Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kathy Sierra, misogyny on the web, and the Blogger's Code of Conduct

Kathy Sierra. I saw Kathy Sierra speak at Webstock last year. She was funny, fascinating, inspirational and passionate. I wrote a pretty glowing review of her presentation - because it was absolutely excellent. Kathy took the time to read it, and then sent me a comment thanking me for it. Very impressive!

So who is this Kathy person? Until recently she wrote a blog called Creating Passionate Users, which had a Technorati rating of around 60. Sun Microsystems have formally recognized her as one of their top three Java instructors in the world. Kathy founded, one of the most successful technology sites on the web. She has co-authored a whole bunch of books over the years - bestselling technology books on topics including Java, HTML, and software design patterns. So she's a pretty well-known online person, and a popular blogger, but hardly a controversial one.

Recently things have not been going so well for Kathy, as many of you will already know. For some unknown reason (professional jealousy? spite? mean-heartedness?) she's recently become the target of some pretty nasty online harrassment (okay, that's too weak a word for it - she's been getting death threats, and threats of violence including graphic descriptions of sexual violence against her), which began in the comments section of her own blog, Creating Passionate Users.

These then spread to a number of other blogs, where the vitriol and misogyny got very nasty indeed, and included some pretty horrible photoshopped images of her - one with her head next to a noose, and another of her being suffocated by a pair of panties. An anonymous person also published Kathy's home address in the comments section of her own blog.

You can read her own account of what happened here: Death threats against bloggers are NOT "protected speech" (why I cancelled my ETech presentations). Kathy contacted police, who took her concerns very seriously. Then she cancelled her upcoming presentations at ETech. Now she's stopped blogging. She's trying to figure out what she should do professionally, trying to find a solution that will allow her to continue exploring her thoughts on usability and software design, while at the same time giving herself a much lower public profile.

I think one of the things that was most worrying was that the blogs where the nastiest comments appeared were run/owned by prominent bloggers and people in the same industry as Kathy. People who in some cases she knew (or knew of), and people who were likely to be attending, or speaking at the same conferences as her. In other words, her peers.

There have been a range of responses to Kathy's revelations on her blog. Follow me below the fold...

The first (and worst) is that it has resulted in an even more intense level of online vitriol against her, with her social security number and other personal info being published, along with a whole bunch of lies about her, and yet more abuse.

The second is that a number of her peers, and some people in the wider blogging community (who should know better) have chastised her for "over-reacting" to the death threats. They've basically told her that as a blogger she should expect this kind of stuff, that she should grow a thicker skin, and that "if she can't stand the heat, she should get out of the kitchen".

Since when has it been mandatory to have flame-proof skin, just because you happen to be a thoughtful, intelligent person who has something to say about - whatever - and you choose to say it online? Do the people who made these comments truly believe that if you can't handle online death threats, you shouldn't be allowed to blog - or that you should accept this as the norm, as something that "goes with the territory?"

What if you don't have the skin of a rhinocerous? Or what if you do have pretty thick skin, but threats of sexual violence towards you are a step too far for you? Does that mean you should just step back into the shadows without a word, or that you should stop doing that which you're best at - because you're not tough enough to handle death threats?

The third response to Kathy's experience has been from a large number of other women on the web, who have come out and said "yes - I've experienced my share of online sexism, misogyny, and personal attacks on me because I'm a woman - and it is accepted by many as 'the norm' and it is NOT OK". People like Joan Walsh on who wrote a piece entitled Men who hate women on the Web. She writes:

I avoided writing about the mess for a day or two because I had mixed feelings about it. Ever since Salon automated its letters, it's been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men -- sometimes nakedly sexist, sometimes less obviously so; sometimes sexually and/or personally degrading. But I've never admitted the toll our letters can sometimes take on women writers at Salon, myself included, because admitting it would be giving misogynist losers -- and these are the posters I'm talking about -- power. Still, I've come to think that denying it gives them another kind of power, and I'm trying to sort that out by thinking about the Kathy Sierra mess in all its complexity.

People like Jessica Valenti, editor of, who wrote about How the web became a sexists' paradise in The Guardian. In it she writes:
Last year I had my own run-in with online sexism when I was invited to a lunch meeting with Bill Clinton, along with a handful of other bloggers. After the meeting, a group photo of the attendees with Clinton was posted on several websites, and it wasn't long before comments about my appearance ("Who's the intern?; "I do like Gray Shirt's three-quarter pose.") started popping up.

