Monday, April 02, 2007

Free speech free-for-all

There's a blog I read sometimes, Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users. Recently, though, I've been bogged down with other obligations, and haven't been keeping up with any of the blog-reading I normally do. So when Digital Medievalist pointed me at this post, I was completely gobsmacked.

And not in a good way.

I don't read a lot of IT blogs -- the geek culture is way over my head, and I don't move in those circles, for the most part. One of the very nice things about Kathy Sierra's blog is that it's cheerful, optimistic, and the language is accessible. So it was both horrible and confusing to see her so distressed, and perplexing in the extreme to try to comprehend what sort of raving lunatic would post death threats and graphic and disturbing images about Ms. Sierra in the comment-threads on another blog site (since removed by the owners.)

Last week, Ms. Sierra wrote: "As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I'm not. I'm at home, with the doors locked, terrified. For the last four weeks, I've been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that's not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs... blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers."

The story has continued, and there's apparently been some resolution between the involved parties. Here are the links:

Frank Paynter's response

Chris Locke's original response

Ms. Sierra posted this morning:

"But these stories should not be about me... I am simply one of a gazillion examples about what's happening today both on and offline. Nor is it a simple Nice Vs. Bully story, and I thought having us come to an understanding would encourage others to stop fighting on either of our behalves and try to listen first, and then talk, and maybe something good and useful really will come of this.

"Although I've learned a lot in the last few days, I still do not know who made the unclebobism photo post, or why, or whether that person is a real threat. That part of the story has continued to devolve in even scarier ways.

"So, this is the last post I'll make for some time, and I've closed comments because I cannot keep up with the hateful ones (including those that post my home address and social security number, etc.)"

Since the whole thing blew up last week, there have been a variety of responses on blogs everywhere, ranging from a complete lack of anything resembling sympathy and understanding as to why it's frightening and horrible for anyone to see comments like: "fuck off you boring slut... i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob" to Tim O'Reilly's call for a blogger code of ethics.

What I want to talk about are these key bits from the Kathy Sierra/Chris Locke joint statement
posted yesterday.

KS: We've become so desensitized to vile comments on the net that many people can't comprehend why I would feel threatened. But if we dismiss every cruel, vile, sexually threatening comment as simply the work of an anonymous troll, we will no longer be able to recognize a real threat. Are we willing to stake our mother/sister/daughter's life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless?

That said, Chris and I are in complete agreement that it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange. My desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits.

CL: There is much more to say about this experience that can't be unpacked in such a brief statement. There is time yet for more balanced articles to be written, less heated conversations to take place. Misogyny is real -- and vile. Violence against women is wrong. It must not be tolerated. This issue should be explored and discussed, not swept under the rug, not rationalized away. At the same time, we need to look closely and carefully at the implications for free speech. The First Amendment allows and protects language that many find noxious. But there are forces in the world at present -- not least in the US -- that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange.
Tim O'Reilly points out:

There's an attitude among many bloggers that deleting inflammatory comments is censorship. I think that needs to change. I'm not suggesting that every blog will want to delete such comments, but I am suggesting that blogs that do want to keep the level of dialog at a higher level not be censured for doing so.

There are many real-world analogies. Shock radio hosts encourage abusive callers; a mainstream talk radio show like NPR's Talk of the Nation wouldn't hesitate to cut someone off who started spewing hatred and abuse. Frat parties might encourage drunken lewdness, but a party at a tech conference would not. Setting standards for acceptable behavior in a forum you control is conducive to free speech, not damaging to it.

We do all have our trolls. (I'd wave at mine, here, but I don't think they actually read anything I write.)

And there's something that happens to some people, sometimes, when they feel fairly anonymous and angry at the same time -- and they go right off into the stratosphere, foaming at the mouth. Blogs have been home to a number of such skirmishes. Hell, I've had numerous shots taken at me, from other blogs--nothing approaching death threats and photo-shopped pictures with nooses--but certainly the occasional incoherent rant with sort of vague "or else" kinds of threats. (Not going to link. Entertaining as it might be, they don't actually deserve the traffic and can't get it on their own.)

