Respectful Insolence

Could Kos be more of an idiot? No.

The answer is no, given his position on the Kathy Sierra case and the death threats she received and the online savaging to which she was subjected.

Kos attacks calls for a bloggers’ code of conduct. This is actually the one point where I tend agree with him. It wouldn’t help the situation and would be a muzzle on free speech, although I can understand why Sierra might have called for such a code. Unfortunately, it would not have stopped what happened to Sierra. If Kos had stopped there, I might actually have found myself in the uncomfortable position of actually agreeing with him on something. Unfortunately, Kos then went on poo-poo whether Sierra actually received the threats that she described, in effect mocking her for overreacting to the death threats, equating them to more generalized nastiness posted by trolls. Now, I’ve received threats by e-mail on occasion. Usually threats to “expose me” to my Department Chair, Division Chief, or Director of my cancer institute, they were pretty impotent, given that my bosses already know about my blog, although, as far as I can tell none of them are regular readers. The worst consequence might be some embarrassment if they happened to be pointed to one of my EneMan posts or one of my sillier Your Friday Dose of Woo pieces, instead of one of my more substantive work. (Not everyone “groks” our blog mascot, alas.) I usually ignore them, forward them to my bosses to give them a heads-up, or respond by offering to forward their complaints to all of my bosses, which I in fact did several times for one particularly obnoxious troll. (In other words, don’t bother threatening to “out” me to my bosses. They already know about my blogging and, as long as I do it on my own time and don’t represent it as having being representative of the position of my university and cancer institute, have no problem with it.)

What Sierra suffered was a different kettle of fish entirely from the minor harassment to which I’ve occasionally been subjected and to the obvious trollery that Kos posted as an example of a “threat” against him. (I’m surprised that’s the worst he can apparently come up with, given his prominence.) It is true that the Internet and, by extension the blogosophere, are wild places. There are a lot of total jerks, who, under the cloak of anonymity, will say incredibly vile things and make threats. Abusive e-mails come with the territory. In actuality, though, I’ve been rather pleasantly surprised at how few such e-mails I get, and the threats, to me at least, have never taken the form of threats of physical violence in the more than two years I’ve been at this. Rather, they’ve virtually all been like the idiots above who think that they can intimidate me by “outing” me. Early on in the history of this blog, there was a time that that might have been true, but not anymore. and not for a long time. There was also a rather strange incident last year in which one “Casey Cohen” played head games with me, trying to get me to “debate” HIV/AIDS “skepticism,” but I found that more amusing than threatening

Still, it takes a fairly thick skin to be a blogger, particularly if you write about controversial topics (like skepticism towards alternative medicine or the mercury militia). However, Sierra is a noncontroversial blogger who writes about computer interfaces. For this, she received threats of rape and death. Photoshopped images of her with a severed neck or a noose around it were posted. She reported the threats to the authorities, who apparently took them seriously. Threats of violence are always tough to judge, but if the authorities took it seriously I have to think that the threats were credible. In any case, although it is true that the majority of threats made on the Internet are not in any way serious or credible but it can be hard to differentiate a vile troll from someone that you really need to worry about, when the threats are as direct as the ones Sierra received, only a fool would dismiss them out of hand as being mere trollery. And only a fool would criticize someone for taking such threats seriously.

A fool like Kos. As Majikthise puts it:

I’m so tired of hearing the “every blogger gets threats” canard. Empirically, it’s all too true. But that logic cuts both ways. Kathy Sierra is a veteran blogger. She’s probably gotten her share of low-grade abusive email over the years. If she’s saying that she finds this latest round of threats credible, chances are that she perceives a qualitative difference between run-of-the-mill angry letters and the sexual humiliation campaign being waged against her by a handful of highly committed sickos.

Indeed. Zuzu at Feministe got it right when she characterized Kos’ remarks as saying, “She was asking for death threats, which she probably made up.”

Kos is a moron. I’m with Mark on this one.

ADDENDUM: Wampum has a link roundup here.

Comments

  1. #1 John
    April 13, 2007

    In essence, you’re right. Kos is a moron and death threats aren’t very nice.

    Nonetheless why, I wonder, does this particular death threat cause such an outcry in this time and age? Death threats are as old as the internet. And sadly not even the magnitude of said threats is new, at least to me. I’ve received quite a lot of them myself and I was also subjected to threats of bodily harm (they’re gonna hunt me down and beat me up or kill me and or rape my mother for good measure or something. Yeah, right.).

    Of course I’m aware of the fact that there are different degrees of severeness of death threats. And Sierra was not overreacting by telling the authorities about the particular threats she received.

    I just wonder why everybody treats this situation as if it was new. Any thoughts?

  2. #2 Bronze Dog
    April 13, 2007

    So far, the only threats I’ve been subjected to involves a lot of mythical fire and brimstone. Nothing more serious… yet.

