Online Ethics

Sunday, 23 September 2012

There are some days when I’m unable to calmly ignore some of the unethical things I see online. And I’m not talking about trolling, because I think we can all agree that crosses the line. I’m talking about subtler issues, which I still find problematic:

Ignorance is cool, as long as it’s ‘beautiful’

If you follow me on twitter, you may have heard me talking about this quote, erroneously attributed to Shakespeare. It’s been pinned and blogged many, many times. It’s a nice quote, but it’s not by Shakespeare. The strange thing is, when people have politely pointed this out to some bloggers and pinners, they’ve had to deal with this response: fawning commenters leaping to pinners’ and bloggers’ defence, simplistically assuming that valid questions about accuracy is ‘trolling’ and proceeding to shut down any discussion about the true source of the quote. For example, I read a comment by someone who said that it doesn’t really matter who the quote is by, because it’s ‘beautiful’. Actually, it does matter. If someone quoted bits of my book for example, and attributed it to another author, you can bet that my publisher’s legal team would have something to say about it. This ‘ignorance is bliss’ mentality is completely irresponsible.

This is not to suggest that we should all be experts when we blog a quote or raise a subject online, but it does mean being mature enough to accept when you’ve made a mistake, and correct it. It happened to me – an artist corrected me on a pin of mine on Pinterest, and I apologised and corrected it. And I learned something. I’d rather know and be called out about it, than wallow in ignorance. I’ve been rolling my eyes repeatedly at the attitude that ignorance is totally okay, if it comes packaged in pretty fonts and ‘inspirational’ quotes (and ‘inspiration’ is becoming just another cutesy keyword being thrown around with little substance). I find it ‘inspiring’ to learn the story behind a quote, and who actually wrote it. I find it ‘inspiring’ to learn, full stop. What happened to our sense of curiosity?

Want some traffic? Publish a pointless, inflammatory article

While there are many well-written articles, I often feel online journalism and opinion pieces rely too heavily on deliberately inflammatory topics to generate traffic. Here’s an example. As one commenter pointed out about this article: “This piece is lazy, and deliberately inflammatory in order to both get clicks and to mask its failings.” When I read this article, I tweeted that a well-written, well-researched and intelligent article probably got rejected so this one could get published. Publishing deliberately divisive articles in order to manufacture ‘controversy’ for traffic is insulting to everyone.

The problem is not the problem, the problem is pointing out the problem

I’ve been watching some pretty unethical stuff occurring on blogs – self-plagiarism, non-disclosure of sponsored posts/previously published material, and casual racism masked as a ‘style’, to name a few. You scroll down, read a million fawning comments, and then find a handful of comments where people question the blogger. They are not rude, they are not trolls. In many cases, they are comments by readers who have been following a certain blog loyally for years. But their comments are not well-received by other loyal commenters. So the message is: we should all shut up and not care, because the problem isn’t the problem, the problem is pointing it out, right? Let’s all stick our heads in the sand together.

Non-disclosure of sponsored/paid posts

I have nothing against paid blogs that have advertising and sponsored posts. If bloggers can make a living or some money on the side from their blogs, more power to them. Many of my friends (ethically) run such blogs. I also deeply resent the criticism specifically levelled against female bloggers who have paid blogs, which is clearly based on sexism and a problem with female success in business. But just as there are ways to run a business ethically, there are ways to run a paid blog ethically. Bloggers don’t exist in a self-contained vacuum, separate from the ethical and legal responsibilities that apply to bigger businesses.

How brave of you

A close friend of mine completely disagrees with me about this particular blogging pet peeve of mine: the overuse and misuse of the word ‘brave’. Maybe she’s right, but it often drives me nuts: ‘This new shade of lipstick I’m wearing is so brave, would you dare wear it?’, etc., etc. I keep thinking about people who really are brave: people who have been raped and abused and still have the courage to have faith in humanity, people who have been at the brink of death and survived cancer, people who dare to speak up for others at a risk to their own safety and lives, people who speak up about topics in countries that could put them in jail for exercising free speech. Let’s get some perspective here. It may seem like a small point to get annoyed about, but I think language is a powerful thing, and a little bit of self-reflection about how we use it is healthy. This applies to me as well.


ronnie said...

yes indeedy --- and sadly most of what you are discussing applies also to mainstream media and worse - to society as a whole --- I suspect we are entering a new dark age - the age of dumb and dumber -- where looks trump talent, personality and networking trumps hard work and merit, where sensationalism trumps accuracy, and where money trumps everything

(hmmmm maybe this has always been the case...)

certainly things like honesty, integrity, honour, sincerity, or indeed 'ethics' seem in short supply everywhere...

having an opinion (when it's not goosestepping in unison with the dumbed and numbed crowd) is not appreciated (even less so if voiced by a gal)

sometimes it all feels so hopeless... and then I read a decent post (like this one of yours) and SOME faith in the future is returned....

