Disturbed About Reactions to Kathy Sierra's Post [en]

[fr] Comme cela avait été le cas lors de l'affaire SarkoWeb3, la blosophère s'est maintenant emparée de la triste histoire des menaces reçues par Kathy Sierra, telle une meute affamée et sans cervelle. Hypothèses présentées pour faits, coupable car non prouvé innocents, noms, déformation d'information, téléphone arabe, réactions émotionnelles trop vite bloguées et sans penser... tout y est.

Encore une fois, je suis déçue des gens.

Since I read and posted about Kathy Sierra’s latest post, and stayed up until 3am looking at blog post after blog post pop up on Technorati and Google Blogsearch, I’ve been growing increasingly uneasy about what I was reading in the blogosphere.

Like many other people I suppose, I was hit with this “tell me it ain’t so” feeling (denial!) that makes one sick in the stomach upon reading that Kathy had cancelled her ETech appearance out of fear for her safety. My heart went out to her. Of course, I felt angry at the people who had cause her such fear, and I also felt quite a bit of concern at seeing known blogger names appear in the context of this ugly affair.

And then, of course, there was the matter of getting the word out there. I blogged it (and blogged it soon — I’ll be candid about this: I realised it was breaking news, heck, I even twittered it before Arrington did!), and although I did use words like “horrible” and “unacceptable” (which are pretty strong in my dictionary, if you are familiar with my blogging habits), I refrained from repeating the names mentioned in Kathy’s post or demanding that the culprits be lynched.

One of the reasons for this is that I had to re-read some parts of Kathy’s post a couple of times to be quite certain to what extent she was reporting these people to be involved. Upon first reading, I was just shocked, and stunned, and I knew I’d read some bits a bit fast. I also knew that I had Kathy’s side of the story here, and though I have no reasons to doubt her honesty, I know that reality, what really happened, usually lies somewhere in between the different accounts of a story one can gather from the various parties involved. So I took care not to point fingers, and not to name names in a situation I had no first-hand information about, to the point of not knowing any of the actors in it personally.

In doing this, and taking these precautions, I consider that I am trying to do my job as a responsible blogger.

Unfortunately, one quick look at most of the posts coming out of Technorati or Google Blogsearch shows (still now, over 15 hours after Kathy posted) a collection of knee-jerk reactions, side-taking, verbal lynching, and rising up to the defense of noble causes. There are inaccurate facts in blog posts, conjectures presented as fact, calls to arms of various types, and catchy, often misleading, headlines. I tend to despise the mainstream press increasingly for their use of manipulative headlines, but honestly, what I see some bloggers doing here is no better.

Welcome to the blogmob.

The blogmob is nothing new, of course. My first real encounter with the mob was in May 2001, when Kaycee Nicole Swenson died (or so it seemed) and somebody dared suggest she might not have existed. The mob was mainly on MetaFilter at that time, but there were very violent reactions towards the early proponents of the “hoax” hypothesis. Finally, it was demonstrated that Kaycee was indeed a hoax. This was also my first encounter with somebody who was sick and twisted enough to make up a fictional character, Kaycee, a cancer victim, and keep her alive online for over two years, mixing lies and reality to a point barely imaginable. I — and many others — fell for it.

Much more recently, I’ve seen the larger, proper blogmob at work in two episodes I had “first-hand knowledge” about. The first, after the LeWeb3-Sarkozy debacle, when bad judgement, unclear agendas, politics and clumsy communication came together and pissed off a non-trivial number of bloggers who were attending LeWeb3. There were angry posts, there were constructive ones and those which were less, and then the blogmob came in, with hundreds of bloggers who asked for Loïc’s head on a plate based on personal, second-hand accounts of what had happened, without digging a bit to try to get to the bottom of the story. Loïc had messed up, oh yes he had, but that didn’t justify painting him flat-out evil as the blogmob did. In Francophonia it got so bad that this episode and its aftermath was (in my analysis) the death stroke for comments on Loïc’s blog, and he decided to shut them down.

The second (and last episode I’ll recount here) is when the whole blogosphere went a-buzz about how Wikipedia was going to shut down three months from now. Words spoken at LIFT’07 went through many chinese whisper (UK) / Telephone (US) filters to turn into a rather dramatic announcement, which was then relayed by just about anybody who had a blog. Read about how the misinformation spread and what the facts were.

So, what’s happening right now? The first comments I read on Kathy’s post were reactions of shock, and expressions of support. Lots of them. Over the blogosphere, people were busy getting the news out there by relaying the information on their blogs. Some (like me) shared stories. As the hours went by, I began to see trends:

  • this is awful, shocking, unacceptable
  • the guilty must be punished
  • women are oppressed, unsafe
  • the blogosphere is becoming unsafe!

