Never wrestle a pig: a code of conduct for bloggers?

“More means worse.” Kingsley Amis said that when he was discussing what he believed to be the deleterious consequences of the expansion of higher education in the United Kingdom in the nineteen sixties.

As a child of the sixties (and yes, despite the mantra of the counter culture I was there and I do remember them!) I was fortunate to be a direct beneficiary of that expansion. Without it I very much doubt that I would even have seen inside a University library. Yet, I have always been dogged by Amis’ comment. He was accused of elitism and snobbery—and he may well have been guilty but I cannot quite rid myself of the lingering notion that there may have been a grain of truth in what he said.

The sad truth of that matter is that there is no infinitely educable pool of ability in any given population. I was educated amongst peers: most were far cleverer than me, and some less so. It was and is the way of the world. At best an education should be an exercise in intellectual rigour and academic standards, shorn of intellectual theorising and political interference, can be a gold standard by which all excellence is measured. Of course, one wishes to give access to higher education to as many as possible but the problem is how to do this without diluting standards and avoiding accusations of snobbery or elitism.

The democratisation of knowledge is a fine idea. The invention of the printing press was the Butler Act of 1949 of its time and, through it, radical political, social and religious ideas spread. This underpinned both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. However, when every man is his own printing press and there is an explosion of information and opinion, there is as likely to be an abuse of knowledge as an advance of it, but that is the inherent risk of freedom. As the historian McAuley observed, it has been on the lips of every tyrant since time immemorial that men must be wise and good in slavery before they can be free—in which case, men everywhere would be in a state of perpetual bondage.

The internet encapsulates this same dilemma but it is magnified hugely. The technical nature of the internet is such that, unlike printing, information on the net is available globally and instantaneously. Despite the best efforts of repressive governments across the world controlling and or suppressing it has proved almost as impossible as sustaining a nuclear reaction in a plasma contained by a magnetic field in a Torus. Allowing for such things as the great firewall of China information not only wants to be free, it recognises no national boundaries. Once the genie is out of the bottle it is virtually impossible to put it back in.

All Linuxers know the crucial importance of free information, for without it there would be no GNU/Linux. Much of that information can be found on official websites and on the plethora of unofficial ones too. When troubleshooting most of us have had recourse to a forum and there are frequent pointers to one of the notable explosions on the internet: blogs.

This brings me (at last!) to the substance of this article: Why have there been calls for regulation, or at least a (voluntary) code of conduct for bloggers? If the invention of the printing press resulted in an explosion of information then the inexorable rise of the “blogosphere” has meant that every man and woman is his or her own printing press. Excepting one thing: there is no peer review and therefore no monitoring of standards. If you have a computer and the price of an internet connection, download and install the necessary blogging software, then you are in business.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the internet is the new wild frontier as far as a small minority bloggers is concerned. There are blogs on every subject under the sun from the religious to the political to the technical and the quality varies enormously. Technical blogs on matters GNU/Linux are perhaps less fraught but, even there, responses to newbies can be curt and at times rude and even abusive. But, on the whole, experienced users are thoughtful and helpful. Nevertheless, many bloggers have indulged in illiterate, abusive and threatening behaviour in the more extreme examples. A distinction needs to be made here between some self-maintained blogs and those like Free Software Magazine which can exercise a degree of control, standards and peer review.

Concerns about standards in the “blogsphere” have therefore lead many to advocate a code of conduct. Most recently, Tim O’Reilly advocated such a code in the wake of what happened to his friend and colleague, Kathy Sierra. If you want to know what happened to her go here, but please be warned that it is not pleasant stuff. It is wrong in itself and it only gives ammunition to those who would like to see the internet heavily censored and the issue of censorship goes well beyond the electronic frontiers. It has been debated passionately by legislators and philosophers since ancient Greece. In the heat of the English Civil War John Milton argued in Areopagitica (1644) against censorship but even he did not believe in unrestricted freedom of action. He knew the difference between liberty and license and expressed it so in his Sonnets of 1645.

Technology had advanced massively in the last three hundred years but the essential wellsprings of the human conditions have changed little—which is why we can read and understand the poetry of Milton and the plays of Shakespeare, even through the specific cultural circumstances of their times. This is also why the world of the modern blog is really the recognizable inheritor of our printed past with all the competing opinions and debates about freedom of expression. Some of our ancestors from the Reformation, the counter Reformation and up to the Nazis were rather prone to outbursts of book burning but there is no reason for the contemporary blogger to accommodate flame wars leading to abuse, bad language and in extreme case, to threats of violence or death. Fortunately, most blogs and mailing lists are concerned with more mundane matters. Witness, for example, Ladislav Bodnar’s plea for good manners on the Debian Developers Mailing Lists in the April edition of Linux Format Magazine.

So, is a code for bloggers necessary and, if so, what would it contain and could it be enforced? First, some blog facts: there are currently about 70 million blogs (average lifespan, three months), 200 million ex-bloggers, about 1.5 million posts per day and about 120,000 new blogs per day. I am indebted to Technorati for these figures. You don’t have to be a genius to see that the sheer scale of the blog phenomenon means that regardless of the content, control seems beyond, well... control. If control of printing was and is difficult (think of the Samizdat publishing in the former Soviet Union) then control of internet publications on the scale revealed by Technorati begins to look like a task we wouldn’t even give to poor old Sisyphus. Regardless of all the philosophical and political arguments about control and censorship I think we have to conclude that on purely technical grounds an enforced code would be impossible.

What about blog content? That at least is within the scope of possibility. Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales take, as the bottom line for a code for bloggers, that they should not say anything online that they would not actually say in person. I agree with that. Without the restraint of good manners and a some basic rules of protocol the world of the blog can be liable to become ranting, abusive and ultimately, incestuous in its self-referential regard. In detail, what is proposed is a six point manifesto:

(1) We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.

(2) We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.

(3) We connect privately before we respond publicly.

(4) When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

(5) We do not allow anonymous comments.

(6) We ignore the trolls.

Having done a very quick and unscientific google straw poll on the above I was not entirely surprised to find a reaction that was more critical than favourable. I think that what we all need to do is to put ourselves in the position of someone who has been an object of intemperate abuse and ask ourselves how we would feel. I can still remember when Gael Duval (formerly of Mandriva fame) was savaged by an online critic who did not reckon much to his new Ulteo distro. The comments were such that Duval was obviously hurt by them (and I really felt for him) and perhaps he was still smarting from the circumstances of his departure from Mandriva but if I made even five per cent of the contribution that he has made to the GNU/Linux community I too might feel aggrieved by criticisms made by those whose only contribution is to sit on the sidelines and contribute little or nothing. My own contributions could be written on the back of a postage stamp but I hope to address that deficit in the future.

The state of GNU/Linux has come a long way in the last fifteen years and it has been made possible by the efforts of many amateur and professional developers. Much of that had been achieved by the distributed nature of the internet and that inevitably meant a high degree of co-operation between disparate individuals. Disagreements were and are inevitable, even between mature, civilized people working to a common goal. This will remain so -but let it at least be a mannered disagreement.

As John Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead, so let’s be civil to one another before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Of course, as readers of and subscribers to Free Software Magazine you are a perceptive bunch of well informed, mannerly toffs and no mistake, so you are going to disagree with me politely—aren’t you? No? In that case I’m off to the garage to weld myself some flame-proof underwear. I just might be needing it!


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.