The tech blogosphere nudged closer in resemblance to the political blogosphere (actually – the rest of the Internet) this week when Kathy Sierra revealed she was the target of emails and anonymous comments that made her fear for her life. In response she has canceled future conference appearances and may end her participation in the blogosphere entirely.
Kathy Sierra is co-author of a series of a popular technology books, one of which is almost a daily reference for me, “Head First Design Patterns”. She maintains a popular blog “Creating Passionate Users” that focuses on social media and software.
This isn’t the first time individuals in the tech blogosphere have faced such things. People as diverse as Amy Gahran, danah boyd and Scripting.com’s Dave Winer have been the focus of such attacks. Dave Winer has had entire sites devoted to spewing invective his way.
I want to join others and offer my support for Kathy Sierra. No one should suffer under personal attack that threatens ones life. In particular the misogynist nature of the threats Kathy Sierra received were just too vile for description. I hope those that posted death threats are prosecuted.
A distributed discussion sprung up to offer Kathy support and to question the online world we are collectively creating.
It’s a conversation that’s been brewing for some time, about the validity of anonymous commenting, our responsibility as hosts to encourage environments for open discussion instead of fields for hatred, and how to best achieve these ends while still encouraging open and honest communication.
At its heart – how do you create an environment free from fear and still free? Can you actually pull it off? And can that scale?
Besides the calls for support for Kathy, the ongoing discussion offers both hope and cause for concern.
Some additional details to offer context first:
The anonymous comments were posted to two websites, meankids.org and unclebobism.wordpress.com. Both sites have been taken down. Both, in Kathy Sierra’s post, were associated with a number of the digerati, albeit, the digerati’s self-critical edge: Cluetrain co-author Chris Locke, Frank Paynter, and Alan Herrell. Frank Paynter says that MeanKids was a “purposeful anarchy” (btw – that is an apt description of the Internet and Web), meant to offer “art and criticism, pointed and insulting satire, but not foster a climate of fear”.
Kathy Sierra also mentions Jeneane Sessum who may have posted only once. My take is one or two posts – and even some linkage – don’t indicate *any* association with *any* site. I’ve posted on threads on numerous services I am not associated with. Just because I’ve written on some service doesn’t mean I agree with everything there. Just because I’ve linked to something doesn’t mean I approve of it.
Early on Shelley Powers, while offering her support for Kathy Sierra, expressed concern that anyone in anyway mentioned might be wrongly implicated, and that the distributed nature of the conversation taking place might form a mob that leaves permanent damage to additional people’s lives. Compounding the wrong that Kathy Sierra was subjected to.
Doc Searls urged caution in “Getting past the bottom of What Went Wrong”:
…It will be easier for everybody if those involved disclose what they know.
My last post before this one was a pointer to the new Principles of Citizen Journalism site. The first principle is Accuracy, and it begins, Getting your facts right isn’t always so simple. No shit. But that’s what I’m trying to do right now. I suggest the rest of us do the same.
Those fears have appeared justified as Dave Winer notes. See Tara Hunt’s post where she leaves accusations that have not been confirmed on her site and accuses the MeanKids maintainers of encouraging such behavior from the anonymous contributors.
Hugh MacLeod describes what he feels happened with a high school metaphor:“OK, so you weren’t the actual jock who raped the cheerleader. But it seems you were in the posse circling them, chanting ‘Go go go go go go go…’ “
Great metaphor. For a different corner of the web (more on that later in this piece). It’s a shame that many took this track because it obscures a set of important questions we all need need to ask ourselves:
What responsibility do *we* have over the conversations *we* host and over the environments and tools *we* create? Is attacking people in addition to ideas ever valid? And when we talk about responsibility – what about its two dimensions – Moral and Legal? And just what should the consequences be when we don’t live up to those responsibilities? Do we hold a conversation creator responsible for every hatred-poisoned addition to any thread?
Some feel the the criticism of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report towards political punditry like Bill O’Reilly is hateful and encourages malaise. Jon Stewart showed a lot of anger during his visit on Crossfire. Should they be held responsible if someone threatens Bill O’Reilly’s life?
Ridiculous you say? Well how about Howard Stern or even South Park? They are routinely accused of inspiring hatred and intolerance towards various religions.
Both the political Left and Right have phrases to try and frame the other side as “mean”: the “Hateful Left” and the “Intolerant Right”.
Speaking of which, lets try a little closer to home – should a Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs or Markos Moulitsas of of Daily Kos be shamed into obscurity for the hatred that spills out by a minority of commenters on both services?
I bring up these examples not to dissuade thinking about these questions – only to continue the dialog. The dialog about accountability and responsibility – and what it means.
