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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Civility in the blogosphere

Aha! The dustsheet has come off the computer. So, what does everyone think of this new 'civility in the blogosphere' drive?

Personally, I'm all in favour of civility per se. It's really depressing what an aggressive place the Internet can be. There's a certain kind of personality that you see all over the place that I generally call the 'angry geek' - the person with trenchantly simplistic opinions, whose social skills seem too low to be able to detect that they're being offensive - leading to them becoming ever more self-righteous and quasi-embattled the more people take offense at their bad behaviour. Sometimes they end up concluding that women, or left-wing intellectuals, or the professional members of the fishing-fly manufacturing guild, or whoever it is keeps asking them to be a bit nicer, is an evil cabal that can't handle their opinions; in all cases, they tend to be rude, patronising, opinionated, demeaning and literal-minded, none of which are qualities that add to worthwhile discourse. And they blame other people for being offended by their offensive comments. I'm entirely in favour of moderators coming down hard on such behaviour; if appeals to someone's better nature don't work, they their comments should be deleted before they spoil the party for everyone.

This, incidentally, doesn't impede free speech: there'll always be somewhere else they can express themselves, and if nobody will accept them on a comment thread, they can always have their own blog. You're not preventing them from expressing their opinion; you're just obliging them to take it elsewhere if they can't express it in reasonable language. Free speech doesn't mean that every forum has to put up with everything every jerk in the world with too much time on his hands feels like spewing out.

Arguments defending this kind of thing all have a very similar ring. The one that really gets under my skin is the 'civility is subjective' argument. No it's not. That's an horrible abuse of language and logic both. Civility is context-dependent, but that's not the same thing. Saying 'Who's a clever boy?' to a baby who's just managed to get his spoon accurately into his mouth is perfectly civil; saying it to a relative stranger who's just got a Master's degree is probably rude. But that's not about subjectivity. The basic rules of civility are universal: you show respect for other people and refrain from wantonly doing and saying things that will cause them unnecessary distress. I don't care where you are or what you're talking about, those rules work for everyone. Saying civility is subjective is just a tricked-up way of saying 'Oh yeah? Sez you!', assuming that because your behaviour isn't upsetting you, it shouldn't upset the person on the receiving end, which is just stupid.

So nasty behaviour doesn't merit much tolerance. On the other hand, do we need to ban anonymity? I don't see how that helps. It's perfectly possible to be aggressive under your own name; some people are proud of their aggression, because they're self-righteous. It's also perfectly possible to be polite anonymously; I've never had a nasty remark from an anonymous poster on this site. Anonymity, among other things, can protect posters from the nasty people; say, for instance, a working editor wanted to post a piece on this site about rejecting manuscripts, but was concerned that authors they'd rejected might start attacking them if they remarked that many submissions are badly written. Should they have to do it under their own name? I don't think so. That leads to fewer opinions being expressed, because if you're worried you'll be hounded for saying something and can't say it anonymously, chances are you won't say it at all. Not good for free debate.

(On the other hand, while I don't necessarily subscribe to the whole list of recommendations for civility, I'm not going to have a go at Wales and O'Reilly for suggesting it. They're trying to do their best for the public good as they see it. As long as they don't try to manage my site for me - which they ain't, I've searched the whole house and I couldn't find their spies anywhere - then anything that treats civility as an important issue deserves respect.)

The best way to keep a site civil is to keep an eye on it. But there's another issue as well: the person blogging sets the tone of the discussion. If I see a blog written by an angry-geek blogger, I don't bother to comment; aggressive blogs attract aggressive reactions, and why go into the ring if you don't want to get hit? Similarly, polite blogs attract politer readers, because someone looking for a scrap will be looking for something good and aggressive to pick a fight with. The blogs people read regularly tend to be within an emotional bandwidth that feels comfortable to them. This tends to build on itself; if there are no comments on an article you disagree with, it's easier to write something very aggressive than if there are fifteen moderately-expressed and thoughtful posts: for everyone but a complete jerk, it's kind of embarrassing to be the only one shouting. On the other hand, a blogger who continually calls people idiots and crooks shouldn't be too surprised if some commenters start saying 'The same to you, pal.'

We need to take responsibility for our own blogs, and make sure they're up to satisfactory standards of courtesy. If you're getting lots of hate mail, it's possible you might want to dial back your phrasing. But on the other hand, some subjects just attract bastards no matter how you write about them, especially political ones, and it's ridiculous to always blame the victim. I gather that a number of bloggers have attacked poor Kathy Sierra for complaining that she found the threats and insults upsetting, on the grounds that they'd also had threats and insults, which seems pretty stupid to me: if insults don't bother them, that's their prerogative, but it doesn't mean they shouldn't bother anyone else (it's the 'sez you' argument rearing its ugly head again), and besides, since when was it worse to say you don't like death threats than to call someone a boring slut? The first people to get criticism here ought to be the trolls, not the bloggers who don't like them.

I'd like to thank all the people who post on this site: between you you've created a very relaxing, intelligent and enjoyable atmosphere, and I always look forward to hearing from you. This is to your credit. I won't hesitate to kick off anybody who gets threatening or rude, but I'm grateful to you all for making it a moot point. Take a moment to congratulate yourselves.

Finally, here are some thoughts on what I consider rude behaviour in discussion threads. If anyone else has other ideas, do let me know...

