February 15, 2004

Felix apologizes! Felix apologizes!

It's buried deep inside a long, rambling introspection on the ethics of blogging, but it is a rare enough occasion indeed when Felix admits to being wrong about anything, so it is worth underlining:

So: apologies, Nick, and apologies, Elizabeth. My bad.
The question of ethics in blogging seems to me a lot simpler than what Felix makes it out to be. We have freedom of speech online, constrained only by legal bounds such as proscriptions against slander and incitements to violence that vary from country to country and are in reality hard to enforce. The short answer to the first three of Felix's questions, then, (1. Is there a limit to what blogs should and shouldn't publish? 2. Should bloggers attempt to verify information before publishing it? 3. Should blogs maintain a wall between content and revenues?) is "Do whatever the hell you want within these minimal constraints. If you plan on being anonymous, you can probably even dispense with the minimal constraints."

Additional, self-imposed constraints on the scope of your speech on your blog will be motivated first by what you yourself can stomach and then by your desire to build a reputation — a reputation for accuracy, humor, snarkiness, cleverness, right-wing perspective, etc., whatever it takes to build a reservoir of relevance for your readers that results in people coming back for more. Each return visit is a vote of confidence in your blog. (Yes, my checking out Little Green Footballs, an odious place, is a vote of confidence in their relevance.)

In the case of a group blog, these self-imposed constraints probably need to be spelled out, so that there are no surprises for the other participants. For individual blogs to which reputations are attached, the happy median is probably discovered by trial and error.

In my own case, I once snarkily blogged a few years ago about a guy who had gone to his roof in Chinatown NYC to see a huge lightning storm, and died from a lightning strike (I was around the corner and heard it). I named him, and opined that he should be submitted for the Darwin awards. My post became the first result returned if you Googled his name. I got some well deserved "Fuck you"s from friends of his in my comments, and took the post down with my tail between my legs. To this day, it remains my only post in draft mode.

The personal perspective that blogs incorporate sets them apart from other media channels. An essential characteristic is that everybody gets to choose their own ethical standards. Newspapers tend to have pretty rigid guidelines, and this turns them into the creatures they are. Blogs should not aspire to mimic these, as it would turn them into something they naturally are not. And this is why the answer to Felix's last question (4. What would adopting an ethical code mean for the blogosphere?) should be "Disaster".

Posted by Stefan at 05:55 PM GMT

You can't get an ought from an is, Stefan. Just because bloggers can print whatever they like, doesn't mean they should. Of course you or anybody else is perfectly free to be a completely unethical (or a-ethical) blogger. My piece was an attempt to ask what an ethical blogger would and would not do.

Posted by: Felix on February 15, 2004 06:39 PM

I think everyone's definition of ethical is different, depending on what audience you're playing to. For example, is Belle de Jour unethical if it turns out to be fake? Each blog has their own context, methinks, so musing about a universal standard of ethics is wishful thinking.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 15, 2004 09:03 PM

And for all your glee that I apologised for something, it would seem that you think I was right first time, and I shouldn't have apologised at all. Most peculiar.

Posted by: Felix on February 15, 2004 09:04 PM

Yes, true, up to a point. I didn't think you wanted to be a "friendly neighborhood blogger," even with the perks that it brought. And besides, wasn't your motto something along the lines of "never apologize"?

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 15, 2004 09:21 PM

Never been clear to me why the parameters for a disccussion are different for blogs than they are, say, for newspapers and magazines. if you buy the socialist worker, you pretty much know what you're getting, as would be the case with the speccie or weekly standard. or the sun, vs. the nyt. the products serve different purposes and different audiences and hold dear to their own moral codes. what's different here? (having said all that, now i can go read your post)

Posted by: Matthew on February 15, 2004 09:44 PM

well, yes, Matthew, that's kinda my point. You know what you're getting with the Sun or the Times or the Spectator, while you don't know what you're getting with most blogs. For instance, given what you know of Matt Drudge's moral code, would you expect him to (a) name Alex Polier; (b) link to sites which name her but not name her himself; or (c) not even link to sites which name her? I would expect (a), but the actual answer is (b). In that respect, his moral code is stricter than that of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Posted by: Felix on February 15, 2004 09:56 PM

As for your comment, Stefan, all I can say is that I am perfectly happy being labelled with all three of the adjectives in "friendly neighborhood blogger". In what way is any of those things a bad thing? And I can't recall ever having a motto.

