On Accountability

Every so often I see a scenario play out that I find rather disappointing.

It works like this: someone posts a topic to their blog that is critical or controversial. This person can either be a community member, commentator, employee or otherwise; it doesn’t matter who the person is. Then what happens is a series of comments are posted to that blog entry from readers that are critical of the post, thus challenging the author on their views. The author then either deletes the blog entry or disables the comments based on the feedback. In other words, a viewpoint is shared, an invitation for comment is provided, but that invitation is then revoked when the author of the blog post is dissatisfied with the response from their readers.

I have seen this happen countless times over the years and I don’t like this.

I believe we should all be accountable for our words. Our words have the ability to inspire, to entertain, to challenge, but to also hurt. Actions have consequences, and so do words.

As such, when I see someone openly share their thoughts on their blog and invite their readers to provide comments, I see that as a wonderful demonstration of accountability and engagement; debate is a beautiful thing when executed with politeness and respect. To then close that door, seemingly because people disagree with you, is in my mind the equivalent of walking out of a room in the middle of a debate. The excuse when folks are criticized of this behavior is typically “it is my blog and I can run it how I like“.

This is true: it is your blog, and you can run it how you like, but the true measure of a person is not just in what they say, but also in the conversation and discourse that follows.

Now, there are two very important caveats to my view here. Firstly, abusive, threatening, or otherwise offensive content is a perfect candidate for removal and the commentator for banning. We should never tolerate this. Secondly, I can understand the removal of a blog post if there is a legal requirement to do so. In the majority of cases where I have seen posts removed or comments disabled though, it has been for neither of these reasons.

Speaking personally, I have never, ever, switched off comments on my blog posts or deleted posts. Even when the Internet has seemingly come to get me, or when the press pick up on something and are critical, or when I have made a mistake and felt embarrassed at the outcome…I have never switched off comments and never deleted a blog post. This is because I feel I should be and I am accountable for my words.

For me, this is an ethical issue; in the same way I won’t go and re-write or edit a blog post if I get criticism for it (outside of minor grammatical/spelling fixes). My posts are a time-capsule of my thinking at that point in my life. For me to go and edit them would be me re-writing history. A blog is not a regularly updated record of your views (like a book), it is chronological diary of your views and progression as a person. Consequently, my blog is filled with moments from my past that don’t reflect my views, experience, or ideas of today. Some of those posts are even embarrassing. But you know what, those posts stay unchanged, and I am proud that I have never compromised on this accountability.

So with this in mind, I have a simple suggestion for those of you who run blogs: either switch your comments off entirely or always leave them on, but don’t turn them off when you don’t like the reaction from your readers. Polite and respectful debate helps us grow as human beings, helps us evolve our ideas and perspectives, and makes us better people. Let history be our record, not our edited version of history.

  • tahdzilla

    Nicely said. Or, written. In the long run of the universe a few negative comments won’t be more than a few grains of sand on the beach. Anyone who spends time writing blogs or anything with high visibility is wise to develop a thick skin.

  • http://www.refugeeks.com/ Kev Quirk

    I think Dietrich Schmitz from Linux Advocates can learn a thing or two from you here Jono. Couldn’t agree more.

  • http://omgubuntu.co.uk/ Joey-Elijah Sneddon

    “Suggestions” on comment handling are always of interest to me for two reason: 1) one of my sites is routinely vilified in the Ubuntu community because of our more-liberal-than-most hand to comment moderation, and 2) at 16 I was the victim of a sustained “cyberbullying” campaign that started in the comment section of the blog I kept at the time.

    Your suggestions are fair to a point, but a bit of a binary. It over simplifies the intricacies, emotions and feelings of the entire blogging process.

    Comment moderation does not present an ‘ethical issue’ in the slightest, to my mind. We’re talking transient outpourings of opinion on the internet. No-one has the “right” for their comment, be it supportive or combative, to be treated with distinction just because ‘they’ made it.

    That alone riles people up. When they can’t comment on something they become constipated with frustration and cries of entitlement ensue. It reminds me of a well known web comic with a caption that read: “Not coming to bed yet, someone is wrong on the internet.”

