A big issue in the blogosphere lately, or at least big-media coverage of it, has been behavior. What's appropriate in online discourse? Who decides? Who enforces?
The debate spiked after some fairly scurrilous activity on some fairly prominent blogs. Responses have ranged from "hang 'em high" to "ignore 'em," with a supposed middle ground in which bloggers create and subscribe to a code of conduct. Needless to say, almost no one is satisfied with where the discussion stands.
Corporate and PR blog followers are no doubt closely following at least some of these conversations. More than a few A-list bloggers have devoted considerable time and wordage to the topic. (Some of the people involved are friends of mine, and I have business relationships with several.)
In the process of this brouhaha, some folks have conflated matters that aren't necessarily related. For example, what someone says in a blog posting usually has little or nothing to do, at least in terms of a site's rules, with a comment that might appear underneath it.
I'm entirely in favor of good conduct. I have trouble, however, with a code of conduct where we all are pressured to put artificial labels on our policies. The more specific the code gets, the bigger the problem.
The code of conduct I insist on at my own blogs is simple: We'll be civil and respectful toward one another, even when we have strong disagreements about what we're discussing.
The law is reasonable in this arena: We are not responsible for what others post on our sites if we're simply providing a forum. But that does not mean that we have to put up with incivility. And respect and civility don't stop with polite-sounding language. They're wrapped up in honorable behavior, where we disclose our biases and stand behind our own words.
It's essential for bloggers to be clear about the rules of the sites they operate, especially when it comes to readers' comments. Those rules need to be enforced.
If I invite someone into my living room, that's not permission to spit (or worse) on my carpet. I will invite anyone who does that to leave.
I'm not suggesting an end to anonymity. Even if that was technically possible, we'd be foolish to do it. When someone's life or livelihood is at stake, we must protect such speech. But we don't have to assume that anonymous speech is worth much.
In general, however, those who don't stand behind their words deserve less attention, if any. And when their purpose is to take down other people, they deserve outright contempt, except in very rare cases.
We readers (in the broadest sense) are far too prone to accepting what we see and hear. We need to readjust our internal BS meters in a media-saturated age.
Here's a starting principle: An anonymous or pseudonymous attack on someone else should be presumed false, unless proved true.
If enough people follow that rule, we will all be better off.
Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).