April 12, 2007

What Happened To The 'Invisible Hand'?

Daniel Henninger lends his normally rational, free-market voice to the matter of blogger civility in today's Opinion Journal -- and opts for the communal approach. Henninger wants a code of conduct imposed on the blogosphere, even voluntarily, to reverse the tide of uncivility in modern discourse:

And so it came to pass in the year 2007 that a little platoon came forth to say unto the world: Enough is enough.

Two leading citizens of the Web, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales, have proposed a "Bloggers Code of Conduct." The reason for this code is the phenomenon of people posting extremely nasty verbal comments about other people on Web sites devoted to political and social commentary. For Mr. O'Reilly, a publisher and activist for open Web standards, the last blogospheric straw involved a friend whose suggestion that it was OK to delete offensive comments from Web sites earned her a backlash of vitriol on several sites, with one posting a photo of her alongside a drawing of a noose.

It is appropriate that this line should be drawn in the ether of the World Wide Web, whose controlling ethos up to now has been that speech and expression should remain free, unfettered and--the totemic word that ends all argument--"democratic." As it developed, too many of the Web's democrats, for reasons that have provided much new work for clinical psychologists, tend to write in a vocabulary of rage and aggression.

Henninger is wrong. It is convenient that the line should be drawn in the blogosphere. Otherwise, people might be tempted to draw lines in the press. Would Henninger agree to a speech code for his newspaper in order to restore civility, if tempers flare and people acted less than politely on the opinion pages? How about on television, where Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly acted mightily uncivil last week? Keith Olbermann on MS-NBC's Countdown? Jack Cafferty on CNN?

Speech codes don't work, especially voluntary speech codes. Henninger asserts in his conclusion that "an angry battalion of bloggers counterattacked, crying "censorship"." Some might, but the rest of us were more amused than angry, and we cried "pointless". The bloggers causing the problem wouldn't sign onto the speech codes, and the ones that would don't cause the problem. After the adoption of this speech code, we will still have buttheads in the blogosphere who pull the same juvenile stunts, use the same juvenile name-calling as a substitute for argument, and refuse to take control over their comments section, as always.

Why not let the market work instead? Discerning readers stay away from the dish-throwers. Advertisers will avoid abusive sites. That approach seemed to work well with Don Imus, whose latest reprehensible bout with uncivility has drawn rather serious financial consequences. The broadcast industry didn't need the National Seal of Civility for those consequences to arise. Isn't that what the Invisible Hand of the marketplace is supposed to do?

Let the readers decide what they support. Genuine threats should be referred to law enforcement. Insults and infantile tantrums are best ignored, not used to tar the entire blogosphere. Most of us don't need Henninger and other self-appointed nannies to demand our civility.

In an increasingly statist world, we have plenty of voices advocating top-down solutions for pseudo-ills of society that remove individual choice and responsibility. Guilds and unions don't solve problems based on immaturity. I would expect the arguments presented here from the New York Times, but not from a Wall Street Journal publication.


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Comments (17)

Posted by Tom Shipley [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 7:38 AM

"Would Henninger agree to a speech code for his newspaper in order to restore civility, if tempers flare and people acted less than politely on the opinion pages? How about on television, where Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly acted mightily uncivil last week? Keith Olbermann on MS-NBC's Countdown? Jack Cafferty on CNN?"

I'm not sure I'm for this code or not, but Internet blogs are unique among other forms of media.

Live television can get heated, but you are representing yourself and quite possibly large corporations who have large stakes in the time slot you're in (see Don Imus).

Newspapers also have people representing themselves and the paper. They also have editors that vet everything that's written to deem whether it's appropriate or not.

Internet blogs largely don't have any of that. Some blogs have authors that represent themselves with their real name (or at least have their name accessible on the site). Some don't.

MOST posters have "pen names" and don't represent themselves. Their only accountability is a working email address which could have been created just for that account.

Most sites and little if any vetting process for what's put on the site. And often times, posters are reacting instantly to something, which can contribute greatly to foul and aggressive posts.

You won't ever find the kind of vitriol spewed on blogs on newspaper op-ed pages for two simple reasons:

1. The time it takes to write and then publish.

2. The editing process. Then newspaper has final say of what is and isn't published.

Anonymous, instant posting is the greatest cause of incivility on the Web (and I do notice that this blog does not allow you to post two posts within a certain time-frame, which may help a little).

In posting anonymously, one can indulge their inner rage without any repercussion to their identity. They can swear, insult and threaten without consequence. That's the biggest problem blogs face when it comes to incivility.