    Championing the commenter plays well to the commenter (so i’m expecting down votes!) but it denigrates the “rights” of the author. People sometimes post things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment, or write something that ends up wildly misinterpreted; or may have broken a confidence they didn’t mean to. Sometimes they may just be sick of persistent pedants taking them to task on minor, inconsequential things in an attempt to ‘score points’.

    In these cases being able to draw a line under things, either by turning off comments or retracting an article (as regretful as the latter is), can help move things forward for both parties, just as much as preserving the right for every Bob and Brenda to stop by to lob their two-penneth into the fray.

    Does a cooling off period betray ‘integrity’? Nah, it’s just the digital equivalent of walking out of the room during an argument with a loved one does.

    It’s not ideal, but sometimes it’s needed.

    On OMG! Ubuntu! I drop a ‘comment curtain’ – a button people have to go out of their way to click to expand the comment section – when things get overly heated. This helps in two ways – a) given that less than 1% of visitors comment, exposing them to heated debate isn’t an ideal first impression; and b) trolls, when starved of visibility, dissipate.

    Again, not ideal but sometimes it’s needed.

    If the latest entry on Bob and Brenda’s ‘World of Crochet Beer Mats’ blog results in a sudden influx of criticism on their choice of needle work method, they should be free to delete or moderate comments as they see fit without being looked down on. They may blog for fun or as an escape to an otherwise stressful life. As nice keen as they might be to argue a point with a commenter, they may simply prefer to remove the comment, content with how much they’ve grown.

    Does that really stop them becoming “better people”?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Joey,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I think there are a few distinctions here to highlight.

    When I say an “ethical” issue I mean that I would feel ethically uneasy if I was not accountable for my actions and words. I am not suggesting comments are an ethical right, hence why I said I think it is fine for people to disable comments on their blogs altogether, but I do have an ethical qualm with inviting comments and then shutting down the conversation because people disagree with the person.

    I am also not suggesting that comment moderation shouldn’t occur. A Code Of Conduct is fair and reasonable and removing or banning people is fair. Rudeness and disrespect is not a tolerable component here.

    I see accountability for our words as important even in cases of mistakes or heat of the moment comments because we all make those mistakes and comments sometimes. We are human and we err. When we err it doesn’t stop the words having meaning with others, and by becoming accountable for our words and apologizing if necessary I think it does make us better people – mistakes are not things to be embarrassed by, they are valuable opportunities for us to be better as people. Pretending that those words didn’t happen doesn’t help improve the future for anyone.

    Cooling off is fine, and recommended, but if we are not accountable for our actions, it is easy to justify any kind of behaviour. Cooling off and then rectifying the result of our actions is a good thing in my opinion.

  • http://hude.blogfa.com/ Ali Najafi

    This is a post of yours from which I learned the most.

  • Just this guy, you know?

    Yes, because if someone makes a mistake and publishes something stupid, they should have it visible for the rest of their life. Yup yup yup yup yup.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I think they should. But here is the thing: there is nothing wrong with making mistakes so long as we rectify them.

    If we are accountable for our words it provides an incentive to rectify mistakes to put the mistake in context with the resolution. If we simply delete mistakes we don’t have that pressure point to improve.

  • Martin Šrámek

    You are right. People should either stand behind what they write or just be quiet.

    However the Internet is flooded with people who are angry for some reason and they let it out by bullying, insulting and trolling other peoples blogs and social network sites. The anonymity which the Internet provides is a big encouragement for them because they think no one will know what they have written. Therefore it is wise for bloggers with bad experience to restrict comments only for people who comment under their real name. For instance to allow comments only for people logged in via google, facebook, etc.

    Otherwise they can forget about blogging again. Sadly, there is enough mean and wicked people out there to discourage them from writing anything.

  • fkol-k4

    Well, people will always be people, no one wants to hear he/she’s wrong, some though, are more relaxed about it than others. That being said, there are different ways that one can disagree with a blogpost, so comment moderation is a good thing. i believe abusive comments should be deleted without warning or answer. Though, if someone abuses his/her power to do that, since on the Internet we all are what we do and say, then he/she will be the long-term looser, by becoming irrelevant at some point. Guidelines as suggestions are ok, but things like writing and signing codes of conduct i think are a nonsense (and somewhat offensive i might add). Either you trust me to behave properly either you don’t, ‘signing’ a piece of text does not define or change my way of dealing with people or their thoughts. For example, this is why although i think of myself as a rather active member of the Ubuntu community (4000+ user-support posts on the greek Ubuntu forum, administration of the Ubuntu translators team, physical presense on every single Ubuntu-related gathering in Athens, etc) i do not (and will not) sign the Ubuntu code of conduct, even if that means that i’m missing out on things that would be useful to me, such as creating my own PPA. As blog post deletion is concerned, i’m completely with you on this. We all make mistakes, and we should not try to hide them, on the contrary, we should be proud to show that we can correct ourselves.

