First, a preamble. My apologies that the following is going to be one of those entries that undoubtedly ends up as nothing more than a bitter, vituperative, slap my hand to my brow in exasperation attack on all things blog and web-related. Some targets, however, are too obvious to resist. Indeed, some targets positively beg and shout for attention. “Pick me! Pick me! Fulminate wildly about ME!” they squeal, whilst jumping up and down and waving their arms in the air. And I give in and haul them out of the team line-up for a sound ticking-off, because I am only human, after all.
Furthermore, to those silent but dedicated few who only come here to read the obfuscatory verbosity that is usually better understood after downing an overdose of kiddies’ cough mixture, I say: come back soon. There will be more Kafkaesque nonsense along shortly. But in the meantime, let us turn our weary gaze back to the self-obsessed world of weblogs. And laugh.
Except when I say ‘laugh’ I do, of course, mean ‘offer a well-rounded critical analysis’. Oh yes, that’s me. New Media commentator par excellence. Web two point oh. And stuff. Do stop your guffawing at the back, please.
In the latest controversy to hit the ‘blogosphere’ (fear not, for I shall wash my mouth out later with a bottle of lemon zest Toilet Duck as punishment for having used that dreaded word), some bloke — sorry, some ‘hugely influential web pioneer’ — called Tim O’Reilly has published his draft version of a Blogger’s Code of Conduct. This is in response to a recent scandal involving all kinds of unpleasant death threats made against an apparently very well-known blogger — so well-known, in fact, that predictably I had never heard of her before her name was emblazoned across the headlines. But that’s beside the point, and is just another example of me being needlessly catty. Kathy who, exactly?
In truth, I could probably stop this post right here. Just the phrase ‘Blogger’s Code of Conduct’ tells you all you really need to know. Which is the following:
(a) Tim O’Reilly is American. I don’t wish to be unfair to my transatlantic cousins, but this is the sad truth of the matter. He is. It’s very unlikely that someone from the United Kingdom would have written this heap of old tosh asking bloggers to be nice to each other. We would be too busy shaking our heads dismissively, casting disapproving glances in various directions, and tutting under our collective breath.
(b) Tim O’Reilly takes blogging far too seriously. It would be too easy to merely tell him to step away from the computer for a little while, because presumably his life would crumble into nothingness without the internet. Maybe, however, he could be persuaded to try and recall what it was like when blogging and the web were all shiny, new and exciting to him. Oh, and fun. Yes. Remember fun, Tim?
© Tim O’Reilly sulks when people are nasty to him and his friends. He probably cries and pouts and stamps his feet as well. Instead of ignoring the troublemakers or pulverising them with remarks of withering, biting sarcasm, he sits up until the early hours of the morning putting his aggrieved soul into the pointless task of making sure that people behave in the way he expects them to behave; the way they would behave if the web was bland and uniform and, most importantly, run by Tim O’Reilly.
(d) Tim O’Reilly clearly believes that he owns the internet. And he is definitely suffering from a delusion that blogging is his personal fiefdom. My humble corner of the web is, in fact, owned by Tim O’Reilly. An Unreliable Witness, as written and moderated by Tim O’Reilly. Thanks Tim, much appreciated. Saves me from having to have a single original thought of my own.
(e) In his photo, Tim O’Reilly has a peculiar ‘not quite there’ beard. It can’t seem to decide on whether it would prefer to be beardy or clean-shaven. I will concede that this point is entirely my dubious opinion and not strictly relevant to anything whatsoever, but it would have kept me awake tonight if I hadn’t included it.
So, yes, I could stop there. But, if Tim will let me, and if I have his express permission as the great exalted leader of all things web-based, I’d like to continue into further sarcasm, ending eventually at complete irrelevance. Like most of the blog entries I write which I foolishly attempt to call ‘factual’, regrettably.
