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.