  3. #3 Infophile
    April 13, 2007

    Nonetheless why, I wonder, does this particular death threat cause such an outcry in this time and age? Death threats are as old as the internet. And sadly not even the magnitude of said threats is new, at least to me. I’ve received quite a lot of them myself and I was also subjected to threats of bodily harm (they’re gonna hunt me down and beat me up or kill me and or rape my mother for good measure or something. Yeah, right.).

    I have a few theories on that (Disclaimer: not “theory” in the scientific sense, but in the colloquial sense. Gotta make that clear in case IDers are around). One thing that might make this stand out is the extreme sexualization of the threats, which makes it painfully clear that misogyny isn’t dead yet, despite all the progress of the feminist movement.

    Another thing that makes this big is exactly who is involved. First of all, Kathy Sierra is a prominent and relatively non-controversial blogger. People who blog on controversial subjects are expected to get crap like this, but not ones like her. And on the other side of things, the people making these threats weren’t some nobodies, they’re big-league bloggers in their own right (due to the nature of how the threats were made, we know they came from a select group but can’t pinpoint which one(s)). You don’t expect prominent bloggers like them to be sending out death threats like these.

  4. #4 John
    April 13, 2007

    Ah, I see. Thanks for clearing that up, Infophile.

  5. #5 Chris
    April 13, 2007

    Threats of violence are always tough to judge, but if the authorities took it seriously I have to think that the threats were credible.

    I’m afraid I can’t share your faith in “the authorities”. In many, if not most, places “the authorities” are professional overreactors. If they jump at shadows and something is there they’re lauded as heroes, and if they put a whole city in an uproar because of a silly ad campaign they get the totally innocent company behind the campaign to pay for everything and aren’t held accountable for their error in the slightest.

    And that doesn’t even begin to cover the political aspects of fearmongering – believe me, there are some people with a quite strong political stake in discrediting the Internet. (One asshole shouldn’t discredit the whole Internet, but in some people’s minds it might.) And the bigger a problem appears to be, the more money, power and prestige flows to the people charged with dealing with that problem.

    Distinguishing dangerous threats from empty ones is difficult, I agree, and people who were not the target of the threat should probably not second-guess the person who was. But “the authorities” cannot be taken as a reliable guide to the seriousness of threats.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    April 13, 2007

    Oddly enough, this very subject came up last night, when Joshua (Tabasco da Gama) and I were out drinking with Rebecca and Evelyn (Skepchick.org). As I mentioned then, my plan to protect myself is to use equations in my blog so that nobody reads it.

  7. #7 Faf
    April 13, 2007

    How could we recognize a real death threat? Would a blog just go quiet or dissappear? Billmon, Counterspin, Fafblog…

    Or if you want to get dramatic, maybe a blog-obsessed killer would force the writer to post a hiatus message before killing them.

  8. #8 TheProbe
    April 13, 2007

    Sierra, as you point out, is a non-controversial blogger dealiong with business topics. In that context, death threats are as abnormal as Jewish praise for Holocaust deniers. Neither go with the territory. For Sierra to not take these seriously would be a mistake. Remember the old canard, you are not paranoid if they are really trying to get you.

  9. #9 Robert M.
    April 13, 2007

    you are not paranoid if they are really trying to get you

    Or Kissinger’s famous corollary, “Even paranoids have enemies.”

    As the silver lining of this ridiculous cloud, maybe Kos will finally fall off the radar as a progressive luminary (about frickin’ time).

  10. #10 usagi
    April 13, 2007

    You know, I’m in complete agreement with Orac, PZ & the rest on how manifestly stupid Markos was on this and how awful a situation this must be for Kathy. However, reading in comment threads about Kos as a “progressive” says something about the way things are perceived as well (or exactly how far right the “Overton Window” has shifted). Kos is not, has never claimed to be, and in fact has explicitly denied he is a progressive. He is a partisan Democrat and runs a partisan political blog. Losing sight of that happens all the time in all quarters, but it’s a fascinating Rorschach test. People see in DailyKos what they want to see and it never fails to disappoint them.

  11. #11 Red Swingline Stapler
    April 13, 2007

    However, Sierra is a noncontroversial blogger who writes about computer interfaces.

    So you’re saying that computer interface people are limp noodles that hardly ever enrage? The stereotypical Milton Waddams.

    I reviewed her site and the sites of the others that are still online. Pretty interesting folks there. She strikes me as a digerati Martha Stewart wannabe.

    Want to design the next great web app? Upgrade your product, but can’t decide what to add or change? Add a new feature to your product, but can’t decide how to implement it? Forget focus groups. Forget endless meetings and brainstorming sessions. Throw an ultra-rapid-design party, and do it in a single day. This approach exploits the wisdom-of-crowds through a process of enforced idea diversity and voting, so no consensus, committe,[sic] or even agreement is needed. And it’s way more fun.