The Code of Conduct (in excruciating detail)
Turning to Ubergruppenfuhrer O’Reilly’s Code of Conduct and its six tablets of stone, commandment number one reads: “Thou Shalt Not Say Nasty Things About Very Important Bloggers Who Know Much More About The Internet Than The Rest Of You Mere Mortals”. Except it doesn’t, of course. It actually says:
“1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.”
Once again, that should really be the end of it. The end of the list. Tim has graciously given you, me, all of us the permission to run our own corner of the internet in the way we choose. I may not have any control over my life or the world at large, but I can at least run my site in exactly the way I want to. Thanks, Tim, that’s really jolly decent of you, old bean.
Except. Oh dear. Tim wants a standard. A kite mark, if you will.
“We are committed to the ‘Civility Enforced’ standard: we will not post unacceptable content, and we’ll delete comments that contain it.”
So who decides what is “unacceptable content”? As plenty of people will know through late-night conversations in dark, shrouded corners of the internet, I think there is plenty of content on various weblogs that is downright unacceptable. But I stand by the author’s absolute right to say it. I stand by anyone’s right to arrive at this website and spew forth vitriol in the comments, too. If I then cry into my shirt sleeve and delete it, that is my choice (and my emotional failing). But am I really supposed to sit here and judge every comment as to whether it could possibly cause offence to someone, somewhere, at some time or other? Well, sorry Tim, but no. I have things to do, people to see, and the same amount of vitriol to spew forth in other people’s comments boxes. If I want.
Oh, and Tim has helpfully posted a little graphic, a badge, that any blogger who is observing this standard could use on their site. I would copy it here, of course, but I might face charges of high treason because I am clearly not observing those same saintly, God-fearing standards. So I will describe it to you. It’s a silver six-pointed star emblazoned with the words ‘CIVILITY ENFORCED’. It looks uncomfortably similar to a sheriff’s badge. An American sheriff’s badge. I expect that will go down really well with citizens blogging from within the dilapidated ruins of war-torn Iraq, Tim. I have no doubt that those Iranians currently risking life and limb by posting blogs critical of their government’s regime will be simply overjoyed at the prospect of adding the necessary code to their sites to display a symbol that is so synonymous with the USA.
Can anyone else smell the rancid whiff of US imperialism, or is it just me?
The worst thing is, Tim, that you’ve got it all wrong. You’ve got it all so very wrong. Blogging is, famously, a British invention. British through and through. Or at least it is under my rewritten history of the form. I shall shortly be requesting — no, demanding — that weblogs from every corner of the globe should proudly boast the image of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in all her regal finery. Ideally, it will be accompanied by a fluttering animated gif of the Union Jack too. This will be a mark of trust, a sign of quality to any aimless web surfer who lands upon the site that it is thoroughly decent, proper and upstanding because it is adhering to the British way of life and the British way of doing things. God bless the Queen! Long live the British Empire!
I could ladle on the sarcasm even more — you know I could — but I fear that if I did I would never get round to dealing with the other five points in the Blogger’s Code of Conduct.
“2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.”
No, Tim. On the contrary, we will say plenty of things online that we wouldn’t dare to say in person. This is one of the most fundamental gifts of the internet, and the unique selling point of blogging. Meet me in real life — as a living, breathing person — and I won’t dare to say half the things I write on this site or in the comments of other weblogs I read. I’m quite shy and self-effacing, Tim. The reason I enjoy blogging, and have enjoyed it for nearly seven years, is that it allows me to say those things that I simply don’t have the capacity to put into speech, face to face with other people. Sometimes that involves being frank, critical, even a little nasty. May God have mercy on my soul. I’m going to hell anyway, so what do I care?
“3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.”
Let’s say, just as an example, that a popular blogger writes an entry more or less expressing the viewpoint that “An Unreliable Witness is an utter twat”. This is posted on their freely available website, probably with a link to the twat’s blog — er, I mean, to my blog — so that readers can discover my innate twattishness for themselves.