Posted by Tom Shipley [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 8:00 AM

The problem with your free hand argument is that... well, here's the definition.

"An economic principle, first postulated by Adam Smith, holding that the greatest benefit to a society is brought about by individuals acting freely in a competitive marketplace in the pursuit of their own self-interest."

When pursuing one's self interest, how people see them and think of them is an integral factor. Most bloggers don't have that. They aren't acting as "themself." Many times it seems like they are alter egos in which they can express thoughts they never would if people knew who they are.

That's why I don't think the "free hand" analogy works on the web.

Posted by rbj [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 8:14 AM

Gee Tom, I have an "anonymous pen name" yet I manage to be civil. It is simply a matter of having manners. And having parent who stressed manners whislt growing up. There is no problem with vitriol, each blogger can decide for himself what to do with that: either not allow comments, have registration, or delete abusive comments/ban abusers or just have a flame war pit. Web surfers will go to whichever one they like. I won't visit DailyKos because there is so much heat and very little light.

Posted by Lew [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 8:40 AM

Like I said before Ed, this is your blog!

In the end it reflects your values and your judgement of what to allow or not allow. It should rightly be a function of who you are. You don't need a code to hide behind when you decide to edit or delete a posting you find objectionable. You just do it and tell everybody concerned right up front that you've decided, based on your own standards, what's allowed and what isn't.

CQ is a relatively civil forum because you've made it that way by asserting your personal values. You don't need a code to hide behind. Be proud of it!

Posted by Lew [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 8:56 AM


The invisible hand isn't meant to apply in any meaningful sense to the individual poster, its going to apply to the blogger. Afterall, the poster is analogous to the customer. Its the blogger as the seller, who is subject to the market. If Ed provides a reasonably civil forum for enough people to express their opinions and feelings about compelling subjects of interest, then he will succeed by attracting advertisers in a free market. His success will necessarily entail a greater social benefit by virtue of the fact that he provides a valued forum that attracts viewers and posters, and advertisers see enough value in that clietele to pay him for access to it.

A blog is actually nothing more than an online newspaper with a staff of one and a really big "letters to the editor" page, and the very same economics apply. And the very same "invisible hand" as well.

Posted by Marty Heyman [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 9:53 AM

I agree with Lew, civility is the mark of the civilized. Hostility is the mark of the uncivilized.

However, your line of reasoning (the market will decide) fails to explain Howard Stern and Don Imus who are among the most popular and best paid "entertainers" around ...

Posted by Tom Shipley [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 10:14 AM

"Gee Tom, I have an "anonymous pen name" yet I manage to be civil."

I don't mean to say that anyone posting under a different name than their own is going to be uncivil. I know the majority are civil. I just feel that the greatest offenders of incivility are those who post anonymously and are in no way accountable for what they say.


Yeah, I may have missed the point on the analogy.

Unfortunately though, if you look at what's popular these days on TV (low-grade reality shows, combative cable news programs), I don't know if we can rely upon market forces to weed out incivility.

In comparison to other media which yes there are advertisers, but TV also has the FCC (do you think sponsors would have pulled out of the Super Bowl if the FCC hadn't done anything about the wardrobe malfunction?) and newspapers have very thorough editorial departments, that while not exactly uniform, do a good job in keeping things clean and civil.

Some blogs do have a vetting process (similar to an editor deciding what Letters to the Editor will be published), but in my experience, it's very inconsistently applied and only weed out the very worst offenders, if any. Some sort of "code" that people signed onto would help this process out, I think.

Also, blogs are a medium that enables incivility unlike any other we've seen. The ability for a) anyone to contribute b) anonymously c) instantly d) in most cases with out any vetting process makes it a festering swamp of incivility.

I don't know exactly how it would work, but I think some sort of code would be appropriate.

Posted by Tom Shipley [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 10:21 AM

But on the other hand, you don't want to reign-in the free expression that blogs allow too much.

I said above that anonymous posting leads to incivility, but anonymous posting also important as others have pointed out because it allows people who normally wouldn't speak up to do so. So there does have to be room for anonymous posting.

I think many people who blog learn to reign in some of their comments over time, and there is an element of self-correction to civility on the Web. The problem is, there are thousands of people joining the ranks everyday, so in essence there will always be people learning not to be so hateful on the Web, which means there will always be uncivil, hateful content on the Web.

Either you live with it, or you try and figure out a way to curb it. It's not an easy problem to solve.

