You are your own words

I’ve been following the upsetting story of how Kathy Sierra, creator of the Head First book series, author of the Creating Passionate Users weblog, and noted speaker on the web / technology circuit was frightened into cancelling her scheduled appearance at eTech by a series of escalating threats to her personal safety in the form of email messages sent directly to her by readers and posts to several community blogs, now defunct, oriented toward taking pot shots at the more famous and popular bloggers.

Bloggers, her readers, and people learning about the story from news and blog sources have generally rallied to support Sierra. The long comment thread at the end of her post announcing the cancellation and detailing the communications that terrorized her attests to that. A number of people have quibbled with her interpretation of the messages, told her “man up” and to stop being hysterical, or have accused her of manufacturing her response as a public relations / marketing ploy.

Myself, I’ve been known to be verbally mean at time, to pick on people, to be saracstic and snarky when it suits me, but the two sites (“Mean Kids” and “Bob’s Yer Uncle”), ostensibly designed to encourage freewheeling, humorous, creative criticism, puncturing the puffed up much like certain gossip blogs do for the true celebrities in our culture, somehow gave free rein to a much more virulent form of attack: unbridled misogyny edging into images of sexual violence and horror.

It’s a dirty little secret of our world that hierarchies are sometimes enforced, under the cover of darkness, by sexualized threats of violence and domineering acts of humiliation. It’s more visible in lockerrooms, prisons, and other sealed male enclaves, but it may stem from primate behaviors that predate our humanity and it carries on to this day inside families and, at least in symbolic form, in public communication.

What struck me about this situation is how the worst attacks – revenge fantasies described in cartoonish pornographic terms, tend to have come from people writing under the cloak of anonymity, or deniability (for example, it’s still not clear if the posts associated with Alan “Head Lemur” Herrel cited in Sierra’s blog entry are actually by the man who goes by the nickname).

On Slashdot, no haven of civilized discourse, a poster who refuses to register and adopt a consistent persona is given the default name “Anonymous Coward.” Throughout the generally supportive comments flooding into Sierra’s blog post are peppered juvenile hit-and-run posts attacking her or making random racist and sexist comments. These comments are inevitably posted anonymously, and associated with made-up email addresses or urls.

In the political blogosphere, where this sort of situation is less uncommon, there is an ongoing debate about the role of pseudonymity in blogs. A number of Sierra’s readers were sent there via the conservative blog, Protein Wisdom, whose author experienced a similar verbal attack from a commenter featuring vile “hypothetical” threats of sexualized violence (in that case targetting children, if I recall correctly). At the same time, the author of Protein Wisdom, Jeff Goldstein, is often criticized in the sort of left-wing blogs I frequent for engaging in threats to “out” pseudonymous bloggers while at the same time claiming to stand for civiility and sponsoring a set of ethical guidelines for bloggers.

Defenders of pseudonymous blogging make the point that not everyone is free to speak in public about political and social matters without fear of retaliation. Further, they argue that it is the persistence and consistency their assumed identity to which their reputation attaches, and that a perosn posting day in, day out, for years, as Sifu Tweety or Atrios is every bit as accountable for his (or her) words as someone signing their posts with a “real” name.

In Sierra’s explanatory post she called on several bloggers by name, blaming them for instigating the climate that incubated these attacks and for allowing them to escalate. She also cited a few less well known identities: one calling himself Siftee, who sent her a threatening email message, and another signing his posts Joey, who wrote apparently about a fictional character named Kat in misogynistic terms in the vicinity of posts attacking Kathy Sierra.

Of the contributors to Mean Kids, only Frank Paynter has come forward to apologize, without reservation, for his role, however inadvertant, in the development of this situation. I consider Frank a friend based solely on a shared history of reading each other’s bloggings, occasionally linking to each other, and even more rarely exchanging brief notes. I’m connected to Frank through Twitter and older social network environments and I admire his forthrightness in this situation.

Jeneane Sessums and Chris “RageBoy” Locke have been less willing to apologize or to own any responsibility for what happened. Sessums disclaimed any involvement at all with the sites although others seem to believe she was involved with the Mean Kids project. She has also refused to discuss the topic further in public. Locke argued that he did not write any of the sexually crude scenarios or send any threats and that hence Sierra invoked his name only to drive attention and embroil him in her controversy.

I feel that both of these people could have made an apology and still attempted to clarify their own culpability while distancing themselves from the statements they wish to disown.