Being a decent type of fellow, proudly wearing my ‘Civility Enforced’ sheriff’s badge on my lapel, I will discreetly write to the blogger in question politely asking them to cease and desist from saying rotten things about me, because otherwise I will hug my comforting pillow and cry myself to sleep at night.
Of course I won’t. I will respond in the same public manner in which they have chosen to criticise me, either in their comments or on my site. This is real life, Tim. It’s kind of brutal like that.
“4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.”
Now here is one point on which I don’t necessarily disagree. Yes, in such a situation we do take action — though, for some reason, events in recent years have taught me to be wary of the phrase “take action”, as we have all too frequently heard it said by senior US or British politicians in the form of a veiled threat to any rogue nation that might potentially be wielding one of those axes of evil (sic). So maybe I don’t mean that sort of action. Maybe I don’t mean going as far as O’Reilly suggests and getting the law enforcement agencies involved. Not quite yet, Tim; it’s only blogging, for pity’s sake. Besides which, I can quite easily envisage any complaint that I made at the average suburban police station being greeted with a mostly bewildered response, possibly involving an impatient desk sergeant tapping his pen on the counter and looking me up and down in a suspicious manner, before asking: “What exactly is a ‘blog’, sir? And why do you want one of its commenters arrested, eh?”
So in the case of blogging, taking action is surely doing much the same as you would in real life if a friend was being verbally attacked, isn’t it? Namely, you leap to their defence either by shouting back at the perpetrators, fixing them with your gimlet eye, or pointing at them, whispering, then cackling cruelly. That’s usually all the ‘action’ that’s required.
“5. We do not allow anonymous comments.”
Tim, Tim, Tim, me old mucker. Now you’re just being a spoilsport. As I suggested earlier, some people not only welcome but actively seek out the relative anonymity of the internet — me amongst them. I have frequently left anonymous comments scattered round the internet and received many anonymous comments in return. A number of those have been critical, unpleasant or, in some cases, plain scary, but others were no doubt left by shy souls who would rather not divulge their true identity. Moreover, having previously been a named and shamed blogger, I even choose to write anonymously now. Though since almost everyone knows who I am, I will agree that this puts a rather massive dent in my desired aim of being aloof, mysterious and otherworldy. Damn.
Oh, but Tim wants commenters — if they must be anonymous or use an alias — to supply a valid email address before they respond. Well, that’s fine, because fortunately there are absolutely no free email services available on the net to which one can sign up in a matter of seconds, are there? No. None at all. Furthermore, I am obviously aware that any blogger who is especially concerned about the comments they receive makes a particular point of scrupulously checking the email addresses of each and every visitor who presses that little ‘Submit’ button. Which is why I have never been successful at leaving comments with contact details such as email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Not me, no. I always give my real address. Honest, guv.
Call me stupid, Tim, but I spot a potentially massive flaw in your Code of Conduct.
“6. We ignore the trolls.”
Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with this final point in Tim’s Six Commandments. Trolls die without the oxygen of call and (increasingly embittered) response. Then again, troll-baiting can be an immensely enjoyable pastime, mostly because the perpetrators soon prove themselves to be particularly dim-witted and can be verbally but soundly beaten to a gibbering pulp with a well-placed, barbed riposte. Plus there’s no denying that some trolls are really quite cuddly and cute, as the accompanying picture demonstrates. What harm could there possibly be in letting such a peculiar little creature dig its burrow in a dank corner of your blog? Lighten up, Tim. Lighten up.
Blogging — a word, incidentally, that I still cannot abide, despite the number of times I have been forced to use it in the preceding paragraphs — is all about freedom of speech. Weblogs, like the internet itself, can also be nasty and unpleasant places. But that is the price we pay for having such freedom. I would much rather be part of a blogosphere (oh, that awful word again) with a dark, dank and distasteful underbelly than be forced to inhabit some clean, white, pure but bland, bland, bland environment where people are sickeningly polite and nice to each other all the time. Especially if we’re only acting that way because someone is telling us we must.
