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March 27, 2007

Dehumanizing the blogosphere

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I’m sure by this point in the day most of you have read about the disturbing situation affecting Kathy Sierra, the brilliant voice of the Creating Passionate Users blog. As a woman, as a blogger, and as a member of this space, the past 24 hours have been filled with me wanting to say something, but not really knowing what to say. And though I’m somewhat at a loss, I feel like some comment is needed, even if it’s just to say that what occurred is unacceptable and there’s no room in the blogosphere for hate speech.

In case you missed the mob-like TechMeme coverage, Kathy, a voice we’ve quoted, revered and bowed to on more than one occasion, left something in my feed reader yesterday that I wasn’t quite ready for.

She 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"

I’ll be honest. When I first read her post I thought she was kidding. I thought she was leading up to some Dooce-like joke that would cause me to spurt water all over my monitor. But she wasn’t kidding. Anonymous blog commenters really did threaten her safety with death threats. Threats that were filled with misogyny, hatred, sexual references, and disgusting imagery. Sadly, she’s not the only one receiving them and the threats are coming from well-known blogs.

My first reaction was to be completely disgusted. Many bloggers have their haters. They say it comes with the territory. But it’s different when those haters are not attacking what you write, but instead attacking your person. It’s different when you’re a female and your right to feel safe has been violated. And no, this isn’t a new phenomenon, and it doesn’t only affect women, but all of that makes it worse, not better.

There’s something about the Web and our ability to make seemingly "anonymous" comments that creates an environment where people think they have the right to say anything they want about someone under the guise of "free speech". There’s something very dehumanizing about it. Just because bloggers become "familiar" doesn’t mean they’re open targets for hate speech.

It’s possible these people are kidding and just have too much time on their hands, but the anonymity of the Web means you don’t know that. And, really, it doesn’t matter if they’re legitimate or not. As Kathy says, it’s the threat itself that inflicts the damage. It’s that threat that changes you.

It doesn’t matter if the commenter threatened to slap you but has no intention of actually doing it. It doesn’t matter if the commenter threatened to drive by your home, and he’s really an 8-year-old boy inside playing Wii. The threat was made and it’s there.

The reason Kathy’s case is so compelling is because we got to see the line being crossed and we all witnessed Kathy’s sincere reaction to it. It’s like seeing your mom cry for the first time; it kind of stops you in your tracks.

As a result of the threat, Kathy’s now debating whether or not to continue on with her blog. Understandably, she says:

"I do not want to be part of a culture–the Blogosphere–where this is considered acceptable. Where the price for being a blogger is kevlar-coated skin and daughters who are tough enough to not have their “widdy biddy sensibilities offended” when they see their own mother Photoshopped into nothing more than an objectified sexual orifice, possibly suffocated as part of some sexual fetish. (And of course all coming on the heels of more explicit threats)"

I don’t think any of us want to be a part of that culture. The comments made regarding Kathy are disturbing, disgusting, and wrong on every conceivable level. We have to fix this culture if we’re going to continue to be a part of it.

What’s most infuriating to me is to see someone as brilliant as Kathy silenced. She’s given a lot to this industry. Without her blogging, her attendance at conferences and trade shows, without her voice, we all lose out. There are a lot of things that can be taken from people, but their voice should never be one of them. I’ve fought that battle my entire life.

It only takes a few crazy eggs to spoil the openness of the blogosphere. As citizens of this space, we shouldn’t tolerate hate speech of abuse of any kind. There’s just no room or reason for it.





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