Codes of Conduct

circleslashThe current flurry of interest in the idea of a code of conduct for bloggers is a bit amusing to veterans of community building on the Internet.  The issues being raised now about the costs freedom of expression exacts have been well-known since the days when Usenet News first gave anyone with an Internet connection a global platform for self-expression, way back in 1979.

It seems to me that where it is not possible to establish shared norms for what constitutes acceptable conduct, what exists falls something short of a community. It may be a network. It may be a universe. But if you can’t define what bad behavior looks like within it, and you can’t kick people out of it for failing to refrain from bad behavior, what you’ve got is something which lacks an essential element of community: shared culture.

Out here in the wild and woolly blogosphere, we do not have such a community. We do have some smaller sub-communities, and they have some standards.  Learning Circuits, for example, will pull my comments to their blog if I use their space to start promoting my product. They are considering developing some statement of expectations for the affiliated blogs which address their “Big Question”, too. But the truth is, while they can decline to link to this blog if I fall afoul of their standards, there’s nothing to stop me from referencing them when I write things they would prefer not to be associated with.  It’s just that I’m unlikely to do so, because I consider these folks my colleagues and I care about my reputation with them. Oh, yeah, and um, my boss, the one who pays me, cares about our organization’s reputation in the industry, too.  I have something to lose by being a jerk.

Interestingly, some of the bloggers who associate themselves with Learning Circuits have come out against the development of a code of conduct for Big Question answerers.  This is also predictable…people tend to react adversely to restrictions added after they’ve joined a group, even when those restrictions are ones they would cheerfully agree to if they were posed as a condition for joining the group in the first place.

One of the things almost 30 years of being able to form communities on the Internet has taught us is that it’s a really good idea for anybody who seeks to set up a new community, online or elsewhere, to have drafted a set of standards to which people who wish to join must subscribe as a condition of joining. It doesn’t have to be lengthy. But it should cover the basic expectations, because experience has taught us that “don’t be a jerk” is not concrete enough to give people who really do want to be good community citizens guidance on how to conduct themselves.

My short list looks like this:

  1. This space exists to serve [insert stated purpose here] Members are to post with an eye toward furthering this purpose. Posts deemed by community managers to be unrelated or counter to this purpose may be removed.
  2. You may not use this space to do anything illegal. (or against organizational policy)
  3. You may not misrepresent yourself here. (Anonymity has its place, a fairly limited one, imho, but persistent identity is a cornerstone for the formation of community.)
  4. You may not attack the character of any participant here.
  5. You may not use this space for commercial purposes of your own.
  6. People who believe themselves incapable of abiding by these requests should choose not to join. People who join and later demonstrate themselves incapable of acceding to these requests will lose their privileges here.

Yah, this list is a little dictatorial. It reflects some hard, hard learning that if you want to attract and keep desirable community members, it turns out that you really do need to have a way to keep (or throw) the bums out.

It will be interesting to see how the blogosphere re-organizes itself around this dawning realization.