We can’t protect everyone from everything, though of course it would be a wonderful vision of Utopia if we could. So if you can’t stand the heat, get your self-obsessed prose (which is what blogging ultimately is, if we’re honest with ourselves) out of the kitchen. Nobody, thank heavens, is forcing you onto the internet to write about your thoughts or document your daily life. You choose to do that. I choose to do that. Whether we’ve got two readers, two thousand readers or whether we’re Dooce (no link, because you surely must know how to find her if you want to), we’re all displaying the essential exhibitionist streak that makes us want to blog. And with blogging comes feedback and comments, not all of which will be complimentary or even remotely pleasant.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. You could always go back to writing a diary. In private. On paper. Offline. Without an audience.
An Unreliable Witness: that Code of Conduct in full
If we must discuss such tedious subjects as codes of conduct then, with blogs being as individual as people, the obvious route is for each blogger to provide their own personal list for users of their site. An Unreliable Witness is, therefore, proud to unveil its six rules for making your visit to this humble virtual abode pass as painlessly — and also, for your sake, as quickly — as possible. As ever, my thanks go to Tim O’Reilly for providing such a beacon of tremendous inspiration.
1. All the words, thoughts and ideas on this pathetic excuse for a weblog are mine.. And that means right down to the last ridiculously overcooked poetic synonym that I’ve managed to dig out of the depths of my favourite thesaurus. I am allowed to have my own opinions on my own site, since I have precious little power over anyone or anything else that inhabits this God-forsaken hellhole of a planet. I am allowed to be as wilfully pretentious, obfuscatory, odd or simply downright rude as I like on these pages. Deal with it.
2. You can say whatever you wish and behave however you see fit in the comments. During almost seven years of blogging, I have deleted very few responses from visitors to my site(s), but sometimes I’m just an awkward and moody old sod, and I might not like the way you’ve used a semi-colon or a comma. This could result in the sudden, impetuous removal of your profound thought or hilarious witticism, even if your spelling is exemplary. Deal with it.
3. If you are unnecessarily rude about me, my site, or people I like, I won’t threaten you with senseless acts of violence. I’m quite a peace-loving soul really, as well as an inveterate coward. However, I will reserve the right to point and laugh at you, make offensive hand gestures in your general direction, or discuss you behind your back. Deal with it.
4. Obscure in-jokes about various areas of London, certain authors, cream cakes, varieties of cheese or unidentified persons known only to myself and a few other exclusive commenters are not only welcome, but positively encouraged. The same goes — even more so, in fact — for filthy innuendos. If you don’t understand the references, it’s only because you’re jealous and want to be in my gang. Ask nicely, and I might let you into the secret of how to join. Failing that, I suggest that you leave your own bizarre comment, followed by a knowing wink, and in no time at all people will be intrigued as to what you’re going on about. Never forget that blogging is a jealously, almost obsessively guarded clique — and not only because no one in the real world couldn’t care less about this supposedly revolutionary medium. Deal with it.
5. The despicable act of blog-stalking is obviously a Bad Thing. There shall be no gratuitous issuing of death threats or indulging in other acts of horrendous unpleasantness here. However, stalking of a mild variety — involving activities such as visiting my site at least two hundred times a day, telling me I’m wonderful in every single comment you leave, reading every single archived entry (twice), wearing a t-shirt displaying the URL, quoting passages of my eloquent prose at social engagements, or spray-painting the name of An Unreliable Witness on various prominent buildings and landmarks — is welcomed. Desperately welcomed. Please. Please, please, please. There is even the remotest chance that I’ll be so grateful to you for vastly increasing my tragically low self-esteem that you’ll receive a Christmas card from me each year. Then again, I hate Christmas, so you may not. Deal with it.
6. Er, that’s it. There is no sixth rule. I have come to the momentous conclusion that there are no more than five things that can be said about blogging. And even that’s pushing it. Deal with it.