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.
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.
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.