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Online Rules Of Discourse: Could We?

About four months ago (I know, I’m a little behind catching up with some general topics), DavidL at BitsBlog shared an item [1] from Edward Wasserman at the Miami Herald.  Wasserman’s thought was that there is a need for rules to constrain course, offensive, and threatening language on the internet, or at least the news and blogosphere.

David’s response to Ed’s commentary was not unexpected, nor inappropriate.  I agree that those who wish to maintain open content and uncensored invectives is a right that should be available to those who wish to interact in that manner.  And David is correct, if you don’t like it, don’t read it.

That doesn’t change the fact that some of us see a need for rules that exist within a somewhat protected space.

While there are those that cannot engage in some form of discourse without a degree of content that others may find offensive, there are others who are easily intimidated, or who have standards and sensibilities that are more restrained, or who wish to ensure their children have a place to engage in such discourse without having to be exposed to course or venomous commentary.

My contention is that there is not a topic that I can think of that requires course or intimidating language to communicate your ideas.  As Wasserman stated, a set of rules that restricts this kind of language is not elitist, and frankly helps to promote civility.

But people do have the right to use such language.  Any rules that are created toward civil discourse on the Internet would have to be either constrained to sites that wish to maintain that level of civility, or would merely be a guide for people who wish to maintain a more civil discourse as a community and simply use the guide for self-regulation.

Although Wasserman was speaking more or less toward the issues of managing open commentary on publication web sites such as the Miami Herald, this discussion certainly extends beyond that domain.  The challenge that an organization such MH has when addressing this is that any censorship will (as Wasserman stated) impact site visits and comments… the more you limit free expression, the fewer people who will engage… for MH, that can mean real money (lost).  Money tends to come out ahead.

Those that operate more of a non-profit  model have more room to place controls since they are not concerned about income, but they should still be concerned about market penetration even if they aren’t making money from the visits directly.

We have our own set of rules [2] here at The Conservative Reader.  They might not be perfect, but part of our goal is to make this a place where families can come to learn, interact, and share ideas without having to be concerned about intimidation, reprisal, or content that is just not appropriate for children.

I think the ideal solution is to go ahead and create the rules, treat them as open-source content for discussion and use.  Create a certificate badge for sites that want to enforce the rules (and maybe a similar one for sites that want to be wide open) so people know what they are getting into when they visit.

Worth noting is the recent study that shows course and offensive language is actually declining.  I don’t have the link (I know I read about in the last week or so somewhere), but as soon as I find it, I’ll update this post.

Nice to think that somehow things are improving even if in little ways.