Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Blog Comments in the Wild West

We're in the early days of blogging, and it's a wild time. It's the old West except the wilderness land of the Internet expands forever. In rock and roll terms, blogging is still in the 1950s, exploding into the culture and reinventing media the way Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis changed the music business. Take the recent anti-war march. Bloggers had coverage of it with pictures almost instantly, but so did the Oregonian. It put lots of its pictures on the Internet, too. That's profound when you think about it. The Oregonian, a print newspaper, was forced to compete in the instantaneous world of the blogs or just seem irrelevant.

So what's the end result? Instead of three or four pictures in the print version the next day, we got to look at dozens of the Oregonian's pictures for free. Coupled with the blog sites who were on the case, we were given a much fuller version of events. It was like being able to watch the local TV station's raw footage, instead of just the clips of the small group of arrests among the thousands of marchers. What we saw on local network TV screens was such a distorted view of what happened.

Incidentally, I'm putting the actual march on my cable access show the next couple of weeks, so you'll see what it really looked like. The more information to choose from the better, which is why the blogging world is so exciting right now.

That's the good news. Now for the dark side. These comments can be very feisty and downright insulting - and that's one thing. But every now and then someone threatens physical violence against another participant in the blogging world, or perhaps against one of our leaders. I find myself wondering what kind of legal position that puts the blogger in. I mean a newspaper wouldn't print a threat or they could be sued. I know various blogger comment cases are already underway around the world, including one to decide if the blogger is liable if a comment includes or links to copyrighted material. Does the blogger become liable for physical threats in a comment?

No matter how diligent the blogger is, there is a window in which the threat will be there for all to see. Even if the blogger is on the case and sees it in 5 minutes, that's 5 minutes. And what if the blogger doesn't see it for hours or days? Is the blogger liable for providing a place where one person threatened another, the way a business owner would be if two employees got into it and nothing was done?

All this is yet to be worked out, and I think the key thing is to enjoy the revolutionary aspects of this while they are still with us. It won't be long before we lose some of the freedoms we are currently experiencing because we'll have to. It won't be the government or the legal system that screws this up. Sure, they'll be doing it too, on some other level. But I'm just talking about the chill that will follow when the first blog comment leads to the first real life incident and the first blog host gets sued. We can talk all we want about losing our liberties to the Patriot Act, etc...but it will be ordinary people who've been given a place to vent, and use it to threaten others, who ultimately impinge on our freedom in the blogging world. It will be the People who screw this up.

For now, welcome to the Wild West. Chuck Berry's playing in the local saloon and the fresh winds of freedom are blowing through the blog world. How long before we are saying, "You should have seen it in the good old days"?


At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Bill. And thank God for our own Senator Wyden for standing up for net neutrality or the good 'ol days would already be a thing of the past.

On the subject of a Blogger's responsibility, I think it's the reader who posts his/her own comment that takes on the role of publisher when he/she clicks the 'Publish Your Comment' link. You're not the publisher, so you can't be held accountable.

It wouldn't be too hard to trace an IP address and determine an identity, much the way the RIAA hunts down file traders.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

I see your point about the comment publisher taking responsibility, but I also could imagine sitting in court with a lawyer saying, "Listen, it was your blog. You controlled it and you decided whether or not there would be comments and whether a particular comment should be deleted. So how come you didn't delete it? Not later but when it first showed up? Doesn't that make this situation partly your fault?"
Not only is that where this is heading, but I predict professional comment screening companies that will act as the 7-second delay you hear on the radio.

At 4:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Online Anonymity Lets Users Gets Nasty, By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, March 20, 2007

(AP) -- When a California woman recently gave birth to a healthy baby just two days after learning she was pregnant, the sudden change to her life was challenging enough. What A. Doe definitely didn't need was a deluge of nasty Internet comments.

Postings on message boards made cracks about Doe's weight (about 400 pounds -- one reason she says didn't realize sooner she was pregnant). They also analyzed her housekeeping ability, based on a photo of her home. And they called her names. ''A pig is a pig,'' one person wrote. Another suggested that she ''go on the show 'The Biggest Loser.'''

''The thing that bothered me most was, people assumed because I am overweight, I'm going to be a bad mom,'' Doe says. ''And that is not one little bit true.''

It was yet another example of how the Internet -- and the anonymity it affords -- has given a public stage to people's basest thoughts, ones that in earlier eras likely never would have traveled past the watercooler, the kitchen table or the next barstool.

Such incidents -- and there are countless across cyberspace -- also raise the question: Is there anything to be done about it? Or is ...

Three rules: Read. Read. Read.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

I don't think you can threaten to do violence to someone. It would be illegal on the street.
Plus, it's wrong.

Insults are one thing. To threaten someone is another.

At 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It says HERE: Bloggers and Other Writers Should Unionize, by Stephen Crockett


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