Odessa said...

Ah, I'm with you. Misquoting and incorrectly attributing someone is also one of my pet peeves online. It's up there along with lack of spell or grammar check and overuse of the word "best ever."

Danya said...

I concur completely. On every point.

A friend said to me a universal standard should be applied to blogging - there should be set code of ethics and rules. It would, presumably, address the issues you've brought up. I pointed out that a standard like that exists for journalism and look what's going on there.

Libby said...

I concur with all of your ideas here. As I scroll through my facebook, I am by turns appalled and amused by what some of my friends & classmates 'like' on there. Poorly constructed arguments, wrongly attributed quotes, and oppressive 'jokes'. It's nasty, but no one says anything about it.
And although I'm not sure what casual racism you're referring to, I'm assuming it's the cultural appropriation of Native American cultures? All the headdresses and 'Navajo panties' and talks of pow wows. Native Appropriations is a good blog to read regarding racism/cultural appropriation, which I often link to in comments when I'm frustrated by casual racism and can't form coherent thoughts.
And I've also done that terrible, terrible thing of being 'brave'. Life is so hard for me, a white middle class teenager living in a fairly safe village in a country that provides free education and healthcare... I often use 'brave' as a word to keep myself trying new things, to speak up about injustices and to generally push myself, as I am naturally quite shy and afraid. Sometimes I throw out the argument that all a person's privileges don't stop them suffering from mental illnesses which can often be left undiagnosed. But none of that is true of my own 'bravery', and thus I don't think any of it is really 'brave'--it's just what most people have to do. I've recently been on a kick of reading a lot of Xinran's books--she's a Chinese journalist, and the stories she has recorded are truly brave. They throw my own attempts at bravery into perspective.
I'm not sure how much sense any of that made.
But I'll be 'brave' and publish this comment anyway.

Amelia said...

Personally I hate it when people describe their make-up. I just think I don't need some hyperbolic explanation of what someone is wearing. I can see it, I can draw my own conclusion over the boldness of color etc without swimming through metaphors.

Sometimes the internet becomes a cesspool of wrong. It really does bring the worse in human nature.

One tumblr I really like is incorrectsylviaplathquotes. It basically highlights one of the downsides of the internet. What I never understood is how people purposefully refuse to accept the truth.

My personal pet peeve is bad spelling. 'Net talk' especially bugs me when it transpires from forums to blog format.

hannah debbie said...

I don't really quite know how to say this without sounding like a huge jerk, but sometimes I find some bloggers so...brainless and superficial (not any that I follow, of course, because I wouldn't follow any blogs that basically make me tear my hair out). I suppose that goes for most people on the internet...

Petra said...

well said. I completely agree. that's actually all I have to say this time.

Natalie said...

Wonderful Hila, w o n d e r f u l post! A deep rooted ignorance and mental laziness are all around us. Superficiality is "nice", fancy, successful and inspirational. The word "incorrect" is completely loosing its meaning.

Thank you for these points of view, to keep always in mind!

Fiona said...

Thanks for such a 'brave' post!

More seriously, this rings very true and there is an awful lot about the 'blogging world' which is incredibly frustrating, and often downright unethical. I suppose that it's an integral problem to the industry (and it really has become a little industry of its own). The fact that in order to gain readership, many bloggers will arse-kiss every other blogger, regardless of the quality or ethics of their content, makes it a difficult problem to address without being shouted down in the first sentence.

If Jane said...

Food for thought!
Years ago MTV ran a campaign about problems that touch everyone...for example, pollution. The slogan they used was: "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem". It was a quote taken from Sydney J. Harris.These words have left a profound mark on me and I am reminded of these words everytime someone sees something that is considered wrong and remains silent.
Thank you Hila. ;)

If Jane said...

Sydney J. Harris: "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem".

rooth said...

Hila, you need to listen to Louis CK's sketch "Hilarious" and how he talked about how insanely angry he got about people just throwing around words like they're meaningless these days.

Mariella said...

Agree with pretty muc everything but the truth is that the internet is made of people and it presents the same dynamics of the real world. Personally, I would add a point to the list. I think we could easily draw a character/persona called The "Blogosphere"who eats, breaths, loves, photographs, writes exactly the same things. How can that be? In this sense it would be nice to have some diversity at least in some corners of the Internets where a scary process of homologation is evidently taking place. I am under its influence too, mind you.

