Tuesday, April 10, 2007

O'Reilly Pushes for Weblog Ethics Standards: Are External Standards the Key?

Tim O'Reilly's recent call for a blogger code of ethics has been picked up in a number of mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, which notes O'Reilly's collaboration with Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales to define minimum standards for editorial restraints in social media. The standards are a cross-breeding of typical journalism standards for such as respecting copyright, confidentiality and privacy as well as trying to apply minimal standards of editorial quality to comments left on weblogs and other social media outlets. Judging by some of the recent edits in the Wikia site on which the standards are being developed not everyone seems to be agreeing with their general thrust: some re-edits of the section on anonymous comments, for example, rejiggered the section that originally discouraged anonymous comments to read "We encourage anonymous comments. We allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than being anonymous, but discourage it as vain. We prefer that whistleblowers be shot on sight. "

The guild-like suggestions being put forth are probably a constructive step in the right direction to allow social media participants to provide some reasonable level of self-policing and monitoring of contributions, but in fact these kinds of standards have been in place for quite some time at many major social media outlets. Newsvine, for example, has a "code of honor" that its members try to adhere to as they build articles and discussions around bookmarked news articles and original contributions. Standards for ethical behavior accepted by its contributors are essential to the success of any social media property.

But one wonders how effectively these standards can be enforced from outside of individual communities. Will there be a ratings agency or "seal of approval" implemented that will provide both a carrot and a stick to encourage compliance with such standards? And even if such an enforcement capability were to exist, is there really a need for external judgment for social media properties? The ability for users to filter comments from unwanted contributors and to rate content may prove to be sufficient for individual communities to set their own standards for acceptable behavior and contribution quality without resorting to external arbitrary standards.

A fundamental tension seems to be arising between "serious" social media and citizen journalists who say pretty much what they want to say. As more webloggers try to generate sustainable revenues and to attract financing there's a natural tendency to want to demonstrate that advertisers and investors can expect to find certain levels of civility that will make them feel comfortable about backing social media. But that's not necessarily going to give them the audiences that they're seeking. EarlyStageVC points out that some weblogs such as GigaOM and TechCrunch that have pushed hard to become "respectable" outlets for journalism have seen rapidly declining audiences in recent months.

In trying to productize weblogs there appears to be a threshold past which audiences sense that the content is being over-orchestrated. Let's bring higher standards to social media, but if markets are indeed conversations then one has to accept that an honest dialogue is sometimes going to push up against some iffy thresholds of expression from some of the players in those markets. The primary power for editorial control should be in the communities who consume the content to express their perceptions of quality. Give people the right technology to express their perceptions and most webloggers are going to get the hint fairly quickly. There may be things to be said for peer pressure after all...
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