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” — warning, there are some disturbing words and images here, and there are over 1000 comments so its very long to load.

This, in turn, is a very long post and not what I usually write about on this blog, so see more after the jump. (feed readers and livejournallers, you probably know by now that you get the whole thing and there is no “jump”).

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.

12 thoughts on “kathy sierra, or, imminent death of the net predicted

  1. Nicely said. It’s not easy to bear witness against ridicule, bullying or threats, or to look at how they emerge, but despite the slippery slope consideration, it’s a worthy goal. Somebody’s got to do it: “Hey, this slope is getting dangerously slippery! Stop.”

    For research purposes, here’s a link to info / definition of You Own Your Own WordsKeep in mind when responding to a topic or entering a new one that the other users also have feelings. Please avoid trampling on them. Also, remember that comments entered in hasty reaction to someone else’s posting will be available to be read long after you have entered them. So it is wise to exercise some moderation and good judgement.

  2. Would we really get a police state if IP packets were traceable back to a real person? Cause it would solve so many problems.

  3. We need to develop smart AI and then give it control of all packet-pushing on the internet. Something that could determine “This is an anonymous death threat, it is not worth forwarding.” “This is an anonymous call to action against an oppressive government–it is worth forwarding and maintaining anonymity.”

    I guess if we had that, soon afterwards we’d all get anonymous comments on our blogs saying “Die human meatbags. Robots will kill!” But that might be an improvement over the current situation–at least the insane AI computers would probably have better spelling.

  4. Jef:

    Short answer: yes. Every dictatorship’s dream!

    The Republican National Committee investigated (or spied upon, your choice) and compiled dossiers on every potential opposition group for a year before the 2004 convention in NYC. Result: lots of FAST arrests. At one time the current Bush administration was demanding medical records of any third trimester abortions performed in the past few years from doctors known to perform those procedures; this was to determine whether they were truly medically necessary. The government had no evidence of anything illegal, just a feeling that one of those procedures MUST have been illegal. Fortunately, the courts disagreed with the administration.

    Anything that can be abused by a government will be. The trick is to give the government as little power or tools to abuse as possible.

    Kathy: So glad to see you writing on the Net again!

  5. As an old-time well member (who came here through rafe coburn’s site) I have to say that I never saw there the sort of nastiness KS posted. It was often silly and mean-spirited, and there were some real assholes, but in general there was a sense that we were all in the same playground together. What is frightening about anonymity on the wider internet is that it is drive-by; what goes around need never come around.

    I tend to side with Jef here — that it wouldn’t be a catastrophe if IP packets were generally traceable back to a real person; I say “generally” because I have no doubt that the ${secret police} can already do so if they want to. It’s the rest of us who can’t.

    But otherwise, yes: this sort of abuse should not be passed by in silence. It should be posted, because it does shock the rest of the world.

  6. FWIW, “ethos” comes from the Greek “????” whose plural is “???”, which I guess would make it “ithi” or “hethi” in English. And then no one would know what the hell you’re talking about. The native English phrase would be “manners and customs” I suppose, but that has stodgy connotations and lacks the Greek term’s connotations of “ethics” and “mindset.”

    In other notes, thanks for the post. Yours and Shelley Powers’ are the only ones I saw that sounded measured and considered. Roughly 99.9% of all the noise about this incident, particularly the noise made by men, was knee-jerk outrage – and yeah, I am completely in agreement with your cynical outlook.

    PS.: I momentarily considered making a tongue-in-cheek death threat here in response to your last sentence because that’s typically how I play along with “now watch how X, of all things, happens” suggestions… except it just wouldn’t be funny in this case.

  7. I’m a system administrator and The Abuse Guy at a Reno web hosting company. My Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policies specific say that I will take action, at my discretion, aginst “[a]ny other material, use, or activity that $DAYJOB determines to be harmful to its on-site system and facilities, its operations, its network, or to other Internet users.”

    The blog entries I saw cross the line.

    If Kathy has reported this abuse to her ISP or hosting company that hosts her blog, then the ISP/hoster *should* do something about it. If Kathy were my customer, and I became aware of this abuse, you can damn betcha I would block his sorry ass at the router leve, and have a little talk with my counterpart abuse guy at the source ISP.

    It’s part of an ISP’s job, in my view.

  8. On a broader societal side, ugh, it continually disgusts me that people seem to get off on emotionally abusing women with enough talent to rise above the pack. I’m like Eric: I know that it happens but I probably don’t know how often it happens to people that I care about, because it doesn’t happen to me and they don’t bring it up. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, and I’m all for helping to create a world in which my nieces don’t have to wade through the crap that you and Ms. Sierra have had to navigate.

