Thursday, April 19, 2007

Code of Conduct

IN THE parallel universe of virtual reality, all manner of participatory conversational forums are thriving. None more so than our "blog" of which there are about 70 million with 1.4 million being added daily.
The most recent case to rock the blogosphere surrounds well-known blogger Kathy Sierra, who was sent death threats after a dispute over whether it was acceptable to delete indiscreet comments left by a visitor on someone's website. The incident has caused a flurry in the online community with some of her high-profile associates declaring enough is enough. Internet publisher Tim O'Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales have gone so far as to propose a "Blogging Code of Conduct". Among the draft guidelines are calls for an "enforced civility" whereby harassment, abuse, stalking and, obviously, threats are not tolerated, and confidentiality (professional or personal) isn't violated, including copyright and trade secrets.
Secondary sources are required when a statement is potentially libellous and anonymity or pseudonymity is discouraged – a "false" name is OK, providing it's linked to a legitimate email address. Although i must admit, many commenters out there have no clue to this "rule", we only have to look at those who leave vile comments and send libellous emails ( Yes Nea i am talking about YOU...and YES i still have them!).This is to prevent, among other behaviours, viral marketing, where professional bloggers (paid by a company), discuss particular brands and products in order to influence consumer decisions.
Aware that they're stirring a hornets nest, the "netiquette" codes devised by O'Reilly and Wales are largely voluntary and use semiotics or signs to indicate what a particular blog permits in terms of language and content. They perceive themselves as aiding freedom of speech as opposing it.

So what is it about the net, blogs and a couple of people's attempts to restore courtesy, restrain abuse and other undesirable behaviours that has users hot under the keyboard? On the one hand, O'Reilly and Wales are seeking to prevent cyber-bullying (which takes many forms from anonymous, threatening postings, to mimicking a blogger and website). In principle, the proposed rules invite adherents to respect the medium and the right to participate in the messages it transmits. They're also about valuing others' rights and opinions. The regulations are not meant to stifle debate, but create forums in which all views are treated with deference without plummeting into haranguing.
On the other hand, regular bloggers fear that this attempt to police net content will smother the very autonomy it has allowed to flourish. Never before has freedom of expression, from young and old, been so permissible, accessible and democratic. Whether you view it as a pooling of ignorance or as collective intelligence, blogging has revolutionised the way opinions are expressed and information is transmitted and shared. This is precisely why this medium is so attractive – it enables the unthinkable to be said, the outrageous to be expressed and that which is taboo to be paraded and debated.
Inevitably, with good comes bad – but should we all be punished because of a few social misfits? These "trolls" (as they're often referred to) can be blocked and, when they aren't, there's the argument that they add flavour and colour.
But bloggers must also be accountable. By choosing to create and write through a blog, we expose and leave ourselves open to those with whom we wouldn't normally communicate, often testing our limits, never mind those set by others. But surely that's the risk and challenge of the medium – part of what makes it so stimulating.
And what if these guidelines are adopted? How do you ensure they're followed without enlisting tighter, possibly even government controlled regulations?
While we might be concerned about civility (or the lack thereof) on the web, it's important to remember that creating rules to enforce it does not guarantee its adoption. Civility is learnt from an early age and reinforced in society and throughout life with rewards and consequences depending on one's actions. Sadly there are a few out there who don't know the meaning of civility, fortunately they are far and few between.
In our techno-times, "netiquette" must begin at home. But, in order to uphold online freedom and avoid the spectre of censorship, all users must be encouraged to take personal responsibility for cyber-civility.


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