  • Anonymous

    “Firstly, abusive, threatening, or otherwise offensive content is a perfect candidate for removal and the commentator for banning.”

    I think you need more nuance here, or you are opening the door too widely. The word “offensive” is quite broad, and is in the eye of the beholder. Are you aware of the (successful) Reform Section 5 campaign? http://reformsection5.org.uk/ . As that site rightly says:

    “The law rightly protects us against unjust discrimination, incitement and violence. It should not be used to protect us from having our feelings hurt.”

    I think the same should be true of a comment policy. People have said some fairly offensive things on my blog, but I have not removed their comments. Others have said that what I have said is offensive to them, but I don’t consider that a reason to remove the post. No-one has a blanket right not to be offended.

  • Winfried Maus

    “Polite and respectful debate helps us grow as human beings,…”

    Indeed, it does. But you are talking about “debates” on the Internet, where everybody thinks he is anonymous and hence believes to get away with any amount of rudeness.

    My WordPress blog automatically closes comments after a couple of days. Firstly, I already receive enough spam as it is. Secondly, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to come back to old topics after a while, and once a topic gets older, most of the new “comments” that I receive only try to sell me stuff or are only there to post a link to some shopping site and thus should land in my Akismet folder anyway. Thirdly, I do not need to spend my entire life in public view. If someone really wants to reach me, there is this thing called eMail.

    “People should either stand behind what they write or just be quiet”, Martin Šrámek wrote in your comments section. I agree. But that does not mean that people also have to be interested in or care for any comments that others want to make to what has been said. It also does not mean that anybody has the obligation to discuss what he said with somebody who hides behind an Internet nick-name. And as Joey-Elijah Sneddon commented, “no-one has the ‘right’ for their comment”.

    Does Barack Obama discuss his politics on the Internet? Does he go to demonstrations and discuss his politics with the people who are demonstrating against him? No. Using your measures to judge his behavior, the so-called “leader of the free world” does not in the least seem to feel accountable for his words or deeds. That’s more disappointing than a closed comment on a blog post about stuff that in all probability is rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

    ” Let history be our record, not our edited version of history.”

    As any historian will confirm, there is no such thing as an unedited version of history. Any historical record in existence, even the driest fact sheet that you can find, is only an interpretation of events, and “official” history is always and only written by the winners.

    But I understand your idea. Blogs can be anything from a sketchpad over a diary to a discussion forum, and in retrospective it can be interesting reconstruct the development of (personal) ideas and standpoints.

    Nevertheless, history is made with deeds, not words.

  • http://benjaminkerensa.com/ Benjamin Kerensa

    Either its big coincidence or this has something to do with the fact that I closed commenting on a blog post yourself and someone else on your team were commenting on just hours ago.

    In any case the reason I closed the comments had nothing to do with your comments or your colleagues.

  • Dennis Shimer

    I think I understand what you are saying in the post and several responses to other comments but I’m on the fence with this one. Here is why.

    Lets say I write a post or comment that is not truly offensive or rude but is certainly ill timed, ill informed, poorly worded, or just uncaring. I get a few comments on it that help me realize that I was just flat wrong or everything I said was misunderstood. I can be sorry, apologize to people involved, and even do so publicly but that original post is still there and may be the only thing a person reads in reference to the subject. If I say something that hurts you in private, I can go to you in private be forgiven and off we go. If I hurt you in public I should do the same thing publicly and maybe not just in a comment conversation. However that original post goes on forever condemning me for a mistake. I think there should be a point where I can listen to those who respectfully change my mind and then take some action to “make it right”. If I have said something pointlessly hurtful I think I should be able to leave replacement post that says in effect “You were right, I never should have said some of the things I said, Sorry to those involved. If you know what happened forgive me, if not don’t worry about it” or something like that. At the same time if something is clearly misunderstood I should be able to set the record straight where the offense occurred. Maybe that means leaving some reference to the original offense but I fear the thought that something that should never have been said can never be taken back. Yes the same thing is somewhat true of spoken words that get in a “did you hear what _____ said” cycle, but unlike the internet we have limited memories and eventually things like that just go away.

