Incivility Creep

There was a lot of buzz last week about a racial slur made by radio “shock jock” Don Imus, and about a controversial blogging code of conduct proposed by technology publisher Tim O’Reilly. Absent from the discourse, as far as I am aware, was the contention that the two developments are related. They are.

O’Reilly’s suggestion that blogging sites adopt a code of conduct was spurred by recent online death threats and vitriolic remarks made against high-profile blogger Kathy Sierra. Sierra was so shaken by the hate-filled attacks that she canceled plans to appear last month at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego.

Speaking to The New York Times, Sierra expressed disbelief at the number of people who suggested she should just get over it, and who said, “Get a life, this is the Internet.” The prevalence of that attitude is, in fact, unmistakable. And it’s creating far more harm than we seem to be prepared to acknowledge.

The harm lies in the notion that the online world is separate from and independent of the physical world and that there is an inherently distinct standard of civility and acceptable behavior associated with it. To some extent, there’s a subconscious element to the separation that’s evident even in e-mail. I get my share of vitriol in the form of venomous comments from readers on some of the views I express here. I respond directly to as many of them as I can, and it’s not uncommon at all for me to get a far more cordial, sometimes apologetic, reply from those readers. There’s often surprise, or even shock, that I had actually read what they had written. That there’s a real human being on the other end of the “send” click often seems to be something of a revelation.

In his BuzzMachine blog last week, Jeff Jarvis took issue with O’Reilly’s code of conduct proposal on several counts, standing on the premise that the blogosphere should not be treated as an otherworldly entity. “Are there rules and laws?” he asks. “Yes, the same ones that exist in worlds physical or virtual.”

Jarvis is right — that’s the way it should work. There should be no distinction. He’s also right to specifically challenge the code’s position that blog sites should not allow anonymous comments. Jarvis and I share the view that people who post comments should have the courage to stand behind their opinions by identifying themselves. But as a practical matter, that’s unenforceable.

Others in the blogging community have expressed contempt for O’Reilly’s proposed code of conduct, with varying degrees of outrage and ridicule. No doubt, it’s easy to argue against the practicality of the proposal. But at least it raised the profile of the discussion. And it was worthwhile if for no other reason than this: It calls for bloggers to refrain from saying anything online that they wouldn’t say in person. That’s precisely what needs to be understood. If it isn’t OK to do it in the physical world, it isn’t OK to do it online.

We’ve been conditioned to accept and even expect a lower standard of civility online. What’s especially harmful about that is the natural and inevitable incivility creep that is permeating other dimensions of our lives — most conspicuously, perhaps, in other media.

The despicable comments spewed by Imus toward the Rutgers women's basketball team should have surprised no one. We need to recognize that our online and physical-world activities are so inextricably intertwined that it’s impossible to corral online’s disturbingly low standard for preserving human dignity.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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