Monday, April 9, 2007

On the "Blogger Code of Conduct"

I see that Tim O'Reilly has decided to follow through on his proposition that the safety of the Internet can best be achieved through a code of conduct. He now has a first draft that he has posted for the solicitation of comments. True to his principles, he hopes to arrive at a final draft "through a wiki-based review process." Since I have already accused O'Reilly of completely missing the point with his proposition, I do not plan to participate in this review process. Indeed, he probably captures my own feeling towards this whole approach in his quotation of an old saying: "Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it."

As an alternative I would like to examine the draft from my own position of text analysis and cut to that part of the text around which everything else is basically embellishment:

We define unacceptable content as anything included or linked to that:

  • is being used to abuse, harass, stalk, or threaten others
  • is libelous, knowingly false, ad-hominem, or misrepresents another person,
  • infringes upon a copyright or trademark
  • violates an obligation of confidentiality
  • violates the privacy of others

We defined and determine what is "unacceptable content" on a case-by-case basis, and our definitions are not limited to this list. If we delete a comment or link, we will say so and explain why. [We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice.]

There is no questioning the good intentions behind this text, but it does nothing but remind me of my own rants regarding the ignorance of basic principles of governance surrounding the whole question of safety on the Internet. It is a truly disappointing specimen when compared with the language of the Constitution of the United States or the passage from the Declaration of Independence that I picked out for analysis in the early stages of this discussion. Sadly, the difference may have to do with the fact that these two documents were products of intense (not to mention heated) face-to-face deliberation, which will always be a far cry from the abstractions of "wiki-based review."

Without deep-ending into philosophy, I need to point out that the blogosphere is best viewed as an enormous Wittgensteinian language-game. The important lesson from Wittgenstein is that words and concepts are so context-dependent that defining them will always be a futile exercise. They can only be understood in terms of how they are used; and the term "language-game" was introduced to hang a label of this general principle of use. The problem is that, as Márquez put it in One Hundred Years of Solitude, this is a game where the players to not have any prior agreement over what the rules are; but, as Wittgenstein keeps reminding us, we can still play the game and (for the most part) play it very well.

In my own case I am most worried about the distinction between declarative and literary use when we play the game. Put another way, I think that O'Reilly's text can be seen as an attempt to undermine such literary devices as satire. Now I realize that satirical text is an extremely delicate matter, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether or not a ox is actually being gored. However, I object in the strongest way in any "solution" to the Internet safety problem that cannot tell the difference between the baby and the bathwater; and I see that as the flaw in O'Reilly's effort. (I originally wrote "tragic flaw;" but my knowledge of Aristotle reminded me that this is not a situation about the acts of noble people!)

There are other ways I could pick apart the text, but I think it is important to focus on the core rather than the embellishments. However, I want to close by taking comfort in the first comment that appeared at O'Reilly Radar, posted by someone named Shelley:

You created badges.

You actually created badges.

I just can't believe you created badges.

As Babylon 5 fans are sure to recognize, the Night Watch is upon us again!


Anonymous said...

So did Shelley or anyone else follow up with "We don't need no steenking badges!"?

Stephen Smoliar said...

About 90 minutes after Shelley came in with her comment (which was the first), someone named Chris invoked the inevitable SIERRA MADRE reference!