As Antonella Pavese put it:
Should Kathy have refrained from naming names? Perhaps. For one, it would have saved her some grief. Some of the people she mentioned by name seem to be very weakly connected, if at all, with the site. So, we are back to the beginning: we may not have the legal responsibility to be respectful to others, but we do have the social responsibility to think about the consequences that your words and actions have on other people.
danah boyd spoke of social responsibility as well in “safe havens for hate speech are irresponsible”:
There’s nothing illegal about what the prominent bloggers did, but i think it is unethical at every level. This is not an issue of censorship, but an issue of social responsibility. What does it mean when the most prominent bloggers are encouraging speech that divides, particularly that which divides along the lines of race and gender? What kind of standard does that set? How can anyone support their practices, even as a “joke”? I believe in moral responsibility and key to that is a level of social respect, even for those with whom you disagree. Without social solidarity, the moral fabric of society erodes. When you allow room for intolerance, you breed hate.
“When you allow room for intolerance, you breed hate.” is a powerful thought. It’s one I believe in.
The trick is in defining “intolerance” – Chris Rock divides by race and gender in almost any comedy routine of his. To powerful effect. The world would be less rich without it.
Others wondered if the entire Internet culture as a whole was to blame, in particular, the way many use it objectify women. See Robert Scoble, whose wife was attacked on MeanKids, in a post that would have left me furious if directed towards my wife Richelle. You can get to that post from Don Park.
Some have characterized Robert Scoble’s handling of this as an overreaction. Well his wife was personally attacked. That erases rational thought in a husband. I admit my own hypocrisy here. While I feel he overreacted – if it was my wife – well – I’d react the same way. Hopefully not worst.
If you want a real taste of how women are objectified on the Internet, to see behavior that does resemble Hugh MacLeod’s metaphor, well go to WeSmirch or Megite’s Entertainment channel (where one of the latest headlines worthy of blog discussion is “Lindsay Lohan’s Nipples are Happy to Hang”). Click some links. But watch out, much is not safe to view at work.
These blogs get orders of magnitude more traffic then the tech centric blogs involved in this discussion. In fact, members of the tech centric blogs in this discussion have actually developed and built the tools that enable and empower the services aggregated on Megite or Memeorandum.
Why does it seem that we tech folks think of our corner of the Web is the *only* corner? Memeorandum is a terrific tool that exposes that fallacy. I’ve criticized it in the past, but to me, it is a valuable tool that exposes major conversations taking place in other “blogospheres” that are not connected to each other via linkage or awareness.
Some see see what happened to Kathy Sierra as a side-effect of anonymity. See Mathew Ingram’s post “Kathy Sierra: the dark side of anonymity” and Penny Arcade!’s “Total Fuckwad Theory” for this take.
And maybe in tech discussions, there is no need for anonymity. But in political? In activist? In our rush to condemn anonymous commenting we forget the important role it plays in corners of the Web we don’t go to. On Philly Future I’ve struggled with this and we are going through a period where anonymous commenting is not allowed. But we may open the gates again one day.
Can you have a Craigslist without anonymity? Really?
A few notable folks, like Tim O’Reilly, and previously Anil Dash, have called for an optional code of conduct that participants in the blogosphere can follow and promote.
Doc Searls mentioned The Citizen News Network and Center for Citizen Media project – Principles of Citizen Journalism. Take a hard look with an open mind. If you’re committed to providing journalism or punditry online, there you will find a set of values that I feel are worth upholding, and resources to help you pursue them.
Personally, I’ve always held beliefs akin to Mena Trott:
- It’s not about being nice – it’s about accountability.
- Ultimately, we need to get more people blogging.
The point I was trying to make in my speech is that it’s about taking as much responsibility for what we write online — whether that’s on a blog, in an email message, or on IRC — as we would in a face-to-face, private conversation. What we say might not always be nice and that’s okay. Certainly neither Ben M. saying “this is bullshit” or my calling him an “asshole” would qualify as “nice” — the important point is taking accountability for what we say.
I think accountability and responsibility is about holding off seemingly anonymous attacks, giving people the benefit of the doubt and understanding that what you say online not only affects others but is part of a permanent record — a record that, right now, is scary to some watching from afar.
The majority of people in the world aren’t blogging yet, and a lot of them could truly benefit from this form of communication. We want them to be a part of our world, not only because we make blogging tools, but because every day we’re reminded of people whose lives blogging has enriched or just made more enjoyable.
The irony is – if we all followed that advice – the Web would be a “nicer” place. For all of us.
Far more by Lisa Stone at BlogHer on “Hating Hate Speech: Safety for Kathy Sierra and all women online”
Update: Tim O’Reilly posted some ideas about what a code of conduct might look like. Shelley Powers, Dave Winer, and Don Park share their concerns and objections.