agendas and simply want to promote their own flavour of groupthink onto the site members.

You cross one with ideas that fall outside the herd's mentality, and you'll be outed as a "troublemaker".

I have nothing against laws being enforced to stop excessive swearing; I DO have a problem with moderators saying, "Here's a warning on your record, because you called a woman a typist, and it hurt her feelings." - A woman who actually WAS a STENOGRAPHER!!!

Most moderation of the type the author describes is NOT, sadly, used to limit abusive writing but to stifle any expression that does not meet the website owners little agenda.

  • 17.
  • At 11:12 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • henry pearce wrote:

I'm afraid I have to concur with Ian Watson - Every evening the presenter of the World Tonight (Robin Lustig) says "to join the debate - go to blah blah ...." But there are only ever a handful of comments and I've never had any of my perfectly inoffensive comments published - not much debate there !!
And this "I'm so up to the minute" talk of podcasts - Why can't you just put an mp3 of all (significant) broadcasts on the programmes webpage so that we the licence payers can download & listen to it whenever we want. After all you provide a listen again facility - It just means extra work to use my own software to convert this to mp3 when I want to listen to something well away from my pc.

  • 18.
  • At 11:31 PM on 11 Apr 2007,
  • towcestarian wrote:

The whole point about the web and blogs in particular is that they are (and should remain) uncontrolled and free of censorship by political controllers and political correctness.

So what if some folks are abusive or state their cases very robustly; let's just be thankful that, in a world dominated by state-controlled media and painfully inoffensive MSN outlets like the BBC, a medium still exists where this can happen.

  • 19.
  • At 12:05 AM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • Neil Sands wrote:

People are ruder on the web than they are face to face. Face to face you don't invade people's body space, you try not to say anything that'll get you thumped, and you generally behave in the socially acceptable way you've been learning about since early childhood. All of that goes out the window when you're typing a message into a box on your computer, in the privacy of your home.

Wow! You know about the Kathy Sierra thing? There's hope for the Beeb yet, then.

So when are you going to fix the clunky software so that debates such as that one (and the very ineteresting one started by Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet on science communication, which you definitely ought to be interested in) can spill freely over into here?

  • 21.
  • At 05:35 AM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • Steve G wrote:

I too find it hard to believe that only a handful of people would care to post to the world-gridling BBC blogs.

There is no statement of BBC censorship policy and certainly no statistics posted.

This entire series of editors blogs is rather farcical in that regard.

I've addressed the issue of abusive posters a few times in my blog.

I don't mind people criticise me. They can dispute what I write and disagree with what I say. But they are not allowed to 'terrorize' my other 'guests'.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as 'total freedom' or 'absolute freedom'.

If comments are not regulated, the blog or forum will die out. Free speech mediums such as blog and forum must be protected from abusers. I must not be allowed to be destroyed by irresponsible posters.

The main issue for me as a blogger is that I feel blogs are somehow demonised by the media. The Kathy Sierra stuff happened on a forum, not a blog, that wouldn't have signed up to a code of conduct anyway.

And what about websites who publish names and addresses of people they disapprove of (I'm thinking extremist political sites, direct action groups and so on)? They aren't blogs but surely this is more harmful... so why are blogs singled out?

Also, I've got no trouble at all with saying everyone should treat one another with respect, but that's not the same thing as saying people should be immune from criticism. And that includes those people who propose unworkable (as you point out) codes of conduct.

And I frequently enjoy it when someone publicly disagrees with my on my blog providing they put forth some reasoning so we can debate an issue rather than going "yes it is"/"no it isn't".

Like I say, what concerns me is the fact that mainstream media seem only to pick up on the extremes of blogging rather than looking at the vast majority of people in the middle having rational discourses and going about their daily business without hurting anyone else...

  • 24.
  • At 09:06 AM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • PeeVeeAh wrote:

A fascinating starter-for-tem!......

We - The Greater Blogee - are a population of the like never encountered before in conversational architectures! A potentially huge diversity of samples of opinion can put the interesting stripes of colour back into the 'Plasticene brown' of discussion 'melting pots'!

However!......

Self-control is at the heart of the scheme. Both the reader and the writer have their own responsibilities in the performance. And that is what it is - a performance! Apparent 'anonymity' is probably better than half abottle of scotch - in freeing-up the fingertips. However, some can behave as if they really had imbibed. When intoxicated, one might say what comes into one's head, rather than what should be said. The blog will draw such unveiled - and often antisocial - rantings from some people. The anonymity goes further: It is known that some individuals have multiple blogging entities, which can junk the statistical relevance - if one is daft enough to be drawn-in!

The drink analogy holds well(?) in the 'pub' model: You say what you like to your fellow drinkers, but someone will horn-in and things could get out-of-hand!