Posted by: Felix on February 15, 2004 09:59 PM

wrt not knowing what you're getting, surely the onus is on me to find out. if, say, i subscribed to the nation because i was under the mistaken impression it was a hideout for barry goldwater-type federal-government busters, that's entirely my fault and i'll probably figure out my mistake pretty fast. same way, if i start believing everything that appears on instapundit, i'd likewise find myself looking like a dolt in short order. i think you're complicating a pretty straightforward issue. blogs, like anything else offering itself for public consumption, will rise or fall on whether anyone wants to read them; credibility or trustworthiness are likely factors.

the one difference i'd allow is the speed of dissemination. but even that falls down pretty fast. there's no way the power of the Internet rumor mill comes anywhere close to equalling, say, the power of the NYT to dictate the nation's news agenda on any given day,

Posted by: Matthew on February 15, 2004 10:16 PM

Fire! Fire! Run for your lives, fire!

Posted by: Jame on February 16, 2004 02:20 AM

A question: what is the difference in the standard of ethics between a newspaper's articles, and its' op-ed pieces?

Recently I've noticed papers using op-ed's to air "news" that would never hold up to "traditional" journalistic standards being aired in the op-ed pages (as near as I can tell, both the WSJ and Bill Safire did this last week) As both these items were never followed up by either the papers in question, or other media, one assumes that the revelations they were pushing is hearsay, for lack of a better word.

I've held blogs to the same standard- they are often necessary to break a story, but not sufficient. Or, to quote the Great Communicator: "trust, but verify".

Although I run my own blog at standards somewhere between the Weekly World News and Jame's fire alarms...

Posted by: mike d on February 17, 2004 04:02 AM

I dunno.

I read this and Felix's piece, and the immediate response I came up with is, is unless you have some way of policing this all, then the whole thing is pointless. And really, can anyone imagine getting the whole worldwideinternetweb to agree to play nice? What do we do? Have a voluntary code, that means we agree to switch ourselves off for varying degrees of time, if we commit a proscribed act?

Or do we appoint someone KING OR QUEEN OF THE BLOGOSPHERE (I can think of a few people who would apply for this position) and somehow create a huge magic mega-ray of death that deletes their blog if they transgress the publishly posted blog "ethics"? What about due process? Do we give them a trial? Who are the judges? Will we have an independent judiciary? Shall we go for juries or panels of judges? What about appeals? Is it under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court? Or the European Court of Human Rights? The Privy Council?

Phew. This is hard to figure out.

Ah whatever. One woman's ethics are another woman's abomination. Who gets to choose which ethics prevail?

Posted by: Eurotrash on February 17, 2004 09:01 PM

Hey that mega antimatter death ray stuff gave me a cool idea, Eurotrash. Just like links to sites are a vote of confidence, we should have anti-links as a vote of no confidence. Click on them and you emphatically do not go to the site in question.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 17, 2004 09:20 PM

But seriously, these anti-links could link but tell Google you do not want the link to be considered an endorsement or increase its googlejuice.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 17, 2004 10:03 PM

Well yes, ET, ethics is generally "pointless" on a purely practical level, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth thinking about. I would never dream of trying to force my own ethics onto anybody else's blog -- hell, I'll probably violate them on my own blog sooner rather than later. But it's still worth considering what's right and what's wrong, at least once, I think. Just thinking about it can change behaviour.

Posted by: Felix on February 18, 2004 01:24 AM

But whose behaviour do you want to change? And why? And what is your basis for that decision? If you're Osama Bin Laden, your moral compass will swing quite a different way from mine, which could, I feel, bring us into some conflict if you happen to be King of the Blogosphere.

And like I said, who gave *you* or me or anyone the right to make the decision that some people should change their behaviour? Judging from some of the comments I get on my blog, there's quite a few people who feel I lack ethics, morality and a proper sense of what is due to JRR Tolkein. Should I change to please them? Of course not, because I don't matter anyway, and they're all loonies. In my opinion. And I am supreme overlady of my blog, so I get to decide stuff.

