How do you deal with unprincipled citizen journalists?
Ten or so years ago, the Internet was much like the Wild West: Law enforcement hadn't come to the frontier yet, and people's behavior often depended on an unwritten code of conduct.
This didn't stop some folks from making wildly inflammatory or threatening statements, especially in online forums. But over time, the Web evolved so that other members of a forum or list could police or rate comments. Slashdot.com, a website that has a rating system for posts, is a classic example.
Today, much of the Internet's frontier is more settled, but locations still exist where passions and comments run free.
Take blogs, for instance.
Blogs, and how people respond to them, made news recently when prominent blogger Kathy Sierra announced that she was withdrawing as a speaker from a technology conference in San Diego because of death threats. The threats also led her to suspend her blog, "Creating Passionate Users". In her last posting, she writes that while many have come to her support since she made the issue public in late March, others have attacked her, making more threats.
Ms. Sierra notes that all bloggers have "trolls," people who visit a blog primarily to attack or condemn the author. Until recently, none of these trolls had threatened to kill her. Then, on another site, a posting appeared with a picture of a noose beside her head and the words "the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size."
The threats, including some that appeared to come from fellow bloggers, became progressively worse over the next few days. Finally, Sierra decided that she'd had enough. Threatening someone with death is a federal crime, and police are now trying to find the perpetrators, who often made their threats anonymously.
After deciding not to attend the San Diego conference, Sierra wrote in her blog last week: "I do not want to be part of a culture – the Blogosphere – where this is considered acceptable.… I do not want to be part of a culture where this is done not by some random person, but by some of the most respected people in the tech blogging world."
Sierra suggests that her situation probably stems from the fact that she is a prominent female blogger in a male-dominated sphere. Many in the blogging community have rallied to her support. Robert Scoble, host of the popular and influential Scobleizer blog, said he was taking the week off from blogging because of the way Sierra was treated. While he doesn't approve of limits on free speech, he condemned the degrading manner in which some women bloggers are portrayed in the blogosphere. More important, Mr. Scoble turned off anonymous comments on his blog. When people are allowed to post comments anonymously, they often feel freer to say things that are inflammatory – or in Sierra's case, criminal.
Tim O'Reilly, of O'Reilly Media Inc., an online and print publisher, has said it's time for a blogging code of ethics that bloggers could use as a guide when dealing with difficult issues.
Others in the blogging community agree that it's time for bloggers to pay more attention to what they write. While offering no specific comments on the Sierra situation, widely respected blogger Doc Searls pointed his readers to the Principles of Citizen Journalism. These principles include fairness, transparency, and accuracy. When posting on any issue, not just Sierra, it's important for those who have blogs to follow these principles.
One of the people accused of writing one of the vile postings in question has said publicly that his e-mail was compromised and someone used his identity to create an anti-Sierra rant. While the postings themselves are real, determining who wrote them is not always easy.
The question of blogging ethics is bound to be debated for years. I've spent 30-odd years in journalism and almost half of them online (including blogging). During that time, I have received my share of nasty remarks, name-calling, and even a few death threats.
It's also important to remember that most bloggers, while opinionated, are civil. So what we're really talking about is a small minority of people who either have blogs or post comments on other people's blogs. I think it's best to ignore them, even their death threats.
But it's a personal call, and Sierra had a right to inform the police and public of her situation if it scared her – and it obviously did.
But codes won't work. Besides, the best code has already been written – the Golden Rule, which generally works in all situations, online or offline. We already have laws against the kind of things said about Sierra. Let's hope the police find the people who made the comments and they spend a little quality time inside the US penal system.
That might be the best way to send a message that a little more thought and self-regulation are needed in the blogosphere.