Tim O’Reilly’s Blogging Code of Conduct and Kathy Sierra

Blogging code of conduct goes over like lead balloon, podcast at 11.


Ugh, I guess I should have seen that coming – both Tim O’Reilly’s kindhearted suggestion and the weird backlash of the anti-badges badges. (We don't need no steenkin'...) Though the Blogher community guidelines are the current working basis for O’Reilly’s efforts, even they are a bit skeptical that there can be a one-size-fits-all code of conduct for the blogosphere.


Code (or Cod)  of Conduct for a Place

After working on Gotdotnet, Live QnA and creating Norbert, the Cod of Conduct (who is not a typo, he is a cartoon fish), I feel more of an expert on code of conducts than I used to be (and I guess on cartoon fish as well). Here are my observations…


Many moons ago, I pointed Krista Wall to the Gotdotnet code of conduct as a model for Live QnA (which, because it covered code collaboration, went far above and beyond what QnA had to do).  She worked on the QnA version with our internal policy folks, and it was ultimately a triumph. Why? Because when Live QnA emerged from private beta last summer, the team was astonished to find people defending the code of conduct as a standard for newcomers. They still do.


QnA is an example of people defending a place and the code of conduct being a key delineation of that sense of place. (“Inside QnA’s walls, certain behaviors are not ok. Outside they may be. “) And ok behavior/language varies from site to site. QnA permits mature content, if properly tagged and done by someone who’s of age to do so. The MSN Message boards, however, do not, and the moderation teams respond differently. But most people can easily tell what kind of place they have entered by watching how transgressions are handled.


QnA's Cod of Conduct grew out of what I saw happening naturally. There needed to be a fun way to remind people of community standards without the silent and deadly smite of a deletion or user account ban. And someone had to encourage the code of conduct defenders, cheer them on. Thus, Norbert was born.


Portable Code of Conduct: You Can Take It With You

From his P.G. Wodehouse roots, Norbert became realistic enough that QnA team members could channel him in their heads. When an idea becomes robust enough (or a British accent hokey enough) it can have a life of its own.


Likewise, there’s a question of the code of conduct we all carry with us, in our heads. It all comes back to Mom, your upbringing, your culture, and how you socialized on the Internet. Did you enter online conversations where it was all gamer smacktalk and crudity? Were those how you learned to interact with others? Were you debating the finer points of politics on Salon.com? Were you writing in nothing but 1337? Would you be killed for blogging against the government, and so wrote nothing like that?


This portable code of conduct applies to offense or defense. What will you allow to happen, what will you silently witness, as a bystander on an online forum? Who or what behavior will you defend and how? What behavior will you commit on an online forum?


The portable code of conduct is the hardest one to identify in others except for their actions. The guy in the business suit with a fancy business card might be a secret wife beater.  The anonymous tipster on a community site might save you from taking a job at a company that is going under. On the Internet, you can be a dog and, well, all we will see is your username “Rover" until you start commenting on stock prices that no dog would understand.


Where does a Blogging Code of Conduct really fit? 


I think the problem with Tim O’Reilly’s impulse was not that he wants folks to take a stand about playing nice,  but that he’s confusing a “place” code of conduct with the  dynamics of a “portable” one. A "place" code of conduct for a sexual abuse survivors site must take into account more graphic language than a “toddler book author’s club.”  International customs vary and so will sites dedicated to those communities. While most of us don’t agree with death threats as acceptable forms of communication, once you get beyond the most egregious crimes (often covered in  local law) we get into the ambiguous world of global community standards where one rule won't always apply.


And too, trolls are moving entities. They can do a slag-hit-and-run and never come back to the site they hit. Sure, bloggers can delete nasty comments, but they don’t have any foolproof way of keeping the bad guys out if they want to reach a larger audience. The most important code is the code people are carrying with them when they read other's online content and when they post.


It would be cool if you could identify the good guys – by top hat, samurai sword, or badge that traveled with them, showing reputation. Some folks have posited a portable reputation system, or a universal one like “Whuffie” that could keep people accountable much as their corporeal body keeps them accountable and located in space in the real world. (Your Whuffiecard – don’t leave home without it!). But they can still lie. Ultimately, we are back to where we were in real life: seeing whether an identity is consistent, respectful, and giving no cause for alarm.


So what to do? If you don't have your own personal Cod, or Code,  that you can bring with you as you visit and react to community sites, you might want to develop one. It needs to be solid, have a life of its own. You might want to think about how your portable code interacts with the place you are visiting, and its non-portable code of conduct. You might want to think about whether you let someone be scapegoated, or whether you scapegoated them yourself. You might wonder if your current behavior just escalates conflict rather than lets people talk.


If there's someone whose behavior you respect, model it after them.  And if all else fails, make up your own stinkin' badges. Or hit 'em with a cartoon fish.


Additional update  4/11/2007: Tim O'Reilly just responded to criticisms like this : http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2007/04/code_of_conduct.html)

Comments (2)
  1. Laura Moncur says:

    I am so glad you wrote this entry! I have thought about Norbert: The Cod of Conduct since you talked about him at SXSWi. This whole "World of Nasty Blogs" thing has made his image even stronger in my mind. I’ve tried explaining him to other people, but now I can just send them a link to this entry.


  2. Lisa Stone says:

    Betsy, right on. I love Norbert, his accent, and his personality. Further proof that one-size-fits-all codes of conduct are like one-size-fits-all bluejeans: Just not realistic or appropriate, given the diversity of conversations out there.

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