Where it gets disturbing, and where really, really, I’m disappointed and think bloggers should know better, is when I read headlines or statements like this (and I’m not going to link to all these but you’ll find them easily enough):

  • “Kathy Sierra v. Chris Locke”
  • “Kathy Sierra to Stop Blogging!”
  • “Kathy Sierra hate campaign”
  • throwing around names like “psychopath” and “terrorist” to describe the people involved
  • “Personally I am disgusted with myself for buying and recommending Chris Locke’s book…” and the like
  • the assumption that there is a unique person behind the various incidents Kathy describes
  • taking for fact that Chris Locke, Jeneane Sessum, Alan Herrell or Frank Paynter are involved, directly, and in an evil way (which is taking Kathy’s post a step further than what it actually says, for the least)

In my previous post, I’ve tried to link to blog posts which actually bring some added value. Most of the others are just helping the echo chamber echo louder, at this point. Kathy’s post is (understandably) a little emotional (whether it is by design as

I’d like to end this post with a recap of what I’ve understood so far. (“What I’ve understood” means that there might be mistakes here, but I’m giving an honest account of what I managed to piece together.) I’m working under the assumption that the people involved are giving honest accounts of their side of the story, and hoping that this will not unravel like the Kaycee story did to reveal the presence of a sick, twisted liar somewhere.

Please, Blogosphere. Keep your wits. This is a messy ugly story, and oversimplications will help nobody. Holding people guilty until proven innocent doesn’t either. (Trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end of unfounded accusations because somebody didn’t hear my side of the story, and it sucks.)

The problem with bullying is that perceived meanness isn’t the same on both sides. Often, to the bully, the act is “just harsh” or “not to be taken seriously” (to what extent that is really believed, or is some kind of twisted rationalisation is not clear to me). To the bullied, however, the threats are very real, even if they were not really intended so. Bullying is also a combination of small things which add up to being intolerable. People in groups also tend to behave quite differently than what they would taken isolately, the identity of the individual tending to dissolve into the group identity. Anonymity (I’ve blogged about this many times, try a search) encourages people to not take responsibility for what they say, and therefore gives them more freedom to be mean. Has something like this happened here?

If you have something thoughtful to say, then say it. But if all you have to say has already been said out there ten times, or if you won’t take the trouble to check your sources, read carefully, calm down before blogging, avoid over-generalisations, and thus avoid feeding the already bloated echo-chamber — just go out for a walk in the sun and let the people involved sort themselves out.

The word is out there, way enough, and I trust that we’ll get to the bottom of the story in time.

Update: I’m adding new links which actually add something to this story to my first post as I find them, so check over there for updates.

15 thoughts on “Disturbed About Reactions to Kathy Sierra's Post [en]

  1. This is an issue that does not leave me cold, however I have already commented elsewhere on two different blogs, and that is more than what I think that I have time for right now. Still, here goes the third comment: I like what you write, and indeed one must take a cool calm head and look at the facts. I do not like the lynching-mob attitude that I have found elesewhere in the blogoshpere. And given what I know, I basically know nothing other than this is serious.

    Thanks for your balanced and carefully thought-out post.

  2. Well said . I’d never heard of this lady till today but I posted a comment to say I was sorry to have heard of her in this was and to sympathise.
    I think you are right, in this instant news era we are all quick to judge.
    By the way,like the pink hair.Please add me on Twitter- it’s ok I’m not a stalker

  3. This is the single best parsing/summmation/weighing of this affair thus far. Logic and rationality are at the fore. Genuine kudos!

    Immediately phoning a literary agent is advisable–this one of those perfect flash=point moments that make book deals–think My Tiny Life.

    Three thoughts that (hopefully) have not been restated 10 times over:

    (1) Whoa! 15 hours from event to counter-reaction–the news cycle of the Net is beginning to rival the lifespan of May Fly.

    (2) This sad, roiling matter is why “citizen journalist” remains an oxymoron, no matter how loudly the pans are clapped together defending its legitimacy. Maybe not always–but certainly right now. Not only should the facts be gotten straighht, but skin also needs to thickened–a point that’s been missed due to the distasteful nature of the story. As a professional writer, I’ve literally had my nose broken over something I reported on: But I continued to write–the very next day in fact–and I kept my appointments. Moreover–though I’m not certain if this a happy or sad thing–none of my fellow writers promised to blow off their deadlines to demonstrate solidarity. Which, to me, gives a sense of playing to balcony on the part of everyone–bullies, defenders and, yes,victim. Grandstanding is too harsh a word, but all parties possess carefully considered and groomed righteousness. Think intellectual equivalent of a photo-op.

