For those who have missed it, there’s been quite a controversy in the blogosphere lately about the lack of civility on the internet and what ought to be done about it. What sparked the conversation was a post by tech blogger Kathy Sierra about the harassment and death threats she received on several comment threads in mid-March. Pretty much everyone agrees that the threats she received were not acceptable (despite several bone-headed responses like this from guys who couldn’t be bothered to look up the details and implied that she might have made it all up). What got a lot of people inflamed was the follow-up from influential tech blogger and publishing powerhouse Tim O’Reilly, who on March 31st called for the creation of a “Blogger’s Code of Conduct” to address the sorry state of conversation on the internet.

What has ensued is a veritable shitstorm. The internet is a popular hangout for white male libertarians, and the idea of a civility code really punched their hot buttons. Their cries of “censorship!” and “fascism!” have shown a basic lack of understanding about what is being proposed (for the record the Blogger's Code is a) still in draft; b) completely voluntary; c) likely to be modular rather than a monolithic set of guidelines), and have been both intellectually lazy and obnoxious. Worst of all, they have ignored the issue that gave rise to the Code project to begin with: internet harassment and silencing of women. To a certain extent, this is because they haven’t informed themselves about the problem; a lot of them reacted to the O’Reilly proposal without understanding what prompted it. But I think another factor in a lot of cases is that -- at least in the context of the internet -- they are truly indifferent to how women feel or what their experiences are. They consider the online world to be their domain, where their customs reign supreme, and they are not at all interested in changing their ways to be inclusive of others. Thus all the variations on the phrase, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” that have come up in blog reactions over the past week.

I see two main problems with this thinking. First, it advocates an indifference to verbal abuse that ignores the continuum between the internet and the real world. Participants in comment threads and chat rooms are real people who can get just as angry or upset about what they read as they would if someone were speaking to their face in meatspace. Advising them to “get over it” or grow a thicker skin puts all the responsibility for abuse on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Sure, having a thick skin is good, but that’s not the only option here. Why not talk about how the jerks ought to change their behavior?

Second, the “get used to it” response ignores the fact that men and women, in general, have very different approaches to verbal confrontation. A lot of guys consider it healthy and/or fun to get in conversational battles; women, not so much. So for a group of guys to say, “this is the way we do things, take it or leave it” effectively shuts a lot of women out of the conversation, which in turn leads to a spiral of “boys will be boys” behavior that makes women even less likely to want to participate.

Of course, women are free to create their own blogs, and many have done so. But a lot of the most popular blogs on the internet are run by men, and the expectations for behavior are set by the collective norms of the sites people visit most often. Once a critical mass is reached, the customs start rolling forward into new blogs and copy cat behavior. It’s time we stopped acting as if each blog is an island, entire of itself, and started talking about what traditions we (men and women) really want to uphold on the internet. There will never be general agreement on these issues, but thinking about them is important, particularly at a time when internet access is on the verge of becoming a core utility like electricity and phone service.

Further reading:

"Kathy Sierra, misogyny on the web, and the Blogger's Code of Conduct", by webweaver

"Men who hate women on the Web" and "Bloggers, Don Imus and free speech", by Joan Walsh

"Harassment, silencing, and gaming communities", by Andrea Rubenstein

"Female-name Chat Users Get 25 Times More Malicious Messages", from ScienceDaily

An example of "debate" I took part in at Candleblog

Blog interconnections graphic from New York Magazine