Don't get me wrong. I think the whole Kerrysex Drudge thing was dreadful. But that's the internet for you. Far worse things are said about lots of people elsewhere on the worldwide internetweb. Because it's full of nutters. And you can't get fired from the web for being a loony, because no-one is really in charge. It's the nature of the beast. And the people most likely to be writing unethical rubbish are generally the people least likely to listen to any urgings to do the contrary. If they're passing themselves off as credible *journalists* then the only saction surely, is to point at them and laugh.

Posted by: Eurotrash on February 18, 2004 07:25 AM

I'm half-tempted to invoke Godwin's Law here and just stop, Osama bin Laden being the new version of Hitler in contemporary debate. But I won't.

Really, honestly, I don't think that I or anybody else has the right to say that any other blogger should change their behaviour. Or rather, we all have the right to say it, but none of us has the right to do anything about it.

And if someone is saying something stupid on their blog, then the blogosphere is good at pointing and laughing (or fisking). Just look at what's happened to John Lee over the past couple of days. Maybe that is the only sanction, but it's a good one.

I was simply trying to bring up a separate issue, which is much less practical: to what degree do generally-accepted levels of journalistic ethics obtain in the land of blogs? After all, there's no law which says there should be a divide between editorial and advertising in newspapers and magazines, and there's no real sanction against organs which violate that church-state wall. But the ethical principle still exists. If it makes you feel any better, think of what I wrote as pure philosophy, with minimal practical applications. But if somebody wants to do the right thing on their blog, and if they agree with me, then maybe I've been useful, no?

Posted by: Felix on February 18, 2004 01:05 PM

"I was simply trying to bring up a separate issue, which is much less practical: to what degree do generally-accepted levels of journalistic ethics obtain in the land of blogs?

And my point was they don't at all, however much you would like them to. Because they can't, in the entirely unmoderated world of blogs. In most cases, you are your own boss and you enforce your own standards.

It's hard enough to enforce jounalistic "ethics" outside of the courts of law. Just look at the PCC in the UK. It's a toothless joke. That's why celebrities have to resort to suing whenever The Mirror or The Sun shows pictures of their dead babies or whatever, and members of the royal family resort to injuctions and editors resort to firing people.

I hear what you say, and I even sort of agree. It would be nice if those who purport to write news blogs would ahdere to some sort of journalistic code - whatever that might be? But then, journalists frequently transgress whatever codes anyway, because their editors want to seel more papers. So is there really that much of a difference?

Posted by: Eurotrash on February 18, 2004 03:35 PM

Eurotrash-- clearly you have never read Miss Manners (I'm not saying you're rude, merely that people can discuss ethical behavior even in the absence of an enforcement mechanism).

Posted by: Charles on February 18, 2004 04:41 PM

OK Charles, you asked for it. I think blogs should be unethical.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 18, 2004 07:04 PM

Correct Charles. In both your assertions.

But I suppose I am reacting to recent jabber elsewhere *instructing* bloggers on how they should behave on vital questions like "use of comments" or "anonymity is irresponsibility". It sets my teeth on edge and makes me extra crabby. I shall now withdraw gracefully, get back in my box and write about the grilled cheese sandwich I had for lunch.

Posted by: Eurotrash on February 18, 2004 07:28 PM

I believe that's called the Epimenides Paradox, Stefan, and it's been around for millenia. It's not big, and it's not clever.

Posted by: Felix on February 18, 2004 07:28 PM

But it is hard to spell.

Meanwhile, the first-googled site I went to (google it yourself, I can't be bothered to link) says it isn't really a paradox anyway. Which I suppose supports Felix's point. But as I don't understand why I asked for it in the first place, nor why it counts as Epimenidian, I'm all at a loss.

Especially about unethical blogs. I'm not sure blogs can have ethics, what with blogs not having a will. Isn't it a bit like having an unethical grilled cheese sandwich? An unappetising website, yes --one where, as it were, the bread hasn't been toasted before the addition of cheese, or one where the topping is really velveta, or where Felix has posted a description of an obscene sex act-- but not unethical.

