When the wisdom of crowds is replaced by the rule of the mob
Step into my minefield. Because, yes, I am going to comment on the Kathy Sierra/meankids blogstorm, and I already know that many of my friends will not agree with me. But I will soldier on.
I'm appalled that Kathy Sierra got death threats, as I would be about anyone who got death threats. I think the posts about Maryam Scoble and Ms. Sierra were vile and wholeheartedly agree with the critcisms of them. They cross the line. Legitimate, satirical criticism of the ideas of a public figure is one thing. Personal, vicious attacks are another. Especially under a cloak of anonymity.
I feel for Ms. Sierra, and anyone else who has been the victim of similar abuse and threats, and in no way want to dismiss their feelings or encourage on- or off-line misogyny. However, the public linkage of the anonymous death threats to the meankids site contributors disturbs me. It is trying these people in the court of public opinion, where, let's be frank, the standards of evidence are not so strict.
"Tell me sir, when did you stop beating your wife?"
Now, I don't know any of the antagonists in this tale particularly well other than through their public writing. I've exchanged a few emails over the past couple of years with Chris Locke, mostly about our mutual obsession with the television show Battlestar Galactica. I worked with Jeneane Sessum once on a teleconference organized by mutual friend Toby Bloomberg. That's it. I don't know Frank Paynter, Alan Herrell or Kathy Sierra personally at all. Until this disaster, I would say that they were all highly respected in the blogosphere. Now?
The wisdom of crowds has been replaced by the rule of the mob, which has tried and convicted Locke and friends, without really bothering all that much about the other side of the story. That this other side includes the fact that they were part of the meankids, and some were part of the successor uncle bob (or whatever it was called), doesn't seem to be in much dispute. As such, perhaps they share responsibility, whether they wrote the posts or not, for the unpleasant posts about Ms. Scoble and Ms. Sierra.
But it is a gigantic leap to then link them, by name, to the anonymous death threats. To be fair, Ms. Sierra's post did not accuse them, but the inference is definitely there. And that's pretty much what the blog mob went with. Everything got muddled together, and the rush to judgment was intense.
One could be guilty simply by association. For example, BlogHer, mentioned in Ms.Sierra's post, came in for a little mob abuse. Read BlogHer co-founder Lisa Stone's excellent response.
I even got my small share simply because I had linked to meankids once, in its very early days when it had some amusing stuff related to the whole Locke/Tara Hunt blog spat. The site didn't stay at that level of satire, and I soon stopped reading it. Nevertheless, on Monday, someone left a snide comment on my blog implying that I was involved. I corrected that assumption immediately in my comments, but started to think: What does this mean for linking, for the conversation, if you run the risk of being held accountable for the actions of another site? Especially as in this case, when it diverges from what you liked, and linked, initially.
Now, let's turn from the rule of the mob to the offensive posts themselves.
Did meankids get a whole lot meaner? Apparently. Was bad judgment used? Probably. Do dark corners exist on the Web that exploit women, children, minorities? Absolutely. Is hate speech alive on the Internet? No question. I spent 10 years of my career working in the Internet and spam filtering industry and I can assure you, I have seen just about everything you can imagine. And some stuff you can't.
Were the posts about Ms. Scoble and Ms. Sierra vile, beyond the pale, bordering on hate speech? Absolutely. Did they "ask for it," simply by being public persons? Absolutely not, and anyone who makes that argument has missed the point completely. They don't deserve such abuse and neither does anyone else. However, as Michelle Malkin pointed out, it happens all the time. Public persons have to deal with everything from spoof and gossip Web sites to obscene snail and email, stalkers and the occasional death threat. Sometimes, it is intended to be funny and unfortunately crosses that fine line between humour and hate. Sometimes the material is simply hurtful. And sometimes, it is as, or more, unpleasant than the photoshopped images of Ms. Sierra.
When we blog under our own names, bloggers become public figures . When you become a public person, you give up some small measure of your privacy in exchange for recognition, celebrity, fame, etc. For most of us, the exchange is a positive one; we get more than we lose. Most of the time. But we can't pick and choose what parts of recognition we want, and what parts we don't. It just doesn't work that way. It's like the movie star who drives his way to the top, gets the fame and fortune he wanted, and then complains that the fans invade his privacy.
It's not right that we have to deal with trolls and hate speech and all those other things that come with being a public person. But absent a complete and total cultural shift, we have to deal with it. It is part of the price. We only can choose HOW we deal with it.
I agree with Michelle Malkin, and as a die-hard liberal, you know how hard that was for me to write. From her blog post referenced above:
"My response to this and other endless slurs and threats--most empty, some serious--has been two-fold:
1) Report the serious threats to law enforcement.
2) Keep blogging."
You can also choose to not be a public person. By blogging anonymously or in a gated community. Or by not blogging at all. But if you want the goodness that comes with being a well-read, well-respected blogger and expert in your field, you've got to be prepared for the badness. And as we've seen, it can get pretty bad.
And there is a corollary to this: you can't just get upset about bad behavior when it affects your "friends." You have to be just as willing to stand up and say it is wrong when it is your "enemy" being attacked as when it is your friend.
Now, today is "stop cyber bullying day," and I think that's a terrific idea. But the problem is, we have to do things for more than one day. If you are appalled at violence against women, don't just write a post and make some noise this week. Do something tangible next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. Instead of selling your old clothes on eBay, donate them to a local woman's shelter. Volunteer. Cancel your subscription to Maxxim. Whatever.
Cyber bullying bad? Sure it is. Stop it. And don't limit your definition of cyber bullying to just those behaviors that you don't like, done by the people you don't like. Cyber bullying doesn't have to be obscene or profane. It can simply be throwing your weight, and your words, around with an intent to dominate the discussion.
So, please look in the mirror, too.
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