Adventures in Ethics and Science

In case you somehow missed it: tech writer and blogger Kathy Sierra canceled public appearances after receiving death threats. In addition to the death threats, she called attention to some posts about her that were threatening in tone (though probably falling short of actual threats) and definitely mean on now-defunct sites set up by other A-list tech bloggers. Since blogging about this, SIerra has received more threats. A number of bloggers think Sierra has smeared the people who ran the now-defunct websites by not drawing a clear enough distinction between the death threats (which they did not make) and whatever their involvement might have been with the posts (not comments) on the now-defunct sites. There are about a gazillion posts you could read on this whole firestorm (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, to give just a sampling).

I had never heard of Kathy Sierra before this firestorm struck, but for the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about issues around online interaction and communication. These thoughts are running in lots of different directions, so rather than try to hammer them into a coherent “manifesto”, I’ll just lay them out and let you tell me how they fit together.

If you don’t like what someone says, respond — explain why you disagree, or why some other option is better. Attacking the person, rather than countering what that person is saying, is frequently a clue that you don’t have a good argument against their position or for your own.

Sometimes, though, you might just be bothered that the other person is having a say. Shouting someone down because (say) she’s a woman, or reminding her that she’s just the sum of her (sexually desirable or undesirable) parts as far as you’re concerned, is not only a way to avoid dealing with the substance of what she’s saying, but is also a way to try to undercut her authority or silence her. If you’re officially in support of “free exchange of ideas”, you might want to rethink this strategy.

There is no right of free speech on someone else’s blog. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee you the right to come into my house and say whatever the hell you want. By the same token, it doesn’t guarantee you the right to say whatever you want in my blog comments. I’m happy to get comments, and I’m interested in hearing from folks who see things differently from how I do, but don’t confuse my hospitality with your right. If you really want to say whatever you want, may I suggest you start a blog?

Also, death threats are not protected speech.

Telling someone who has received death threats that the threats are “all talk”, or that they let the issuer of those threats “win” if they take them seriously and choose to restrict their activities in response to the threats, is not helpful. Unless you issued the threat, you don’t know whether it’s a serious threat. It is utterly plausible to me that the people who accuse Kathy Sierra of making too much out of the threats would be saying that she was stupid not to take them seriously if she had not cancelled her speaking engagements and had been harmed by the person threatening her.

There is a difference between ugly slurs and death threats. Posting about someone in a cruel, racist, misogynist, homophobic (etc.) way doesn’t make you a criminal. Nor does it make you a shining example of the best humanity has to offer.

If we’re going to embrace the ethic of You Own Your Own Words, I think we should also recognize that You Own Your Own Silence. Not speaking up against something — especially in an environment you have cultivated, with a community you call your own — can be indistinguishable from endorsing it. Letting bad behavior stand unchallenged amounts to saying you have no problem with it. Crying “McCarthism! Lynch mob!” when people call you out on your silence (or your or-so-edgy words, for that matter) smacks of hypocricy.

It is easier for someone to impersonate you successfully online with a post that “sounds like you” than with one that doesn’t. If you are not the kind of person who posts nastiness — and if you are the kind of person who stands up to take issue with the nastiness others post — then any bit of nastiness posted by someone other than you is likely to make people wonder if your identity is being spoofed.

If, on the other hand, your default position is posting mean, and someone spoofing your identity posts just a little bit meaner … maybe there’s still an element of character assasination, but you left the loaded gun in a convenient spot.

You don’t have to like everyone (online or in real life), but unless you treat other people with a basic level of respect, you really aren’t interested in a free exchange of ideas, despite what you may tell yourself.


  1. #1 Matt Platte
    April 2, 2007 is alive and well on Web2.0.

    You hadn’t heard of Kathy S.; now you have. Rageboy is sooo Web1.0.

  2. #2 Bill
    April 2, 2007

    In your “gazillion posts” for background, you somehow missed linking Sierra’s own summary (I note this only because you did link Locke’s response). (Maybe it was supposed to go in the empty third link?)

    I think it’s also important to point to the update, wherein Sierra and Locke issue a classy joint statement.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 2, 2007

    Thanks, Bill! I killed the empty link and linked Sierra’s statement to her name. The Sierra/Locke joint statement is already in the “gazillion links” list (now at the 6th “here”) — just posted on Locke’s site.

  4. #4 Bill
    April 3, 2007

    Ah, oops, my mistake. I saw the link to the joint statement and mistook it for a link to Locke’s earlier response (which is linked in the preamble to the joint statement, as is Sierra’s post).

    Horrible trainwreck of an incident, but the end result seems pretty positive to me. Dunno if that’s much comfort to someone on the receiving end of death threats and such.

