Andrew Sullivan, Tim O’Reilly and the Neverending Battle of Free Speech

Publisher and internet theorist Tim O’Reilly is widely respected within the technology industry for his books, which feature quaint ink sketches of wild animals on the cover, and which set the standard for high-quality, reliable book publishing on software, networking and open source programming.

Every techie in the world knows what the O’Reilly brand means. Remember the “Javascript” book that flashed during the video for Weird Al Yankovic’s White and Nerdy? That was an O’Reilly book. O’Reilly also published the first-ever serious compendium to the internet, the Whole Internet Catalog, back in 1993 when nobody was publishing books about the internet (many editions later, the series is still in print). This primitive internet book was a godsend for me back then, and it was for everybody else struggling with telnet, ftp, WAIS and this crazy new thing called the WWW.

The tech book market is much more crowded today, but O’Reilly’s reputation has never lost it’s luster. He may not be a household name yet, though, as was discovered when the usually deft columnist Andrew Sullivan snidely dismissed Tim O’Reilly (apparently having never heard of him) in a response to a recent blog post about free speech policy on the internet. Sully has now retracted his original comments, but not without taking a beating from several quarters.

But the big story is not Sullivan’s misfire but O’Reilly’s article, which got a big write-up in the New York Times today, and is getting people riled up.

I think Tim O’Reilly’s suggestions are fair and reasonable, and as a person who’s worked with many community websites I believe his points are important as well.

I have a lot of personal experience with “free speech” on the internet. From 2001 to 2004, before we morphed LitKicks into its current form, it was a very active message board site. Most of the participants were smart and a lot of good things happened on these boards, but as the boards got more and more popular they attracted trolls and attention-seekers of various kinds, and I finally decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and pulled the plug on the whole operation.

The low point, for me, was when an insane young fellow in England went totally bat-shit psycho on all of the people involved with LitKicks, culminating in numerous death threats, legal feints and interminable, absolutely interminable emails. Such are the pleasures of free speech. A couple of years and one restraining order later, that incident is now behind us. It’s for reasons like this, though, that I stand behind the concepts Tim O’Reilly is proposing.

O’Reilly isn’t suggesting that we change the way website operators run their sites — he just wants to improve the dialogue about the meaning of free speech on the internet, so that site operators don’t have to keep explaining it over and over again: “This is my website. The government does not guarantee you the right to post whatever you want on my website. No, this does not violate your free speech.” Etc. Etc.

Again, anybody who’s actually operated a community website or popular blog knows about the annoyances — and worse — that O’Reilly is talking about. I can’t begin to describe how many different varieties of the “free speech” argument I had while LitKicks had “open boards”. For instance, there were a few regular poets — most of whom I liked very much — who couldn’t understand why I wanted them to stop posting four or five poems a day, every day, every week, every year. It was clear to me that they were giving me all their stuff instead of their best stuff, and it was also clear to me that it was my goddamn website and if I asked them to stop posting so often they should have agreed to do so. But … try talking sense to poets. Just try.

Then there was a sweet kid in the midwest Who alsway Wroat Liek this!!!!! After three years of all this joyous freedom, I’d had enough free speech to last a lifetime, and the day I shut the LitKicks message boards down I became a much happier man.

(Incidentally, many of the old regulars still post poems on our (moderated) poetry board, and I’m always glad when they do. They also occasionally gather on other message board sites to reminisce about old times and totally trash my name, which really amuses me to no end.)

When I read the various arguments about “free speech and the internet” above, I wonder if many of these debaters have ever managed their own internet community sites. It looks a lot different when you’re on the inside.

We all care about free speech, but free speech is not endangered when a private website operator decides not to publish somebody else’s words. The world needs to finally stop getting upset about this fact, and Tim O’Reilly’s article is another small step forward. Even if Andrew Sullivan got confused.

10 Responses

  1. Good Times, Good TimesOooh
    Good Times, Good Times

    Oooh … I love that story … tell it again! Or maybe you could tell the one about the time the Secret Service called me … or was it the FBI? I can’t ever keep it straight.

    As someone “in the industry” there’s really so much I could say here, but you’ve summed it up pretty well. Unfortunately those who really would benefit from hearing this message are really too busy crying “Nazi!” on thousands of message boards around the crazy Internets. And yes, you are correct, those who feel it’s their duty to fill in any open text box online with whatever they want are usually not those that are paying for hosting. God Bless the Internets…

  2. Back in the dayRegarding free
    Back in the day

    Regarding free speech, I always looked at Litkicks like someone’s pub or coffeehouse. You had the right to say, “Please stop dancing on the tables,” or “you can come back when you decide to keep your clothes on,” or “Patrons shall refrain from accusing other patrons of bestiality.”