    (3)Ironically, since he’s a founding father of Gonzo journalism, Hunter Thompson perhaps should be heeded with this still-resonant Old Media advice:

    “It is always bad business to try to explain yourself on paper–or at least not all at once-but when you work as journalist and sign your name in black ink on white paper above everything you write, that is the business you’re in . . . Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

    I’ve always seen his observation as the mostly overlooked preamble to “You Own Your Words.” My gently expressed addenda to your masterful summation is to suggest that anyone who seeks recognition by publicly slinging words, especially if the main driver is a business model of any kind, is unavoidably entering a wider world of potentially grim realities–bullying being one of them. In terms of the Casablanca-eaque “Shocked–I’m Shocked!” crowd, the wonderment shouldn’t be “How could this happen?” Rather, the real question is “How could this not occur?” How could it be otherwise? Conceptually, journalism really is Bad Business–or at least has a inherent proclivity to be so. Ask my nose . . .

    Again, you’ve done a superb job of contextualizing this sorry affair. I’ve added your blog to my daily reads.

    Kevin Sheridan

  4. Nice to see a rational contribution to this ridiculous outbreak of mass hysteria. When even the BBC presents a summary of a, to be frank, far from fully substantiated blog post as fact,
    which itself then gets recycled as “proof” of it’s source, any remaining sane person on this planet must at least pause to think.

    I’m very surprised that the Police Dept involoved has not commented. They’re not usually so publicity shy.

  5. I’m completely outside of your circle, and don’t even know any of these people or read their blogs. I heard about all this from someone who does.

    But I’m someone who in the world of Second Life and its blogsphere is villified by a minority of anonymous griefers, and routinely gets the most grisly of emails, death threats, ugly pictures, my RL picture defaced within SL in all kinds of horrific ways, a picture of my RL door sent to me, etc. I’d never stop speaking or blogging due to this kind of anonymous embodiment of the Internet Fuckwad Theory, nor would I’d expect anyone else to do so in solidarity. I believe in fighting this tide of harassment with the firmest possible pushback — exposure, naming names, condemnation.

    What I don’t like is the backlash-backlash I’m seeing now. People posted nasty stuff and ugly horrid pictures. That stands. It can be seen. It’s wrong. You condemn it. You condemn not only those who did it, but you also condemn those who enable it with their silence and refusal to condemn it because they think, oh, we don’t have the facts yet. Maybe there’s more to see here. And that person may have provoked the griefers somehow…But…aren’t there posts? Can’t you just see what the ugly picture is, the nasty things said, and say “That’s wrong, and I won’t stand for that on my blog?” I’m completely out of your blog loop, and yet I can see the posts are awful. Anyone can. So you condemn it.

    This is one of those “all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent” sort of situations.

    I went through a similar thing to this on Terra Nova, where there was a ghastly thread whipped up against me with hundreds of lurid and horrid posts, merely because I stood up, and criticized the original poster for being too pontifical and blase about griefing and merely studying it as “emergent behaviour”. None of the august professors running that blog stood up and say, hey, this is wrong.

    It’s my firm conviction that indeed women are attacked more. New social media’s dark side is that it’s been mainly male geeks in this field sounding off and weblogging from the get-go, and as more and more female voices become prominent there’s a decided vocal minority (let’s hope) that hates and fears that. Male geeks definitely don’t want to hear this kind of “feminist” critique of what’s going on here in social media and think they “evolved out of all that”. They didn’t.

    I also think the larger story here across all kinds of platforms is that the tide of group conformity being fostered by the new social media in the name of “wisdom of the crowd” (bleh) is in fact making people who seek individuality and a unique voice to have to amplify their voice and their persona in response to the effort to smother them. That starts up a round of hateful and vindictive posting against them as the crowd circles the wagons. There’s an overwhelming push to get the person to “come around” and join the tribe or undergo a shunning. I’ve been through it all, believe me. It’s almost impossible to get and keep a plurality of voices in this situation as the urge to create a final comformity is very strong and maintained usually by a few authoritarian core group voices.

    What’s needed is not for the fence-sitters and the blog owners who believe they’re doing free speech a service to censor this vulgar and vicious commentary; what’s needed is for them to condemn it and the anonymous posters and organized griefer groups who do it. Some say that makes the ugly posting get worst; it may for a time. But it’s hugely important to show public solidarity with people being victimized in this way, and to say “not in my name”. It’s the only way to push back the overwhelming tide of authoritarianism and tribalism encouraged by social media in Web 2.0.

  6. Selon PointBlog, Robert Scoble fait une pause.

    Perso, je n’ai pas eu le temps de lire l’entier de tes billets sur le sujet. Une petite réflexion en français serait peut-être la bienvenue sur ton blog, vu ton positionnement dans la blogosphère romande/éducative. Sur ce sujet spécifiquement, à mon avis, tes résumés en français ne sont pas assez explicites.

  7. “This is the single best parsing/summmation/weighing of this affair thus far. Logic and rationality are at the fore. Genuine kudos!”


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