One website, run by law professor and occasional New York Times columnist Ann Althouse, devoted an entire article to how I was "posing" so as to "make [my] breasts as obvious as possible". The post, titled "Let's take a closer look at those breasts," ended up with over 500 comments. Most were about my body, my perceived whorishness, and how I couldn't possibly be a good feminist because I had the gall to show up to a meeting with my breasts in tow. One commenter even created a limerick about me giving oral sex. Althouse herself said that I should have "worn a beret... a blue dress would have been good too". All this on the basis of a photograph of me in a crew-neck sweater from Gap.

I won't even get into the hundreds of other blogs and websites that linked to the "controversy." It was, without doubt, the most humiliating experience of my life - all because I dared be photographed with a political figure.

It's clear that there's an issue here - and there's research that clearly shows it. Michel Cukier, professor at the University of Maryland's Center for Risk and Reliability, authored a study last year where:
...automated chat-bots and human researchers logged on to chat rooms under female, male and ambiguous screen names, such as Nightwolf, Orgoth and Stargazer.

Bots using female names averaged 100 malicious messages a day, compared with about four for those using male names and about 25 for those with ambiguous names. Researchers logging on themselves produced similar results.

You read it right. 100 malicious messages a day if you have a female screenname, 4 if your screenname is recognisably male. 100:4 - so you are 25 times as likely to get hassled in a chatroom if you are perceived to be female, than if you are perceived to be male. Niiiiice. Here's a more detailed article about the research from ScienceDaily - Female-name Chat Users Get 25 Times More Malicious Messages.

And then there's this piece from the Washington Post - Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web about a widely read message board on AutoAdmit, run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent. The piece details the online harrasment experienced by a number of women at law school who had nothing to do with the message board - until they found their photos being posted on the board, accompanied by comments about their looks, their character, and speculation about what they'd be like in bed, what commenters would like to do to them in bed, and encouragement by some commenters that others should take photos of these women at the gym and post them on the board.
The law-school board, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as "the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world." It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets' dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google's powerful search engine.

The piece in the Washington Post was followed up by a poster on Feministe, Jill, who wrote this piece - Hi, I’m Jill, and scummy law school sleazebags have gone after me, too which includes the following:
The WaPo article is about AutoAdmit, a law-school-oriented message board that is, essentially, a massive toilet of racism and sexism (not linking to the site - google if you’re interested). I've written about AutoAdmit before, when I found out that they were posting numerous pictures of me, making comments about raping and hate-fucking me, and debating whether or not I was fuckable or a stupid fat bitch. I'm hardly the only person they've gone after. While many of the threads on the message board are about law-school-related issues, they're mostly obnoxious in some way or another. There's an obsession with "prestige," and commenters regularly disparage lower-tier schools, and use the term "TTT" to denote anything they consider not good enough.

The website ReputationDefender has since been set up, both to shine a light on the nastiness at AutoAdmit, and also as an attempt to balance out the fact that many of the sexist and misogynystic comments at AutoAdmit show high up in Google search results for these women.

It seems as though Kathy's experience, and her response to it, and others' responses to her response has acted a something of a catalyst within the blogging community. Sara at Orcinus writes about it here - Virtual Hate Crimes - where she says:
And that's what concerns me here. Metaphorically, the Web is analogous to a public street or meeting hall, and most of us adhere to the same social conventions that we'd use in real-world public places. Women may get whistles and cat-calls (which are every bit as annoying online as they are on a city street -- and, fortunately, as ignorable as well); but by and large, we reasonably expect that men will let common courtesy govern their interactions with us.

But if you read her blog, it's obvious that Sierra's attackers weren't adhering to anything like the town square behavior code. (To make the point: if a gang of men had surrounded her and threatened her with rape and murder on a city street, she could have called the cops and had them put away for a long, long time.) Instead, everything about these attacks suggests that those responsible assumed they had a war zone exemption, which suspends accountability for even the most extreme forms of violence against women. Which tells me that, somewhere in their minds, these guys no longer recognize the Web as a community, or the women they meet there as legitimate and equal members of that community. Instead, they see it as a battlefield, where violence is the expected norm. In this imaginary war zone, any woman who's out in public without male escort has already forfeited any claim to dignity or life.

