There Is No Cat

Hollering into the void since 2002

Friday, June 6, 2003

Pub or party online?

There has been quite a ruckus going on at Burningbird and Intertwingly, where Shelley Powers is upset that Sam Ruby has highlighted certain of her words, as posted in the comments section of Sam's blog, and labelled them as "flamebait". Shelley claims this is censorship; Sam claims otherwise.

The situation highlights conflicting views of online community. Shelley's claim that she owns her words, and that nobody has the right to toy with them, has a long and well-established pedigree. More than a decade ago, the forums on the pioneering online community The Well had as a basic rule the very words that Shelley uses: you own your words. This was seen as a double-edged sword. First, only you had the right to alter or delete your words. But second, you had to take responsibility for your words, which in an online community are a proxy for action. Such a policy occasionally led to fierce flamefests, long-lived grudges, etc. But the idea that people were responsible for their words also provided incentive to carefully weigh what one said before one said it.

Sam's reaction is an artefact of the sense of place-ness we ascribe to cyberspace, so well discussed in David Weinberger's book Small Pieces Loosely Joined. With the sense of place comes a sense of property. This site is mine, says the logic of this perspective, and you have no right to dirty my rug or spit on my floor.

So we wind up with two different approaches to community. Shelley's implies that the comments section of a weblog is akin to a pub, where any member of the public can come in and say whatever they want. Sam's would instead liken it to a private party in someone's home.

Typically, weblogs allow anyone to leave comments, although it depends on the tools you use to create them. Blogs created with Userland's Manila, for example, require registration before commenting. Blogs created with Movable Type are pretty much open to all comers. By and large, the convention of allowing anyone to comment seems more common. Given this, it seems to me more appropriate to liken a blog to a pub than to a private party. By leaving the comments mechanism open, the blogmaster invites any and all to join him/her in spirited discussion.

I don't know if Shelley or Sam have considered their argument in this light, but speaking for myself, it makes it easier for me to understand each side's positions. I lean toward agreeing with Shelley that what Sam did is not an unalloyed positive thing, but I find it hard to condemn him given what I conjecture to be his assumptions. However, if he wishes his site to be a private party rather than a night at the pub, he may wish to erect barriers to posting, such as registration, to make it clearer to all that the rules are different.

Posted at 8:49 PM

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Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

I really like the analogy of pub and private living room you offer -- I was trying to make sense of the debate as laid out at Burningbird and this summed it up perfectly.

Posted by Rana at 6:10 PM, June 12, 2003 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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