Posted by: Charles on February 18, 2004 10:53 PM

well i think blogging is pretty much the same sort of phenomena as the CB radio. the CBers got all het up about how to talk to each other (10-4 good buddy, there's a smokey on a 10-24 on I-93 giving you a potential 10-58) and you poor saps are doing the same thing. in 5 years time, probably much less, you'll be embarassed you spent this much time worrying about it.

Posted by: eurof on February 19, 2004 12:15 AM

sorry, that was "phenomenon"

Posted by: eurof on February 19, 2004 12:19 AM

It's not an Epimenides Paradox, not even an apparent one, as me saying blogs should be unethical is clearly unethical, and entirely demonstrative of the point I'm trying to make.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 19, 2004 12:22 AM

CBers were moblogging in the 70s. Awesome.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 19, 2004 01:01 AM

and the whole thing died.
badly. it was when 13 year olds got into it. just like blogging now.
CB is now dead, and is a thing to laugh at, like programming on the ZX81. or did you do that too stefanie?

Posted by: eurof on February 19, 2004 01:04 AM

It's all about brand, isn't it? If you have a taste for dubious, paranoid rumor, then Matt Drudge is for you. If you prefer to read things that are reliable, there are alternative venues. Ethics? The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are massive, national dailies. So are supermarket tabloids that assert that Elvis was spotted kissing an alien. People of varying stripes are inclined to believe what's written in any of these publications.

At the end of the day, an erroneous Drudge report is unlikely to derail a candidacy; the respected brands filter it out.

If Drudge gets it right, like he did with Lewinsky and Clinton, then the respected brands will pick it up. Drudge may be a cockroach, or he may be a hero - but there will always be guys like him, regardless of their chosen medium.

Naomi Klein: eat your heart out.

Posted by: Jame on February 19, 2004 03:00 AM

Naomi Klein? You mean the person who's apparently accusing Harold Bloom of "placing his hand between her legs after showing up at her apartment to discuss her poetry"?

And to spell it out, Stefan, I brought up Epimenides because saying "X should be unethical" is inherently paradoxical, the "should be" and the "unethical" sort of cancelling themselves out. If it's ethical then it's unethical, and if it's unethical then it's ethical. Most silly.

Posted by: Felix on February 19, 2004 07:28 AM

Wow, that's really clever of me, and I didn't even know it. Imagine how clever I'd be if I applied myself.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 19, 2004 01:13 PM

"I think criminals should be unethical."

I take Felix's point on the 'should be' being possibly redundant (though I don't see why it is paradoxical). But I don't see why I can't say it.

Posted by: Charles on February 19, 2004 02:36 PM

it makes sense to me as a sentence. if there's honour among thieves, then there are criminal ethics, then you can imagine some thieves saying in one of their "what does it all mean" thieves' roundtable conferences, "i think thieves should be [more] unethical"

felix is clearly talking rubbish.

Posted by: eurof on February 19, 2004 04:14 PM

but isn't "honor amongst thieves" meta-ethics?

i.e., it's ethical to do the unethical act of burglaring someone's house, but unethical to do the unethical act of squealing on a thief.

so then should blogger ethics only apply when they're talking about other bloggers?

Posted by: mike d on February 19, 2004 09:28 PM

Exactly! I think you're onto something here. This must be why Felix apologized! Nick and Elizabeth, being fellow bloggers, should not be treated like common celebrities. It would be like magicians trying to build treputations by exposing each others' tricks.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on February 19, 2004 10:05 PM

Or nudist magicians trying to build reputations by exposing each other.

Eurof's note that every twelve year old and their tagamochi has a blog now does raise a point, though. Presumably the only way to get read nowadays is to have standards (writing, stylistic, entertainment, moral) higher than that average-12-year-old blog. For memefirst, I'd say pretty much the only hope is the moral one.

Because I know I'd rather read about what sarah said to jane about paul at the last swim meet than yet another regurgitation of first-grade trade theory and how shocking (nay Shocking) it is that political candidates don't always suggest they're going to follow its precepts.

Posted by: Charles on February 20, 2004 02:34 PM

PS, Eurof, apparently our 'death of the blog' talk is premature. According to one of the adverts on Felix's site, blogging is a 'hot trend'. viz: "What is Blogging? Learn About It & 266 of the Hottest Trends. Stay Ahead of The Curve!"

Posted by: charles on February 20, 2004 07:46 PM