Finally, “Joey” and a fellow named Paul Ritchie have mounted a more aggressive defense of themselves and the Mean Kids and Bob’s websites, arguing the Sierra is deliberately grandstanding and deluding her readers in order to form a lynch mob online, drive more sales to her books and increase her speaking fees.

I do not find these arguments compelling and I am not sympathetic, partly because neither of them seems willing to repudiate the grossly indecent verbal attacks on Sierra (nor the violently misogynistic fantasies involving imaginary stock female figures).

What I will grant is that all of the people I just mentioned have to some extent been willing to go on the record and produce themselves in public in the aftermath of Sierra’s accusations, cancellation, and self-enforced seclusion.

Thus far I have not seen a public statement from Alan Herrel either claiming or disowning the misogynistic entries Sierra included in her blog post, which were posted under the name “Rev ED” on the Bob’s site using his familiar avatar.

Both Paynter and Locke cited a motto from the Well known as “You own your own words” or “YOYOW,” and I find this interesting. Paynter referred to it when discussing how the two snark sites did not censor their contributors, saying “Misogynistic postings at MeanKids.org led me to try to moderate, but indeed the group there was of the ‘You Own Your Own Words’ tradition, so moderating or central editorial control wouldn’t work. I tore the site down.”

Locke likewise cited YOYOW in his defense of himself on his own blog:

I was a conference host on the Well 15 years ago where the core ethos was acronymized to YOYOW — You Own Your Own Words. This has remained a guiding principle for me ever since. I will not take responsibility for what someone else said, nor will I censor what another individual wrote. However, it was clear that Sierra was upset, so it seemed the best course to make the whole site go away.

(I know Locke only by reputation but have exchanged email with him in the past.)

What struck me about this is that I think they both may be missing some of the key elements of that philosophy. On the Well, while contributors may adopt pseudonyms at any time, their real names are always discoverable and each user is allowed only one single identity. This has long been considered a key reason why so many Well conferences manage to stay on topic and avoid the sort of flame wars that tend to eventually ravage utterly free-wheeling online discussions.

Furthermore, Well conferences are hosted, and hosts are given a handful of moderation tools and guidelines for how to use them to manage situations that are spinning out of control and contributors who are causing grief. These tools range from verbal warnings to the ability to hide or scribble offending posts to the power to ban members from the conference entirely (usually for a limited three-day cooling-off period).

When people can post whatever they like without having to accept any impact on their own reputation or identity, when they don’t establish and maintain a consistent findable presence online, then they are not in fact owning their own words. I don’t think the YOYOW ethos is intended as an excuse for moderators to avoid managing the tenor of their discussion forums, and I find it interesting that the people involved who have at least engaged Sierra’s complaints are all, except for Joey, people writing under their real names or who have at least established longstanding records of their thoughts online under their chosen handles. (Sessum specifically points to her blog archives as a character witness.)

One last point about owning your own words: To varying degrees Joey, Ritchie, and Locke have argued that Sierra is victimizing them by associating them with words they did not write or by painting them as part of an organized conspiracy when anarchy and permissiveness are all they actually engaged in. Here I think owning your own words again comes into play. If you gleefully call yourself a mean kid and stand on the sidelines egging on bullies, don’t cry foul when the bullies’ victims fight back and you find yourself tarred with the same brush.

UPDATE: I see that Doc Searls has posted an email message from Alan Herrel denying authorship of the post that used his avatar and saying that this scandal has effectively destroyed his online presence. Reading his words I feel sympathy for him, particularly if his systems are being attacked as he describes and if he is being harassed off the net, but I still find myself wondering whether he distanced himself from the person who had assumed his image when the inflammatory comments were originally published.

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2 Responses to “You are your own words”

  1. fp Says:

    Xian, I’ve sent you a note in response to the comment you left at my place. I’m still not up for much elaboration or dialog… more will be forthcoming, but the situation seems too delicate to try to pull all the pieces together for the public right now. People have been hurt. Some are still in pain, some are moving through it. The world doesn’t owe the blogosphere instantaneous response and gratification, i’m sur you will agree. I just stopped in to say that I think you are right-on in your assessment of YOYOW is a value that requires a consistent identity.

  2. M. Edward (Ed) Borasky Says:

    Well … count me as a supporter of Kathy Sierra. I’m not sure how to go about with that just yet. I’ve made a few comments about this brouhaha elsewhere, which I won’t repeat here.
    But quite frankly, if Kathy Sierra is scared, I’m scared. I’m in the process of reducing my exposure on the Internet as a result of this episode, and I think the prudent among us are following suit. It’s just not worth the headaches.

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