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Human Kindness and the Internet

John Berry of Library Journal recently wrote, “I am troubled when I read all the whining about flaming and ‘inappropriate’ comments on the various discussion lists to which I subscribe.” He encouraged librarians to let it all hang out, and scolded lists where informal rules of conduct preside.

I was reminded of his words this week, as someone took aim at me not once but again and again, on a list where it all hangs out. I believe in allowing adults room to design their own territories, and I haven’t enjoyed those discussion lists where a list “parent” was so rigid about the rules that real discussion was impossible. But it once again became obvious to me how valuable a list without any guidelines or management is for people who are not hanging out, but acting out. With no repercussions for their actions, they can do what they cannot do anywhere else in life: say whatever they want, with no accountability or repercussion.

Problems with digital communications are not limited to discussion lists. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen colleagues I otherwise respect take wild, factually inaccurate shots through their blogs and then privately admit, oh yes, maybe they were wrong. I’ve seen librarians put their peers on the spot, in ways they never would face to face. I’ve seen colleagues use e-mail to lie about themselves and not get called on it.

It’s telling that the digital environments where this behavior is not the norm are managed by library leaders who are Internet long-timers with extensive online experience, and that the lists that typify the nastiness I’m describing are managed by those who are Internet naifs. A couple of days ago someone tried to “explain” to me that because My Place Of Work is online and visible, these attacks are expected. I have been on the Internet for nearly fifteen years, and I am here to witness, with the fullness of experience, that there is never any reason for this kind of behavior, in any format, in any place, and certainly not on a list for a dues-driven professional association. For this I paid real money?

I’ve signed off the list in question because life is short and I only have so much room in my life–not enough room for this nonsense. I am sure someone will tell me that this list is “useful,” but my response is that it no longer has enough “use” for my purposes. Once too often on this list, I’ve seen the kind of behavior that would shame me (or prompt me to take real action) if I experienced it in any face to face setting–work, home, church, neighborhood, a BART train. This list isn’t an example of intellectual freedom in action. It’s an example of what happens when people hide behind “principles” because they are unable or unwilling to do the hard work required to turn a frontier into a town center.

I thank my colleagues who gamely rose to my defense in so many different ways, and I acknowledge that their efforts were not only on my behalf, but on behalf of a much larger cause. And I pity those left behind, captives and captors alike.

I wonder if some of my writing colleagues would be willing to consider a code of ethics for communications in the digital environment–not an iron-clad set of rules, but principles to guide us in our actions in this new world. Or would that be “whining?”

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