Unregulated blog hosting is of dubious value - by any measure - but responding can be fun if taken with a large pinch of salt! "Tequila, anyone?"..........

  • 25.
  • At 10:18 AM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • adele wrote:

I agree - idiots will behave idiotically with or without a code of conduct. The best solution is to foster the right kind of online community around your blog, by setting the topics and tone, and deleting abusive comments - not censoring critical ones, just ones that cross the line (unless that's the kind of discussion you want, of course).

A code of conduct would have done nothing to help Kathy Sierra.

I really don't understand the angst surrounding writers who freak out when they get an abusive or threatening comment on their blog.

You are in the public domain and taking a risk.

Pop stars get threats.

Grow up.

If you write controversial stuff, expect feedback.

The angry people are a part of your target audience

Simply delete it.

You are the editor. Be your own security guard.

  • 27.
  • At 10:59 AM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • Gregor Aitken wrote:

I still dont fully understand what the point of blogging really is.

Now it has been pointed to as being one of the bastions of the new democratic internet age, so i guess it is understandable that you are already advocating a form of censorship, by removing posts that are seen as offensive or by judging the content of a comment on the tone but not the argument.

I love that you see snarling angry and aggresive as a bad thing, i rtemember researching an essay on churchill and finding almost the exact same phrase used to descibe his oratory manner.( i remember this being specific to his phrasing of the word nazis or narrrttzziis as winston would say)

I have to agree with the chap you cite who says if someone puts their name to it then it should be acceptable. and anonymous posts sgould be treated as something else. maybe creating two types of blogs one for open debate and one for anonymous debate.

Who knows?

All i do know is that blogs seem pointless enough, i only see them as relevant by how many comment and not as much by what they say.

So when baz says that he sees high numbers of comments about conspiracies and reads this as meaning there are a lot of nutters about, i see instead that a lot of people seem interested in this debate and therefore it is a contentious issue.

My guess is that the bbc are not really enjoying this new media phenonemon (from a political/democratic point of view) So the cure seems to be to stiffle what little true freedom of speech we have and regulate it so that it is nice and fluffy and much more akin to polite dinner party chatter rather than any real open honest debate.

Of your twelve posts only 3 have actually stood forward and said this is me here is my email and these are my opinions.

so there is now 4 people in this conversation and the rest are just anonymous comment throwers.

Is this right?

  • 28.
  • At 12:56 PM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • Adam wrote:

Very sensibly put. There's always a lot of nonsense written on any unmoderated internet forum, but I'm sure I am not alone in having no trouble in ignoring it and focusing on the sensible comments.

It's just a shame that your point of view isn't shared by the moderators on the BBC's HYS site, which is far too tightly moderated for my liking.

I applaud the BBC for being far more open to debate than most of the rest of the media, but I do think you could go further in allowing more unrestricted debate on your site.

  • 29.
  • At 06:22 PM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • pussy cat wrote:

Paul,
you miss the point completely. Fact is, people behave completely differently in front of a computer than they do in front of a person. Personal contact is a great moderator of conduct.

The mildest mannered of employees (for example) will "flame out" in front of a computer.

Very true. Blogs are the alternative media getting popular by the day. A few people abusing it could be ignored.

  • 31.
  • At 02:52 PM on 13 Apr 2007,
  • Dottie Magill wrote:

I disagree with the comments suggesting that the use of blogging etiquette equates to "blanket agreement" and I don’t think that disagreement equates to abuse. I think abusive comments are a product of poor communication skills and unfortunately this will probably be an ongoing problem. Argument (persuasive discussion with different points of view) is an art – if it’s done well with style everyone appreciates it. This is a new way to communicate and we are still learning how to do it. I think it’s a really good idea to allow anyone who’s interested in the drafting of a code of behaviour/practice to do so—-many minds make great work.
Cheers ;-)

Paul’s post is sensible, and Jeff Jarvis is on the money as usual. The idea of having a code for bloggers is well meaning but daft.

I should declare an interest and say that with the help of BBC bloggers I drew up the BBC’s Guidelines for employees personal blogs. You can find them at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/advice/weblogswebsites/guidelinesforbl.shtml

But even a dyed in the wool bureaucrat like myself draws the line at any foolish and doomed attempt to regulate the entire blogosphere.

However I disagree a little with Paul’s point that the “boors” should be ignored. One man’s “passionate debater” is another man’s boor. Occasionally the people who are angry and shout are actually on to something. The best comment I have read on this subject comes from the comments thread on this post by Jonathan Friedland from Comment Is Free:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2054180,00.html

It reads:

“The truth is often rude and obnoxious, and that's why the middle classes developed the code of manners to make it socially unacceptable to tell the truth in the first place...”

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