Posted by Jack Okie [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 10:43 AM

Sorry; Tom and others, I just don't buy the idea that anonymous posting should be supported. If what one has to say is worth saying, then one should stand behind it. This society doesn't need yet another way to weasel out of responsibility.

And yes, I currently use a nom de blog, but that's just for fun. If anyone seriously needs to know who I am, just say so.

Posted by Bill Faith [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 10:56 AM

An excerpt from "Caution: This blog purchases civility offsets" -- Take 2

My blog is my online castle. In my castle I shall say anything I &^(%# well please, and I shall forbid allow or disallow the speech of others as I &^(%# well see fit. Don't like it? There's another castle right down the road; maybe you'd be happier there.

Does it really need to be any more complicated than that?

Posted by Tom Shipley [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 10:57 AM

Jack, I'm 90% behind you on your point. BUT, just as in journalism where sources speak with anonimity to protect their job or whatever, there needs to be room for anonymous posting on the Web.

Maybe the anonymous posters need to go through the "blogmaster," make themselves known to them, but post anonymously (basically the same process in which reporters quote unnamed sources).

Posted by rbj [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 12:55 PM

A few years ago there was a Supreme Court case whereby a locality had outlawed anonymous pamphlets. The S.Ct. held that anonymous pamphleteering is an important part of free speech. Anonymity can be important to some. If you want my name, just ask.

I'm not so sure we are living in more uncivil times -- George Washington took lots of grief, as did John Adams, which led him to push for the Alien & Seditions Act.

"The problem is, there are thousands of people joining the ranks everyday, so in essence there will always be people learning not to be so hateful on the Web, which means there will always be uncivil, hateful content on the Web."
And if you don't like that, just ignore those sites.

Posted by jiHymas@himivest.com [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 8:25 PM

rbj: And if you don't like that, just ignore those sites.

Which is the value of the suggested standards. If the Cap'n's blogroll came with symbols telling me which blogs subscribed to a code of civilized behaviour, I'd be more likely to click.

As it is, I don't look through the linked blogs much because I simply don't feel like doing all the work.

Posted by Lew [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 9:03 PM

Being something of a quasi-libertarian, I really hate to say this but letting the market or the "invisible hand" take care of this problem is not going to get you any more civility than you're already seeing. The genius of a free market is that it automatically optimizes the allocation of resources better than any other method known to human experience. It does NOT improve the moral climate or deliver any particular virtue that one might like, such as civility of discourse. The fact is that the market will be no more moral or civil than the people participating in it.

In fact, one of the surest ways to judge the moral quality of a society is by looking at how it allocates its resources when nobody's looking. Our's allocates a monstrous proportion of its wealth to entertaining itself, and if that doesn't scare the living hell out of us all, then we deserve what we get.

Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 12, 2007 9:14 PM

Tom Shipley,

There are many laws to handle incivility -- particularly existing laws concerning harassment and threat.

If you examine incivility on the 'Net in any great detail, those who are uncivil tend to be less understanding that the technology they are using does NOT confer anonymity, and that their unwise words can lead to imperial entanglements.

As I've pointed out to others, anyone who really wants to know who "unclesmrgol" is can dig it up. Ditto for any anonymous poster, even if they haven't left the clues I have.

I believe that every blogger is responsible for the content of their blog, even if that content is posted by others. Implicit in that responsibility is a right of censorship. To put it bluntly, the Captain owns this printing press, and we might be allowed to compose a few sticks of column, but we do so at his sufferance. He can remove our compositions any time he chooses, and, in some cases, is obligated to do so.

The Captain's recent articles on blog censorship, concerning (a) the woman posting about her run-in with an employment agency), and the (b) blogger who allowed harassing posts about Kathy Sierra on a group blog, point out the ultimate legal responsibility of a blogger, for better or worse, with regard to the content on his or her blog.

Just posting a little tag saying "uncivil things are allowed here" will never absolve a blogger of the legal obligation to enforce a certain maximum level of incivility which allows any visitor (a) to feel uncomfortable or disagreeable about what is posted, but (b) to not leave the site in personal fear of their lives or those of their loved ones.

Posted by Tom Shipley [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 13, 2007 7:36 AM

"There are many laws to handle incivility -- particularly existing laws concerning harassment and threat."

I don't know if I necessarily agree with this. You could say 'there are many laws that handle incivility -- including murder."

Most criminal acts are uncivil. I think it's understood by most that if they cross the line into criminal behavoir, they can be tracked down. But that that takes technical know-how and a lot of effort.

