Tempest in a Teapot

There is a front-page story in today’s New York Times about a radical and highly controversial proposal that, if adopted, will almost certainly shake our civilization to its very foundations: voluntary guidelines for well-mannered blogging.

This daring suggestion, which has generated a storm of outrage, is the brainchild of publisher Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. It consists of a set of standards for bloggers and commenters to observe, and contains a number of revolutionary ideas, such as:

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

Needless to say, such a blatant attempt to bring the faintest whiff of civility to the online melee has prompted howls of outrage. The proposed standards, which, I should repeat, are voluntary, also include the suggestion that bloggers have the right to remove abusive or threatening comments from their websites, and to discourage their appearance in the first place by disallowing anonymous commenting. The response from various quarters has been that this constitutes “censorship”, and the influential blogger Robert Scoble is quoted as saying that the proposed guidelines would make him feel as if he were “living in Iran”.

If I may verge on incivility myself, this is all spectacularly childish and idiotic, and demonstrates once again how deeply confused people most people are about what real censorship is. Why on earth does my decision to maintain a weblog, for the purpose of expressing my own observations or opinions, oblige me to allow others to modify its content in any way at all, let alone in ways that I find insulting, threatening, or offensive? I may indeed choose to allow readers to contribute content to my website, if it suits me, but the notion that I am in some way obliged to do so is palpable nonsense.

The difference, of course, between real, pernicious censorship (of the sort Mr. Scoble might encounter if he were so unfortunate as actually to live in Iran or China or any number of other repressive societies) and my own harmless tyranny over this humble website is one of scope. My dictatorial command over what appears here at waka waka waka infringes not at all upon anyone else’s freedom of expression; those who wish to spew venom, filth, or idiocy in my direction are more than welcome to start a website of their own, therein to bray and gibber as they see fit. It is only when that freedom is threatened, as is sadly the case in many parts of the world, that there is any cause for concern. But for anyone to insist that I must loosen my own website’s corset so that any passer-by can reach in for a squeeze, well, that is another matter altogether, and is a serious incursion upon my own privilege to run my site as I see fit.

The point is that all of us are entirely free to follow the proposed standard or not. If a group of bloggers decide to agree amongst themselves to behave politely online, and to advertise that fact, as is part of the proposal, with a standardized sidebar icon, why should anyone object? If you don’t like it, don’t join in. What’s the big deal?

You can read the Times article here, and the list of proposed guidelines here.

Comments are welcome.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    I worked with Lisa Stone (the blond in the picture) and my wife worked with Jory, both at long-defunct Internet companies. If you want to spend some time on a well-run bloggers’ site, you won’t do better than http://blogher.org/

    Posted April 9, 2007 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Addofio says

    I’ve often thought that many people confuse the right to free speech with an obligation of other people to listen, or, alternatively said, the right to force people to listen. I also think some people confuse rights in general with “I get to do anything I damn well please anywhere I damn well please, and no one gets to do anything whatsoever to discourage me or stop me.” There can also be a lack of parity in thinking: I get to do whatever to other people, but they don’t get to do it to me. It all makes me wonder sometimes about what’s really going on for such people.

    Posted April 10, 2007 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    Oops–didn’t know the “at”s would show up as active characters. Sorry. Do feel free to modify at will; I promise not to be offended. :-)

    Posted April 10, 2007 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Quite right, Addofio: many seem to think that their “rights” include all sorts of burdensome obligations on the part of others. (And, as an aside, the very notion of “rights” as anything other that a purely human convention is highly suspect, as Jeremy Bentham has eloquently told us.)

    I have converted your “d@@@”s to “damns”, as requested. I would have done it anyway; no censorship here!

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Posted April 10, 2007 at 10:50 am | Permalink