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Blogging Ethics: A Round Table

12:11 am PHT

I attended a blogger round table organized by the Blog and Soul Movement last February 7 at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati. (Thanks, Juned, for the invitation!) The topic discussed was about blogging ethics, which has been a perennial hot topic since 2007 (and will likely still be in the years to come). The latest really big incident was the blogging storm surrounding the Valley Golf Club brawl that had some people accusing bloggers of being irresponsible.

Fifteen people attended the round table and it was the most diverse small group of bloggers I’ve ever seen in one place together. The attendees were Juned (representing Blog and Soul), Butch and Noemi, Marcelle, Arpee, Arbet, Nina, Jonel, Sire Ed, Marck, Jester, Azrael, and two other people whom I’ve never met before: JP and Leira. Kudos to the Blog and Soul Movement for setting this up! I’m looking forward to the next sessions.  :D

The hour-long discussion touched on four main topics: decorum at blog events (especially PR events), copyright issues, blogger-fueled controversies, and the idea of having a bloggers’ code of ethics. Juned recorded the whole thing and we can expect a podcast to be released. Update (March 25): The podcast is now available at the Blog and Soul website.

Blogging events

Many of the attendees are veterans of blog events—some have even helped organize blogger-related activities—so one topic in the round table was about proper decorum or etiquette in such events. Most of the discussion centered on the dos and don’ts of attending blog events. If I were to sum up the points mentioned in one short blurb, it would be: “Don’t be greedy.”

A brief point that was mentioned early on is that attendance to an event does not mean an endorsement of the event or the aims behind that event. This was mentioned, I believe, in reference to a political event for a certain Senator who wants to run for President. I think majority of the bloggers take the view that attending events is for the experience in itself and blogging about it about sharing that experience with the readers; bloggers should never ever feel obligated to blog about an event, much less to blog about it in a positive manner. PR firms are well advised to heed that.

One topic regarding blog events that I wished had been discussed is the wisdom of attending PR blog events in the first place. Despite disclosures and reiterated mentions of objectivity, there are still valid concerns that attending such PR events decreases the credibility of the blogger and is tantamount to “selling out”.

Copyright

The topic on copyright is probably the least controversial among the topics discussed. Everyone in the room agreed that stealing content is bad. What I added to the discussion is the fine difference between plain copyright infringement and outright plagiarism. In both cases, content is stolen but with plagiarism has the added insult of claiming that content as your own and without attributing the source. I also mentioned a bit about the concept of fair use.

Abe (not an attendee) recently gave his thoughts about copyright infringement and he brought up the very valid point that practically everyone has pirated content at one point in his/her life—whether installing unlicensed software or torrent-ing MP3s. movies, or TV series—so why be overly indignant when your own content is stolen? This is one point that should’ve been discussed in the round table had there been more time. I have my own thoughts regarding this point, which I won’t share now.

Blogger-fueled controversies

There’s a tendency for a community of bloggers (loose or not) to fuel the fires of an issue. Some high-profile examples include the Malou Fernandez incident and the Desperate Housewives “racial slur” (you can read my opinion on the later issue). The most recent example is the Valley Golf incident between the dela Pazes and the Pangandamans. (The NTC issue is also another one, though that’s a tropical depression compared to the typhoons of the other issues.)

Mark correctly pointed out that many bloggers tend to blog by riding on emotions instead of rationality. While bloggers can and do write about what they want ("it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want”), the fact that your blog has readers who can be influenced by what they read in your blog means that you should be responsible for what you write (e.g., if you make a mistake, acknowledge it and correct it). Aside from defamation laws, copyright laws, and other restrictions on the freedom of expression, you are absolutely free to express yourself—just be prepared for the consequences.

As for the Valley Golf incident, well, nobody expected it would become big. My take is that the fact that the issue became overblown (according to some) is simply an emergent behavior of our social systems. The blogosphere could be considered as a microcosm of society, albeit one that is highly interconnected, which results in things spreading at a quick rate. (This is further compounded by the microblogging services like Twitter and Plurk.) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, but if one wants to slow things down, the best thing to do is to admonish bloggers (as much as possible) to think first, then twice, before blogging anything controversial.

Code of Ethics

I was contacted by students from U.P. Diliman who wanted to do an e-mail interview regarding my thoughts about blogging ethics and the feasibility of having a “Blogger’s Code of Ethics”. (The round table is quite timely.) I mentioned to them that I am aware of two such “formal” codes. One is the Code of Ethics adapted from the one used by journalists (see a copy at the PCIJ blog) and the other is the draft Blogger’s Code of Conduct initiated by Tim O’Reilly following the Kathy Sierra incident back in 2007.

My personal opinion is that adopting a community-wide code of ethics is an exercise in futility—it’ll be far worse than trying to herd cats. Marcelle said it best that trying to draw the line (between what is ethical behavior or not) will alienate a lot of people. I also agree with what Noemi said that any code of ethics must be a personal thing; you can then declare your code and let your readers provide the check and balance as what Arbet added after.

An attendee (who shall remain unnamed) wanted to have an “organization” of sorts where blogger members adhere to some sort of behavioral code that would appeal to groups that want to target bloggers. That idea got immediately shot down with the primary reason that such an org would strengthen the impression that there’s a blogging “mafia” or an blogging “elite”. For the record, there’s no such mafia. But I have to admit that the feeling of elitism is quite keenly felt by many bloggers already (which led to a few controversies like the Carl Ocab affair).

At the end of the day, the main point to remember is to blog responsibly and to show by example without dictating.

Links!

Finally, here are links to coverage by the other attendees to the round table. I found Noemi’s thoughts pretty much spot on with what I myself think. (Noemi is possibly one local blogger that has an inordinate amount of detractors, and they will probably deride her take on the blog ethics discussion, but I think her take was very well-thought and is a worthwhile read.) I’ll link to other blog posts and pictures below as soon as I learn of them.

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