Kathy Sierra: the dark side of anonymity

by Mathew on March 26, 2007 · 7 comments

Update 2:

Alan Herrel, who (used to) blog under the name The Head Lemur, has written a long email to Doc Searls – which Doc has posted here — saying he was not involved in the postings on meankids that appeared beside his picture and name, and apologizing for his involvement in the site. He also says that someone has hacked his blog and his email accounts.

And for another perspective on Web-based hate speech, check out a post from conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, who has been getting similar comments for several years now.

Update:

Chris Locke, one of the bloggers involved in the sites that Kathy Sierra described — meankids.org and unclebobism.com (both of which have been removed) — and also one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, defends himself in this response to a journalist’s questions, and another of those involved, Frank Paynter, has an apology here. There’s a good synopsis of what happened with those sites and Kathy Sierra here.

Ethan Kaplan of blackrimglasses has some thoughts about anonymity and cyberspace and its effect on behaviour. Danah Boyd of apophenia reflects on her own experience with cyber-bullying, and Hugh McLeod of Gaping Void has some thoughts as well, as does Karoli at Odd Time Signatures, and Cynthia Brumfield at IPDemocracy.

Original post:

Kathy Sierra’s disturbing and heart-wrenching take on cyber-stalking, which is here, is yet another example of how the anonymity of the Web allows — and even encourages — certain individuals to toss aside what we see as normal human behaviour and indulge the worst elements of their nature.

anonymity.jpgIt’s not all that much different from the obscene phone call or anonymous death threat of another era, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing — and the fact that a simple search can find out so much about a person no doubt makes it all the more so for Kathy, who says she has cancelled her appearance at eTech as a result. And given some of the things she found on the sites she mentions (both of which have since been removed), it’s hard to blame her.

As we have all found out to one extent or another — whether through blog comments, or email flame wars, or blog posts about us — the anonymity of the Internet has a tendency to free people from their inhibitions, as James Robertson also notes. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a very bad thing. People will write things that they would never think of saying to someone in person, or saying if their identity could be discovered.

It’s a little like the spell that comes over people when they get behind the wheel of a car. Because the other drivers can’t see them, and don’t know who they are, people feel free to say — and do — all kinds of terrible things they would never think of doing face-to-face. Seth Godin has more to say about the downsides of anyonymity here.

I understand Scoble’s desire to show solidarity by not blogging, but to me the only way to get rid of that kind of behaviour is to shine a light on it. Bravo to Kathy for going public with it.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Agreed – shining a light on these bozos is the best way to expose them for the dark-souled cowards that they are.

  • http://www.winextra.com Steven Hodson

    I’ve been following this since I first got tipped to the story by Michael Arrington on Twitter. I’ve also been updating my post with reaction; and links, since then.

    This is disgusting behavior and while I to can understand Robert’s desire to support Kathy I find myself agreeing with about needing to keep blogging.

  • http://www.creditwrench.com Creditwrench

    This is no different than “Uncle Normie” making death threats and making obscene comments about me. I was publicly threatened with death on a forum not long ago and falsely accused of beastiality and other obscene actions. One of my domain names was “stolen” via a blog using the same name as my domain which was then used to discredit and defame me.

    Uncle Normie also did the same thing more recently to another web master and blogger.

  • Ted Sbardella

    This is the new trend of griefing – there are some really good articles about it out there – seems like a psychiatric disorder but it can be un-nerving like having a dog barking at you while you try to walk down the street you just never know what to do, unless you are trained in dog psychology.

    The problem is that the poor guys find just the right person to do it to. I probably would enjoy it it would be better than the Nigerians I usually bait.

  • http://www.profy.com Phil Butler

    One of the most frustrating things about blogging is sincerely wanting to share things with people, and for so many to either not care or exhibiting terrible behaviors.

    I agree with with your assessment Matthew, and admire Scoble too, but I think this may only encourage the types that perpetrate awful behaviors.

    The Internet community is suffering from some kind of psychological illness brought on by many factors. I think the largest variable is the disposable nature of real human interaction here. Perhaps we need to develop a more substantial and cohesive fabric to it all somehow.

    Thanks,
    Phil Butler

  • http://antwerp.wordpress.com Peter

    Let me quote from Kathu Sierra’s blog item:

    “I wish to thank everyone for their support, but honestly–the high visibility and coverage of this one post has led to more trouble for me. Now, even people who had never heard of me are expressing hatred and creating new problems (posting my social security number and address, horrific lies about me, etc).”

    Kathy Sierra was the tragic victim of criminal death-threats/”sexually harassing” comments, along with a hate campaign instigated by a group of “rival bloggers” and mindless trolls. The events were deplorable.

    But was the blog-diva assaulted? Did she suffer an unrepairable physical trauma? No, she did not.

    In fact, she widely publicized the incidents, and don’t we all know what happens if you feed the mentally unstable part of the blogosphere?

  • http://www.pce-iberica.es/medidor-detalles-tecnicos/instrumento-de-temperatura/termometro-309.htm jdm

    Shakespeare expressed our dilemma as succinctly as any: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The moral slugs who fabricated the excuses for this war, and who helped to mobilize weak-souled men and women into a mindless support for it, are certainly accountable for their wrongs. But instead of focusing our anger upon them :)

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