Tech Industry

Imus just the tip of a malevolent tongue

CNET's Charles Cooper says online bad manners are so widespread it's no longer news. But what to do about it is the new $64,000 question.

Don Imus talked himself out of a multimillion-dollar job by uttering his now famously intemperate remark about the Rutgers women's basketball team on the air.

On Wednesday MSNBC dropped the simulcast of his radio show, and one day later CBS canned Imus altogether. But the predictable media morality play attending this affair has overshadowed another lesson much closer to (tech) home.

Just in case anyone needed a reminder, the Imus controversy illustrates the worst-case example of what can happen when you give immediate voice to half-baked, unfiltered thoughts. Don't you think this now-abashed shock jock wishes he could have immediately reeled his words back in? Too late for that, but stuff like this happens all the time--especially in cyberspace.

In our e-mail-addicted age, online bad manners are so widespread it's hardly news anymore. I suppose you can make the argument that the phenomenon is yet more evidence that Western civilization is going to the dogs. But that's too easy and evades the issue. Many cyber blowups stem from misunderstandings. Since you can't read the facial expression or listen to the intonation of the person on the other end of an e-mail address, one thing leads to another. Next thing you know, it turns thermonuclear.

One fact of our cyber times is that the civil society slowly evolving in cyberspace too often is not at all civil.

Over the course of my career, I've been the recipient of the occasional heat-seeker from folks who wanted to give me a piece of their mind--not to mention a good kick in the butt. I wonder how many would have refrained from pressing the "send" button if they had had the opportunity to meet me in person? Maybe fewer than I would like to believe. But so it goes.

Some of this is the inevitable friction that attends everyday life. Sartre wrote eloquently about the limits put on individual freedom. The truth of our existence is that we live in a world inhabited by other people. Disagreements are always going to erupt. The question then becomes how to forge proper rules of engagement. These days, when we're reinventing those rules seemingly on the fly, cyberspace has become our national (even global) front porch.

A couple of computer scientists from the University of Pittsburgh are trying to solve the problem through technology. They invented a way to personalize Internet communications with icon software that lets people express their emotions with images they can change to create different facial expressions. Cool stuff, to be sure, but that only addresses the surface question of form, not substance. And when the substance turns ugly or threatening, we're back to square one.

One fact of our cyber times is that the civil society slowly evolving in cyberspace too often is not at all civil. In fact, it has become downright rowdy.

Late last month, Kathy Sierra, who blogs about computer design, received death threats posted to hers and other blogs that convinced her to cancel an appearance at a tech conference. That led to a call by publisher Tim O'Reilly for an online "code of conduct" to govern polite behavior. Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales reposted the guidelines and began soliciting feedback about how to "create a culture that encourages both personal expression and constructive conversation."

The . The threats against Sierra were so unnerving that the incident stirred people like O'Reilly to do something. Both O'Reilly and Wales have drawn libertarian criticism for being schoolmarms. The basic rebuttal: "We don't need no stinking codes of conduct, thank you very much."

Give O'Reilly and Wales credit for good intentions. But you can issue well-meaning manifestos until the cows come home and that still won't prevent jerks from acting like jerks. Unlike Imus, the real identities of those who made the threats remain hidden.

The more profound challenge isn't how the wider community should respond. It's whether it can respond. I can't say the outlook is promising. In the absence of any consensus of what constitutes civil behavior online, this debate is fated to remain unsettled for quite some time.