    It would only become a free speech problem if you sanctioned all those actions by a performer, let’s say Iggy Pop, and the government came in and shut you down.

    I have many fond memories of people I met here. Damn, there was some wild creativity and notable shenanigans. What are these “dots” someone mentioned?

    The early Litkicks free-for-all encouraged me to write more, but eventually, the more I posted online, the less serious writing I did. I had to pull back from the live, “chatroom” type atmosphere to really focus on honing my craft.

    I think people have a misconception about “first thought, best thought.” While it may be true that the first thought is best, there are many ways to actually write the first thought. Some ways will be more effective than others. You are not changing the thought, only the structure of the sentence that conveys the thought.

    There may be people who are so gifted, they rarely need to rewite anything, but they are few and far between.

  3. AwesomeOh, the warm, fuzzy

    Oh, the warm, fuzzy memories. There were a lot of good times at the ol’ LitKicks boards, weren’t there? You know what I miss? The neverending flood of abusive emails. Oh, and being called a henchslut fascist Satan-worshipping whore Nazi bitch. That was fun. A lot of fun, actually. Why oh why did you kill LitKicks, Levi Asher?


    Anyway, I read Tim O’Reilly’s article and I liked it. I believe in publishers taking responsibility for the content they publish (which is what LitKicks was doing then and is doing now), and I think it could help make the internet much less of an “I want to stab myself” place. I know that people who run popular blogs and online communities would still have to deal with a lot of bullshit behind the scenes (I sometimes wonder if the tubes of the internets aren’t actually constructed out of bullshit), but I think the level of insanity and the length of time the insanity lasts is lessened when that stuff doesn’t make it into the public forum. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing not to publish whatever you don’t want to publish as long as you’re paying the hosting fees. My own very professional-sounding comment policy for my website goes like this:

    I welcome comments from readers on individual posts. In fact, I really like them. Being the easygoing person I am (and I really am), most comments are completely okay (I may even reply!), but I do reserve the right to delete things that are blatantly gross, rude, creepy, stalker-ish, offensive, irritatingly pompous, libelous or generally assy without any explanation other than this one right here. That said, it takes a lot to bother me, and so as long as you can manage not to be a total bastard, then I think we’ll be fine.

    Moderating things is my favorite.

  4. Generally assy – that’s what
    Generally assy – that’s what usually got me in trouble. Tinged with pomp.

  5. Unmoderated message boards
    Unmoderated message boards and usenet groups show us one thing: that the bad drives out the good.

    I don’t think there are that many crazy people out there — it’s just that all of them find the Internet an ideal outlet. And it is. It replaces the barroom stool, the street corner, and the letters to the editor columns.

  6. LaughableThe idea that Levi

    The idea that Levi Asher opposes free speech, and practices or endorses censorship, is simply laughable, absurd on its face, ridiculous, and just plain stupid.

    Try reasoning with poets – indeed! One might better herd cats, or teach the moon to sing!

  7. A Canticle for Levi-Witman,
    A Canticle for Levi-Wit

    man, oh man, Levi you are the man!

    Are you talking about the SamePage Tim O’Reilly Web 2.0 guy I am thinking of?

    I will be at the Web 2.0 Expo next week in San Francisco preaching wikis, blogs and mashups…and also going to NAB doing the same.

    And to think, Litkicks baptized me into the 21st Century. Thank you for dunking me into your poetry prosody waters.

    I am indeed since blessed and cannot begin to express my joy and admiration for knowing that a place like LitKicks exists.

    BTW: Levi, if I tend to over post, my apologies.

    I don’t know how I would have ever survived the 000’s without Litkicks.

    Thank you for accepting me into your glorious world.

    Best regards,
    over and out,
    Jota 2.0

    PS: oh and tell the sister saints Jammer and fire-er-ey-cracka they are the grindhouse angels of true words.

    Word out.


  8. 26 dancing jotasMIAhave ya
    26 dancing jotas


    have ya seen these boho clones?

    if so, tell #24 I want my pregnant chihuahua MJ back

    she’s about due…

    no questions asked

  9. so, was buckethead first
    so, was buckethead first thought?
    or best thought

    man, it tripped me out, Mr. Skeletor

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What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!