So. How do we find the balance? I think good people have to speak up, when things go to hell in a comment string. I think we have to self-police. I think, when someone says something that's clearly horrible and inflammatory, we stuff 'em in a box. Embarrass them. Shame them into either adhering to community standards, or exile them by deletion and/or blocking.

This means that our individual communities need to have standards, though -- so the resulting gestalt of the blogosphere in general will gradually begin to reflect that more individualized culture of responsibility. It seems rather overwhelming, if you look at any statistics at all about how fast new blogs are popping up, let alone podcasts and vlogs.

Which means that we must take responsibility for our own words wherever we are on the web. And stop excusing those who don't. And when someone does something actually egregious and illegal, we cannot dismiss it with, "Well, it's the internet. People talk trash. It doesn't mean anything."

Because words do have meaning.


Anonymous said...

This behavior is not harmless at all.

I think the First Amendment argument misses the point. Nobody is throwing these people in jail based on a criminal statute. Just as people are "free" to post inflammatory comments, we are "free" to react and try to limit them. The First Amendment only covers the actions of the government to suppress speech.

I find that having a counter with visit statistics is a powerful tool. You can match up the time of comments with the time of visits, then drop the commenter a note about his/her IP address and internet service provider. If you take the anonymity buffer away, people's behavior changes very quickly.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Mac. I've been following this fire storm, too, and I agree with you that agreeing on community standards, and both the moderators and commenters then enforcing them, are crucial to fostering useful discussion online.

Mac said...

Jason, I think there's a defense to be made for giving people anonymity, though -- at least until they abuse it.

Laura, yes. If we don't take responsibility ourselves, someone will most assuredly make those decisions for us.

Anonymous said...

As one friend of mine put it, "God forbid our right to intimidate and threaten others should beh restricted."

Rafting Bear said...

Good posts, all. Especially Laura's comment regarding intimidating others.

I'm certain that what the Founding Fathers had in mind was constructive speech: Statements, not attacks. In their era, vile attacks could indeed be made with the pen (which, they knew, was "mightier than the sword") but such attacks were usually of the person's argument, never included death threats, and weren't often anonymous.

I absolutely agree that comments must be monitored, unless the blogger wants a free-for-all. Which is fine. But I don't on mine, which is why my blog is set up to ask me to validate comments. I wouldn't refuse to validate anyone who disagreed with me, but I sure wouldn't validate a death threat or any other unruly comment that was hurtful to a person or unrelated to the issue at hand.

David W. Clary said...

Come on, Mac. SOME of your trolls read your stuff.

I mean, er...

Nothing to see here.. move along!

Anonymous said...

The amount of free speech we yield is equal to the amount of consequence we are willing to endure. Hope you are well and that AW is running to your expectations.

Anonymous said...

Someone wrote "We've become so desensitized to vile comments on the net that many people can't comprehend why I would feel threatened ..."

I have a severe anxiety disorder, and ALWAYS feel threatened by online abuse. I've had to stay away from what might be rewarding websites on doctor's orders.

What ever happened to courtesy in our culture ?

Anonymous said...

If I am not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem. I don't go to blog sites or air my personal behavior out where any psycho can pick it up and run with it. Why would I do that? I don't need the acceptance of the masses. I am not an exibitionist. I have a private diary, at home, where I "HP" journal. I share with people I know and trust and I don't treat this new toy like some harmless way to express myself.

Julie said...

I find this disturbing because I have had this happen before. Yes, some are just trolls looking for excitement and infamy. But if you have ever had one of these people show up at your door, you would never just brush this sort of thing off.

It's scary. It can turn out very badly. I hope that your friend is ok and that everything turns out for the best. She should never have had to go through this sort of thing.