Here’s a link to the interview on CNN that included both Kathy Sierra (one of my favorite bloggers) and Chris Locke (one of the bloggers mentioned in her post as being involved with the meankids site).
I haven’t posted anything about this on my blog since last week, when I saw her post about the threats. I offered her some support in the comments section of her blog, but I have been struggling with what to write myself. Honestly, I didn’t know Chris Locke or anything about meankids before this incident, and my life has not been improved by hearing about such mean-spirited behavior. I think it’s unfortunate that they have been given a lot of publicity now, and for that reason, I refuse to post any links about them.
But the worlds where computing and marketing meet have been dealt a great blow by Kathy taking a hiatus from blogging (I hope it’s just a hiatus), and I feel like I want to add my two cents to this entire mess.
My company uses moderated comments. Is this censorship? Sure. Would we sensor out comments such as some of those posted on Kathy’s blog? Absolutely. But what Kathy could NOT censor were comments on OTHER people’s blogs, and those threats were much more revealing and frightening than the anonymous comments that were on her blog (of course, I only know what remains, not what might have been removed). If someone were to post threats to me that were posted about Kathy, I’m pretty sure that I would have the same reaction as she did and stop blogging for a while. Or move to a new town and lick my wounds. Yes, I’m serious. As Robert Scoble and his wife posted, having children really does impact how you see these things. Nothing, not a job, not prominence in the community, NOTHING is worth putting my children at risk. And make no mistake, if someone had threatened me in the way that Kathy was threatened, I would see my children at risk and Mama Bear would be out protecting her cubs, not matter what the cost.
But the part that has really kept me silent about all of this til now has been my correlation between this and a local incident that happened here in Ann Arbor several years ago. The threats against Kathy brought all of that back to me. At that time, a student by the name of Jake Baker submitted a pornographic story about a fantasy rape and murder of one of his classmates, whose real name he used in the story. This is immortalized in wikipedia and in court judgments if you care to read the details. The similarities between this case and the threats made to Kathy make me sad. Most of all, the fact that the case against Jake Baker was dropped in spite of actual plans to meet a co-conspirator (my words, not those of the attorneys in the case) to carry out the actions. His right to free speech was upheld, and the judge did not believe that he would have really carried out these actions. Sadly, the case is seen as a precedent to free speech on the internet. The judge’s opinion in that case follows.
"It is not the policy of the law to punish those unsuccessful threats which it is not presumed would terrify ordinary persons excessively; and there is so much opportunity for magnifying or misunderstanding undefined menaces that probably as much mischief would be caused by letting them be prosecuted as by refraining from it."
The Jake Baker case (and the ultimate dismissal) alarmed me in 1995, and those feelings were brought back last week, when I read about the threats made online to Kathy. I suspect that a judge in a case against the leveler of the threat against her will find the same way, and that saddens me. If I recall correctly from what transpired in 1995, the idea was that since the “victim” in the story didn’t “hang out” in alt.sex.stories, where the story was published for ALL THE WORLD to see, it wasn’t viewed as a threat that she was likely to have seen. Indeed (again, if I recall correctly, and 12 years can make memories fade), I seem to recall that someone else told her about the site and about the story and that it included her name. And somehow that wasn’t seen as a direct threat, whereas if he had read the story aloud in class, it would have been considered more seriously. Well, this was pre-Google and pre-egosurfing! It’s very easy to find things like this now, so hopefully this litmus test will not be applicable.
I’m left with questions about where Jake Baker is. I sincerely hope that he’s an upstanding member of society who has regrets about what terror he caused. And I hope that the woman about whom he wrote this “fictional” story has long been able to put this behind her, and that she is wildly successful in the field of her choice. I’m sad to think that threats on the internet have not been taken seriously in the past, and that many, many women who have restraining orders suffer from very real violence as a result of “implausible threats”.
And yes, every day, I struggle with thoughts of the challenges that free speech bring, but I do participate in some online groups and I see intimidating, nasty “trolling” regularly. It is not tolerated in the groups that I frequent. There are moderators who remove objectionable, bullying posts and for the most part, this is a good thing. In many cases, I have seen valued members of online communities leave and “go dark” to avoid the trolling behavior because the moderators weren’t able to get to the posts before they were made public. This saddens me, but I totally understand why they would do this. I’m a bit “too exposed” online, but my business makes it so, and it’s a (small) risk that I tolerate for now. If, however, I were subjected to harassment of the form that Kathy just experienced, I would change my behavior. My family is worth more than an online presence.
I truly enjoy Kathy’s blog. The insight that she has provided in the year or so since I have been reading has been invaluable to me. Her wit and her insight are a unique offering to the community. Her way of looking at things, and of getting others to look at things is important is why I will keep her in my list of blogs, and why I hope that she will return someday. In the meantime, I hope that there are things that we can do to make this online community a safer place to be. If that means less anonymity, I’m (personally) willing to accept that.