    On another related topic, I got a serious smack-down in a comment once and decided to just answer with “guess you are passionate, have a great day and try not to let it bother you”. A couple hours later the comment/response was gone. Was I wronged? For a few seconds I thought (smugly) “Wait a minute I want people to see what a jerk you were”, then realized that even without an apology if someone is changed and regrets something enough to remove it that is a good thing. Not to mention I realized that my attitude was little better than whatever motivated the original rudeness.

    I can’t say I totally disagree with your post, but I think there need to be allowances for the permanence of information, and for the fact that hearts and minds do change.

  • Alistair Munro

    I think it was Daniel Dannett who did a TED talk that really got me thinking about this subject. One of his points was; if during an argument, you argue the other person into submission and they adopt your view on the basis that that they accrued greater understanding of the subject, who actually ‘won’ during the argument?

    Ah, it turns out to be Daniel Cohen. Well worth the time to view http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_h_cohen_for_argument_s_sake.html

  • Anonymous

    Entirely agree, Gerv. The challenge here is that “offensive” is a variable term; what is offensive to one person is not offensive to another, and I believe the owner of the blog has the right to make that judgement call and remove comments that fit their definition of offensive.

  • Anonymous

    As I mentioned quite clearly in my post, I have seen many examples of this over years, including but certainly not limited to some of your posts.

    I am not asking you to apologize for anything, and this has nothing to do with Mark Shuttleworth being the topic.; as I said, I have seen this approach to comments apply in multiple scenarios, applied to multiple topics, and across multiple blogs. You are welcome to keep comments closed if you see fit.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts.

    I think Codes Of Conduct are about as useful as any set of community rules or guidelines; they only work if people read and follow them. Signing a CoC is not going to guarantee good conduct, but interestingly it does net a generally positive effect.

    I entirely agree about moderating offensive and disrespectful comments, that should be at the discretion of the blog owner, but as you said, if that person does not apply a reasonable level of assessment (e.g. delete non-offensive but disagreeable comments) then their reputation will suffer.

  • Anonymous

    This is a really important point, which I agree with. Winning (not that there is a winner in a debate) should not be about endurance, but it should be about the cohesive articulation of their views.

    In my mind winning is about everyone adjusting their perspectives based on the discussion.

  • Anonymous

    I see things a little different, Dennis, but many thanks for sharing.

    Using your example of a post where you were uncaring and then realize you made a mistake, I think the best course of action is to post a new post with an apology and then add an UPDATE section at the top of your original post with a link to the new post that apologizes.

    This then doesn’t edit history (to my points in my article) but it applies the apology in context. I see this as an honourable way to take accountability for the original words (which is the point), but then to point people to the apology. If people choose to ignore the apology, they are being ignorant.

  • Anonymous

    It isn’t a question of some abstract definition of offense, but on the realities of communicating abstractly and anonymously.

    I agree we need to hold ourselves to a high standard of behaviour, but that is true in all parts of life. We all recognise bad behaviour in real life and have no problem condemning it or scolding the person involved.

    Too often online it is the abusers who get protection and their victims have to endure it without recourse, because instead of having the same reaction we would have in real life if someone was being abusive, but not actually inciting violence or hatred, we are supposed to see it as ‘free speech’.

  • http://benjaminkerensa.com/ Benjamin Kerensa

    I don’t know I just think on one hand your talking about keeping posts etc while last year when your team essentially badgered me into submission I on two occasions deleted blog posts and was thanked.

    So for me it seems like its OK for a post to be deleted if it furthers your goals or your teams in protecting Canonical while if its for the individuals goals then its unacceptable for anything shy of continuing to keep a post or commenting on.

    I know even sites like Muktware have felt like you and others at Canonical run at every post they make on Ubuntu and badger to the point last year the creator of that site said he didn’t want to talk about Ubuntu anymore because he felt he was being pressured to censor his posts.

    whats accomplished if you through your comments and engagement are censoring people’s opinion or changing the outcome of their posts and future posts.