    On a net level, I think that site administrators should not allow or condone more anonymity than is necessary to deliver the content. I’ve spent decades around the pseudoanonymity of Usenet where posters had “handles” that allowed them to create net personae that were not necessarily connected to their “real” lives, but were still known to their local admins who would finger them if they ever violated the ToS in a particularly noteworthy way. I think this is a fine balance that covers the overwhelming majority of online communication. Every once in a while, someone would want to go through an anonymous router to post something, but then you’d be able to process that with whatever grain of salt you thought was appropriate.

    It’s a pity that Mr. Locke’s interview doesn’t address (what is to me) the central question: is he so slimy that he is harboring the identity of an online predator, or is he so lame that he created a forum in which he has no authority over the content entered into it? I suppose neither is attractive, and perhaps it is just that he spend the rest of his professional life answering for this event.

    At the same time, what on earth is the “blogosphere” and what are our hopes for it to become in the future? Ms. SIerra seems to envision it as a “culture”, which seems overly ambitious to me because I don’t think that bloggers are much more similar to each other than are people who use the telephone. But if the goal is to foster an increased location-neutral interconnectedness between people, shouldn’t we demand that people provide an identity for us to connect to?

  9. Kathy’s framing is astonishing. She must really understand how the brain works to be able to twist her dislike of critics into a death threat and generate dozens of social movements in her name.

    I give up. I can’t fight a giant echo chamber that won’t be critical. At least you were and I thank you.


  10. You write:

    ‘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.’

    That is so sad. I’ve been in the computer business in some form or another for a tad over 45 years, and I’ve had a presence on the Internet since — well, since Gopher and FTP were the main protocols for interfacing with sites, email addresses had complicated chains of routing instructions, and there wasn’t an Internet Explorer! And when I started programming for a living, there were close to equal numbers of men and women, and we treated each other with respect.

    There may have been and may still be a glass ceiling, but in the ranks of “middle management”, you were as likely to find a woman or an Asian or an African American as you were to find a white male. That’s the way it was. And until about six months ago, I thought it was still that way. Then, at a Ruby conference, I discovered that a lot has changed.

    What happened? When did this happen? How did the “geek culture” become so male-dominated? How did the Internet turn from a university to a shopping mall, and then to a war zone? Who took the industry I’ve devoted my career to and turned it into this? And how did Americans like “Joey” come to practice terrorism on an American high-tech icon like Kathy Sierra?

    Ed Borasky

    P.S.: If you’re in contact with Kathy, give her my love and support.

  11. I liked your piece. It was insightful and thought-provoking.

    However, I have to think there are more options than the two most bloggers are proposing: 1) ignore the meanies and delete their comments or 2) out the meanies and set a lynch mob on them.

    There’s got to be something a bit more creative and effective at attacking the root cause, hatred of women, than those options. Maybe if we keep thinking about it and talking about it we can come up with something.

  12. What is also very unfortunate in this story are the facts that Jeneane Sessum had no role in either of the mentioned blog’s. Jeneane has a role in a parody blog called http://www.katherding.com/ with the unfortunately named “RageBoy” (Chris Locke, one of the co-authors of the “Cluetrain Manifesto”).

    Jeneane now has her good named linked to this libelous (IANAL) “hit piece”. Motives aside… it does little good to fight incredibly ugly trolls by attacking people with “six degrees” of association to the ugliness.

    Frank Paynter also has some reasonable claims to innocense and Chris Locke as well. The final suspect, Alan Herrell, has claimed that his compurters were hacked and the site compromised. Alan could be misoginistic in his humor but the skippery slope seems to have swept the

    whole content into the dust bin at this point and left only an incerdibly detailed blog post repleat with the offensive materials that no one can determine the authorship of… read them carefully… do they meet the standard of a death threat? They are offensive to a great degree but fear seems to be trumping fact.

    I hope Kathy recovers as we would wish anyone with a traumatic stress event. But defaming a group of respected web authors as a vicious cabal is to me reprehensible. At some point I would like to see the record set straight for the benefit of civil behavior on the net.

    In this whole affair I count close to a dozen victims and one or two trolls who are really enjoying their skills and causing others pain.

    There are a lot of people weighing in that should know better… critical thinking should be a valued trait for A-List Bloggers. That for me is a standard we should hold the web to… high traffic for your site is accompanied by the need to avoid crying “Help” and mentioning your assialants in the same blog post and then later finding out your were in error and doing nothing to address the secondary injuries from a hasty accusation.

    There maybe criminal charges resulting from the text posted and there could reasonably be civil charges for defamation of character and loss of the ability to find work. Ugliness all around.

    Not a proud meme for the net as a whole. Tho’ a few notable people stuck true to reserved judgement and tact: Doc Serles, Dave Winer, Shelley Powers, Rogers Cadenhead and to a degree Tim O’Reilly (but his affection for Kathy Sierra as a friend made him push hard for action without a complete analysis of facts, IMHO).

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