Jen said...

YES. This.

Nit said...

A few days ago, a literary blog that I follow, pointed out a few twitters from Bret Easton Ellis about DFW, they were quite nasty and not even restricted to his literature. I've been finding more often than not that inflamatory comments, articles and posts are the easy way of creating a kind of 'cool personae' and that (so it seems) brings fame.
It's silly and innecesarily harmful, yes, but so common, right? I like that it still makes some people angry, I like that it makes you angry enough to point it out.
Also, so true, language is very important.

Hila said...

Ronnie: Maybe it has always been the case - I guess it seems more obvious now, because technology means we have more access to it all. Sometimes I sit back and wonder why I care, or if anyone cares along with me. So it's nice to read the comments here, and see that people do.

Odessa: It's a pet peeve of mine too, but I don't judge people for making a mistake - I've made some too, attributed things to the wrong source, etc. But I corrected it, apologised, and didn't assume ignorance was fine. I didn't delete evidence and pretend otherwise. I'm just getting tired of the dodgy behaviour I see online sometimes, I don't get it.

Danya: well, yes, I suppose. But when journalists breach the code of ethics, there are usually consequences. Didn't a NY Times journalist get fired for self-plagiarism recently? But yet, as I pointed out, I see a popular blogger like a cup of jo, regularly self-plagiarise without disclosure. And those who pointed this out getting called 'mean' for simply pointing out unethical behaviour. I frequently roll my eyes at some of the things I see happening on blogs, which journalists couldn't realistically get away with. Maybe we do need a code of ethics, but maybe what we also need is to learn the difference between valid criticism and trolling, and be more open to debate on blogs.

Hila said...

Libby: oh no! I feel bad now. I really didn't mean to sound like I'm prescribing to people how to use words. I've used the 'brave' word too often as well. I'll probably do it again. This post is as much about me as anyone else. Sometimes, I think we all need a good kick in the butt to remind us about perspective. But that doesn't mean I expect (or even want) perfection. I say dumb things too. Life is hard for everyone, in their own way, and you shouldn't feel like your problems are any less valid. I guess I was just advocating here for a more self-reflexive consciousness about how we use language every once in a while.

And yes, the casual racism I was referring to is about all the native American appropriation I'm seeing online. It's deeply offensive to many people, and I don't get why it's okay to appropriate a culture as a 'style'.

Amelia: I have many things that personally don't interest me on some blogs, but that's based on my personal taste rather than larger ethical concerns. It's when thing cross over into unethical territory that I have a problem with them.

Hila said...

hannah: well, I guess that goes for some people in life, in general. I'd like to be able to say I can calmly rise above it all, but I can't.

Petra: thanks :)

Natalie: thank you!

Fiona: yes, there is a lot of arse-kissing. I understand the motivation behind it, and I understand why bloggers want to gain a readership. But some days my tolerance for bullshit is low, and I can't deal with it all.

If Jane: I'm not sure I'm part of the solution though ;)

rooth: I haven't seen that, I'll try to find it.

Hila said...

Mariella: I'm under its influence too. When I write these critical posts, I do so knowing I'm a part of it too, and not 'above' it.

I've been saying, over and over, that we need more diversity on blogs. And 'indie' is also becoming disturbingly streamlined into a singular aesthetic. It's all becoming a bit bland, and I wonder if we're really creating to our full potential, or just emulating and copying what is easily popular amongst our crowd.

Jen: thank you!

Nit: I lost my last shred of respect for Bret Easton Ellis when he went on a homophobic tirade on twitter. I agree, there does seem to be an element of cynical play-acting here in order to create controversy for controversy's sake, and get attention - like a toddler having a temper tantrum. I don't like those games, but they are games that are used to gain traffic on sites. It sucks, and I hate it, and it presumes that we the readers are idiots who can be easily manipulated. I've also noticed that superficial sarcasm is becoming the 'cool' thing to do in writing, in place of actual considered thought and analysis/research.

Jane Flanagan said...

"The problem is pointing out the problem" really rings true for me. I often feel "guilty" about being a bit of a sh*t-disturber when everybody else is so cloyingly positive.

Similarly, I think that the "ignorance is cool" response betrays a really dangerous anti-intellectual reaction. One magazine recently published an article saying that Ontario and British Columbia are on opposite coasts of Canada. Ontario is nowhere near the coast. I pointed it out to the seller and she seemed irritated I had done so... like I was attempting to ruin something beautiful for her. She preferred not to think about it.

Sera said...

