Barbarians at the Logic Gates

Let me state at the outset that I am a huge, huge fan of both Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales. I own several O’Reilly books, and obviously I use wikipedia all the time. I respect them immensely, and we should all bow before their superior technological wisdom.

Except in this case: A widely forwarded New York Times article about O’Reilly, Wales, and a group of others who are calling for some kind of new age of “civility” on the World Wide Web, namely in the blogosphere:

The conversational free-for-all on the Internet known as the blogosphere can be a prickly and unpleasant place. Now, a few high-profile figures in high-tech are proposing a blogger code of conduct to clean up the quality of online discourse.

Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate.

Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.

I know what you’re all wondering—in the name of civil public discourse, ARE THESE PEOPLE FUCKING STUPID?!? No, really, are these whore-mongering, baby-eating, paint-huffing, shit-stained, baboon-faced, coke-addled RETARDS serious?

Part of the fun of the Internet is that it’s practically made of free speech and built on a certain degree of anonymity. Not only does nobody know you’re a dog, but everyone can tell you’re an asshole, too. And that’s the way it ought to be. Sorry, ye shrinking violets and withering wallflowers, but if you can’t stand the heat, get the hell off the Internet. Go xerox a zine or write poetry in your journal. Don’t put things up for public consumption and act surprised when the public consumes them with varying degrees of receptiveness. The best thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone freedom of the press, but that freedom comes with various strings attached.

It seems as though these bloggers want their fifteen minutes (or fifteen people) but not any of the consequences thereof.

None of these solutions solve anything, and not just because these codes of conduct are voluntary. Let’s start with the issue the policy is designed to address, anonymous comments.

It seems like these people are investing an awful lot of effort into something we all know is destined to fail—but it’s even worse if it succeeds. Regular readers familiar with my M.O. can see where I’m going with this—let’s look at the premise expressed above, namely that there is not a single human being “able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.” Sorry, when your initial premises start with A = not A, you’ve pooched it from the get-go, my friends.

If you think someone is making a credible death threat against you, call the cops. Disallowing anonymous comments isn’t going to stop it. If someone is libeling or slandering you, file a civil lawsuit. But nothing you do will be able to stop people from posting derogatory things about you, whether it’s on your blog or their blog or a another person’s anonymous comments allowing blog or a bathroom wall.

Let’s continue with the article:

“Any community that does not make it clear what they are doing, why they are doing it, and who is welcome to join the conversation is at risk of finding it difficult to help guide the conversation later,” said Lisa Stone, who created the guidelines [the O’Reilly-Wales proposal is based upon] and the BlogHer network in 2006 with Elisa Camahort and Jory Des Jardins.

A subtext of both sets of rules is that bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors.

Talk about opening up a can of worms… trust me, there’s no blogger worth their salt who wants to have to verify every comment made on their blog for legal indemnification. What if someone lies about something and you don’t catch it right away? or if they’re posing as someone you trust?

Right now, the solution is simple: it’s your damn blog and you can delete comments at will, anonymous, non-anonoymous, whatever. If you’ll notice, my own problem with comments was that I received literally 15,000 spam messages from evil robots in the past six months. Did I feel any compunction about deleting them? No! Did I institute a keyword-based filter? No! I want people to be able to make Bob Dole/Viagra jokes without my interference. I just don’t want them to be able to sell Viagra on my site. So what did I do? I implemented a simple technological solution—an arithmetic question. But I am fully aware that as soon as robots figure out what the sum of 2 and 3 is, I’ll need to shift tactics slightly. It’s just how it works—I’d rather deal with that problem than verify every claim my commenters make.

One of the thornier problems with this proposal is the lack of enforcement, which is fatal to any regime. In the arms race between the great unwashed and the blogging elite, who’s going to pay for the mechanism of enforcement or dispute arbitration? if you feel your comment was unjustly deleted, are you going to have an avenue of appeals? will other people involved in the guideline program be able to kick you out for violating standards—and how?

Now we get to self-contradicting statement number two from the article:

Mr. O’Reilly said the guidelines were not about censorship. “That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make — believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech,” he said. “Free speech is enhanced by civility.”

Heavens to Murgatroyd! It looks like I’m doomed to continue to make that mistake. Free speech might conceivably be “enhanced by civility”, for a short time, but it certainly isn’t engendered by it. You’re free to call black as white as you please, but it’s still oxymoronic. There is no speech ‘freer’ than free speech. It’s also hardly “civil” to hamper the basis of civil rights—free expression.

There’s a larger problem, though. what these people are trying to do is effect a caste system, where people who pay to be credentialed are privileged over those who wish to remain anonymous—like dissidents and whistleblowers.

Look, I’ve been using computers to talk to people I’ve never met in person since I was 11. Before there were blogs, before there was even a world wide web, there were BBSes and FidoNet. Most importantly, there was, and will always be UseNet.

UseNet (you may also know it as ‘newsgroups’ if you have an accomodating ISP) was the first global conversation that used the Internet to connect strangers with common interests. You would subscribe to a newsfeed, which was basically just a list of threaded messages within a hierarchically named topical group. I used to hang out in groups like talk.atheism, alt.politics.socialism, and alt.sysadmin.recovery, for example.

UseNet has been dealing with “incivility” for over twenty-five years. Wales would do well to look up his own site’s explanation of the Internet term “eternal September”:

Eternal September (also September that never ended, perpetual September, or endless September) is a Usenet slang expression, coined by Dave Fischer, for the period beginning September 1993. The use of these expressions implies the belief that standards of discourse and behavior on Usenet have declined since 1993 due to an unending influx of new users.

Usenet originated among universities. Every year, in September, a large number of new university students got access to Usenet, and took some time to acclimate themselves to the network’s standards of conduct and netiquette. After a month or so, the new users would (it is supposed) learn to comport themselves as normal Usenet users. September, thus, represented the network’s largest regular influx of newbies.

“Right now it’s summer, and most schools are on vacation, and a sizable percentage of other people are in the same state. So the net is quieter. Yet it’s still growing. Will the return of all these people, plus the usual growth, be the final straw for the net?”

— Brad Templeton, posting to net.news, July 12, 1984[1]

And did the net end in 1984? Usenet wasn’t even getting started, folks.

According to UTC, the Eternal September date as of the time this page was loaded was September 4969, 1993.

In 1993, the online service America Online began offering Usenet access to its tens of thousands, later millions, of users. To many old-timers, these “AOLers” were far less prepared to learn netiquette than university freshmen.

Whereas the regular September freshman influx would soon settle down, the sheer number of newbies now threatened to overwhelm the existing Usenet culture’s capacity to inculcate its social norms.

It boils down to this: creating these voluntary methods of social control will never work, and it only engenders that inevitable evolutionary arms race between malefactors and ‘upstanding citizens.’ Not only that, but trying to privilege ‘credentialed’ communications over anonymous ones will only result in extending the exact social controls the Internet is so good at defying.

Furthermore, credentialed systems all suffer from the same flaw, which is that the more they rely on credentials, the easier it is to fool them once you can fake those credentials.

The whole effort is fundamentally misguided. The only sensible solution I’ve heard was from some technologist whose name I cannot remember or find on the Internet; he was talking about this issue a few years ago, and said that the solution to this is simple: blogs should not allow comments at all, only trackbacks. If you want to make your voice heard on the internet, get your own damn blog and link to the people you want to insult.


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