    I definitely ask myself every time I post anything about Ubuntu or Canonical whether its worth dealing with the push back from your team.

  • Anonymous

    We don’t “badger you into submission”, but we do confront you and anyone else on their and your perspectives when we feel they are unreasonable.

    You post a lot of good content, but you also post a lot of very controversial content. This is the nature of accountability; people are going to call you on it when they disagree.

    Also, it is not just my team – just look at the most recent post from you (the Tea Party post) and the reaction from your readers. You have been pretty heavily rebutted in the comments and your comments generally down-voted. This in my mind points to a general pattern of disagreement with you on the topic presented in the post.

    Maybe look to yourself and how you approach these topics in your writing instead of blaming this on others as a coordinated attack against you.

  • http://benjaminkerensa.com/ Benjamin Kerensa

    “Also this has nothing to do with Canonical or Ubuntu; I have the same criticism for non-Ubuntu (or Open Source) related deletions or comment disablement.”

    I did not delete anything and as I pointed out in my comments there and here the reason for closing comments was to address the level of comments that came in with profanity.

    It had nothing to do with stifling you or anyone else’s confrontation of me. You should know that I’m not one to be discouraged by push back… I sadly have to spar with people from Canonical nearly every time I share an article on Google+ and have never closed comments there (because everyone has to use their name there).

    “Also, it is not just my team – just look at the most recent post from you (the Tea Party post) and the reaction from your readers.”

    I would not say that any of the people who left comments are regular readers of my blog except for the occasion that I say anything about Canonical. The reaction was less than 1% of the amount of people who read the post. Frankly, I wore that shirt yesterday to a in person meeting with a current and formal Canonical employee and they did not confront me or say anything negative about it.

    My thoughts and response has been pretty similar to Lennart’s when you confronted him on the same issue and that is there is nothing wrong with tongue in cheek humor.

    The shirt was not an attack on Mark and I’m certain I will find some other funny things to quote on future shirts and have already been looking for a nice RMS quote.

  • http://www.jorgecastro.org/ Jorge Castro

    I felt the need to leave this here:

    https://twitter.com/AvoidComments

  • Anonymous

    The irony is breathtaking. :-)

  • Anonymous

    “I would not say that any of the people who left comments are regular readers of my blog except for the occasion that I say anything about Canonical. The reaction was less than 1% of the amount of people who read the post”.

    As one small piece of advice (feel free to ignore it) – don’t just determine the value of people’s opinions based on whether they are regular readers or not. Determine the value of their feedback from the content of their character, not their regularity of reading your blog. Otherwise you risk only trusting feedback from an echo chamber.

    My only point was that it wasn’t just me and my team who were critical of your post, it was a variety of other people (many of which are well established in the community), thus the assertion that we were seemingly targeting you was unfair and ignores the feedback evident in the comments.

  • Anonymous

    You don’t need to sign the CoC to create a PPA. Just sayin’.

  • ske

    I dislike this idea. The only difference between you and someone who owns/hires a PR firm is that >>you<< must owe up to your mistakes. You either accept criticism or don’t; however, you are probably always going to make a mistake as a single person. If you were a PR firm, then who is there to criticize? No one. And when the PR firm is criticized, sure, they get into a heated “discussion,” but people who love to get into debates and heated discussions are hired by the PR to represent them in those situations. So the company gets win-win while you get the “life experience” of being “noble.”

  • http://dtschmitz.com/blog Dietrich

    Censorship is absolutely necessary. The world is filled with trolling individuals who make a sport out of ‘hating’. I tow the line. If people can’t comport themselves professionally and maintain good manners, I won’t hesitate to delete their comments. If they become repeat offenders, I ban them.

    There needs to be accountability and so those who exhibit ‘bad behavior’ will not get any ink on my website.

    Jono, you have a standing invitation to be a ‘guest’ writer at LA any time you’d like to have a neutral venue for your ideas. I won’t edit your stories. And you may moderate your own posts — meaning I won’t censor, but you will have that option. I use DISQUS as do you, because it affords the best moderation tools.

    Dietrich Schmitz Linux Advocates