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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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The blogosphere is afire with repudiation of offensive speech, catalyzed by Kathy Sierra's decision to stop blogging forever (or, presumably, until such speech isn't part of the Internet—e.g., an end to flamewars). Let me start this entry by saying that I like Kathy's blog: I can't think of a single entry that I haven't enjoyed and I have tremendous respect for her as a blogger and as an evangelist for evangelism. But I'm sorry to say that this move and the mob response really rankles me.

First, I've lost some respect for Kathy because this isn't, in my experience, how strong women behave in the face of adversity or withering statements. Rather than recoiling and stifling your voice, I think a strong person would shout louder. The person or people responsible for the statements she cites want her to shut up, they want her to stop blogging. Complying with such demands just emboldens them in the future.

The cry of misogyny seems misplaced to me because the vile statements and epithets were directed at Kathy Sierra. They strike me as hatred of one woman, not women in general. Maybe the posters are misogynists, maybe they aren't. With anonymity comes the inability to distinguish between copycats and amplifiers. You just can't know that two people going by the same name are the same person or vice versa.

Further, as death threats go, they seem pretty low-key. Michelle Malkin's litany of death threats she's compiled is pretty scary. The worst offense that I read was about desiring to see her in a noose. Maybe I've got thicker skin, but that doesn't seem specific—something I think actionable death threats have to be to get the police involved. Intimidation isn't the same as death threats; let's not conflate bullying with thuggery.

The response from the blogosphere has alternated between self-serving statements like Robert Scoble's staging a sympathy blogging strike for a week and falling over themselves to deplore those making the comments. Meanwhile, the story got picked up by the BBC and the San Francisco Chronicle. Traffic and discussion have surged to the blogs that have covered this story, but I'm sure no one could possibly have had that in mind in making their public denunciations. (I am well aware of the irony of me making an entry about this story. But I don't have traffic, don't expect any from this, and am only writing this because the whole thing bugs me.)

To my mind, this is the latest in the Trottist campaign for civility. Nearly every one of the screeds I've read admonishing the perpetrators (including Kathy's original entry) position this as a threat to the blogging world. It's as if this sort of behavior is the norm or even an insidious part of the blogosphere. In my travels (and online they're extensive), I've come across plenty of incivility but rarely threats. I've had a few on my blogs (even on my family one) and I've had some illicit requests for my daughter's picture. They rattled me every time. But I did what was ultimately within my power: deleted the comments, banned the IPs, removed the pictures, and changed my behavior for the future. I didn't stop blogging; I just started blogging better. If someone threatened my life, I'd brush it off unless I had some reason to believe that it wasn't just talk. Like if they were left on my voice mail or nailed to my door. A comment on a public site is just too easy to make. I'd want to see that the person had made some effort to inject himself into my life.

For the record, I think the comments left were disgusting, rude, and inappropriate. Death threats? Maybe, but I don't really know the law. I think there's a bunch of overreaction from nearly everyone involved. The proper response is to delete the comments if it's within your power, ignore the specific participants (they'd love the attention and traffic), and publicly state your indefatigability. Anything less plays right into their hands.

[UPDATE: Oh, I reread Kathy's entry. I think talking about slitting someone's throat is worse than the noose comment. So it's more vile than I originally read. Still too vague to be a death threat to my mind. Also, on further reflection, I think parents should do whatever they think is best to protect their children and families. So while I wouldn't have expected Kathy to close up shop, I can't exactly fault her for it if she thought her family was at risk.]

[UPDATE (4/2/2007): Kathy's posted a blog entry. It notes that she's going to be on CNN today talking about this. Scoble notes that he was supposed to be on that program too, but he got cut. This all seems more and more disingenuous as it plays out. Death threats are no laughing matter, but shouldn't we reserve the outrage and fear for when they're credible?]

[UPDATE 2 (4/2/2007): This is a good article on the subject from Kuro5hin.]