The Blogger’s Code Of Conduct: A Pointless Pursuit

In response to what happened to Kathy Sierra, Tim O’Reily called for a blogger’s code of conduct. Yesterday he published his first draft of that very code. The draft fails on a number of items, but more than anything it’s completely pointless and will do absolutely nothing to prevent a re-occurrence of the recent situation or any of the other situations that have gone before it.

I can understand what Tim is trying to do. He’s Kathy’s friend and what happened to Kathy shouldn’t happen to anyone. No one should fever eel afraid to leave their house or be subject to misogynistic and violent comments and threats. I feel a great sympathy for Kathy and hope she’ll be able in time to put this behind her. But had a code of conduct for blogger’s such as the one Tim is proposing been in place prior to the recent events it wouldn’t have changed anything.

Why The Code of Conduct Fails

In all fairness to Tim, what he posted yesterday is meant to be a first draft. I believe his point for now is to open a discussion so the code of conduct can be refined. As it stands now it fails.

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

We are committed to the “Civility Enforced” standard: we will not post unacceptable content, and we’ll delete comments that contain it.

We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked to that:
– is being used to abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten others
– is libelous, knowingly false, ad-hominem, or misrepresents another person,
– infringes upon a copyright or trademark
– violates an obligation of confidentiality
– violates the privacy of others

I’ll gladly take responsibility for my words. I won’t take responsibility for yours. Sorry, but you’re on your own there. I certainly will never agree in writing to take responsibility for your words since I’m sure that would open me to all forms or legal action I would prefer to avoid.

Yes there’s a limit to what I will allow in a comment on this blog and I will delete something I think is inappropriate here, but to expect me or anyone else to know what’s libelous or knowingly false, to think I have the time to check every comment to determine if it’s misrepresenting another or violates confidentially is completely unrealistic.

At the moment the comments here are few enough that I do read them all. What happens if and when they become too numerous to allow that? Or what about the occasional comment that will always sneak by me? Should you be held accountable for words you never even see.

4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.

When someone who is publishing comments or blog postings that are offensive, we’ll tell them so (privately, if possible–see above) and ask them to publicly make amends.
If those published comments could be construed as a threat, and the perpetrator doesn’t withdraw them and apologize, we will cooperate with law enforcement to protect the target of the threat.

Tim please define offensive. You won’t ever be able to. I’ve got news for you, everything you’ve ever said has probably offended someone. Who gets to decide what is an isn’t offensive? As far as I know there has never been an accepted standard of what is or isn’t offensive.

If we’re each to define what is or isn’t offensive on our own blogs then how does that really change things. Keep in mind that the person or persons who made the threatening remarks to Kathy didn’t find them offensive. So they could very well have made those comments or posted them on a blog and still been within the guidelines of this code of conduct.

5. We do not allow anonymous comments.

We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

Umm…if we’re allowing people to comment with an alias how are we preventing anonymous comments? It’s also rather trivial to guess at what’s a valid email address. It’s just as easy to harvest them with automated software. Are we expected to now email everyone who comments and wait for a reply before publishing comments?

Why The Code of Conduct is Pointless

Does anyone even remotely think that the type of person that would cross the line and leave hateful and threatening comments is going to stop because somewhere out there is a code of ethics? Really do you?

A blogger’s code of conduct is enforcible how? Seems like it would be on the honor system. Wouldn’t you say that anyone who is honorable to the point of following this code doesn’t actually need the code in the first place. The ones who would least honor this kind of code are the very people Tim is hoping it affects.

As part of this code Tim puts forth the idea of displaying a badge on your site that says your blog is ‘Civility Enforced.’ He also suggests an ‘Anything Goes’ badge that might come with accompanying text like:

This is an open, uncensored forum. We are not responsible for the comments of any poster, and when discussions get heated, crude language, insults and other “off color” comments may be encountered. Participate in this site at your own risk.

Because a site where anything goes is going to feel the need to recognize a code of conduct? Because someone who has no problem being abusive or threatening is going to see a badge and suddenly have a change of heart? Of course not. The badges are pointless as is the entire code of conduct.

Again I understand what Tim is trying to do. I’m not one that offends or scares easily, but I’d also be quite happy to see people dealing with each other with more civility. To think, though, that drafting a code of conduct will change anything is perhaps the most naive thing I’ve heard in a long time.

Sure, open the discussion and appeal to people to maintain a civil blog. Educate people to help them understand why some things are hurtful in an effort to get them to stop. But please don’t expect me or anyone else to adopt a set of ethics and morals that aren’t necessarily our own. And please don’t think that even if we did it would change anything.

The blogger’s code of ethics will be as ineffective as everything else that’s previously attempted to make people play nice.

Here a few places you can go for more opinion and discussion

Tim I mentioned above that I don’t offend easily. But one thing I’ve always found offensive is when someone believes their ethics and morality is the one everyone else should follow. I think it’s dangerous and threatening to the most basic of freedoms and rights we all hold. In accordance with item 4 of the blogger’s code of conduct I ask that you publicly make amends for offending me by apologizing and withdrawing the code itself.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. I wonder what Don Imus has to say about this?

    A year ago they passed a law making it a crime to write offensive material online. This may have been a Washington State law, I don’t remember, and haven’t heard anything about it since. This sort of thing is unenforceable … partly for the reason you pointed out.

  2. Hey Steve!

    Great post, and I agree! While I’m typically very conservative, the internet is one place where I absolutely HATE censorship. (although that’s not really the main bullet of this post…). But when people start telling me what I can and cannot blog about I get very frustrated. Who are they to try to control what I blog about? How is blogging different than talk? (other than the fact that its written…).

    I agree, I would take responsibility for my own words, of course. But in one of my forums the SPAM was so incredibly bad for a while it was almost impossible to stay on top of. And we’re talking graphic graphic porn. While we did our best until we could find a tool…. It’s just another one of those things that are semi-out-of-our control.


    PS: another softball season is upon us 😉

  3. Forrest I’m not sure it matter since none of us will be hearing what Imus has to say now that he’s unemployed. I’m a very strong believer in free speech. I think it forms the backbone of a free society and part of free speech means allowing people to say things even when those things offend you.

    In Kathy Sierra’s case it wasn’t a free speech issue, but more one that would fall under threats of violence.

    A few of my favorite authors couldn’t be read for many years because their works were considered offensive when it was first published. Much art pushes the envelope on what would be considered inoffensive. And can you even say anything abut religion or politics without offending someone?

    Dustin (nice to see you by the way. been awhile) I’m against censorship in all forms. Like I just said I think freedom of speech is the backbone of a free society. There’s a reason why freedom of speech is the very first amendment and not the second or the tenth.

    I moderate a couple of forums and no matter how many times you check in there’s always some spam threads. I’m sure some get forever missed. There’s simply no way you can police every comment that comes across your blog to know if they’re legit or if they’ve been published elsewhere or if they might possibly offend someone. And there’s no reason you should have to.

    I’m a couple of weeks away from finishing spring softball here. We started the first week of March and fortunately the weather held up ok. Last year we played in 60 mph winds. It was impossible to hit the plate with a pitch. Next up is summer and then fall. I’ll be playing till late October/early November.

  4. It’s good to see blogger going against Tim absurd proposition. I think if he could reconsider he would never have published his code of conduct, It’s going down like a lead balloon.

  5. You know I’ve hardly seen anyone in support of Tim’s code of conduct. Some people commenting on his blog is about it. I’m sure some people like the idea, but they seem to be few and far between. I wonder how long he’s going to carry the idea. I’m sure he’s getting plenty of links out of it.

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