This week USA Today had a cover story on the striking lack of civility and vitriolic commentaries that populate the Web. This is not a new story, but it gained well-deserved attention when Kathy Sierra shut down her blog (and speaking engagements) in the face of anonymous threats and vicious insults on her popular blog. The issue has also gained prominence due to angst about the prevalence of sexual predators on social networks like MySpace. I think the debate is good because it forces all of us on the Web to help define a collective code of conduct. What are the rules of the Web, if any? For what it’s worth, here is my take on this issue:

– I love the free-wheeling atmosphere of the Web, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. Just like in real world conversation, pointless insults or more dangerous threats and attacks should be prevented or removed. Most online users seem to agree that reasonable rules of conduct do not infringe on healthy debate and don’t constitute unnecessary censorship.

– Anonymous comments should be banned altogether. Most of the nonsense on the Net is left by anonymous users – it’s far too easy to write senseless online rants when you don’t share your identity and can’t be tracked. Also, not attributing comments  goes against at least two of the central tenets of internet etiquette, namely transparency and attribution.

– Websites and bloggers should be able to define whatever rules they want for their sites – as many have – without incurring shrill cries of censorship. That said, they should also make those rules very clear to users and make every effort to consider the views and preferences of their users (or community) when drafting those rules. If users don’t like the rules, they don’t have to visit the site. That’s called freedom of choice.

The USA Today suggests that the level of bile on the Web can partly be attributed to the increasing lack of civility in Western society, along with the fact that it’s just so damn easy to leave rude comments on the internet. These may be accurate assumptions, but either way I still have faith that the collective wisdom of the “crowd” on the internet will help define reasonable norms that most users will follow and promote. To me the issue is not just freedom of speech – which despite some limits seems alive and well on the internet – but that the parameters of freedom are largely being defined by the global online community.

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