Civil discourse – online and off

This morning, a colleague emailed me Brad Stone’s piece in the New York Times on civility online. I’ve been pushing for the idea of identity online for a while and think that, for the most part, anonymity and pseudonimity detract from our ability to engage in conversation. Whether a formal code of conduct is needed – or if individual bloggers simply need to exercise judgment as they see fit – is up for debate.

Sometimes, we accept the fallacy that all exchanges are somehow constructive or illuminating. That is clearly not the case. When a bias or an agenda is unacknowledged, or no context is provided, it makes it difficult to determine the reasoning or validity of a statement. Anonymity and pseudonimity are major culprits in allowing this to happen.

There are other times when a bias or agenda is obvious – and the identity is known – that raise other issues. The Daily Kos did something a few weeks ago on Fox’s coverage of the October 2003 Democratic Debate in Detroit sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus. The point is made that many of the questions asked were problematic; but that that point was essentially ignored by the media:

All of the questions asked were not skewed, but this actually makes things worse. Instead of smearing all of the candidates equally, among the major candidates: Lieberman was favored, Kerry and Edwards each received two decent questions, Dean received one decent question, and Clark received no decent questions. Yet the talking heads took no notice of this, instead blaming the candidates, as Fox manipulated our primary.

When did you stop beating your wife? Fox debate questions

If this level of discourse is acceptable in the traditional media, it’s easy to understand why things can get even more out of hand online.

During the MIT Communications Forum event last week on evangelicals and the media, someone asked Gary Schneeberger of Focus on the Family about what they were doing to encourage dissenting opinions and debate. He made a pretty valid point that their channels are their soapbox and that they can use them to communicate as they see fit. One might not agree with the content that they choose to communicate but they are under no obligation to carry content that they find objectionable.

Back to the blog side of the fence though. No one cries foul when comment spam is blocked. Spammers could claim that their free speech rights are being denied. Where do we draw the line? Baiting, name-calling and threats are not a dialog. To argue that they are is to support the very lowest common denominator. To insist that people post under their own identity (or at least contact the blogger whose site they wish to post on anonymously to explain why they want or need to protect their identity) seems reasonable.

For bloggers to be able to choose to remove content that is either personally demeaning, offensive or not germane to the conversation likewise seems appropriate. Bloggers make decisions every day about the content that appears on their sites. If the communities that rely on them begin to feel that poor or inappropriate decisions are being made, they can call them on it – either on the site itself or elsewhere – or they can move on.

Tim O’Reilly, who is quoted throughout the Times article sums the issue up well:

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.”

It’s silly to think that we have to take an all or nothing approach and not exercise any discretion about what comments appear.

[tags]blogging, identity, censorship, agenda, New York Times, Brad Stone, Tim O’Reilly, code of conduct, Daily Kos, Fox News, Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family, anonymity, pseudonymity, spam, comments [/tags]

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