The web today is a-flutter with calls for new “standards” to fight back against the increasing problem of hostility in the world of blogging. This comes on the back of a spate of unpleasant, unprovoked attacks on various bloggers because of their politics or views on seemingly harmless topics.

Tim O’Reilly and Jimbo Wales have jointly put forward a proposal to tag websites with somewhat quaint badges, showing what level of discourse you can expect to see. This idea seems doomed to failure to me, despite the big names that are pushing it through. As they stand, the draft “Code of Conduct” has a number of problems. For example,

We do not allow anonymous comments.

We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

Identity spoofing is ridiculously easy at the moment, so this recommendation just can’t work. At least until initiatives like “Identity 2.0” and OpenId take off.

On the badges, Jeff Jarvis writes:

[The blogosphere is not a medium.] It’s a place. And when I moved into the place that is my town, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good neighbor (and thus anyone without that badge is, de facto, a bad neighbor). I didn’t have to pledge to act civilized. I just do.

Indeed. I posit that the big win here will come from improvements in policy enforcement, rather than up-front policy declaration. Everyone already knows they’re not supposed to act like a jackass.

The NYTimes article linked above notes

A subtext of both sets of rules is that bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors. They say that bloggers should also have the right to delete such comments if they find them profane or abusive.

The problem here is that deleting moronic or venomous comments does nothing to stem the tide of trolling that a particular post is going to attract. It merely hides the problem under a rug for a short time, before someone, on finding their comment deleted, decides to write something even worse, perhaps in a place where the original poster doesn’t have such sweeping editorial control.

Online discussions are entropic, and it only takes one misinterpreted or snide comment to transform the complexion of a thread into a chaotic flamewar of no merit. Chaos begets chaos, and maintaining the quality and order of a discussion requires both time and vigilance.

A few years ago I saw an interesting approach by Sam Ruby, very nicely illustrated through an anecdote here by Mark Pilgrim. The theory:

In social sciences, there’s a theory called the “broken window” theory. It states that a little ongoing maintanence — like fixing windows as soon as they get broken — can have dramatic effects. It also states that the smallest sign of destruction, if left untended, tends to bring about more destruction. Even in a “good” neighborhood, where normally people wouldn’t dream of being randomly destructive.

This is powerful thinking, and the most effective way to deal with the problem that I have seen. Passages in comments are selectively marked as “flamebait” by the site’s owner, which then appear as text with a strike-through to anyone reading the comments. This allows a site owner to Bowdlerise a comment in line with their site’s own (stated or no) comments policy, and leaves a tangible signifier to anyone else thinking of commenting that there is a single voice patrolling the comments and keeping order.

Things could be so different now
It used to be so civilised.