And finally we arrive at the response to Kathy's response that has garnered absolutely the loudest jeers, put-downs and cries of "free speech!" and "no censorship!" and "it's my blog and I'll do what I damn well like!" - Tim O'Reilly's Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct in which he suggested the following guidelines:
  1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog

  2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments

  3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments

  4. Ignore the trolls

  5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so

  6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so

  7. Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person

I would agree in principle with most of these suggestions, except perhaps for the eliminating anonymous comments one - many people online have perfectly valid reasons for wating to remain anonymous - and I certainly agree with his last point about saying nothing online that you wouldn't say in person.

Tim's initial post was misunderstood by many in the blogging community, who took it as an attempt to limit their freedom of speech and to set up a kind of "blogging police" who would march around in cyberspace shutting down blogs that didn't conform to the guidelines, or suing blog owners who didn't remove offensive comments from their blogs. Tim attempted to clarify his initial post with another entitled Draft Blogger's Code of Conduct, but in some ways it just made things worse (read the comments and the linked-to posts about his post). Finally he posted Code of Conduct: Lessons Learned So Far. I like what he has to say in the comments section:
Here's how the "code of conduct" would have helped the Kathy Sierra thing:

Social mores are the prevailing values of a group. One of the "values" of the internet is that unfettered speech is better than any restriction. This keeps people who might have spoken up sooner about a conversation getting out of hand from saying anything. If the prevailing value is that you can say what you want to say without being insulting, and comments that are offensive in various ways are deleted, the general tenor of conversation becomes higher.

The point is that we tolerate on our blogs a style of conversation that we would never tolerate from people in our physical presence. Taunting, bullying, nastiness are not OK, and the fact that they are happening in comments on a blog or on a mailing list doesn't make them OK.

I'm trying to change the general perception of what's OK.

I have little faith that a Blogger's Code of Conduct would, in itself, stop the nutjobs out there from doing what they do. People who are determined to go online and deliberately hurt people (or worse, go out there in real life and deliberately hurt people) aren't going to be put off by some "let's all be civilised about this" set of online guidelines. But I do agree with Tim that it's time we took another look at our perceptions of what is and isn't OK, and made a concerted effort to change them.

It's not that many years ago that the "N-word" was an acceptable word to use when describing a person of colour. Now it's not. Not in general conversation, anyway. And no, I'm not saying the fact that the N-word is now frowned upon has eliminated racism. What I am saying is that it's no longer acceptable to be openly racist - and that anyone who still espouses racist views is immediately recognisable as such - because much of the background noise has been eliminated. It will take many more years (if ever) for racism, sexism, homophobia etc to be completely removed from our society - but does the fact that it's not easy mean that you shouldn't try?

What has happened to Kathy, and the damage it has done to her ability to pursue her career, shouldn't happen to anyone - online or offline. If there's a silver lining to her experiences it's that - at last - people are talking about the harrassment, negativity, sexism and misogyny that some women have had to deal with online. And some people are trying to figure out how to reduce this, and how to reduce the level of online nastiness in general. We may not get it right straight away, and we will need to refine and improve on our ideas before we get there, but at least we're thinking and talking about and debating the subject. And that can only be a Good Thing, IMO.

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Therem said...

This is a great post, webweaver. Thank you! I was particularly interested by the reference to the U of Maryland study about female chat names receiving so much more abuse than male names. I find it amazing that this study came out 9 months ago and this is the first I've heard of it.

webweaver said...

Thanks heaps for taking the time to read and comment on my post, Therem - I really appreciate it!

I read your post on your blog too - and I totally agree - it's high time we started talking and thinking about the way we interact online, and the similarities (and differences) between online and real-life interactions.

I tried to leave a comment on your blog, but as I'm not a member, I couldn't. Hope you see my comment here instead - and thanks heaps for the link!

SallyT said...

As always, WebWeaver, what a well-written, informative post. Your opinion pieces rock :)

webweaver said...

Awww thanks so much Sally! My two blogging communities - tech geeks and politics geeks - have had some major debates over this issue - it's been very interesting (and illuminating!)