Kathy Sierra has what I consider to be one of the best blogs on the Internet. Creating Passionate Users is an example of brilliant content, graphics and positive blogging all rolled up into one blog. How ironic, then, that she should find herself at the receiving end of the dark side of the internet: trolls, threats and anonymity.
Bloggers are reacting with predictable and gratifying outrage. Many are outraged, some are disappointed, others are sick over it. All of those emotions have run through my head tonight as I struggled with what I wanted to say here about it.
Death threats and other online sniping are bad enough, but this is even worse, because the escalation of the threats had a garden to grow in on a site called MeanKids.org — a team blog written by some high-profile bloggers — bloggers who might be considered “A-List” bloggers. Danah Boyd calls the content of this site “completely unacceptable”, and from the few cached posts I was able to pull up on a Google search, I’d agree with her. As Danah points out,
The content by the sites’ creators (again, prominent bloggers) was completely unacceptable – misogynistic, racist, and horrid speech. Their words were bordering on hate speech so it’s not that surprising that anonymous commenters took it one step forward.
The site was ultimately pulled down by the owner, but
he created another one was created by one of the original meankid.org participants — and this one gave rise to Kathy Sierra’s last straw.
I am outraged, sickened and disappointed, too. But I’m also concerned, because this has been a long-standing problem with online interaction, and if we do not find a way to self-regulate activity like this, we will be facing legislative activity. What happened to Kathy Sierra happens to kids on MySpace every day. It’s a real problem. Nancy Willard has an outline and notes on cyberbullying (PDF) and a new book out that addresses this issue in the context of kids online. Here is her definition of “dangerous online groups” (p.3):
Dangerous Online Groups
- Angry teens becoming involved in hate groups or gangs with
- Or forming their own troublesome youth groups
- Find acceptance from like-minded peers or adults
- Leads to contagion of unhealthy attitudes and behavior
This defines my area of deepest concern: Some leaders in this ‘community’ we call the blogosphere were involved in the creation and maintenance of a sub-community that fostered unacceptable speech and in so doing, set a precedent for hateful, unacceptable online interaction.
The problem is, this isn’t an isolated event. I’ve noticed a trend that seems to have begun around October or November of 2006. Violent Acres, Heaven Nose, and MeanKids.org were all created between mid-October and mid-November. Another site, katherding.com was also created at around the same time; however, that site identifies its contributors and is more satire than outright meanness. The others, however, are much meaner and nastier than that. In an ironic twist, HeavenNose claims the victory for outing the Trainwrecks.net bloggers by posting their names, addresses and phone numbers — only they didn’t quite hit the right targets, causing the harassment of innocent, unrelated parties.
Here’s the other trend: The targets, for the most part, are women. It seems that it’s okay to post sexist, misogynist, rank, disgusting remarks as long as one takes aim at women. Maryam Scoble was one of the latest MeanKids.org targets and they spared no barbs in their efforts to ridicule and humiliate her.
Denise has a great post asking how we can stop this. She asks:
What gives someone the right to photoshop a kid’s photo. What gives someone the right to put a noose around Kathy Sierra’s neck? What gives someone the right to make sexual comments about a woman? What gives someone the right to degrade and threaten another human being – often a woman?
This is the ‘other internet’, inhabited by those who cloak themselves in anonymity and drop drive-by hate speech nuggets just hoping to get a reaction. This is the internet that operates in the dark, under the guise of free speech which isn’t really free at all, but is actually very costly. This is the internet that cries out to be freed from the burden of law-making and regulation, but is unwilling to self-regulate and moderate themselves. This is the internet which invites others to cross a line they might otherwise not cross in the name of freedom. This is the internet borne of those who do not believe that they should operate in the dark the same way they do in the light.
If any good comes out of Kathy’s fear, pain and anger, let it be an open dialogue about how to end this madness as a community, without calling out for new laws, new regulations, or action from the Ones who do it For The Children.
Is the answer OpenID? Is it some sort of unique identifier that we all own as part of our agreement to participate in online interaction? I don’t know. But I do agree with Denise: It’s time to look at what causes this and how we can stop it.
Nancy White recently wrote a post about collaboration, commenting, and having her buttons pushed. Her punch line:
Listening is a key part of collaboration. If a word, a phrase or a post shuts us down, we lose.
Language sure can open up or shut down a conversation for me. Or a collaboration. When a label someone else uses hits my hot button, it is harder to stay in the game. When an assertion that strikes me as over the top hits my hot button; same thing. My hot button can be the end of a collaboration, and kill many from starting.
My question: How can we create communities where button-pushing is no longer the norm, where it is no longer acceptable to be so outrageous, so utterly off-the-wall-outside-the-limit, and where everyone is mindful of the impact a word, a label or a button can have on the community and on the collaboration?
Update: Robert Scoble expects an apology from all concerned after seeing the cached version of what was written about Maryam. I agree — an apology would be the least they can do. Some of the folks mentioned in Kathy Sierra’s post have responded with specific answers, apologies, or shutting down. Doc Searls posted what he knows and calls for the facts to become known before making judgments.
Update #2: 3/28/07 – Commenter Dan G corrected me on who created the second site, and I’ve corrected my text above to properly reflect the sequence. Thank you, Dan G. Also, Doc Searls has posted an email he received from Alan Herrell where he says he’s been hacked and his identity stolen along with his wordpress and typepad identities.