Five years ago, I got my first death threat for something I wrote on my blog. The same week, some of those readers called my boss and tried to get me fired. A number of others publicly asserted that I supported terrorism. All because they felt that's the appropriate way to respond to one of my blog posts that they didn't like.
It gets worse -- the Wall Street Journal's website chimed in later that week, maligning me by mocking words on my site, despite the fact that they were actually those of a commenter, not my own. Because the WSJ doesn't call its OpinionJournal site a "blog", some thought that carried the full weight and credibility of their print paper, and didn't realize that even a theoretically responsible bastion of journalism could participate in a blogosphere pile-on.
Three years ago, I ended up in the middle of another online fracas; No death threats this time, but perhaps that was because this had to do with my job and not my personal blog or politics. Still, the incident featured numerous threats of violence, against both me and my coworkers, usually in the form of "they ought to be beaten" coupled with an unabashed reveling in the fact that those making the threats were participating in an angry mob.
With that context, it's not surprising to me in the least that the New York Times is finally covering the story of how we're dealing with the profoundly unkind place the blogosphere can sometimes be. Now, I should be clear: Though I may have been less certain in the past, I know in retrospect I was never in any real danger from any of these incidents. But it's hard to articulate the visceral, emotional impact of hearing a total stranger, especially an anonymous total stranger, wish you ill. This is true even if your rational mind knows it's likely just an empty threat.
The first incident I was describing was the result of criticisms I made on my site about the community on a political blog. Perhaps appropriately, one of the main points of contention on that site was whether mainstream muslims do enough to disavow and denounce the actions of the radicalized fringe of extremists. Interestingly, as far as I've seen in the half-decade since, there's never been a similar debate about whether to denounce the radical fringe of web communities.
But it's not limited to any one site, and the blame can't be placed on any one community online. When the company I worked for stirred up passions three years ago by changing the license on a software product, many of the responses that were angry took on a strikingly personal tone. Interestingly, the personal nature of the attacks was more vehement because we were a small company whose principals were known and could be addressed personally; People in corresponding positions in faceless multi-billion-dollar corporations, whose actions are theoretically much more far-reaching and potentially nefarious, are shielded from the vitriol by the sheer anonymity of their enterprise. Instead of being rewarded for being approachable, we are punished, whether in a personal or professional context.
There are countless recent examples to pick through, too:
- Sweetney, one of the most popular blogs in the parenting community, was the victim of a site dedicated to disparaging mommybloggers. The incident, which involved some horrible images that were created by modifying photos of innocent children, galvanized the entire parenting blog community for days. Though these parenting sites often have more readers than popular technology/media bloggers, they are less frequently covered in mainstream press. As a result, the dramatic debates that ensued didn't end up with prominent stories in traditional media, and many who have participated in the debates over the past few weeks are unaware of the incident.
- Even American Idol contestants have faced this issue: Chris Sligh, a former contestant in the current season, got death threats on his blog after posts that some perceived as slights against the show. "He attributes his toning down the jokes in recent weeks to hate-postings on his blog, telling reporters, 'I think it kind of scared me, quite honestly. I had people who were telling me that they hoped I’d die...'"
- And of course Kathy Sierra's ordeal, which has had such an impact on her life and work that she's reached a crossroads with what to do in her career going forward.
Mend it, don't end it
Now, after those examples, it's important to point out that blogging has changed millions of lives for the better. At the same time, we've been ignoring the cost it exacts on many of its most dedicated practitioners and proponents.
Because, regardless of the circumstance of any of my own anecdotes, what's instructive here is the pattern: Threats, often violent threats, are a common part of public discourse in the blogosphere. Now, they're common in other parts of the web, and on public streets and at shopping malls and schools, as well. But this is the medium that I give a damn about, and it's the medium I want to help as much as I can.
Every single person I know who has a significant public web presence has been threatened at some point, and nearly every woman in that group has faced an online threat of sexual violence.
The solution requires all of us who care about this medium to first acknowledge the truth of this situation, recognize that this is our community's responsibility, make explicit that this behavior is unacceptable, and enforce consequences for transgressions. In short, we need to encourage accountability.
And here's the challenge -- every significant effort to encourage accountability raises the hackles of the libertarian core of the technology community. Most of these people are apologists for those who resort to violent threats in lieu of reasoned debate. You will find this group falsely describing accountability as censorship, regulation or "political correctness". They will deliberately conflate the issue of accountable speech online with some infringement on the right to free speech, or will misrepresent the effort as a requirement to "only say nice things". And they will disparage those who suggest such measures as feminine or weak, using euphemisms and slurs that reveal their inherent misogyny.
Where we go from here
I'm an imperfect ambassador for this message, and I'll be the first to admit it. I've worked on the effort to create technological solutions, supported those who've spoken up about the issue, and spoken about this concern myself to nearly the point of exhaustion. But I've been ill-tempered and flown off the handle a number of times myself -- I'm sure that, having written this, someone will rush off to document exactly how.
Despite the fact that it's a difficult topic to discuss, and despite the fact that it certainly isn't the sort of conversation that attracts lots of traffic and readership, I think it's important for all of us to try to show leadership in solving the probelm. I will not settle for having the reputation of a medium I care about be compromised by the few antisocial members of our community. I will also try not to allow myself or my peers to stay complacent about the issue, because there is far too much good created by bloggers and blogging communities.
Imagine if every person who got an a telephone line had to dread the day when some anonymous stranger would call them up and threaten them over a conversation they'd had. We certainly wouldn't be carrying mobile phones around with us everywhere we go, and there wouldn't be love songs about people waiting expectantly by the phone. Blogs can, and have provided as many meaningful moments in my life as phone calls ever have; In order to make sure that other people have that potential, too, we need to be active in stopping those who threaten the medium as a whole.
- Learning From Experience, the post where I first tried to articulate some of these concerns.
- Winning at what cost? Which revisted those ideas last year.
- Call for a blogger's code of conduct by Tim O'Reilly
- Some links to Mena Trott's discussions of blogging and accountability
- President George H.W. Bush attributes a coarsening of political discourse to the incivil tone of political bloggers.
- The Old Boy's Club is for Losers, which is about the pervasive misogyny of much of the tech industry, which often fuels the incivil tone of discussion in blogs.
- Finally, bringing things somewhat full-circle, a post about a blogosphere attack cycle at Tim O'Reilly's expense. I can't help but think this helped inform Tim's initiative as well.