too many words by laura lemay

kathy sierra, or, imminent death of the net predicted

I’m coming in late to comment on the Kathy Sierra situation. The wail of shock and anguish that passed over the internet about it has started to subside, and there’s already been a whole lot (a WHOLE lot) said on the topic.

If you missed it, here’s the story: Kathy Sierra, co-creator of the Head First line of computer books and one of my favourite writers, has been receiving death threats and harassment on her blog and elsewhere on the net. Because of it she cancelled her keynote and tutorials at Etech and was considering giving up blogging altogether. She talked about it on her blog in a post titled Death threats against bloggers are NOT “protected speech”{.broken_link} — warning, there are some disturbing words and images here, and there are over 1000 comments so its very long to load.

I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about this, if anything. When Kathy first posted this story I got so mad I had to go take a walk to calm down. For a while I had a hard time thinking about anything other than this; I obsessively followed the posts about it; I had a hard time sleeping. I got all militant and composed a lot of unfinished posts in ALL CAPS about how we needed to STAND UP and FIX THE NET to because this kind of behavior is NOT ACCEPTABLE.

Now two days later, now that all my anger has worn off, I feel kind of tired and sad and depressed and hopeless. Fix the net, right, ha ha, sorry, never mind.

Mostly as I read the comments on Kathy’s post and on other blogs I have noticed a kind of interesting but obvious breakdown. Men, in general, are shocked and horrified that this kind of harassment goes on at all. Women are of course shocked and horrified at Kathy’s situation, but they also kind of nod ruefully and say yeah, it happened to me, too.

I honestly didn’t think this was a secret, that women get disproportionally picked on in the internets. I thought it was a big fat obvious fact.

Do I get stalked and harassed and picked on on the internet? Do I get death threats? Sure. I started getting them the week I first posted to Usenet twenty years ago, and I’ve been getting them ever since. It was worse during the usenet era, and WAY worse when I was selling a lot of books. Its pretty quiet these days now that I’m mostly anonymous and I write a mostly personal journal blog. No one cares about cat posts; there are bigger targets. But it still happens.

Most of it is just casual drive-by stupid misppelled email and blog comments of the “you dumb slut you should die” variety. Occasionally it gets creepy, sexually explicit, detailed, and ugly. Occasionally it really hits a nerve. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never been stalked outside of email, or targeted for photoshopping the way Kathy was. Somehow it seems much closer to home, much more scary and real, when they start tampering with your image.

But even though all I’ve had is silly email and blog comments I would be lying if I said I was immune to it, that I just blithely delete it all and move on with my life, or that the barrage of it when I was a popular author wasn’t a factor in wanting to maybe not be so popular anymore. You always wonder if its THIS particular scary nutbag who’s going to be the one to go beyond recreational typing. There’s always a small nagging fear.

Honestly until this week I thought this sort of constant harassment was so common and so obvious it wasn’t even worth mentioning. It had gone on for so long and I had gotten so used to it that it hadn’t occurred to me that this is anything other than what it means to be female on the internet. I told Eric about it and he asked me, aghast, why I had never mentioned that I get death threats. We’ve known each other for fifteen years. It just never came up. The shocked reactions internet-wide to Kathy’s post have made me realize that hm. maybe this isn’t normal. And maybe it shouldn’t be.

On the other hand, as I read other reactions to Kathy’s post on blogs, in comments, across the web, it seemed like some other people picked up the militant FIX THE WEB meme and were talking about how we needed LAWS to prevent this kind of thing, that people shouldn’t be ALLOWED to post just ANYTHING on the net and that there should be some way to TRACK people’s identity to keep them from being mean on the net.

Well, that’s not what I was thinking of when I was angry. We can’t control identity on the Internet without also creating a police state in real life. Duh. And just forcing identity does not prevent meanness — on the Well, the old-skool walled-garden BBS where I’ve been a member for a thousand years, anonymity is banned, and there are still plenty of assholes willing to step up and be mean. Plus anonymity is not necessarily the problem; you can have an online identity that is effectively anonymous and still have a consistent, reasonable, intelligent, not insane rapist serial killer online presence.

On the other hand, I do believe that easy anonymity does have a tendency to breed bad manners. I’ve seen it happen over and over again on BBSes, usenet, IRC, forums, blogs, Amazon comments. Couple easy anonymity with a community that doesn’t have any social norms for telling the assholes to stop being assholes and you get a sort of acceptance of bad behavior (take, for example, the slashdot or digg forums, which are notorious for being hostile to women. That is the culture there, its accepted, it is normal, so it goes on). When you get a community where the stated GOAL is to be snarky and insulting, as was apparently the case on the “meankids” site — then how can anyone be remotely surprised when the tone turns ugly. It is a classic example of mob mentality.

Chris Locke, RageBoy, who was apparently related in some way to the sites where Kathy was harrassed (given the confusion around the facts I really hesitate to make any claims stronger than that), ironically brought up the Well in his defense of the sites in question. He talked about “You Own Your Own Words” being the core ethos of the Well and how he had taken that to be a guiding principle. He interprets it as “I will not take responsibility for what someone else said, nor will I censor what another individual wrote.” But there’s two problems with that statement. The first is that YOYOW doesn’t mean you disclaim or censor anyone else’s writing. It means literally what it says — you have copyright ownership over your own words. No one else can take them, use them or post them anywhere outside the Well without your permission. The other problem is that YOYOW is only one of the well’s core ethos…es (ethosii?). The other one is that no one is anonymous, so you MUST take ownership of your words. The O in YOYOW has meaning. Your real name it attatched to every single post. Which brings us full circle to the notion of identity on the internet, and standing up for what you say.

I don’t have a magic beans, golden ticket solution to solving any of these problems. The dark cynic in me believes that after everyone’s militant anger over Kathy’s post wears off some other bright shiny thing will come along for the blogger crowd and nothing will ever happen and we’ll all be back to angry email and ugly photoshop and frightening women away from participating in the net in no time flat.

But then I do think, what if more of us do speak up the way Kathy did. Stop deleting the comments. Start posting the email. Start telling the assholes in forums and blog comments that they are being assholes, rather than just shrugging or ignoring or clicking through or (gasp) removing that person’s blog feed from our news reader (gasp). We have a zillion ways in real life of registering disapproval when someone says something idiotic, from frowning to turning away to actually saying “boy, that was dumb.” There’s not a lot like that online. Maybe in addition to just “digg down” or “-1” we should stand up and speak up more often. Maybe through social engineering, not just web engineering, we can create a better community and a better culture online.

Optimism wins out over sad and tired after all. I’ll probably get death threats for suggesting it.