I think what this code is propossing to address is incivility that doesn't cross legal lines. As the WSJ op-ed states:

"Unlike the fogies in politics or tradition-hampered media, they (bloggers) describe their opponents as what they believe they are: morons, idiots, fools, sellouts, traitors, liars (perhaps the most used word on the politicized Web), crooks and various other expressions that the touchingly termed "family" newspapers still won't print. "

My point is, if you don't post under your own name, and you're not harrassing or threatening anyone, most if not all people are not going to bother to try and figure out who you are. There is a veil of anonimity.

I use my own name. I've known and met a lot of people in my years on earth. It's perfectly possible that one of them may stumble upon something I've posted on the Web. And while there are more than one Tom Shipleys out there (Most famously the one from Brewer and Shipley), it's reasonable that people may know it's me (based on what I write).

Point is -- and I did this intentionally -- because I use my own name, I write as MYSELF, respresent myself as I'd like to be represented. It holds yourself accountable to yourself in a way that writing under a pen name just can't.

And I'm sure most people who post under different names are civil, not saying they aren't, but there's always a little less accountability and when it comes to serial rude posters, it's almost always from people using false names.

I've run into a poster who calls himself "Ihatelibs" or something of that nature. All he does is rant and insult libs. I can't imagine that if he was at a dinner party and found the person next to him was liberal that he would start vulgarly insulting him, you know?

You can tell people create different identities for themselves on blogs so they can indulge that side of them. I think that's a main source of incivility on the Web.

Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 13, 2007 12:07 PM

Tom Shipley,

Interesting. I've actually been at a dinner party with liberals, and found the situation to be reversed. I can imagine that a liberal, at a dinner party with a bunch of conservatives might feel uneasy as well.

In my case, one person took it over the edge, and all the others dragged her back. She had started a conversation on abortion, and I responded with my own views. When she attempted to change my mind using her own internal arguments, I, in the spirit of the dinner party said, "Look, let's just agree to disagree and move on to things we can agree upon." Didn't work.

This was at an election night TV party for a Democrat who was running for a spot on the local school board (a supposedly nonpartisan office). My niece, also a Democrat, was his campaign manager, and she had called on me to help him, pro bono, with his website when his previous web guy flaked out on him. I had his website looking professional and up and running within a day and a half (I had to discard everything the other person had done except for two paragraphs of platform provided by the candidate [Al Muratsuchi] himself), and kept it current throughout the entire campaign.

For the rest of the evening, as we milled around in those little groups that happen while watching the results, the woman would join whatever group I was in and inform the rest of the people that I was a wingnut who wanted women to go back to the old days (whatever that meant). My niece took to shadowing the person just to deflect her vitriol.

I found my liberal teammates (of which there were 30 or 40) to be universally nice people, except for this one shrill person, whom my niece, as a professional politician, was able to marginalize without seeming to.

As unclesmrgol, I leave a far more vivid trail than you do as "Tom Shipley". If you want to google my writings, entering unclesmrgol doesn't even require you to filter the results. With "Tom Shipley" (owner of 1,190,000 google postings), the searcher does have to do quite a bit of filtering to locate your personal results. Also, with "Tom Shipley", the searcher might believe they have to search "Thomas Shipley" or even "Tom" and "Shipley" without quotes to catch your middle name should you have used it.

I highly recommend that you shift to a pseudonym if you want others to be able to track your postings: tomshipley (your typepad ID, and home of 40 google references) would be a very good start (and, interestingly would allow integration of your postings here with other stuff, including your Digg references).

That said, I understand the type of anonymity you are railing against -- the "sock puppet" type, where a person chooses a pseudonym which supposedly not traceable back to the owner, solely for purposes of either having a negative alter-ego or for having a supposedly independent voice to affirm statements they make in their real identity.

Few of us "anonymous" people here, posting under pseudonyms, have a sock puppet; the few that try that stuff get called on it and stop.

And I have actually seen the Captain pull a post, and, even more occasionally, ban the poster. When he does this, he replaces the post with a broadly stated reason for its removal. It is rarely done, and, to my knowledge, has never been done because the person intellectually disagreed with the Captain's politics, but always when the person crossed that line of civility we seem to treasure here. If the Captain ever calls someone a troll, they really are.

In the case of Kathy Sierra, someone apparently hijacked another person's pseudonym and posted. Since the pseudonym was protected by typekey, such a situation could have happened with a person's real name as well.