27 March 2007

This is Not About Blogging

I felt waves of nausea this morning as I read danah's commentary on Kathy Sierra's horror. Although I don't usually follow Kathy's blog, she is both a prominent blogger and an in-demand speaker, who cancelled her workshop at this year's ETech conference because she has been terrorized by a campaign of death threats and the worst forms of sexual violence. I won't recite the details; danah and Kathy do that quite adequately.

So-called cyber-bullying has been prominent in the news of late. In the context of the school incident, in which a principal was allegedly (it's before the courts) slandered on Facebook, I think the incident was handled poorly by officials. The fact of the use of Internet services doesn't make the show of disrespect particularly special. Rather, I think it provided a teachable moment for conflict and anger resolution that was missed by the educators in question. Similarly, the threats directed at Kathy Sierra are not about Internet services - blogging and the "culture of the blogosphere" - either. It is about the ethos of a society that remains brutal, misogynistic, and quick to use fear and threats to create power and control - in other words, a society that (not so) secretly harbours, and often encourages, terrorist behaviours.

As was reported on many years ago by Julian Dibble, the effects of such incidents - especially on women - are real and persistent. The greatest terrorist threats to individuals are not from people who live in far-away places from a different culture. They are sadly among us, looking like us, speaking the same language as us, socialized in a culture that has somehow created that obscene mentality.

Update (2 Apr 2007): Both Kathy Sierra and Chris "Rageboy" Locke have posted a joint statement on this incident that gets at the heart of the matter, and at least resolves some of the apparent enmity between the two of them.
Kathy: Chris and I are in complete agreement that it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange. My desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits. The overwhelming, incredible support so many have given to this issue makes me very hopeful, and the positive result of all this has been the conversation that's taking place right now, between so many people. This could be a very important moment if we stop, think, and talk about the kind of future we really want online, and make certain we don't give up something more important in the process.

Chris: Misogyny is real -- and vile. Violence against women is wrong. It must not be tolerated. This issue should be explored and discussed, not swept under the rug, not rationalized away. At the same time, we need to look closely and carefully at the implications for free speech. The First Amendment allows and protects language that many find noxious. But there are forces in the world at present -- not least in the US -- that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange.


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2 comments:

Downes said...

It is about the ethos of a society that remains brutal, misogynistic, and quick to use fear and threats to create power and control - in other words, a society that (not so) secretly harbours, and often encourages, terrorist behaviours.

Right.

Robert said...

Isn't there at least something to be said for the nature of blogging as a medium being part of this story? I was reading this article on the BBC website. In it Time O'Reilly is quoted as saying:

"The fact that there's all these really messed-up people on the internet is not a statement about the internet. It is a statement about those people and what they do and we need to basically say that you guys are doing something unacceptable and not generalise it into a comment about this is what's happening to the blogosphere."

The first thing I thought of here was the McLuhan reaction to David Sarnoff saying “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value.” I would say “there is simply nothing in the [O’Reilly] statement that will bear scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form.”

Isn’t the Sierra incident a consequence of the nature of the medium? The anonymity allowed by blogging makes it a perfect medium for this kind of harassment. It’s more powerful than a threatening phone call or an angry note. There is a difference between mailing someone a picture of their face with some change made in pen as opposed to the things that Photoshop will allow you to do. Digital media, especially blogging, takes bullying to a new level and that is part of the nature of the medium.

This is about blogging.