    From: Host a Product Design Dinner Party

    That sounds like a lot of woo to me but I’m not in this computer interface crowd so I’m not sure how they hang. Maybe creative business decisions should be conflated with cocktail parties. You’re just not supposed to tell the drones that their jobs went overseas over hors’doerves.

    Who would have thought that an aerobics instructor could be so business savvy. Not me. But you know, people do get enraged over the simplest things that impact their livelihoods when posers come a-knocking, although I suspect that the initial posts started out as over the top performance art, and than got out of hand. I’ve seen it happen before; you can’t account for the way someone responds to a riff, or when a third party takes over your riff and goes dangerously over the top with it.

  12. #12 Orac
    April 13, 2007

    I’m afraid I can’t share your faith in “the authorities”. In many, if not most, places “the authorities” are professional overreactors. If they jump at shadows and something is there they’re lauded as heroes, and if they put a whole city in an uproar because of a silly ad campaign they get the totally innocent company behind the campaign to pay for everything and aren’t held accountable for their error in the slightest.

    That has not been the case, in my experience. Usually, the authorities do exactly the opposite, telling people that there’s nothing they can do or that the threats don’t rise to a level to be taken seriously. At least that’s what happened time and time again in a harassment campaign carried out by Holocaust deniers against a member of the Board of The Holocaust History Project (a woman, not coincidentally). Given the authorities’ usual complacence or failure to take these things seriously, when I see the authorities actually looking into a complaint like Sierra’s, I take notice.

  13. #13 Michael Ralston
    April 14, 2007

    An “aerobics instructor” who has been making a livelihood writing technical books for quite some time now, right? And was working for Sun before that … because Sun hires people to work with Java based on their aerobics credentials, right?

    Trying to denigrate Kathy Sierra by calling her an “aerobics instructor” in the context of her technical knowledge is a pretty deceptive thing to do.

  14. #14 qetzal
    April 14, 2007

    Who would have thought that an aerobics instructor could be so business savvy. Not me. But you know, people do get enraged over the simplest things that impact their livelihoods when posers come a-knocking, although I suspect that the initial posts started out as over the top performance art, and than got out of hand. I’ve seen it happen before; you can’t account for the way someone responds to a riff, or when a third party takes over your riff and goes dangerously over the top with it.

    Yeah, this stuff happens. Waddaya expect when an aerobics instructor starts posing, right? Just a little performance art gone too far.

    What crap. I don’t care if Sierra is a poser. Rape and death threats are inexcusable. They shouldn’t be tolerated, and they shouldn’t be downplayed with some BS ‘she was asking for it’ twaddle.

  15. #15 Ned
    April 14, 2007

    A couple of points need to be made here…

    Let’s start with this notion that UI discussions are ipso facto noncontroversial. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve been active online for over 25 years now, and I’ve been on the receiving end of all sorts of stuff, some of it fairly nasty. But the nastiest “discussion” I’ve ever had to endure, bar none, was on my one and only foray into UI design. A friend and I implemented a replacement for a popular and well established application, with the intention that our UI would be a strict superset of the original. We released a beta version which of course got some things wrong. What we got in return weren’t simple reports of problems. Oh no – we were absolutely excoriated for the tiniest deviations. I’ve been yelled at online before – and in some cases I no doubt deserved it – but a load of abuse over a single misaligned column seems, well, extreme.

    So incredible as it may seem, the fact is there are a fair number of people out there who get tremendously worked up about UI stuff. I have no idea why this is, but it is. Heck, you can see the effect at work in many windowing system reviews. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read statements along the lines of “this thing sucks dead pigs through straws and should never be used!” Why? Because it “put this scrollbar on the left instead of the right” or some other relatively inconsequential, and often debatable, flaw. So not only do I find nothing astonishing about what happened, I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often in these sorts of discussions.

    Second, while Kos’ remarks – at least the part after making the valid point that a blogger code of conduct won’t help here – were badly written and insensitive right up to the point of misogyny, he did NOT “poo-poo” the idea that Ms. Sierra received threats. Rather, he shifted from the specific to the general and pointed out that there have been cases where threats have apparently been made up (there have) and that most of the jerks who eruct this sort of bile are cowards who will never follow through (thankfully true). He also stated that he has in fact received actual death threats – the example he gave was, by his own statement, intended to illustrate something that wasn’t a death threat but which could be exaggerated into one.

    IMO what we have here is, with the exception of Ms. Sierra’s fully justified concern for her well-being, overreaction all around. Kos shouldn’t have written his response a lot more carefully and made it clear he was talking about the general situation and not the specific case at hand. But people commenting on it also need to read what he wrote a little more carefully and not be so quick to jump to conclusions.

    Of course none of this makes what happened to Ms. Sierra any less despicable. And incidentally, I have no clear idea what it means to be a “Martha Stewart wannabe”, but the rapid design party idea is one that really works – we use this approach all the time in our development group, albeit not to design UIs. Like I say, overreaction all around.