May 2-8, 2007

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Hate mail

You've got hate mail: A Photoshopped image posted on the web during the campaign against Kathy Sierra.

Blogged Down

The blogosphere is forced to face up to uncomfortable issues of cyberbullying and misogyny after the harassment of Kathy Sierra

By Richard Koman

LAST MONTH, a strange little episode of grown-up cyberbullying surprised tech culture, the blogosphere and the Internet as a whole. Kathy Sierra, an author and speaker whose special focus is "creating passionate users" for websites, announced on her blog that she was canceling a speaking engagement at the prestigious E-Tech Conference, run by O'Reilly Media, which is also her publisher.

The reason, which she documented in excruciating detail, was that some particularly raucous attacks on her had escalated to threats—in both words and images—which she said led her to fear for her life. Those threats included a comment on her blog: "fuck off you boring slut ... i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob." A Photoshop image, posted on another site, of Sierra with a noose next to her head along with a user comment that "the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size." The last straw, she wrote, was a Photoshopped image of Sierra, a striking blonde, being suffocated by a pair of thong panties. The image contained the text: "I dream of Kathy Sierra."

Sierra was attacked by anonymous contributors to two now-defunct websites—meankids .org and—set up by marketing maven Chris Locke (his online identity is Rageboy) and seemingly devoted to roughing up selected victims.

It all started over a Henry Ford quote, of all things—cited not by Sierra but by another web design blogger, Tara Hunt.

"It started off innocently," says Hunt, who, like Sierra, blogs about web design and usability issues. "Chris Locke informed me that Ford was an anti-Semite and I said, 'I didn't know that, but this post isn't about Ford,' and we kept going back and forth."

That led to Locke sending out a message to his mailing list, whose members began attacking Hunt online. After she told them, 'You remind me of the mean kids in school,' they started to continue the campaign against her. When Sierra jumped into the discussion to defend Hunt, the mean kids jumped on her, too. That's when things got out of control.

Announcing the cancellation of her E-Tech appearance, Sierra posted that she considered these attacks nothing short of death threats, that she had alerted the police and that she was absolutely afraid. She called on tech bloggers to take a look at their culture—"where objectification of women is taken to a level that makes plain old porn seem quaintly sweet"—and then she named names.

Locke responded on his blog that she was engaging in character assassination not just of him but of a number of others who had nothing to do with the threats.

Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly Media and Sierra's publisher, brokered a conversation between Sierra and Locke, which eventually resulted in a joint statement from the two and a joint appearance on CNN. But the incident has left a very visible gash in the image of the blogosphere as a utopian domain of free speech.

"It's pointed out that there's a misogynistic thread in our society—much more than people realize," O'Reilly says. "It's not just online. There are zones of nastiness in our society—talk radio, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and the blogosphere. Newspapers have always gotten nasty letters to the editor. Maybe the difference is just in the code of conduct."

Don't Feed The Trolls

Finding the blogosphere's organic code of conduct insufficient, O'Reilly set about to bring the blogging community together to create more formal guidelines. It would not be a code to censor, he said, but one of censure.

"I'd like to see more censure of that kind of behavior. Shame's gotten a bad rap in recent years," he says. "It's associated with a right-wing attitude, but we need to figure out where is the room for shame."

Among the precepts of his proposed code: Own your own words, and the words you allow on your site. Don't feed the trolls. And most contentiously, discourage anonymity.

However, the idea that signing onto a code would be a de facto requirement for legitimate blogs rankled many. O'Reilly even created a cute little "Civility Enforced" badge that sites could put on their sites. A predictable response: "Badges? We don't got to show you no stinking blogging badges!" as the PajamasMedia blog put it. Just a few weeks later, O'Reilly's code has died a quiet death.

However, the problems of women being harassed online is no news at all to those who have been there all along. "It definitely happens to lots of women," says erotica writer and online personality Violet Blue. "It's pedestrian and ordinary at this point. When you provide an opportunity to comment anonymously, it will bring out the worst in anyone. People are saying, 'Kill the women and fuck them after they're dead.' It's a way of emasculating women."

As in the case of Kathy Sierra, a strong and ugly thread of sexual violence runs through much of the hate talk. Both Blue and a friend have been victims of hate sites. "It's about how ugly you are, whether or not you're fuckable, schoolyard insults—all those things that have nothing to do with being a writer," she says.

Tara emphasized in an IM conversation that misogyny on the web and in tech circles goes deeper than obvious brutality. As a young woman, Hunt has had to make changes to prosper in the tech world. "I was advised by another woman to be less 'feminine' if I wanted to be heard—and it worked. Now I'm [seen as] a bitch to some, but it's a better position, because I'm taken seriously."

Blue takes exception to Hunt's willingness to become less feminine to get ahead. "We should be cautioned against thinking that people saying others are sexy is wrong. Celebrations of sexuality should be encouraged. If we don't, it gives people who threaten others online more power to do so. I don't see any reason to be less feminine. The more we desexualize ourselves in order to obtain power, the more we allow our sexuality to be used against us. So I'm going to own it."

Interestingly, however, Sierra herself now thinks it was chiefly the fact that she was so visible—not that she was a woman—that led to the attacks.

"I am greatly going to reduce my visibility, since as far as I can tell it is my visibility that led to this," she says. "I'm not really afraid now of the idea of going to a conference, but there are people who hate seeing my face in a conference speaker lineup, or hearing anyone blog about my keynote. I have no interest in making myself more of a target."

Anyone can become such a target, she says.

"I worked really hard on my blog to avoid serious controversy, and in two years I never once criticized another person or wrote about something inflammatory," says Sierra. "It makes no difference what you write about, if you personally reach a high enough level of visibility,"

Still, if men are also attacked for their success and name recognition, women have to withstand attacks infused with shocking sexual violence.

"I can't believe that just three weeks before this happened, I was still telling people what a wonderful opportunity it was to be able to reach people through blogs, and how much of a gift it is when people [readers] give you their time and attention," Sierra says. "But now I know it should come with a big warning to not become too successful at it, unless you can take it—and I think a lot more men are able to do that since the attacks they get don't involve sexual intimidation as often as the attacks on women do. I don't have the stomach or bravery to keep doing it when I know, now, that the same kind of thing will happen again. And I meant what I said—I don't want to be a part of a culture that has this kind of hypocrisy."

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