The recent flack over threatening, and just plain vile, online threats against a well-known blogger has led some leading voices to suggest that the blogosphere (I really hate that term) needs a code of acceptable conduct.
My question to those making this suggestion, including the highly respected and very sharp Tim O'Reilly, is simply this: Do you think the creeps who posted the garbage actually believed they were acting by any standard that can possibly be construed as acceptable, and they just need a little clarity?
I do agree with Mr. O'Reilly that a few nutbags are most likely responsible for the worst of such online outrages. I also know this sort of conduct is far more common than anyone would care to admit, and that this single incident is getting disproportionate media attention because of the obvious impact of the targeted individual.
A few weeks ago, I asked analyst and IT Business Edge blogger Rob Enderle if he was getting concerned about some of the comments going up on a post of his that was cited on the home page of Slashdot.org. (Rob said he was fine with it, so on we went.) The original citation at Slashdot was a perfectly lucid, if spirited, disagreement with Rob's opinions about Linux. A lot of the posts that followed on our site devolved into, well, see for yourself, if you care to.
I've been in online publishing for a decade now, and the way I see it, stuff like the Kathy Sierra travesty happens for two reasons.
The first is that some people tend to act like idiots if they think no one knows who they are.
Secondly, people have come to believe that the Internet is this magical new world where there simply aren't any laws. O'Reilly says that he would hope a bloggers' code of conduct would obviate the need (probably, the temptation) for government intervention. Well, the cops are already investigating the Kathy Sierra case. Terroristic threatening has always been illegal on the Internet, in a coffee shop, in your mom's dining room -- you name it. Same with copyright protections and libel laws.
I remain baffled that during the Napster flack a few years ago, otherwise smart, articulate people spent months arguing that song publishers somehow didn't have the right to stop people from stealing music, just because it was getting stolen via the Internet. Certainly, the sheer scope of the 'Net has necessitated the efforts to reasonably tailor the enforcement of these laws -- and those efforts still have a way to go -- but the laws are still there.
So, in short, the law is already involved in blogosphere conduct, insomuch as threats of violence can be construed as being specific to the blogosphere. The government has never made it a point to regulate manners; you do have the legal right to curse someone who happens to disagree with you about a movie, although simple empathy (or the risk of a whack in the mouth, depending on your view of human nature) tends to negate that in most face-to-face settings.
Why bloggers would need a specific code of conduct beyond what one hopes their parents taught them is, candidly, beyond me.
A more meaningful code of blogging "ethics" would tackle issues like repeating BS rumors about a GPhone as fact, or even more radically, addressing the actual views of someone who disagrees with you before moving on to attacking their credibility as a paid shil, Nazi or what have you.
Not that I'm worthy, but I'd be delighted to contribute to the wiki (under my given name, of course) that Mr. O'Reilly might choose to set up for such a project.
As for idiots who like to Photoshop nooses onto photos of someone who runs a marketing blog -- I'm happy such things are, in fact, already a legal issue.