- Obviously, making threats, libelling, calling people names and ill-wishing them.
- The typed equivalent of shouting.
- Talking to people like they're stupid children because you happen to disagree with them.
- Overly personal and/or ill-informed speculation about people's motivations. (For instance, one I've run into several times is someone assuming that I don't respect or agree with them because I'm published and they're not - 'will she respect my opinions more if I get published?', that kind of thing. To which the answer, incidentally, is no, not if they continue to be a jackass about it. On the other hand, if they say something civil and intelligent, I don't care if they never so much as won third prize in the village paper's cornflake slogan competition. I'm democratic about publication: I don't care if people are published, I just care whether they're talking sense.)
- Failing to actually pay attention to what people have said, either putting words in their mouths or firing off opinions that are only tangentially connected. If you want to debate with someone, you ought to listen to them as well as yourself.
- Passive aggression.
- Refusing to respect someone's knowledge or expertise.
- Unnecessary power plays and jockeying for position.
- Setting yourself up as a self-appointed auriga, and trying to take charge of keeping a total stranger's ego within what you consider appropriate limits. That one is just stalky. (I made some remarks about this earlier, if anyone remembers, because I'm sure you all sit up late at night memorising this blog. Heck, it's better than insomnia.) Er, guys? Even in Rome, aurigae weren't self appointed...

Civility, on the whole, is something you know when you see it. But if there's behaviour that you'd like to see me encourage or kick the booty of, do let me know.

What do y'all think of this here civility debate?

Civility is all well and good and you'd think it would be common sense for most. I've never understood what motivates someone to rile up a forum with inflammatory, uneducated remarks just for the heck of it. Why do people actually enjoy making others miserable? Agreed that people tend to set the tone for their blogs. I find I'd rather laugh with someone, than at someone, or in the worst case, be the butt of the joke myself. I can handle it. I's a big boy. But there's no need to spread all that crap around just cause you can.
Another thing that is less than civil in comment threads is talking down to someone. This one is tricky because what one person sees as helpful advice, another sees as being patronized. I see this sometimes at Miss Snark.

And I'm always glad to see your comments at Snark Central, Kit! I found this blog through intelligent things you said at Miss Snark. I stayed because you said even more intelligent things here, and yes, because you were nice about it.
Those Romans did like their pomp and ceremony.

I think it's good to have a debate about civility. It helps those of us who are occasionally tempted to stray from the path of righteousness to remember that there are human beings on the other end of the pixels. With feelings. I've found that writing the Evil Comment but not actually posting it can relieve a lot of net-generated spleen :D.
Yes, that can be relieving. And thank you, Bran Fan! I think I'm probably as guilty as anyone else of occasionally getting on the wrong side of the courtesy line - nobody's perfect - but it's good to remember it's there. I think helpful advice is most often seen as patronising when it delivers an unwelcome opinion; helpful advice that tells people what want to hear, somehow, never causes offence... Which is awkward, but I figure the best thing to do is try and be as unimpeachably polite about it as you can, and hope that sticks.

Something I've heard friends of mine say, which I'd be interested to hear other opinions on, is that broadly speaking there's a male-typical and a female-typical form of blog rudeness. Rude men tend to go straight on the attack: you're stupid and your opinions are wrong and what an idiot you must be. Rude women tend to be patronising: you don't realise how stupid you're making yourself look, but wise up because everyone's laughing at you.

If that's the case, it ties in quite neatly with something I read in an interesting book called Odd Girl Out: the hidden culture of aggression in girls by Rachel Simmons. (Good book, read it. If you go to Amazon and search inside for the phrases I'm about to quote, you'll see the bit I'm talking about.)

Rachel Simmons points to a study that describes the aggressions that girls and women tend to favour, described as 'relational aggression' (damage or threat of damage to a relationship - I won't be your friend any more if you don't do what I want), 'indirect aggression' (covertly attacking someone) and 'social aggression' (trying to damage someone's standing within a group').

Assuming that's true, it would make sense that girls tend to patronise - it's relational and/or social aggression, more covert than direct attacks but equally aggressive.

Does this tally with your experiences of online arguing? What do you think?
I agree with most of the stuff you're saying about civility and blogging, apart from maybe the universality of it all.

I know what you're saying when you are complaining that people dismiss things too often by saying that things are subjective. But unfortunately I think they are nearly always subjective.

The good thing about this code of conduct is that people can sign up to it, and as you say this doesn't have any bad effect on freedom of speech.

In terms of the male/female rudeness thing, I agree I think with those definitions. I'd also say that sometimes the male/female difference in style can confuse things further. So a man may be being straight forward but not disrespectful and yet will be interpreted as being aggressive and a woman will be being compassionate and kind but will be interpreted as being patronising.

I agree that there is a good case for anonymity but I think that comments with a possibility of being taken as rude are better off if they come from someone who has a public identity, because then they can be seen and judged in context. It's better for the commenter to be visible in those cases.

I wrote a blog about some of these issues last week.

Oh yeah and I think its healthy to regularly interact with bloggers that you don't always agree with. Because agreement doesn't have to correspond with respect. For example I don't always agree with what you say, Kit, but I do respect you and your right to say it. And sometimes I do agree. I think if I was reading blogs I always agreed with they'd bore me to tears.

I've bought you're book incidentally. I'm half way through it. It's really, really good. Such a fascinating idea. I'm really enjoying it. Thanks for writing it.
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