Civilty, codes of conduct and sustaining community

(“community isn’t instant but..” – photo by me, as fotogail)

I’ve commented on Civilty Smackdown 2007 (starring Kathy Sierra, Chris Locke, Tim O’Reilly and scores of other thoughtful people)  in discussions within The WELL itself, so it’s time to summarize here for anybody to read. (Fellow members of The WELL, see in the Blog Conference, topic 113 — entitled “a blog code of conduct?” for that continuing conversation.)

Yesterday I took some time and responded at length on O’Reilly Radar, saying:


Tim, I respect and understand the idea behind this. Because of my experience and background in dealing with non-anon expression and accountability, this brings up a flood of concerns and suggestions.

After 15 years in management at The WELL, in a context where there is close to no anonymity, paid participation, and twenty two years of debate about what Stewart Brand’s famous WELL aphorism, “You Own Your Own Words” or YOYOW really means to participants and volunteer conference hosts, some things that seem simple turn out to be more complex.

At The WELL we see an astonishing range of civility and bluntness among our conferences, where the same people play rougher in different arenas. We also see teasing that doesn’t bother the participants who are pals but looks rude to strangers. You probably would not find any hosts willing to put up a sheriff badge. If you go back to the model of hosting a dinner party, the range of styles and behaviors are almost infinite.

Your proposed “sheriff badge” icon is pretty much asking for rebellion and mockery.

Aside from that, it’s a cold image to present in terms of our wanting to welcome guest contributors, friends and community. Obviously that varies depending on blog popularity, and of course the graphic can be changed.

Perhaps a slightly more flexible and thoughtful commitment to moderation along wth a more inviting badge of hostship would help as an addition, or even a replacement, to this wild-west sheriff stance.

Requiring an email address in the world of free and disposable addesses is a little hurdle, but we all know it is not an identity guarantor. Getting a credit card, payment, mailing address, etc. adds a little more hurdle, but at some level pseudonimity is still in the mix. If the hurdle and the peer scrutiny are at a good level, people will still bother to join and behave with accountability, but some will still be assholes. My feedback: don’t over-idealize the beneficial effects of non-anonymity, though they can be powerful, and don’t define anybody with an email address as non-anonymous, either. Too much potential confusion!

Taking responsibility for the comments of others is very interesting. This is where it makes sense to look at the legal context. I don’t think all bloggers can be expected to understand defamation law, frankly. Is it fair to ask them to say they will behave with the liability of a publisher or editor? (I’m looking forward to discussing with some legal experts!) Not wanting to make new laws doesn’t make existing real world laws go away, and we can’t forget that.

Also, there is the question of time. Does the sheriff badge mean comments must be pre-moderated, or is there an assumption that spammy trollish crap could go up and and may be looked at or decided on later?

Backchannel private communications can be helpful, but it’s a judgment call when to do them, and promising to always do them can set you up for being gamed by a group who demand more backchannel attention than you can give, for example. Maybe unconsciously, maybe not.

Finally — because this has gotten long and I have got to get some work done — check this out, from (Adapted from some great advice from former WELL host John Hoag and others, and intended for application within a non-anon environment):

Whatever rule you make, someone will eventually question it — even if it is “no rules at all.” The most casual glance at human history shows that humans love making rules and arguing over them…

There are, however, ways to avoid some of the more common rule pitfalls. If you feel your place needs a special rule, take care to consider its fairness before implementing it and try to imagine how it might be circumvented. Words are a malleable medium, and they can be made to say things by inference, innuendo, and ambiguity which are very hard to pinpoint. Suppose you set up a place in which you wanted everyone to be nice to each other, and you made a rule saying just that. You might have a difficult time enforcing it because language can be made to imply something unkind even while saying something ostensibly respectful. Excessive niceness, through hyperbole, can even convey an insult. Rather than creating a rule, you may want to depend on the direct yet respectful approach, calmly asking people to clarify whether an insult was actually meant, and making it possible to save face …

Sorry for blurting out a mini-tome. I feel like I have been stewing in these issues for eons now. Thanks for your thoughtfulness, and best luck.


It would have been all too easy to go on… what happens if you display a blog badge and say you will moderte, but somebody feels you didn’t live up to it? Is that false advertising? Etc, etc.

This is a very old argument, online and through history. The discussion of how civility and kindness can be cultivated is valuable even if cut and dried answers are awfully elusive.  Human interaction is messy.  The main thing is to to try to elevate the quality a little bit, as a moderator or as a participant, whenever and wherever  you can.


2 thoughts on “Civilty, codes of conduct and sustaining community

  1. I believe you are correct in your assumption that the sherriff badges assume pre-moderation, which can in itself be troubling.

    In your experience, how well as the WELL model worked (the reason I’m asking is that it seems to be pretty much the longest running successful online community and there is a lot to learn from that.)

  2. Hi Tristan. The WELL works for its members, and is cherished by them, but it is more like a city or a town, not a nation or a universe, and not the answer for everyone. I think a variety of places, with different barriers to entry, are needed for expression. The important thing is to have more than one place, platform and style for people to hang out.

    Ballet schools, biker bars, beaches and protest marches all have different expected modes of behavior and interaction, different perceptions of how anonymous you are or are not, and may present different things you need to learn just to navigate and get along before being effective or enjoying yourself. That doesn’t mean that the whole world should or ever could be conducted like a protest march, biker bar, ballet school or public beach. Most people like to be able to be in more than one setting, sometimes with more formal rules and stuctures, sometimes with far less. Sometimes with people who know you and have expectations, fair or unfair, of you and sometimes with people who most likely don’t know or have any ideas about you at all. That was the way of the modern urban world before the internet, already.

    Within The WELL the constant is that anonymity is not permitted, but other assumptions about who, where and with whom you are vary greatly, and can bring a remarkable depth to the experience. There are rude people, and rougher areas, and kind people and more gentle and supportive areas. There is crossover so you can see the obvious but important truth that somebody may be a hardheaded jerk arguing one subject and a tender-hearted humanitarian on the same day in another discussion. That’s part of why those who stay, stay — so far, some for them for over 22 years now.

    In terms of moderation, personally I have nothing against pre-screening or submitting entries in settings that ask for that, so long as it is obvious that is happening. Sometimes I will participate, sometimes it keeps me from bothering, sometimes it is the only way to offer the ability to comment.

    I just was concerned about the viability of some One Correct Code of interaction moderation, whatever it might be. I think O’Reilly backed away from his attempt at a simple solution, with grace under fire, after seeing a spectacular assortment of criticism.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s