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May 28, 2004

Human Kindness and the Internet

John Berry of Library Journal recently wrote, "I am troubled when I read all the whining about flaming and 'inappropriate' comments on the various discussion lists to which I subscribe." He encouraged librarians to let it all hang out, and scolded lists where informal rules of conduct preside.

I was reminded of his words this week, as someone took aim at me not once but again and again, on a list where it all hangs out. I believe in allowing adults room to design their own territories, and I haven't enjoyed those discussion lists where a list "parent" was so rigid about the rules that real discussion was impossible. But it once again became obvious to me how valuable a list without any guidelines or management is for people who are not hanging out, but acting out. With no repercussions for their actions, they can do what they cannot do anywhere else in life: say whatever they want, with no accountability or repercussion.

Problems with digital communications are not limited to discussion lists. In the last few weeks, I've seen colleagues I otherwise respect take wild, factually inaccurate shots through their blogs and then privately admit, oh yes, maybe they were wrong. I've seen librarians put their peers on the spot, in ways they never would face to face. I've seen colleagues use e-mail to lie about themselves and not get called on it.

It's telling that the digital environments where this behavior is not the norm are managed by library leaders who are Internet long-timers with extensive online experience, and that the lists that typify the nastiness I'm describing are managed by those who are Internet naifs. A couple of days ago someone tried to "explain" to me that because My Place Of Work is online and visible, these attacks are expected. I have been on the Internet for nearly fifteen years, and I am here to witness, with the fullness of experience, that there is never any reason for this kind of behavior, in any format, in any place, and certainly not on a list for a dues-driven professional association. For this I paid real money?

I've signed off the list in question because life is short and I only have so much room in my life--not enough room for this nonsense. I am sure someone will tell me that this list is "useful," but my response is that it no longer has enough "use" for my purposes. Once too often on this list, I've seen the kind of behavior that would shame me (or prompt me to take real action) if I experienced it in any face to face setting--work, home, church, neighborhood, a BART train. This list isn't an example of intellectual freedom in action. It's an example of what happens when people hide behind "principles" because they are unable or unwilling to do the hard work required to turn a frontier into a town center.

I thank my colleagues who gamely rose to my defense in so many different ways, and I acknowledge that their efforts were not only on my behalf, but on behalf of a much larger cause. And I pity those left behind, captives and captors alike.

I wonder if some of my writing colleagues would be willing to consider a code of ethics for communications in the digital environment--not an iron-clad set of rules, but principles to guide us in our actions in this new world. Or would that be "whining?"

Posted by kgs at May 28, 2004 10:29 PM

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Tracked on June 1, 2004 04:23 PM


I think it is a reflection of American culture these days. As soon as Bush made the official policy "you're with us or against us," our country has become sharply divided. Even if individuals have moderate opinions, they are forced to take one side or the other on almost every issue. Dialog is irrelevant, because if you don't agree with everything I think, then you're one of them. I've been known to run off half-cocked with no footing to stand on, and it shames me when I think of those times when I spoke or wrote before rationally thinking.

I'm sorry you've had to deal with these kinds of attacks. Maybe after we have some regime change here at home, we'll move towards more diversity and respect. Maybe.

Posted by: Anna at May 29, 2004 07:41 AM

Karen, sorry for what happened to you.

As someone with a great deal of experience in such matters (note not claiming to be on the nice side! :-)), I think I can say "a code of ethics" isn't going to help. They're either unrealistic, or the enforcement depends on the list-owner, which makes it a matter of their whim.

Here's an obvious problem: The code of ethics will certainly have honesty on it. So what happens when someone through-their-teeth lies?

X (Liar): "And in the case of Y, who favors eating babies ..."

Y (Target): "Hey, X is lying. I don't favor eating babies"

X (Liar): "Bzzt! I call for Y for be penalized for immature behavior. Y called me a liar. That's "insult". I merely stated Y's well-known like of eating babies, which is a fact".

Y (Target): "I call for X to be penalized for dishonesty. X knowns damn well I don't favor eating babies, and is deliberately being inflammatory and provocative"

Z (Onlooker): "I move that X and Y *both* be penalized, because I consider all actions morally equivalent. Attack and self-defense should draw the same penalty since both are involved in violence".

What do you do?

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at May 29, 2004 05:36 PM

So in other words, lists such as Web4Lib and PUBLIB are flukes?

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at May 30, 2004 09:16 AM

I wouldn't say they're flukes. It's an example of "the enforcement depends on the list-owner".

Not criticizing, but purely sociologically, the fact that you're on the advisory and moderating board for them means almost by definition that the judgment calls involved in the above decisions will be those where you feel your values are represented, even usually expressed. But this isn't a general solution.

That is, you have administrative and policy position on both lists, so the enforcement of the list code of ethics bears a relationship to your own code of ethics.

But merely writing down a code of ethics doesn't solve this judgment problem in general.

See http://sethf.com/freespeech/censorware/project/jw-moral.php for another perspective, for a different list (n.b., I didn't write that).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at May 30, 2004 10:17 AM

Late to the conversation (out all last week), but yes, I do believe Web4Lib is a fluke--or miracle, maybe. I continue to be in awe that such a large list could continue to be unmoderated and have such relatively few flamewars and the like.

Publib is, of course, moderated: Lightly, perhaps, but even the knowledge of moderation tends to reduce flaming and personal attacks.

I would say "maybe librarians are politer," but then there's the history of Autocat and, currently, the "Rory & Blake show" at LISNews...

Posted by: walt crawford at June 1, 2004 11:20 AM

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