I'm going to stick up my virtual hand here and say thank you for writing this post! I often feel that way when I read something, and then the comments under it... but I also have to ask - self-plagiarism? do you mean when a blog author publishes content more than once without stating that they've posted it before? or something else? it's not a term I've heard of before, and wiki wasn't a huge help...



Hila said...

Jane: I feel guilty too (I felt guilty for publishing this post). But it's ridiculous to feel like that - it's irrational - because there's nothing wrong with pointing out ethical problems. If that labels us as 'shit stirrers', well I'll wear that tag.

The response you got from that seller sounds like the same response Jo from A Cup of Jo: shut up you pesky people speaking the truth, I'll just delete this pin as if this never happened. Seems to be her general tactic these days: ignore and pretend valid criticism doesn't exist. It makes me feel even more jaded, as you said, about the anti-intellectualism we're building up as a community on blogs. Cutesy and ditsy seems to win out.

Hila said...

Sera: Self-plagiarism is when a writer/blogger uses material they've previously published (either on their own blog, or elsewhere), without disclosing this to their readers. For example, there was no way I would have been legally (or morally) allowed to re-publish essays I previously published in my book, if I didn't first get written permission, and then, disclose to readers of my book at the beginning where this material was previously published. This is a basic code of ethics that writers, journalists, and others in the arts industry follow. Bloggers have to follow it too. It's not just an ethical matter, it's a legal requirement.

For example, I think a NY Times journalist was recently fired for not disclosing content. Also, another example is the one Jane and I mentioned in our previous post, 'The Craft of Writing and Our Community', where Joanna Goddard from A Cup of Jo posted material she previously published on Glamour magazine a few years ago, as well as copying and pasting a reader's comment as if it were her own words, and pretended this was a 'new' story that occurred 'just the other day'. Some of her readers were understandably angry with her, because she was lying to them. She's done this numerous times.

I think blogs are based on trust between readers and bloggers - and this is how paid blogs build up their sponsorship and make money. Readers therefore deserve honesty, transparency and not to be treated like idiots or manipulated for cash. If a blogger lies to their readers on a regular basis about their content, readers will inevitably question everything on the blog, and the blogger's integrity.

What really irritates me is the fawning, arse-kissing attitude of some of her readers, who seem to think she's above basic ethics that other paid sites and journalists have to follow. Or maybe they just don't understand how much of a big deal self-plagiarism is, which is even sadder to me.

Hope that answers your question!

Michal said...

You've brought up some excellent issues. I'm sure I have been guilty of it myself, but the re-blogging of words without checking as to whether the correct author is getting credit, is insulting and careless. It also shows a certain amount of ignorance when we use words like brave and courageous without respect to the actual meaning of the words, and without respect to the people who truly live up to that definition. I agree entirely with what you've said here.

Hila said...

Michal: I've done that too - re-blogging and not checking the accuracy of quotes. So this post applies to me too. I just wish we were all more open to fact-checking and correction if we get called out on a basic mistake of accuracy. It's not a personal attack when someone corrects you, it's a matter of correct attribution.

We've been having this debate for quite along time on blogs, with regard to photographers' works: i.e. there have been entire blogging movements led by well-known bloggers about how to check and correctly attribute photos. So why isn't the same level of importance applied to words and written content? If someone said about a photograph: 'it doesn't matter who it's by, it's beautiful', it wouldn't be deemed acceptable. The same courtesy should be applied to properly referencing quotes and written content.

With regard to the 'brave' thing: I'm aware this is more of a personal pet peeve. I questioned myself whether it was fair to raise this particular issue - as I said, my friend disagrees with me on this, but we're happy to disagree. I still wanted to talk about it.

Hila said...

Sera: I actually have to correct myself now! This statement I made in response to your question is incorrect: "as well as copying and pasting a reader's comment as if it were her own words". I've learnt the comment in question was indeed copied and pasted from a comment made by a reader on an old Glamour post, but it was not passed off as the blogger's own words; rather, it was passed off as something her friend said to her. Either way, there are questions of accuracy and honesty here. But I wanted to be clear.

Also, I've been thinking that singling out one blogger is perhaps unfair of me, and might lead to personal attacks - these are not things I advocate. I think this is a bigger issue that one blogger, obviously. I also did some reading up and found this article, which would perhaps give you a better 'example' of what is meant by self-plagiarism:

Chuck said...

Oh, I mean, really! Shakespeare is spinning in his grave. Another great post and congrats on the NYT - off to read it now. x

Hila said...

Chuck: I'd like to think Shakespeare is laughing in his grave ;)