  5. #5 greensmile
    April 3, 2007

    The statements that this causual trashing of other persons is just inherent in on-line culture bug the heck out of me

    To the extent that anonymity alone really can be blamed,( perhaps as a relative novelty in human commication environments its something that we have no evolved [cultural or otherwise] way to avoid abuse), speaking out against abuse may even have to take the form of silence…my post points to one ally of Kathy’s going on hiatus for a week in protest of the crappy low standards of self restraint. I would not go that far: once you are off the air, people stop hearing WHY you are off the air. But when the feminist blogs picked up the story, few commenters persued any ideas for remedies. The best that I saw were rating system ideas aimed at exposing the abusers but with disposable identities, I don’t know how it would work and I think we should start modifying the media itself to return it to the same feeling and accountability of the face-to-face conversations our species usually knows how to handle.

  6. #6 Ted
    April 3, 2007

    Doc, I think you’re a bit over the map on this one. And I can understand why you’d be in several directions at once. As you say yourself:

    …thoughts are running in lots of different directions, so rather than try to hammer them into a coherent “manifesto”, I’ll just lay them out and let you tell me how they fit together…

    Let me point out several areas where you seem to be idealistic or at least expect others to be reflexive of your attitudes:

    1. We’d love to all be well mannered, but these are open discussions where blogmasters hold an arbitrary upper hand. Yes, there are no free speech guarantee, but you’d have to realize that usually there is an investment from most parties that come into play during discussions. I have seen numerous cases where blogmasters have turned ugly, impatient, or just plain abusive because someone disagrees with them — or points out in public that what the blogmasters themselves say is intellectually dishonest. That dignity thing is a two way street. I know it’s hard to envision a world where blogmasters are petty and mean, but perhaps they exist. Certainly, all blogmasters on ScienceBlogs are exemplary. I must be talking about other sites.

    And PS: There are people that read blogs for comments, just as much as reading the blogmasters pontifications. In fact, for some, it’s the mixed community that gives it value.

    2. The working definition of trollery is very poor. Many people will call troll if a commenter disagrees with the blogmaster’s views or the blogmaster’s retinue of sycophants. I think that it’s worth learning, and re-learning what trollery is. Difference of opinion is not trollery.

    3. I believe that this view of owning your own silence is especially silly. It leads to a sense of entitlement; that I owe someone support just because I read a particularly heated exchange and then I must weigh in on one side or another. It is also likely that I have read the exchange, and found it particularly immature and don’t really want to be associated with it — pro, con or otherwise. Passivity is perfectly self serving in some areas, and individuals should be free to make up their own minds if they want to weigh in or not — without prejudice.

    …If, on the other hand, your default position is posting mean, and someone spoofing your identity posts just a little bit meaner … maybe there’s still an element of character assasination, but you left the loaded gun in a convenient spot…

    4. Extending the analogy, … so if someone finds a loaded gun and uses it to kill, they claim it was an attractive nuisance and get off? I don’t think so. Having an online personality that is combative, is not free license for others to usurp it for malicious purposes. The online personality that people choose in anonymous comments are generally not real but more idealized than real life permits.

    5. Identity theft is a problem in the real world. In the virtual world, less so. On ScienceBlogs at least two other people that I noticed also post as Ted. I don’t own that moniker although it’s useful in keeping a discussion going. I don’t own jack relative to that name. I don’t care if someone else uses it because I’m not going to claim IP or copyright on it. Conversely, if another Ted acts especially violent and vitriolic, I don’t want to be maligned for it — just like if a Muslim individual blows something up, not all Muslims should be blamed for it. Unless you’re suggesting that there’s something pathological about anyone calling themselves Ted.

    …few commenters persued any ideas for remedies…

    6. The solution would probably be closed sites. They’ve existed forever – register to post, approve comments, etc. That’s fine with me. I don’t go behind a commercial paywall unless there’s value in it and don’t think that I’d do it just for blogs, because there are so many, good quality blogs that don’t require registration. They exist for a while, and then we all move on. They’re existential blogs, not ones striving for pretentious religion-like immortality.

    I’m curious on the YOYOW thing. Do people that post anonymously subscribe to that ethic? Is the only reason that people post to own their own words?

  7. #7 Greg
    April 7, 2007

    I have never seen anything online that I didn’t see first on the streets, in every other medium including religious instruction, and in our social, business and foreign policies.

    It is just as slimy in every other theatre as it is here. And it will not stop here until it stops there.

    The War on Anonymity will have no better, nor worse, results than the Wars on Poverty, Litter, and Drugs, for much the same reasons.