net.wars: Let's make rules

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 April 2007

In London there is a Chinese restaurant that is so famous for the rudeness of its staff that anyone who lives in London reading that can already tell you its name and location: the Wong Kei, in Wardour Street. The food is cheap, quick, and pretty good, so it's always crowded. Last year, I was told they're all polite now. I will never go there again.

Wendy M Grossman

Last month, at the Emerging Technology conference, Kathy Sierra, whose talks many people eagerly anticipated, canceled because of death threats and other nastiness on her and several other people's blogs. Not knowing the people of course doesn't stop me from having an opinion, which is that posting her considerable distress on her blog was more likely to feed the troll than to dissuade him. He must be really important and powerful to make a woman cry on her blog that she is too frightened to leave her back yard. Yeah, ME! That kind of thing.

To me, the best response to something like that is to show the death threats to the police if you're seriously concerned but otherwise go on as though the troll is insignficant. What appears to be hatred specifically for you is in fact unlikely to be personal; the troll is looking for someone, anyone, who will respond with fear. In the forums I've been involved in running, you can only get rid of trolls by ignoring them. This requires an enormous amount of discipline, and it's difficult to do because you have to enlist the cooperation of everyone in the forum. But it does work. They get frustrated and go off to find more responsive targets.

Rules don't help much in such a situation. Most people don't need them; the troll gets its rocks off by flouting them. Rules' one usefulness is to be able to point to them when someone crosses the line so you can discipline or ban them without rage and protest on the part of your other users. They, not the troll who's getting all the attention, are the ones who matter because they are your community, your fans, your volunteer helpers, your paying customers…whatever, depending on what kind of forum/IRC channel/Web board/blog/wiki you'are running.

Given that Sierra pulled out of an O'Reilly conference, it's understandable that Tim O'Reilly, coupled with Jimmy Wales, who's had well-documented disciplinary problems of his own lately, would feel impelled to produce a draft code of conduct for the blogosphere. This is wrong – not, as apparently many bloggers have howled, because it's censorship, but because it's irrelevant.

If you doubt this, have a look here. That is Gene Spafford's early 1990s attempt to create a set of rules to civilize Usenet. Usenet: the online area everyone thinks of now as a sinkhole. Did it work? No.

It isn't censorship, in any case, because what it's aimed at controlling is not speech but behavior.

But it does ignore the pre-eminence of community standards, which vary all over the Net and for good reason: we're all different. Some people are unhappy in any gathering that doesn't adhere to the rigid politeness of the Queen's reception rooms; others feel uncomfortably constrained anywhere they're not allowed to tell people to fuck off if they feel like it. Every type of political correctness breeds its companion political incorrectness, and vice versa. And one reason many people love the Net is that it is an open, unconfined antidote to the corsets of everyday life and other media.

Now: the rules. Death threats are illegal, no matter what medium they're made in. We already have real-life rules and community standards about that, and they're remarkably consistent. Whether to allow anonymous or abusive postings must remain withn the discretion of the site owner, who effectively is God in his own little world. As the EFF has maintained for more than a decade now, online anonymity can be extremely important in allowing people to talk about personal problems freely or in cases of corporate whistleblowing.

More important, the draft rules are binary: you're civil or you're not, according to your logo. But this isn't how the Net works because this isn't how people work. The snake-phobics forum might ban all discussion of snakes but still allow people to curse each other out. The polite-language-only forum might allow explicit discussion of how to commit suicide. And the tennis forum might not care whether you mentioned snakes, suicides, or cursed freely – but might delete everything not actually related to tennis because the worst sin in that forum is being off-topic.

Even more important, these rules would not have prevented Sierra's situation. Applying them to her own blog would not have changed the two other blogs on which the death threats against her appeared. And it seems unlikely that the death threat posters would sign up to them. Go to the police; get someone technical to investigate the source; by all means educate the kids coming online about where the line is between legal and illegal behavior.

Sierra herself seems to have decided that the only way to decrease the hatred coming at her is to decrease her visibility. The Net-wide discussion of the threats against her makes that unlikely to succeed.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).