Cyberbullies and Community Standards

It has taken me a few days to recover from the intense energy and excitement of attending, participating in and speaking at the OSCMS 2007 (and sundry adjunct events of equal intensity and delight), and so I've been publicly quiet so far about the obscene and possibly illegal cyberbullying that has happened in the past several days regarding one of my favorite bloggers, Kathy Sierra.

If you've somehow had your feedreader in the sand this past week, here's a brief snippet of what Kathy wrote about it on Monday:

We all have trolls--but until four weeks ago, none of mine had threatened death. (The law is clear--to encourage or suggest someone's death is just as illegal as claiming you intend to do it yourself).

At about the same time, a group of bloggers including Listics' Frank Paynter, prominent marketing blogger Jeneane Sessum, and Raving Lunacy Allen Herrel (aka Head Lemur) began participating on a (recently pulled) blog called meankids.org. At first, it was the usual stuff--lots of slamming of people like Tara Hunt, Hugh MacLeod, Maryam Scoble, and myself. Nothing new. No big deal. Nothing they hadn't done on their own blogs many times before.

But when it was my turn, somebody crossed a line. They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as "Joey") commented "the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size."

The horror gets worse. For more background on this, I refer you to Kathy's own post on the thing, and these various excellent posts on BlogHer here, here, here, here, here and here.

On a couple of email lists, I've expressed the feeling that to respond to trolls is to feed them -- to give them the validation they so crave. They're online terrorists, in effect, who behave the way they do to get attention, and in general I believe it's counterproductive to elevate their status to some sort of Public Enemy, for that gives them exactly what they want, and has the unfortunate effect of elevating them to your status. My sense was that with regard the Mean Kids garbage, the best response was to respond by ignoring these depraved individuals, encouraging the prompt deletion of such content, and moving on.

Mine was not the popular sentiment. In fact, there has been an incredible groundswell of push-back against the Mean Kids trolls, to the point of declaring today, March 30th, as Stop Cyberbullying Day. For better or worse, and I prefer to think it's for the better for now, what has happened to Kathy, and untold other women and men who've been subjected to this kind of online abuse since USENET days, cyberbullying has become the topic of the day.

It's an essentially important subject in this "web 2.0" world of online communities. How do we "police" (for the lack of a better word) such patently offensive and possibly illegal behavior while at the same time while keeping the internet free?

In my session on Building Online Communities, held Thursday last week at OSCMS 2007 (video), we arrived at the subject of dealing with trolls about 2/3 of the way through, and stayed there long past our hour we were allocated. And it became clear that there was no single way. Some folks had more permissive attitudes -- let the trolls vent and be ignored -- while others said it's best to be more proactive, and suspend or ban trolls to protect the community in question.

One thing was agreed: It's essential for the community to have clear standards of behavior, standards which are publicly posted and there for anyone and everyone to refer to in case of any questionable behavior.

What's clear about the meankids.org case is that we're not just dealing with any ordinary trolling, but rather posts that seem to threaten violence, posts that strike me has hate speech. I don't see how we, as a civil worldwide web society, can accept such behavior, and we're long overdue for a public discussion on what really is "acceptable" online.

Personally I'm against any new laws, as threatening violence already is a felony in most jurisdictions, and I hate to see efforts to make the web less like a jungle turn it into a zoo. But I hope the special day today helps start a serious discussion of online community standards.

And maybe, just maybe, some of the misogynist twits out there will realize that their self-indulgent kicks result in real harm of others.
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Comments

I feel the best way to defend Kathy is to state, first and foremost, what she believes in, and what she is defending, that she is attacked in this manner.

Living down here in Argentina, and working with Drupal and the Drupal Community, but far away from the blogging life, I would very much like to be able to take a stand with the sister.

But I must offer my ignorance as to what her positions are and why she is being attacked in this manner.

More people should be aware of this, I feel.