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.
- Kathy has been receiving threats. Some in the comments of her blog, some by e-mail, and some in the posts and/or comments of meankids and unclebobism, sites which have since then been taken down.
- Meankids was set up by a bunch of people (including Chris and Frank at the minimum). It was closed after going overboard, and the same people opened Unclebobism as a replacement. (Details about exactly what went in internally are not clear. See posts by Kevin Marks, Frank Paynter and Chris Locke for source information.)
- Stowe says this doesn’t fit with the personal knowledge he has of Jeneane Sessum and Alan Herrell. Other people like Lisa Stone also report phone contacts with Jeneane, and it seems she is not directly involved in the acts Kathy describes (though it definitely seems she had something to do with the two sites meankids and unclebobism, if only in linking for the second). Update: Chris gives details on her (indeed) very minimal involvement.
- Frank Paynter apologized early on on Kathy’s blog, then explains that this whole thing is an experiment in anarchy gone overboard.
- Chris Locke denies being directly responsible for any of the threats Kathy mentions, and owns up to two direct comments about Kathy on unclebobism.
- Alan Herrell seems to have shut down Raving Lunacy
- Kathy ends her post with “I have no idea if I’ll ever post again. I suspect I will. But for now, I have a lot to rethink.” — this seems to point to her taking a break, not abandoning blogging.
- “Joey”, the author (?) of one of the threats Kathy received, comments on her blog: one, two, three, four, five; he says the threat was not towards her but some other person he called Kathy (?!). See also Brent’s response to the first comment. I have to admit some skepticism here. He could be a simple troll. But again, not to be dismissed without taking a good look.
- Update 28 May 2007 Alan Herrell reports being victim of identity theft. E-mail made public by Doc Searls.
- Update 29 May 2007 Jim Turner gives a way better account than I have here of what we can make out of the story for the moment —
part 2 is due to follow.
- Update 1 April 2007 Jeneane Sessum publishes a few words about the whole mess and her name being dragged in the dirt.
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.