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If we go silent, the terrorists win

March 27, 2007

I had never read Kathy Sierra’s blog “Creating Passionate Users” until today. And I wish that I could have found it under better circumstances.

Kathy SierraThe blogosphere is aflood with news today that Sierra had to cancel her scheduled seminar this morning at Etech, the O’Reilly tech conference in San Diego, due to death threats.

And these aren’t just threats like “I’m going to kill you” stuck in some anonymous comment post. No, these are repeated, purposeful, graphic depictions of violence against Sierra, including one Photoshopped picture of her with a noose around her neck, and another one with her face mangled (pictured at Valleywag).

The site owner said that the forum in which the threats emerged was meant to be “purposeful anarchy” … Sorry, that just doesn’t cut it, in my opinion. And isn’t anarchy supposed to be lacking in purpose, by definition? Another site owner, Chris Locke, also tries to play defense here.

Kathy posted that she’s afraid to leave her yard. She also said she’s taking some time off from posting on her blog to regroup.

And she’s not the only one.

Tech evangelist Robert Scoble revealed he had also been threatened in a similar fashion, with nasty comments attacking his wife as well. Scoble said he’ll stop blogging for a week in support of Sierra, and called out the threatening site’s owners, demanding apologies all around.

Jim Kukral notes that this isn’t the first time this has happened. Heck, the AP just did a story about anonymous threats online at news sites just days ago. But this time, the comments have the blogosphere’s full, undivided attention (at least until the next big Apple product announcement).

Scoble’s even calling for a Digg boycott, because that site’s forums have become a cesspool at time. comments:

Digg’s comment section can be a notoriously awful place. Pick any major story, you can usually find some example of completely ridiculous, idiotic statements that many times have absolutely nothing to do with anything let alone the topic under which they reside. It doesn’t seem to make sense that this many sociopaths would gather in one place in which the main draw is tech news, but then what is it that prompts these people to say such nasty things?

It’s a debate that delves very deep into the realm of free speech, decency and online anonymity. This could be the first of many situations that inflame it, and Digg’s comment section could be a major battleground.

While I agree with Scoble’s principles here, I don’t think that a boycott or a blog halt is the answer. More after the jump… Blogger James Robinson puts it better than I can:

It’s not specifically internet culture – we’ve seen this in email (and further back, on BBS systems) for years. People will say things in text that they would never say in person – because they feel like it isn’t “personal”. The answer isn’t pulling back – it’s more speech, more condemnation, more un-acceptance of bad behavior. If we want bad behavior to stop, we have to stand up to it. Pulling back only encourages it.

So here’s my part of the disapproval: The people Kathy mentions in her post who were willing participants (active or passive) in this set of disgusting threats (including death threats) against Kathy – you should all be deeply ashamed of yourselves, and – at the very least – you should all offer personal apologies to her. Failure to do so will demonstrate one thing, and one thing only: that you have no character. I mean you, Jeneane Sessum, and you, Allen Herrel, and you, Chris Locke. I would hope that those three (and anyone else involved) get actively shunned until they publicly apologize. Maybe Scoble wants to withdraw and not call a spade a spade. That’s not me.

At times, any forum that allows anonymous (or even pseudonym) posting can become a muck-filled, bubbling morass of jealousy, rage, contempt, nastiness and yes, a drop or two of constructive debate.

Right now many news comment forum sites are “self-moderating”, which means that any registered poster can hit the “report abuse” button on any post, and the webmaster or site management will examine and remove the offending post (and maybe the offending poster as well, if it’s a repeat offense).

But in numerous posts, debate usually strays off the original topic and devolves into personal attacks against other posters or the news media members themselves.

So traditional news organizations find themselves asking … just how is this public forum helpful to the public at large if all conversations end up in a steel-cage free-for-all?

What do we do about certain posters that seem to dominate discussion and guide conversations off-topic? Do they have a right to “free speech” (or at least, as free as legally possible)?

With this blog, I’ve set up a system of moderating all comments that come in. The system has helped catch many spam posts, but has also stopped a few curse-laden tirades (mostly from Playstation 3 haters) from seeing the light of day. And it works well with the limited number of comments coming in. Whether this method holds up as comments increase remains to be seen.

But, because of legal concerns, large media comment forums often are unmoderated and self-policing. If were to allow/reject each individual comment made on that site, they’d be responsible for the content that is posted.

So, in the end, only removal of posts that violate the forum’s terms of service get the hook, and conversations go on unguided and free to roam and graze on the plains of dissent – for better or worse.

What’s the answer here?

  • Maybe put an end to the all-comforting cloak of anonymity that destructive posters enjoy?
  • Make them use a verifiable user name, like OpenID, to link their identities?
  • Require common sense on the part of the posters?
  • Or just blow up the whole comment forum feature and forget it?

TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington has thoughts:

A lot of people we interact with daily seem very normal. But put them behind a keyboard and allow them to make anonymous comments and some really evil stuff can result. There’s no clear line as to what’s acceptable and not acceptable. But if you find yourself making anonymous attack comments that may be going overboard, ask yourself if you really want to be causing people the kind of pain that Kathy is going through. And then just stop.


As a public service, here’s the Techmeme links to all related stories/blog posts about Kathy (from 10 a.m. EDT) .

I think the blogosphere’s view on this is very important, and everyone deserves a voice to address this. I encourage you to go visit some of these links and comment. This time, the discussion is very important.

And God help you if you leave a death threat today on someone else’s blog! I don’t think anyone’s in the mood for that nonsense.

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